Over the past four years, Jennifer and I have turned into Lewis and Clark junkies. The story of the amazing journey of America’s most influential explorers 200 years ago has captivated us as we’ve traveled the country. We’ve retraced much of their 4,000-mile route, read books, watched documentaries on their journal, visited scores of museums and even investigated the sad, still-mysterious death of Meriwether Lewis on the Natchez Trace.
But for me, perhaps the most moving stop was in south central Montana and a place Clark himself called Pompey’s Pillar.
See, despite the meticulous diaries kept by the pair, their entire Corps of Discovery party practiced “Leave No Trace” exploration. Their journey into the wilderness – the equivalent in the 1800’s of the moon landing of the last century – did not disturb or mar the land in any way.
Except, at Pompey’s Pillar, where Clark turned graffiti artist by carving his signature into the soft sandstone of the rock outcropping that he dubbed after Sacagawea’s child Jean Baptiste Charbonneau or ‘Pomp’, as they called the infant. Preserved today in plexiglass, Clark’s inscription is the expedition’s only remaining physical evidence visible on the Corp of Discovery’s trail.
It was July 25, 1806 and they were on their way back home after making their way to Oregon. He and Lewis had divided into two parties for a while, so they could explore as much of the country as they could on the way back.
Here’s what Clark, a notoriously poor speller, wrote in his diary;
. . At 4PM [I] arrived at the remarkable rock situated in an extensive bottom.This rock I ascended and from its top had a most extensive view in every direction. This rock which I shall call Pompy’s Tower is 200 feet high and 400 paces in secumpherance and only axcessible on one side which is from the N.E. the other parts of it being a perpendicular clift of lightish coloured gritty rock.The Indians have made 2 piles of stone on the top of this tower. The nativs have ingraved on the face of this rock the figures of animals &c.
Since the natives had, what the heck – I could almost hear Clark saying in my mind as I started at his mark – why not?
Today, Pompey’s Pillar is a National Monument. You can hike to the top and see the same view he did of the Yellowstone River and Valley. In season, the Parks Service has guided tours. But you can walk in and look around anytime, though the interpretive center may or may not be open, depending on the weather and season.
I started at his signature for a long time the day we visited, picturing the lean, taciturn Clark chiseling out his name. I wondered if he had any idea that, 200 plus years later, people would travel far and wide and that the government would build wooden stairs so people could easily climb up to see his name, in his own hand. Probably not.
Today, we travel the Lewis and Clark route in machines that are literally our homes, filled with conveniences unimagined and inconceivable to the explorers. We buy supplies at interstate exits, have heaters and air conditioners to keep us comfortable and flick on lights to read the old diaries as we munch on junk food.
But that same land, vast and wild, still beckons us. While it has changed and been developed in many places and the herds of bison are no longer there, the mountains and rivers and forests and deserts still draw explorers.
We try to imagine what it was like for Lewis and Clark and… we can’t. We have so much. And even in our yearnings to be out there, seeing it, experiencing it, smelling it, too many layers on insulation make it impossible to truly understand what it was like for Lewis and Clark.
We wear $200 hiking boots and Columbia jackets. They wore moccasins and buckskin. We travel 450 miles a day on paved roads. On a good day they made 20 miles, paddling – upstream – on swift moving, rock and debris-strewn rivers or walked on uneven ground swarmed by clouds of mosquitos and chased – several times – by grizzlies.
Their story is gripping, admirable, heroic. So when we have a chance to stand on something that looks just as it did in their day and to see indentations in a rock carved out by Captain lark himself, it’s a tangible – to me almost spiritual – connection to one of the most amazing feats of discovery ever undertaken in America.
If you’d like to learn more about Lewis and Clark, may I suggest the book Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West by Robert Ambrose. It is, by far, the best book on the amazing expedition.
I’ve written before on this blog about various places connected to the expedition.
Here’s on on the start of their travels Across the Wide Missouri
Here’s a Post on The Mysterious death of Meriwether Lewis