Sunday, January 4, 2009
Slight issue with self esteem
By some strange synchronicity, Dulcie and Aylwin's Big Beer Adventure from Chicago to Portland seemed to be intimately interwoven at many points along the way with the much bigger and more daring adventure of Lewis and Clark some 200 years previously. It was as if they got out at O'Hare and took the Mannheim Road, for it is that same national route 12 that plunges over the Lolo pass in Idaho all those miles west, the point at which Lewis was the coldest and wettest he had ever been. What took them about a year and a half took us 4 days. There is something to be said for modern transportation. Not having been raised in this country, I could be forgiven for knowing little about the exploits of these two chaps. I do recall seeing one of my offspring perform in a fifth-grade musical about them, though I fear it did not really get to the heart of the matter.
We were not so sodden with beer that we were completely oblivious to the historical significance of the footsteps that we followed in our fossil-fueled rage: alongside the headwaters of the Missouri, across the Lolo pass, down along the crystal rapids of the Lochsa and the Clearwater, and the lands of the Nez Perce (doubtless they reloaded with toilet paper from the giant factory in Lewiston that greets visitors with a pungent stench), beside the mighty Snake and the even more mighty Columbia (oh to have seen it then before the dams in all its salmon laden glory (the adventurers disdained the ready availability of fresh salmon, preferring to gorge themselves on dog)), through the Columbia Gorge and the dramatic shift from arid grassland to rain forest, and eventually the Pacific coast (which can now be glimpsed in scenes in Twilight).
We returned wanting to learn more of their story. So we viewed the PBS documentary called Corps of Discovery or something like. It is a superlative sumptuously filmed and exquisitely tender piece of work. Much was revealed about the men, and woman, in the extensive journals that they kept. It became obvious that Meriwether Lewis had issues with self-esteem. I'm sure that if he had attended school in the late 20th century, things would have turned out differently. No doubt building up his self-image and proper medication would have improved things. For there, in the shadow of the Bitterroot Mountains, within a few weeks of completing the most heroic and epic voyage in the entire history of America before or since (arguments about that anyone?), Lewis agonized in his journal on the occasion of his 31st birthday that he had accomplished nothing of value, that his life had been basically a waste. (Roland Burris please take note of Lewis' resolution as you chip away on your wretched folly of bloated self-aggrandizement.)
Lewis writes in his journal on August 18th 1805:
"...I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little, indeed, to further the hapiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now soarly feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended. but since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought, and resolved in future, to redouble my exertions..."
He writes beautifully though clearly without the aid of a spellchecker. "The many hours spent in indolence..." I can identify with sentiment.
More shocking was the finale. Lewis was not able to handle normal life subsequent to the voyage. It all ended in a lonely wayside inn in Tennessee where he topped himself in the dark of the night. He was 35. I'm not sure that part was in the fifth-grade musical. Totally stunning and shocking, the narrator on the PBS tape could not relay the words without losing composure. Humility and modesty are worthy virtues, though I fear that Lewis took them a little to excess in his fatal self-deprecation. I was reminded of Ludwig Boltzmann, one of the giants of the history of science, who basically invented the field of statistical mechanics that connected the macroscopic properties of systems to the microscopic actions of molecules. Boltzmann met his end at his own hand for much the same reasons. With these two as role models what should the rest of us do?