I’ve been watching the Ken Burns documentary, Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery. There’s a segment when one of the historians looks like he’s about to break into tears. His chin quivers. His voice wavers. It’s a section in which the Corps is deciding where to stay when they’ve reached the end of the Columbia River, they’re near the ocean, but winter is coming. Rather than the leaders deciding where they’ll go, Lewis and Clark leave it up to an open vote with every member of the party having an equal voice. And “every member of the party” includes the slave, York, and the Shoshoni girl, Sacajawea. The historian is moved with deep admiration for the leaders of that expedition, particularly at that moment. He calls it, “The best of America,” and after saying it will be nearly a hundred years before black men will be able to vote, and even longer before women and Indians will be able to vote, makes the point that the small group of explorers is America’s future.
I grew up with the stories of Lewis and Clark and one of the last small adventures I got to take with my Aunt Jo and Uncle Hank was to Pompey’s Pillar, sandstone monolith beside a natural ford next to the Yellowstone River. The first time I visited this spot it was undeveloped. Even the glass covering over Clark’s inscription wasn’t there. It’s the only place on the expedition’s route where there is hard evidence of the expedition’s passing. William Clark named the outcropping after Sacajawea’s baby — who also traveled with them — and whom the expedition named Pompey (though the Ken Burn’s special calls him “Pomp” — whatever…).
When I went with my aunt and uncle in 2007, the big excitement was a visitor’s center, steps built to the site, a video. As my Aunt Jo said, “It’s pretty uptown now. You won’t recognize it.” The three of us thought something had been lost, and that would be the sense of timelessness the site had before it became a national monument developed into a tourist attraction.
I remembered when I first saw it. I didn’t think much of it, honestly. I was a little girl at the time. It occurred to me that could have been the very reason for the site’s development — beyond protecting it — to make it more interesting to more people. I’m sure a lot of people have gone there without the family historians who always traveled with me (mom, aunts, uncles, etc.). When I was a little older, and interested in history, and filled with the sense of romance of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, I loved the spot. A person could feel how it would have been to happen on that inscrutable block of sandstone. Otherwise, it was a good place to skip stones across the river which my brother and I did, stepsons did, and so did two of the students from Switzerland who’d come to Montana to see the 1989 Great Montana Centennial Cattle Drive. And maybe William Clark himself skipped stones across the river — I cannot imagine that in his day there were fewer flat stones or less temptation. To the best of my memory, on their return trip, Clark had gone down the Yellowstone as part of the additional explorations they undertook on their return trip. I remembered OK, because (thank you Google) the whole story is here in a very interesting post.
Also: thank you everyone for your kind comments on my post yesterday about gaslighting, etc. I appreciate them very much. This hasn’t been fun and I’m not out of the woods, but it’s — like everything — one day at a time. ❤️
2 thoughts on “Homesick for Montana or Something?”
I’ve never visited this place – and now I want to see it for myself. It seems this is what has been happening all over – a historic place is “protected” by making it different and more commercialized…
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