In 1809, Meriwether Lewis shot himself in a boarding house 70 miles shy of Nashville, Tennessee. He was heading home to what is now my home, Charlottesville, Virginia. Three years earlier, he and his partner, William Clark, had returned from a 28-month exploration of the Missouri River from St Louis to its headwaters and beyond.
The speculation about Lewis’s suicide is multi-faceted. It’s believed he struggled with drugs, alcohol and manic depression. Furthermore, he anguished over what was, in his opinion, a failed expedition. Prevailing thought had been that the headwaters of the Missouri abutted the Columbia River Gorge necessitating a short portage. The burgeoning fur trade could then leverage a water-based route from the American heartland to the Pacific Ocean. Instead, Lewis trudged across what is now western Montana, Idaho and Oregon to connect the two.
Full disclosure: had it been me, I would have quit well south of the wind-whipped Dakota plains, my spirit trampled by an excess of buffalo burgers and a dearth of 800 thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets.
Needless to say, I am no Meriwether Lewis.
Since reading a recounting of the Lewis and Clark expedition in Undaunted Courage (from the assigned reading list for our forthcoming road trip), I’ve rued the last 200 years of discovery. Imagine living in a world where rivers aren’t mapped and the bear goes over the mountain to see what he can see (rather than wallowing in his den flipping through Instagram).
How heartbreaking it must have been for Lewis when he realized he couldn’t mold reality to fit the illusion, that completion of the mission itself couldn’t be the cause célèbre.
After finishing the book, I was left to ponder a world deplete of discovery. Why breech the boundary of my own backyard into the excessively documented beyond? Why not wallow in my own tiny den devouring the internet as my bottomless feast?
Not only do I know the exact location of the Missouri River headwaters, in a few clicks I can find out the Tuesday night special in nearly every honky-tonk along its 2,341 mile (I googled that) route. What’s left for me to consume beyond Arthur Frommer’s crumbs?
Then Beirut blew up.
I read about an unfathomable city. A cluster of ancient streets I had never considered visiting and now have no reasonable means to discover. Alas, I wondered, have I squandered my chance to experience one of the great cities of antiquity?
For the last several weeks, I’ve grappled with two competing truths: The world is known. And the world is unknown. How I navigate that divide is my decision alone. Too often I flutter, moth-like, to the shiniest light. Too often I head out with a script so detailed it precludes a single ad-lib. My agenda is set by others. My role is too little explorer and too much scribe.
There was a time when I sought out the lesser known world: hiked in Umm Qais, Jordan with my daughter and looked out to Syria, Lebanon and the Golem Heights; biked to the tiny vineyards outside of Bratislava, Slovakia; and gathered with friends to assemble an array of sausage from a freshly slaughtered pig on a family farm in rural Hungary. Even in Paris, one of the most known cities in the world, I delighted in the unknown of the double-digit arrondissements.
In late August, Pat and I are heading out on a five-week road trip. Our destination will take us near the Missouri River headwaters. Yes, I’ve researched the route. Yes, I know my stopping points. (Yes, Ill wear a mask and wash my hands.) Still my hope is to meander more backroads, to embrace a murky journey even if the destination is crystal clear.
Perhaps along the way, I will discover a swatch of America that I never knew existed, something that stuns and inspires me, a morsel of flint adequate to rekindle my own spirit of adventure.