Comparing Notes With Lewis And Clark

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I had my chance to compare notes with Lewis one sweltering summer evening after a strenuous day’s paddling the Upper Missouri with my husband and suns, aged 14 and 10, in two overburdened canoes. When we beached opposite the Cliffs, after 6:00 P.M. , the mercury had finally dipped below 100 degrees. With twilight coming on, we should have made camp and started dinner. Instead, a dog-eared copy of the expedition’s journals in one hand and a cold beer in the other, I sat down with my family to watch sun, shadow, and a flock of swallows play over the Cliffs. The sandstone walls—remnants of a primordial seashore—actually stretch for several miles up and downstream, but only here do they tower so dazzlingly, 200 and 300 feet high, luminous white laced with dark volcanic intrusions. Here were the upright columns and horizontal capitals and pedestals that Lewis imagined: “eligant ranges of lofty freestone buildings…well stocked with statuary.…” There, “vast pyramids of connic structure bearing a serees of other pyramids on their tops.…nitches and alcoves of various forms and sizes.…” Lewis got it right.

Stephen Ambrose canoed the breaks at least 10 times—its cliffs his favorite sight in the world.

The corps camped here, near what is now called Eagle Creek, on May 31, 1805, after a miserable day slogging upstream with their six dugouts and two pirogues. The river was becoming swifter and shallower as they traveled west. A cold rain fell, Lewis wrote in his journal, turning the riverbanks into a slick gumbo of mud and sharp rocks through which the men struggled as they towed their craft. There was also a bad scare that day with one of the two pirogues: Its hemp towrope broke, and the craft nearly capsized. When the men finally made camp, the sight of the White Cliffs must have been a fine reward for a day of travails.

 
 

They were a year out of St. Louis by then and deep into a land “on which the foot of civillized man had never trodden,” Lewis had written. Milestones were few, though the Corps had passed an important one 50 or 60 miles downstream, with the explorers’ first bluff-top glimpse of a small, distant range of Rocky Mountain outliers. The sight brought Lewis “secret pleasure in finding myself so near the head of the heretofore conceived boundless Missouri.” But worry set in immediately, he continued, “when I reflected on the difficulties which this snowey barrier would most probably throw in my way to the Pacific.” Lewis did not, as it turned out, underestimate those difficulties.

I heard a hint of homesickness in the names the captains sprinkled through the Breaks. A clear stream trickling in from the south became Judith’s River, honoring Julia Hancock, nicknamed Judy, William Clark’s cousin and later his wife. Beyond, the men named a much bigger, turbid, and completely unexpected river the Marias, for Lewis’s cousin Maria Wood, after taking days of scouting to decide that it wasn’t, in fact, the Missouri itself, bending north-ward. The Corps of Discovery hadn’t named anything for women before reaching the Breaks.

So walled off from the rest of the world was this river corridor that during nearly three weeks of traveling through the Breaks, the men saw no one from the local tribes, though they noticed trails and signs of encampments. Even for the Blackfeet, who galloped across the plains above, this was a place apart. As for its future potential usefulness, “I do not conceive any part can ever be settled,” wrote Clark. The Breaks were “deficent in water, Timber & too steep to be tilled.” He called them “the Deserts of America.”

The eastern half of the river corridor is even more broken and remote than the White Cliffs to their west. French trappers named it les Mauvaises Terres, which the maps of the Bureau of Land Management translate as the Badlands. In the Badlands you’ll encounter even fewer people than around the White Cliffs, according to locals, who often insist that this is the best of the Breaks. It’s wilder, they say wistfully. You just have to see it for yourself, they conclude. So we did on our second trip the next year. For three days, two nights, and 60 river-miles, we met one other person.

It didn’t take long for commerce to work its way upriver behind the corps of discovery.

In the eastern half the Breaks seem stripped to their essence. Here and there a single stunted pine leans from a high cliff face at a tipsy angle. But that only emphasizes the starkness of the whole. The shale bluffs, layered in brown, gray, and yellow, are deeply eroded. Side streams, left high and dry by the Missouri’s relentless dredging, have sliced canyons and coulees far into the bluffs. Some of the land within the new national monument is pristine enough to have been recommended for study to determine if it qualifies for federal wilderness protection, although among the peculiarities of public-land-use law, cattle grazing is allowed in wilderness areas, and throughout the corridor the sight of cows at water’s edge can strike an anomalous note in an otherwise timeless scene.