In 1804 President Jefferson gave Lewis and Clark a formidable assignment: explore the frontier west of the Missouri River and find a route to the Pacific Ocean.
In 1980 I gave my ten-year old son a difficult assignment: read a book about the Lewis and Clark Expedition and write a 500-word report. Lewis and Clark took two years to complete their task so I gave my son his summer vacation to write his report.
Six weeks later he said, "Here's that report, Dad. I hope you like it." Like it? I was profoundly moved by it! He had explained what he learned from the book and how the Expedition had affected him personally. Where had this young man found the insight and resourcefulness to write such an informative and inspiring report?
Lewis and Clark had a more difficult assignment than the one I gave Andy but they were young men themselves. Where had they found the courage and motivation to face the wilderness with limited supplies, 18th century tools and equipment and only a vague idea of where they were going and how to get there? They trekked 4,000 miles across rugged terrain enduring physical and emotional challenges most of us will never have to face. And after reaching the Pacific they had to back track those same grueling miles to be home again with their friends and family. Lewis and Clark were the first Americans to cross America and did it without maps, cell phones or fast food restaurants! Writers shouldn't use exclamation points more than twice in a lifetime but I'm breaking that rule for Lewis and Clark!
You and I can travel the route they explored without even packing a suitcase because we can buy clothes, supplies and food anywhere along the route and enjoy the comfort and convenience of getting there and back in our own car.
Jefferson's goals for the Expedition were political, economic, geographical and scientific and Lewis and Clark achieved most of them. Most Americans back then didn't fully appreciate the significance of the Expedition but you and I can look back and understand that Lewis and Clark made it possible for America to stretch from sea to shining sea.
Writing those words reminds me of a day when I was about the same age as my son was when he wrote his report on Lewis and Clark. My YMCA team and I were standing on a football field listening to a woman singing America the Beautiful. As our coach pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his eyes, I felt tears in my own eyes. I had just finished reading about Lewis and Clark and knew they and everyone with them on that Expedition had experienced the same things filling the hearts and minds of everyone on that football field with me. The Expedition is still powerful reminder of the natural, expansive beauty of America...
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
BILLY DEAN writes articles, short stories, poems and memoirs. His "Touchstones" column appears periodically in the Tehachapi News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org