Expressive 2010 2nd Place
Professor: Dr. James Aton
In the heart of the Montana Rockies the river turned and slipped between the sheer faces of opposing cliffs. My kayak was dwarfed in comparison to these granite pinnacles that framed the riverbank. Even craning my neck I could not see their tops as I gently floated by. I was moving with the current, the opposite direction that Lewis and Clark had traveled when they first negotiated this section of the Missouri River. As I floated past I turned around to see the massive rock formation the way Lewis and Clark had first set eyes on it. How had they seen it? If they had looked at it with metaphorical eyes they might have seen it as I did: a gateway to the new and different world that is the West.
The 1804-1806 expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark was the genesis of the mythos of the American West. When they embarked on their voyage of exploration, the Louisiana Purchase, which became our western frontier, had been in American hands for only one year. When they returned nearly two years later, it was to a completely different country. Their work investigating, cataloging, and charting the West laid the framework for the country's move westward. For Americans, the land acquired through the Louisiana Purchase offered cheap and expansive property, opportunity, and a great unknown. The human need to comprehend the unknown drove the American settlers west, just as it drove Magellan around the globe and Hudson in search of the Northwest Passage.
As I sat in my kayak on the Missouri River, nearly two hundred years after Lewis and Clark, I felt that same exploratory desire. Each bend in the river was a new experience, full of wonder in its newness. As the rock gateway receded behind me, more turns brought new sights: interesting rock formations, wildlife, and gurgling shallows. For the most part the landscape looked much as it had when Lewis and Clark had first passed it. Only the occasional bovine interloper or grievously conspicuous campsite gave any clues that two hundred years had passed between their journey and mine.
A guidebook I brought with me make that gap in time seem even smaller. It named the grassy knoll to my left as an 1805 campsite of the Lewis and Clark expedition. I could almost see them standing there on the bank in their classic pose, captured in bronze in statues throughout the western states. Clark would have stood, draped in tasseled leather, with a rifle slung over his shoulder. Lewis would have been there too, decked in his tri-corned hat, clutching a map in his hands. I imagine they would have faced west, with their exploratory determination written in their faces. I think of Lewis' map. He charted it as they traveled up the river, so its termination point was their position. The map told them all about where they had been, but everything to the front of them was one large unknown. Each step they took to the west was a step into the unfamiliar.
I took a step like that myself once when I was four years old. I remember standing next to the road on the first day of school, my parents beside me with camera in hand. When the school bus pulled up, the doors opened wide. I can still vividly recall the apprehension I felt as I stared into the bowels of that open door, afraid of all the uncertainty of the future that it represented. But somehow something inside of me allowed me to take that step, the first of my academic career. Though that step and many after it was taken in trepidation, school became my west. I discovered a world full of things to learn, like Lewis found new wonders to catalog and add to science.
Since that point, my life has been a journey of exploration and learning. It unfolds day by day just like the river runs its course.
After the campsite, the river continued to wind its way along its course. Hard rocks and boulders began to give way to rolling meadows and copses of trees along the riverbank. By my map I could tell that I was approaching “Dead Man's Rapids,” named on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Those explorers left their mark all over the river with place names, myriad campsites, and a legendary aura that seemed to hang in the air. For miles around signs bearing their faces and names heralded the fact that they had traversed these parts. It felt like “their” river, and for me, it took away from the sense of exploration floating the river gave me, because they had been there first.
It had been disappointing to me when I first contemplated the paucity of unexplored wilderness on our planet today. Ours is a day of satellites and air-travel; one wherein we have conquered even the moon. In my intermediary years I began to feel wane the vitalizing drive to discover, because I felt that there were no more uncharted frontiers to push back. Even on a remote stretch of the rugged Missouri River previous explorers had left their marks.
The river flowed undeterred, the current swift. I took my paddle out of the water, leaned back and watched the shore glide by, so silently. The drifting sensation was very strong. My thoughts gave in and drifted at pace with the current, back to my childhood, back to a time before my intellectual “maturity” had stifled the innocent vitality in my outlook on life.
When I was young, I wanted to explore. As a child the whole world seemed so new and pristine, full of infinite possibility. When we moved onto a fourteen-acre piece of property, it seemed to me at the time to stretch back forever, and my imagination ran rampant at the thought of what might be out there, hidden in the woods. I would gather my plastic binoculars and load my bag with a peanut butter sandwich and cheese crackers, my idea of expedition food. Then I would set off in search of adventure. At the time it didn't matter that many people before me had explored, mapped, and lived on that land. All that mattered was that my eyes hadn't beheld the wonders out there in the unknown of our forest, and I needed to go out there and find them. I had to discover them for myself.
I stretched and leaned forward in the kayak. Another turn in the river loomed ahead, and I gazed at it with re-vitalized eyes. I dipped my paddle in the water and pulled with all my strength. What was around that bend was just as much a mystery to me as it had been to Lewis and Clark in their day. On a personal level, I was a modern-day Lewis or Clark, encountering the unknown for myself. On the river of life, no matter who has gone before us, we each need to wend our own way.