I will be heading north on an Oregon road trip soon, and hope to share the trip with you via photos and other information both here and on my Facebook Page and Pinterest. (look for #OregonHo!) I hope you’ll join me as I go up the center of Oregon to tour the Columbia River Gorge and then down the Pacific Coast of Oregon. Although tomorrow is Columbus Day, I hold that Merriwether Lewis and William Clark were more important explorers with greater accomplishments than Christopher Columbus.
Destination: American West
Book: Undaunted Courage: Merriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (1996) by Stephen E. Ambrose
One of the moments I am most looking forward to on my Oregon Road Trip is the first view of the Pacific Ocean from the Columbia River, approximately at the place where Merriwether Lewis and William Clark first spotted the Pacific 208 years ago. They were not the first men of European origin to see that spot, but they were the first to have approached it from the East, all the way from Missouri. Ambrose tells us that Clark proudly carved his name in a tree and, “By Land from the U. States in 1804 & 1805.” Their exploration, the brainchild of President Thomas Jefferson, forever changed the way that America was shaped and the way that Americans saw themselves.
Stephen Ambrose, a master of historic story telling, traveled along the Lewis and Clark trail, covering just about every inch of it at one time or another, and in Undaunted Courage, he adds his personal experience to the record that Lewis and Clark left behind in their journals. I read this book when it was published in 1996, and have been re-reading sections of particular interest as I get ready for my own trek to Oregon.
Although I’ve always dreamed of following the whole route of Lewis and Clark, it is not a very practical dream, so I will be satisfied with an Oregon road trip to see spots along the Columbia River where they camped and parlayed with American Indians, and then follow them to the Pacific. Clark thought he was seeing the ocean in November 1805, when they reached the estuary of the Columbia around Cape Disappointment (named by an earlier Pacific coast explorer). Clark’s journal read “Ocian in view! O! the joy!”
Now Washington State Parks commemorates Lewis and Clark in an Interpretative Center , near the oldest still-functioning lighthouse on the west coast (since 1865) at Cape Disappointment. We’ll duck across into Washington to visit this spot, and wish a happy 100th birthday to the Washington State Parks while we are there.
But the better known Fort Clatsop, which gets an entire chapter in Undaunted Courage, will draw us back to our Oregon road trip. I am looking forward to a visit the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park near Astoria, Oregon. There you can visit Fort Clatsop , a replica of the fort the Corps of Discovery constructed in 1805, finishing just in time for Christmas and a feast of “pore Elk, So much Spoiled that we eate it thro’ mear necessity, Some Spoiled pounded fish and a few roots,” according to Clark’s journal.
I have been focusing on using Undaunted Courage as a guide book for our Oregon road trip, but I also recommend it for any travelers to the western United States who like to know the history of a place or would like to brush up on American history. Stephen Ambrose was one of the most personable and readable writers of American history, and this book is just plain wonderful reading.
Did you know that one of the tasks set by Thomas Jefferson for the expedition was to maintain friendly relations with the American Indians encountered? Do you know the importance of Sacagewea to the expedition? Did you know that Lewis and Clark ran a strict, but democratic organization, and even Scagewea got a vote at a critical juncture? Of course the route finding firmly established the most convenient “road” across the continent, and opened up the west to settlement and commerce. But there was much more. According to a footnote in Undaunted Courage, Lewis discovered and described 178 new plants, and 122 species and subspecies of animals.
So now you know why I’ll be celebrating Lewis and Clark instead of Christopher Columbus on Columbus Day, as I start my Oregon road trip.
Note: Photographs are from Flickr, used with a Creative Commons license. Please click on each photo to learn more about the photographer.