August 2, 2015
This has been the summer of Lewis and Clark for me. I’ve traveled three times to Calgary, Alberta, to serve as an adviser to the great new HBO miniseries on Lewis and Clark. HBO and Playtone (Tom Hanks’ company) are creating a six-part dramatic miniseries about the Lewis and Clark Expedition, to be aired in the spring of 2017. The director John Curran is a remarkable man whose principal purpose is to get the Lewis and Clark story right. We all know that Hollywood finds it almost impossible to resist gunking up historical narratives, but John is determined to make the film as authentic as possible. In particular, he wants to make sure the encounters stories with Native Americans are thoughtful, sensitive, and true.
Then I traveled to Montana and Idaho for my annual Lewis and Clark cultural tour. This is always one of the highlights of my year. My travel partner Becky and I gather some 30 adventurers from around the United States to canoe through the White Cliffs section of the Missouri River, then to hike along the Lolo Trail west of Missoula just inside today’s Idaho.
The Montana-Idaho tour has a kind of “same time next year” feel. I get a physical checkup once a year in Bismarck, but my heart and soul checkup is always out on the Lewis and Clark trail, under the Milky Way, in moon shadow and moon shine, with a few of my oldest and dearest friends, and with a couple of dozen strangers who share my love of Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, and the West. The three days in the canoe let me shed much of the noise, tension, workaholism, and preoccupation of shore life. Huck Finn says it best: “We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.” I can literally feel the burdens of my life slipping off of my upper back and into the all-forgiving Missouri River. By day three I feel human again.
This year I had the joy of making the Lewis and Clark trip with my daughter, now 20, who is spending her summer in Dakota with her adoring papa. For many years I have wanted to bring her on this tour, but she was a serious 4H participant through high school, and the county fair down in northwestern Kansas always competed with Lewis and Clark. Pigs and pies trumped John Colter and Pierre Cruzatte.
Here is a tale of hubris. To tell the truth, I was a little apprehensive about my child coming on the trip. It’s not for the faint of heart. There are blood, sweat, and tears in a journey of this sort, not to mention mosquitoes, rattlesnakes, gnats, sunburn, muscle cramps, heat exhaustion, blisters, and headwinds on the river. As a student at a very challenging urban university, my daughter has been limited in the last three years to a largely sedentary existence. Meanwhile, at the center of the cultural tour, there is the “Wendover Death March,” a nine mile hike straight up from the Lochsa River to the Nez Perce Trail above, an ascent of 3,500 feet in five or six grueling hours. I usually cough up a lung at about mile three, and before I finally tumble up onto the ridge I have doubled over gasping, wheezing, and wishing I were dead at least fifty or sixty times.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure she could make it, and I was certain she wouldn’t enjoy either the Death March or the discomforts of the long second day on the Missouri River. She bristled a little every time I warned her that it would be a sometimes-challenging trek. I even arranged that she could canoe with someone else, so I wouldn’t have to hear her grumbling and she wouldn’t have to endure me whiplashing between Pollyanna-like encouragement (“you’re doing great, my child, but let’s point the canoe down river!”) and parental deflation (“It’s going to be ok, they are only six miles ahead of us now”).
We canoed together. It was heavenly, to be alone in a small vessel floating down one of the world’s great rivers with the person I love most in the world, talking in the kind of unhurried and muted way you fall into when nature swallows you up and you relax into a wilderness experience. We floated in pure silence for several hours per day, father and daughter in sync, without a care in the world. But knowing that the outfitters would have hors d’oeuvres and cold drinks waiting for us when we landed at the evening’s camp.
On the morning of the Death March, I went a little stern. “Honey, this hike is really a beast. You may find that you just don’t want to do it. No shame in that. There are equipment vans going up to the top on the primitive roads. Several of the guests are taking that option. You should think about whether you really want to do this.”
“Dad! I want to do this!” She was not happy with her father.
“That’s great,” I said. “But here’s the thing. Don’t try to keep up with me on the hike. People will spread out all over the mountain. Find your level and just stop for rest as often as you need it.”
Well, you know where this is headed.
We hiked together. We made it to the top in just four hours; my best time ever, and top ten in the history of the hundreds of people I have taken up that mountain. My prime motivation was shame—trying to keep up with my daughter and not force her to abandon me at mile five. Shame shaved at least an hour off of the time it would have taken me had I hiked alone. Whenever we stopped to let me huff and puff, she grimaced a little, and I honked like a donkey with pneumonia. Each time she resumed hiking, it was at least twenty seconds before I was ready to lurch ahead. Afterwards, when others asked her how it was to complete the legendary Death March, she smiled and said, “It wasn’t easy, but I very much enjoyed it.”
I speak of fathers and their children, now, but it is probably true for mothers, too. There comes that moment when you are playing hoops in the back yard with your child for the umpteenth time, and you discover that he or she is better than you for the first time. This is a very important rite of passage for both parent and child. It is humbling for the elder, but it is also tremendously satisfying. I have seldom been so proud of my daughter, not because she is faster and stronger than her papa, but because she is so gracious and loving in her growing life’s mastery. She has lapped me intellectually, long since, and she is going to achieve things I only dream about.
The trail ahead for both of us is long and of course uncertain. But whatever happens, we will always have our 2015 summer odyssey in Montana and Idaho. Neither of us will ever forget the harmony and joy and innocence of our shared adventure in the heart of the American West.
We strode up that mountain together. Well, she strode.