I sat at my desk to plan a road trip for Marcia and me to the Pacific Northwest. Cool air-conditioning dropped from the ceiling vents in my upstairs office. A big leather chair had me perched in front of a 22-inch monitor with a keyboard at my fingertips. Google, MapQuest, and the Airstream Forum were right there for my perusal. I had travel books on Montana, Oregon, and Washington scattered about the floor with highlights and plastic tabs marking places I wanted to see. As my route started to take shape, I had us passing through St. Louis and generally following the Missouri River up through North Dakota and Montana. After crossing the Northern Rockies, we would eventually end up in Oregon, where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. Inadvertently, I had chosen a route that mimicked the one of the Corps of Discovery.
August 1802, Meriwether Lewis sat in Thomas Jefferson’s library at Monticello, pouring over a newly published book by Alexander Mackenzie about explorations in the western half of Canada. Hot summer air circulated the room with the aid of mechanical fans powered by slaves. The smell of freshly tilled soil from an open window and burnt candlewax filled the richly paneled study full of books. Lewis and Jefferson were planning an exploration across the American continent to find a water route for trade and to lay claim to the Pacific Northwest before Britain, Spain, or France could do so. The world’s largest collection of books on American geology was at Lewis’ fingertips, yet it contained no information about a two thousand mile stretch of uncharted territory between Illinois and the Oregon Coast.
I clicked on Google Maps and entered my home address. Satellite images of my house appeared on the screen. The camera had captured my truck parked in my driveway. I entered my first destination and hit “route.” Detailed driving, walking and public transportation instructions popped up. Street-side camera views along the way dispelled any notion that I was about to “discover” anything new.
Captain Lewis and I were planning to go to the same place. He took a sextant, chronometer, compass, keel boat and provisions for two dozen men; he set out on a two-year journey from which there was a good chance he would not return. Marcia and I will take our iPhones, tablets, credit cards and Airstream trailer; I promised her we would be back in five weeks. The exploration of Lewis and Clark beginning in 1804, was the single most important event that lead to the establishment of the United States’ borders from coast-to-coast, all at a cost of $2500. I hope to make ours for less.