I am nearing completion of the Duncan book, Out West. Yesterday my reading took me from the Plains through the mountains as Duncan followed the route of Lewis and Clark as faithfully as one can in a VW van.
Duncan spends more than a quarter of his book in Montana and faithfully notes the towns along the way. This is important, especially as the mountain states are not entirely about the mountains. There is a massive geographic and cultural shift at play in these places and the difference cannot be missed.
As he enters Montana from the Dakotas, Duncan experiences the increasing elevation, but he is clearly in a place defined by cowboys and brush country, honky tonks and guys in Stetson hats. There is country music on the radio and beef cattle everywhere. It is a harsh environment, but it is doable. The land bumps and rolls and anyone who has seen this knows it is like a green and brown carpet thrown unevenly over the earth and populated by cows and railroads, though for Lewis and Clark neither of those were yet realities. What was a reality was that they had seen nothing yet. Beyond this point, there were monsters.
Exploration is a funny thing and distance and roadblocks aren’t always noted. In the time of Jefferson, there was promoted the myth of a northwest passage. America knew the Missouri was a vast and long river system already and those who traveled the coast of the Pacific knew that the Columbia led eastward from Washington State. Eastern cartographers thought there must be a way for the two systems to hook up allowing for the exploitation of the west along a continuous route of travel from the Mississippi to the Pacific.
Today we know better, though unlike Lewis and Clark, we travel with relative ease as country music and whiskey becomes John Denver and micro brews. Railroads surrender to ski lodges and cowboy bars to wedding chapels. Lewis and Clark knew none of those things. They only knew that Jefferson and the new republic wanted to link the East to the Pacific and it was their job to find a way to do it.
The way did not exist, though. The Native people told the explorers as much and though the explorers often listened, they could not give up the fairy tale held by the one that was called the White Father and his hungry nation.
There must have been a sense of foreboding for Lewis and Clark as they approached the range. The East had no rises such as this. Out of nowhere mountains “came out of the sky and stood there,” but even with such height, the explorers believed the myth. Pushing upward and westward, they ascended the Rockies believing perhaps they were near the Pacific and once at the top, they could see in the Plains below the Columbia.
From the top, there were no Plains. The Rockies were not the Allegheny. What the explorers got instead was America’s version of the Alps with foreboding peaks and tundra as far as the eye could see. The Indians were right and all the wishing in the world was not going to make the Columbia appear. All that was left was to make an account of what Jefferson had bought. In journals, the explorers note a beauty that could not be imagined, but also a very fierce place. Perhaps the French got the better part of the deal. Then again….
Americans are an industrious people who like to roam. If there was a water table underneath the Plains, Americans would find it. There is and we did. Windmills and farms would soon dot the landscape. If the mountains held silver and gold, we would find that too. They do and we did. A rush was born. And there was a story even more compelling than the Northwest Passage. God had ordained a great and noble people to inherit the rugged and beautiful land.
The story is both poignant and brutal. Americans were not content to explore as the Europeans. We came to live and to make money. Whole families would move over the landscape and native cultures would be decimated. In the span of one century, geography would go from mountain men to pony express riders to railroad barons, to settlers and sod-busters all the way to tourists driving Model Ts through ranges that Duncan and others think would have perhaps killed Lewis and Clark. It is hard not to be both proud and ashamed of the story. We are a very conflicted people.
America….is it sacred geography or mercantile machine? Are we to subdue the earth or to be nurtured by it? Duncan hails from the northeast and his trek is America’s trek. I have only a little more to read in his book. He will soon be at the Pacific, an ocean that makes the Atlantic small just as he has come over the Rockies, mountains to which the Allegheny are mere foothills. It is also America’s voyage….ever greater and ever richer. It is a story that continues and has even carried us to space. We tell ourselves that somewhere out there is an ocean that makes the Pacific a pond and mountains that make the Rockies a bump on the landscape. But even if such places exist in God’s vast great cosmos, it is hard to believe they can be as beautiful as our home.
We are indeed conflicted. We were carried west by the lust for gold and a belief in destiny. Even today we look at the landscape and see either lumber and shale oil or the beauty of God’s good earth. Environmentalists and Libertarians wage war over the issue and on rare occasion even unite in their fight. Denver became the only city to refuse the Olympics, because it would lead to both taxation of the profit from the land and turn sacred landscape into a playground.
We are the people of noble heritage and our home must fit that heritage. Lewis and Clark did not find the mythical passage to the Pacific, but they opened up the way for a restless people to discover everything from cheap land to utter magnificence. They united the quest of unfettered liberty with a respect that we are indeed small in the vastness of Creation. Americans answered the call that started in 1804.
176 years later Duncan would travel this route and eventually a few others. Those who choose to drive to their ski destinations and Vegas vacations do the same. Road markers tell the stories of settlers, Mormons, railroad men, pony express riders, and wagon trains. And then there are the countless fast food restaurants and service stations along the way that spell out the subduing of the landscape and the lament that this is what America has become….Applebee’s and Pottery Barns. The lament is certainly there, but so is its dispelling in the beauty of every sweeping vista in the national parks or on the bridges that cross the gorges.
Perhaps the best way to think of America is that it is a sacredness that does not dismiss use of the earth just as it is at once a land of liberty and a land of law. I refer to one more trek west, in part because it mirrors Duncan’s travels from New England to the West and because it addresses the strength and quandary of our nationhood.
In 1893, Katharine Lee Bates traveled from Massachusetts where she taught at Wellesley to take a summer teaching post in Colorado Springs. She made the trip by train through the Plains to the mountains. From the top of Pike’s Peak, she hastily composed a poem that first appeared in The Congregationalist on July 4th 1895. Every American knows the poem, though they may be unaware of the geography and concepts.
Here atop Pike’s Peak, Bates observed wildflowers rolling downhill in a vast and beautiful carpet (purple mountain majesties) and she thought of her trip and the bountiful harvest of the Plains (amber waves of grain, fruited plains) and she remembered seeing the White City in Chicago (alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears.) All the while she extolled America’s beauty even as she appealed to the cause of keeping liberty in check with self-control admonishing selfish gain and calling on a brotherhood that would stretch from her beloved Atlantic to the great wash of the Pacific.
We still live in her tension, just as we live in the myth of our vast and great land. History reeks of our sins even as we remain a blessing to the world and a testimony to God’s grace. We can see it in every mile marker. We see it in every selfish move made for profit and in a generosity that feeds the world with bountiful harvests. We know both come from a geography that cannot be tamed and yet has been subdued. We know paradox better than any people. And when we forget it, we can follow the examples of Bates and Duncan and Lewis and Clark. We can leave our homes and go in any direction to see the story again and again.