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Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The Lewis & Clark Trail, Two Hundred (and Nine) Years Later.

The re-enactors' pirogue, moored on the banks of the Missouri

I have just made contact with a long-lost friend.

Nine years ago, after I completed my residence in the Kerouac House in Orlando, Florida, I hooked up with an old school-mate and took off along the Lewis and Clark Trail. The year was 2004, the occasion the Bicentennial of the expedition authorised by President Thomas Jefferson. It took Captains Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery almost two and a half years to work their way up the Missouri, cross the mountains, descend the Snake and Columbia rivers as far as the Pacific shore and then make the return journey to St Louis. We did it in four weeks in a rented 4x4.

My reference to a long-lost friend has to do with the material we brought home, some  twenty-four hours of audio recordings on eighteen mini-disks. Remember mini-disks? Hmmm.

We had planned to make radio shows for NPR and the BBC. We failed in our objective. Nothing wrong with the recordings – of Native spokespeople, of entrepreneurs, promoters, boat-builders, scholars, tourism directors, restaurateurs, and a range of re-enactors, from guys who live and work as 19th century traders to a whole crew taking three boats up-river and adhering to the day-by-day progress of the original expedition. Amongst those re-enactors was the great-great-great-great grandson of Captain Clark – or was there one more ‘great’ in there? I shall refer to my notes, when I fish them out of the attic.

The Corps at evening muster
So… we didn’t make the radio programmes we planned. We were met with initial enthusiasm, but in the end the commissioners, in their wisdom, declined. Did I say wisdom? I withdraw the word. They were plum stupid. Anyway, the trip, like the expedition it echoed, is history, the bicentennial long gone. I was under the impression that the audio material too was more or less lost. Mini-disk technology  was abandoned in some digital lay-by (rest area if you’re American) some years ago. Much as I tried, I was unable to transfer it onto my p.c.

So, hallelujah for A’s brother, who came to stay over the Easter weekend, walked around the problem, sucked his teeth, then declared, ‘I like a challenge.’ After spending a full evening and most of the next day closeted in my office, he opened the door. Suddenly I was listening to the voice of a Chinook woman we’d interviewed down by Fort Clatsop. She was telling us how Lewis and Clark came hurtling down the Columbia in their own rough-hewn log canoes when the Chinook overcame the urge to laugh at these hapless fools and set out in their slender, elegant craft, glissading through the turbid waters and saving them from imminent destruction.

And now what were the descendants of these kindly Chinook doing? Selling roadside fire-crackers in support of their food bank, the Federal Government having terminated their tribal status, thereby robbing them of all funding.

Hearing that voice all these years later reminded me that, yes, we have some great material from a thrilling expedition – and, now that it is all accessible again, I am free to make of it what I will. I feel a book coming on.

In a couple of days, after I’ve catalogued the content of all eighteen disks, I’ll run through some of the highlights of what I found. Meanwhile, here are a few more of my photographs. 
Re-enactors - traders and mountain men - up in Montana

Our own camp, up near Fort Mandan alongside the Missouri... and (below) a few tipis further upstream


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  2. I think the idea of an indie book a great idea, and as someone on your FBook page said, it it ripe for a series of podcasts. And I *know* you have a wonderfully languid voice. Go for it.


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