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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

On the Trail of Lewis and Clark: The Missouri

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A river is a restless thing. The Missouri is constantly gnawing at its banks as it twists and turns along its route. You can see evidence of it in places like Cross Ranch State Park near Washburn, North Dakota. There large cottonwood trees lie in the water at the foot of ten-foot-high banks. More of these trees stand precariously on the edge of the bank, waiting for the current to undercut them too.

The river has changed significantly since 1804-6 when Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery traveled up the Missouri and back. As the river meanders along, it creates large bends that eventually double back on themselves and leave oxbow lakes along its valley. At the Lewis and Clark State Park near Onawa, Iowa, what was the river bed two hundred years ago is now a lake.

The town of Washburn, North Dakota, is not far from the site of the Mandan Indian villages where Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1804-5. The prairie at the Knife River Historical Site still bears evidence of Mandan huts, which were made of wooden poles covered with sod. These huts were part of a Mandan village beside the Knife River and were visited two hundred years ago by Lewis and Clark and their men. But nearby, the bank of the Missouri on which the white explorers built their winter quarters has long since been undercut and fallen into the river.

Erosion along the river is a constant process. In his journal entry for September 21, 1804, Captain Clark reports how a falling bank of the Missouri almost swamped the boats in which the men were sleeping: “the motion of the boat awakened me; I got up & by the light of the moon observed that the Sand had given away both above and below our camp & was falling in fast. . . we had pushed off [only] a few minits before the bank under which the Boat [keelboat] & perogues lay give way.”

Of course, not all the changes in the river are natural. At Great Falls, Montana, the waterfall that Captain Lewis described in such glowing terms no longer offers a spectacular view, thanks to a dam built just upstream from the rocky drop in the river bed. And at Fort Peck, Montana, the world’s largest earthen dam was built in the 1930’s; it now holds back the waters of the Missouri for more than a hundred miles.

But the most remarkable story of the Missouri’s naturally restless ways involves the river steamboat Arabia which sank in the river in the year 1856. It was headed upstream, loaded with all sorts of merchandise for frontier people who lived in Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas, and Montana. The water was not very deep, but salvage of valuables from her cargo was too difficult and expensive to attempt at the time. Gradually sand came to replace the water and the steamboat was forgotten–until the 1990’s when some enterprising men began to look for the wreck.

Using old maps, they found the Arabia about twenty feet under a cornfield beside the river. And the things they have recovered from her are various and numerous–and in pristine condition. I was in Hannibal, Missouri, a few years ago and visited a museum there which was displaying a portion of the recovered cargo. Those objects are thought to constitute the best collection of pre-Civil War artifacts ever found in one place. Among the items are shoes, glassware, household goods, tools and implements of all sorts, and–amazingly–a barrel full of Wedgewood china with not one broken piece in the set.

Yes, the Missouri has changed in many ways. Still, there are places that must be very much as Lewis and Clark saw them. One of these places is Three Forks, Montana. There at the headwaters the Missouri is created by the joining of the three small rivers which supply cold water from the Rocky Mountains: the Jefferson, the Madison, and the Gallatin. Lewis and Clark named these rivers for the President and two members of his cabinet.

At the junction, a tourist can see where the Corps of Discovery camped while trying to decide which river to follow. Also, one can see a ridge where Captain Lewis climbed to survey the surrounding country. I camped one night a few years ago near the junction, and the next morning I walked along the Madison which in that place is not much deeper than the South Toe (a little river in western North Carolina). But the section of the Missouri which must be most like the river that Lewis and Clark knew begins at Fort Benton, Montana. Downstream from the town, a hundred and fifty miles of the Missouri has been preserved as a wild and scenic river.









My bride and I paddled a canoe for six miles on the Missouri at Fort Benton. Our outfitter offered to take a picture of us after we took the canoe out into the current. That went well enough. Next, we had to paddle back close enough to shore to get our camera from him. It involved paddling against the current. In that effort I gained new respect for Lewis and Clark and their party who had paddled upstream more than a thousand miles to reach the headwaters of that mighty river.


Written by polemicscat

August 16, 2008 at 9:39 am

Our Best Writer: Mark Twain

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The literary reputation of Mark Twain survived the political-correctness hysteria that swept college campuses during the last decades of the twentieth century. In some places there was agitation to have Twain’s books removed from libraries. For a while he was attacked for using words which now are considered racist. But those words were often used in Twain’s lifetime without any feeling of bigotry. That’s certainly true of their use in Twain’s works.

Anyway, the good news is that Twain’s writing is currently enjoying the enthusiasm it deserves. The Oxford University Press recently published his complete works in a facsimile edition, made from copies of first editions with the original illustrations. A scholar is currently working on a definitive  edition of Twain’s writing. And Ken Burns has done a film biography that appeared on PBS.

People who know Twain only through the reading of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should get better acquainted by looking at some of the travel books, especially Roughing It. There are several versions of his autobiography. Twain had an unusual idea about what order his remembrances should come in the book. He dictated some of it, putting things in as they occurred to him.  The Albert Bigelow Paine edition (1924) is probably as Twain wanted it.  But I recommend the version edited by Charles Neider which is in a more chronological order.

When you are in Missouri, you should visit Florida, the place of Twain’s birth, and Hannibal on the banks of the Mississippi, where he grew up. The little town of Florida has almost disappeared but has a fine Twain museum which includes the actual house in which the writer was born. As a boy living in Hannibal, Twain made visits to his uncle’s farm near Florida, Missouri. He lovingly describes that place in his autobiography. He also uses the memory of his uncle’s farm in Huckleberry Finn to describe the setting in which Huck and Jim are reunited with Tom Sawyer and Aunt Polly.

Hannibal is a charming place to spend the day. It has several good museums; one is the house in which the Clemens family lived. And if you are not claustrophobic you may enjoy going into the cave that inspired the one in Tom Sawyer. Tom takes Becky there and the two of them become lost in a maze of passageways. The cave in Hannibal is exactly like a maze.

Twain is often characterized as a humorist. It is interesting to examine the different ways he uses language to create humor. Notice in the examples below how Twain uses certain devices to make himself the butt of the joke. The examples come from the autobiography edited by Neider:

1. Unnecessary explanation [About his parents moving to Missouri] “I do not remember just when, for I was not born then and cared nothing for such things.”
[About Florida, Missouri] “The village contained a hundred people and I increased the population by one percent. It is more than many of the best men in history could have done for a town. It may not be modest in me to refer to this but it is true. There is no record of a person doing as much–not even Shakespeare.”

2. Recognition of his own failing, indirectly expressed [Upon seeing a photograph of the house in which he was born ] “Heretofore I have always stated that it was a palace but I shall be more guarded now.”

3. Use of an unexpected object for a demonstration [About the cracks in the church floor] “if you dropped anything smaller than a peach it was likely to go through.”

4. Pretense that an annoying thing is valuable “In summer there were fleas enough for all.”

Toward the end of his life Twain experienced some difficult times.  His pessimism about human vanities and self-deceit is reflected in his Letters from the Earth.  That book was intentionally not published until after his death.  One of the most moving things he ever wrote is on the death of his daughter Jean who died the year before he did.   

The importance of Mark Twain as an American writer has been affirmed by other American authors as different as Ernest Hemingway and T. S. Eliot. Hemingway said that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Eliot said he learned from Twain to use American colloquial speech as a literary language.

Equally important is the intellectual tone Twain sets for everybody. His writing reveals strength of character and intellectual honesty. He consistently satirizes pretentiousness. And his humor undermines human vanity and meanness.

If Twain had a serious fault of character, it was that he could never cast off the dream of becoming fabulously wealthy.  He was wealthy at the time he was building his home in Connecticut. Then he lost his money on schemes to get even more. 

But I like Twain’s writing so much that I’m not even going to mention that weakness in his character.

Written by polemicscat

August 8, 2008 at 10:38 pm

A Few Days in Savannah

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Members of my family and I spent several days in Savannah in early April. For years it has been one of my favorite towns to visit. I’ve enjoyed the river-front restaurants and carriage tours around the old city. One summer my bride and I spent a pleasant day sailing on the Wilmington River on a twenty-six foot sailboat that we had rented at a yacht club there.

This time we were drawn to Savannah because of my daughter’s interest in several places around the city described in a book by John Berendt called Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The book is on sale in many stores around the city. Also brochures and booklets about places and objects referred to in the book are featured in shops. The book is very like a novel but the story it tells is true.

My daughter, who is more organized in her travels than I am in mine, had researched on the internet the places to visit in Savannah and had made a complete itinerary for the four days we were there. Among these must-see places were the Bonaventure Cemetery and the Mercer House. Both places figure significantly in Berendt’s book .

The cemetery is very large, old, and picturesque. A life-size figurine of a young girl that had stood in the cemetery and was described in the book had to be moved to another location. Overzealous tourists had begun to go to the cemetery and put their hands all over it. Pictures and small models of the figurine are available for purchase in the shops around Savannah.

The Mercer House belonged for a while to a man named Jim Williams, the main character in Berendt’s book. Construction of the house was begun in 1860 by Hugh Mercer, a Confederate general. He was the great-grandfather of Johnny Mercer, the popular singer and song writer of the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Berendt’s book has been made into movie. It was directed by Clint Eastwood and stars Kevin Spacey. No doubt the movie helps to account for the popularity of the story and an increased interest in Savannah.

Berendt spent eight years there and came to know a great many details about the city and its people. Because of the ubiquitous references to the book around the city, I get the feeling that Savannahians genuinely like it for its accuracy and its sympathetic treatment of the town and its residents. Some of the characters are eccentric, and the book captures the city’s unique atmosphere. Apparently Berendt finds these things refreshing and shows that Savannah is quite unlike other American cities today.

One character, Miss Harty, says, “No, on the whole I’d say we rather enjoy our separateness.” She adds, “People come here from all over the country and fall in love with Savannah. Then they move here and pretty soon they’re telling us how much more lively and prosperous Savannah could be if we only knew what we had and how to take advantage of it. . . . We smile pleasantly and we nod, but we don’t budge an inch.”

Written by polemicscat

August 7, 2008 at 7:33 pm