For some days now I have been in Lewis and Clark country, in the northwestern corner of Oregon. Here in November 1805 they and the “Corp of Discovery” successfully ended their westward land journey by reaching the Pacific. (They still had to get back home after over-wintering.) This accomplishment and the information brought back was transformative to the young nation, only then in its third Presidential administration. I had made my way south from Astoria, along the coast to an overlook at Tillamook Head. I looked to the south; towards what is now the small resort town of Cannon Beach where it was said that the expedition here made no further progress south along the coast from the Columbia River. Here they turned back. The vista afforded from the nice picnic area in Ecola State Park was nothing short of stupendous.
I retrieved a picnic lunch from the rental car and sat there trying to put myself into the minds of the explorers at this furthest point in their trip. What were they thinking? Were they wistfully wishing they could keep going, were they sad to have to finally turn around? Were they happy to finally turn back to go home? Here was the spot, what was it trying to tell me about these men (and one woman). I decided that they must, when faced with this amazing view, be somewhat saddened by knowing that they would never be able to go just one more cape or one more beach to see what lay beyond.
Stoicism and sadness were their feelings I guessed. It was a poignant yet hopeful thought. I was sure that I had made here a connection. Seeing this view taught me something. Exploration for them would never mean a voluntary turning back without regret. Faced with the overwhelming and mesmerizing power of this view, this insight just felt right.
Even so, it was utterly wrong.
I wish I could say that I pulled out of my side bag a dog-eared copy of either Lewis’ or Clark’s own journals and there looked up references to this most critical moment. Or at least Stephen Ambrose’ account of the expedition in his book Undaunted Courage. But I dont travel with books anymore. Too heavy. These things are on my iPad if anywhere. I would look this evening when I checked in to the inn in the town below.
I had Undaunted Courage in the Kindle version. I grew up imprinted with some small portion of the Lewis and Clark legend. Only about 15 miles away from my childhood home, on a muddy, buggy, swampy spot next to the Mississippi River at Wood River, Illinois, just opposite where the Missouri River joins in, was (is) another state park. This one occupied the site of Camp Dubois, the staging area and setting off point for the Corp of Discovery over the winter of 1804.
I myself had spent a brutally cold winter night camped there, just past the oil refineries with orange outgassing fires lighting the night sky more than our campfire, a little over 160 years after, when I had enlisted in the Boy Scouts. Since then I had felt I some proprietary claim on the expedition. This led me to download this book in anticipation of this trip. So far unopened however.
I found the account, it is somewhat memorable and emphasized by reason of it involving Sacagawea. In the modern world, if she was involved in a story, then it now is a matter of legendary importance.
The first point of difference was the weather. It was raining. In fact contrary to the January week I had just spent in these parts, January for them was rain, cold and wind, and then more rain. It never stopped.
But more significantly, the circumstances of this little expedition beyond their winter camp just to the north of where I now read my iPad was far different from my imagined scene. It was all about whale blubber.
The party in their winter camp was getting tired of Elk meat and had heard from some Tillamook natives that a whale had washed ashore on what is now Cannon Beach. They wanted some of that blubber to diversify their diet. They did not set out right away but were delayed unfortunately. When they did leave, the party had not originally planned to take Sacagawea, but she complained at having not yet seen the ocean (in Lewis’ telling , the “Great Waters”) and she had traveled a long ways with them. It just wouldn’t do to come all this distance and not see it. She represents modern tourists everywhere I guess. Don’t miss anything! So they brought her along.
By the time they arrived the whale had been picked clean by the Tillamook. Keep in mind that there had been Europeans visiting this coast for trade for awhile. They knew trading. Indeed the first American ship to enter these waters for trade was led by one Captain Gray, who on his second voyage here entered the mouth of a large river with his ship, the Columbia Rediviva. It had been overlooked by prior British explorers. He named the river after his ship. He then turned his Columbia Rediviva west to become the first American captain to circumnavigate the globe. That was in 1792, a little more than 13 years before the Corp of Discovey made their own way here.
Even earlier the area had been explored by Captain Cook and others, including likely some Russians. (At one point Captain Cook’s crew and local natives got out instruments and played music for and with each other, arguably the first fusion jam in these parts.) So the Corp had to trade their Western goods with people that probably knew how to do it. The Corp and Sacagawea returned to their winter camp with far less whale bubber than they had hoped for. That was the furthest extent of their explorations, a modestly succesful search for some blubber to eat.
That isn’t so romantic as what I had envisioned.
But I think this day still told me something very important. We can’t help but experience our travels while home-bound by our own point of view. Mine is firmly embedded in the post-romantics’ world, after the artists and scientists and authors and politicians discovered nature. Now nature is something to be marveled at, to be worshiped almost. Two hundred years ago nature was frightening and deadly. Full stop. We are very likely to head off in the wrong direction when we impose our point of view on other times or other people. Valuable lesson. The Corp really did not experience that view the same as I did.
But I take away something positive about this as well. Something instructive to me as a newly SquareSpaced traveling blogger at least.
They were not seeking this particular farthest point as some sort of destination. A wrapping-up point. The whole trip had been the destination. Unanticipated experiences obtained in the first thousand miles were no less important than after another thousand, or two. They stopped along the way and made note of where they were and what was interesting to them. They were not seeking A Destination, but uncountable destinations along the way.
That was very much in keeping with my own thoughts for this train trip along the Pacific coast. I would stop along the way. I wasn’t just going somewhere specific and then turning around. That is what happens when you fly to a vacation. Nothing has to be seen simply at the end of the line.
I was not, after all, in tune with Sacagawea. I don’t blame her at all for wanting to go along, this isn’t about denigrating her and what she meant to the expedition. But I have not come all this way just so that it would be a waste if I were to miss something at the end. That is an often heard lament. “I’m not going all the way to Arizona and NOT see the Grand Canyon!” If I miss something, well, so what?
Really valuable lesson learned: you don’t have to see everything people expect you to see. The Pacific was on Sacagawea’s bucket list. I try not to have one at all.
Together, these are interconnected themes that this blog will explore I hope: breaking free from one’s own preconceptions and not buying into others’. Travel, I think can be one of the best ways to do this, as long as it is done without much emotional baggage.
On the day I left Cannon Beach I woke to the sound of rain. For the past 10 days I had enjoyed wonderfully sunny and warm weather all along the coast, and in January! Now as the calendar turned to February the weather had also turned and by the weekend they were calling for snow. Nothing like the bitter cold I was hearing about back home or in the Midwest. But unusually cold for here.
Before I headed further south, I thought I would drive back up to Tillamook Head and see what these views looked like on a windy, rainy day. Closer to how the Corp and Sacagawea would have seen this. I am glad that I did.
I think I like this photo at least as much, notwithstanding the unavoidable splotches of rain drops on the camera lens. I took it alone, in contrast to the prior fair weather trip up there shared by a number of other people. Not as many like cold and wind and wet.
As I came down from the narrow, winding road leading from the State Park to the main coastal highway 101, I saw this sign which was offering a conflicting message.
The modern arrow, at the bottom was pointing north and then east, back towards their home eventually. I returned to my rented car and instead, following their visage and Lewis’ pointed arm, headed my romantic side south into their unexplored country.
©️ D ABBOTT 2019