We got a copy of "on 2econd thought" the other day here at The Jamestown Sun, and I’ve been rather impressed by its writing and content. This magazine is a publication of the North Dakota Humanities Council, and the issue I received focuses on stories about journeys.
You can read the magazine in PDF form through its free archive here or by getting a subscription, which NDHC Executive Director Brenna Daugherty said can be had for free just by sending an e-mail to the council at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I highly recommend the story you’ll find on Page 22 of Issue 2, which tells the story of a World War I soldier from Enderlin, N.D., who died at Verdun but talked a German soldier into returning a photo of his family that he’d carried through combat.
I also recommend the following article by Clay Jenkinson, whom you might know from "The Thomas Jefferson Hour" radio show and podcast. I am republishing it here with permission of the NDHC. It has some big, winding paragraphs, but it is also rather interesting.
It’s the Return That Kills Us
By Clay S. Jenkinson
In the most basic sense, each of us is on a journey from birth to death. If you are reading this essay, your journey is not done yet, and unless you plan to engineer your own death, you do not know how or where or under what circumstances the journey is going to end. It’s a mystery. Some of you know where you will be buried. Some not. Death is the only absolute. Death, said Hamlet, using a journey metaphor of his own, is “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”
We travel to escape. We travel to discover. We travel to encounter. We travel to find the grail. We travel to see the Wizard. We travel for kicks. We travel to leave flowers at Graceland or the memorial wall. We travel because we were instructed to deliver a message or plant a flag in the Sea of Tranquility. We travel to get a question answered—at Delphi or Tibet. We travel to get rid of ourselves. We travel to find ourselves. We travel because we are restless. We travel because we are looking for something that we think doesn’t exist at home.
St. Paul (then still Saul) was on the road to Damascus, smack in the middle of his career as a persecutor of Christians, “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” when “suddenly,” according to the Book of Acts, “a light from heaven flashed about him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’” After Jesus told him to shape up and do what the beleaguered Christians bid him do, “for three days [Paul] was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” This is a journey story in the most profound sense of the term. I believe that in some sense, at some level, this is what every journeyer seeks, what every sojourner most fears and most yearns for, the journey that alters the course of a life. Or in Paul’s case, the course of the world.
In the ideal journey story, we start out in some functional but imperfect state. Have a series of adventures on the road that have the cumulative effect of challenging our way of seeing life and even our core identity. At some point this brings on a crisis in which we discover something that makes it impossible ever to see life in quite the same way again.
It’s the return that kills us.
Meriwether Lewis came home from his Voyage of Northwestern Discovery and killed himself. Just three years after his triumphant transcontinental trek (“my late tour” he liked to call it), Lewis (now the governor of Louisiana Territory) stopped at a lonely roadside inn on the Natchez Trace (October 1809), had dinner, smoked a pipe, retired to his room, put a pistol to his head and breast, and committed suicide. Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin came back to earth in 1969 after the stupendous technological success of Apollo 11 and had a nervous breakdown. “When you’ve been to the moon,” he said, “what’s left?” Sir Richard Francis Burton returned to London from Africa in 1858 expecting to be feted as the explorer who finally solved the mystery of the source of the Nile. When he landed on native soil, he learned that his mere lieutenant, John Speke, who had returned to England 16 days previously, had betrayed Burton and claimed the Nile source for himself. In Africa Burton discovered Lake Tanganyika. Back in London he made a sad discovery about human nature. The problem in returning to the shore is that a giant step for a man is almost always swallowed up and trivialized by the small steps, small dreams, small imagination, and small generosity of mankind.
Homecomings are difficult. Coleridge’s ancient mariner discovers that a: it’s impossible to explain the thing that is so important to you and makes so little sense to everyone else; and b: the epiphanies of the great journey are, in the end, a great burden that has to be carried through life by anyone who does not merely shrug them off. By the end of his travels, Gulliver believes he is finally fully sane and enlightened. Everyone else regards him as having gone mad from the accumulated stresses of his journeys.
It may be that homecomings are so problematic because they remind us so sadly of how little we are actually “metamorphosed” by the journey. At the end of each of my serious solo journeys I have made stern but enlightened resolutions of things I am never under any circumstances going to do again—watch TV, eat pizza, slip into sedentariness, let money matter in my life . . . . The essential comedy of life—the weakness of my character—can be measured by how many days or weeks pass before the first Big Mac enters my gullet and I’m watching reruns of Three’s Company.
On June 13, 1805, Meriwether Lewis “discovered” the Great Falls of the Missouri River (“this truly magnificent and sublimely grand object”). A month later he “discovered” the source of the “mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri River.” Like a colossus he bestrode the Missouri “with one foot on either side of this little rivulet and thanked his god that he had lived to bestride the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri River.” After making historic first contact with the Shoshone Indians west of today’s Dillon, Montana, and surviving the transit of the Bitterroot Mountains (“those tremendous mountains”), Lewis descended the Clearwater, the Snake, and the Columbia Rivers and reached the Pacific Ocean in mid-November, 1805. He had gone where no white man had gone before.
And yet when the many banquets and the interminable heroic and patriotic toasts were finished—as at some point they inevitably are, for Lewis or John Glenn or Michael Phelps, and the traveler has been re-absorbed into the drab routines of the diurnal world, and there’s no more dining out on the narrative—then the trouble began and Meriwether Lewis spiraled down into alcoholism, melancholia, and early death in a shabby hostelry. President Jefferson made the mistake of appointing Lewis to a ho hum political office at the portal of the very wilderness he had opened, but Lewis’s life would probably have descended into chaos no matter what he tried to do after his return from the Pacific. When you have been to the source of the Missouri River, what’s left? And how do you write about experiences that are so far beyond the diurnal routine of life that they cannot be communicated to those who dwell fully in the diurnal routine of life?
At a key moment in his journey, on August 16, 1805, in the middle of absolute nowhere, Lewis handed his tricorner hat and his rifle to the Shoshone leader Cameahwait, and let Cameahwait place his ermine skin tippet onto Lewis’s shoulders. Lewis made this fabulous gesture—handing over the last two tokens of his status as a “civilized man,” his hat and his gun, to his Indian host—to prove that he was not leading the Shoshone leadership into an ambush.Then, in one of the great moments in American history, Lewis found it possible to step outside himself and gaze in from the outside. As far from a glass of wine and a newspaper as it was possible to be, several thousand miles from Thomas Jefferson’s stabilizing personality, Meriwether Lewis looked into a mirror. He was standing in a place where no mirror had ever yet appeared, in Lewis’s phrase, in a landscape “which has from the commencement of time been concealed from the view of civilized man.”
Here’s what Lewis saw in the mirror: “my hair deshivled and skin well browned with the sun I wanted no further addition to make me a complet Indian in appearance.” At that moment in the heart of the American West Meriwether Lewis realized that he was “completely metamorphosed.”
It need hardly be said that Lewis’s metamorphosis could not have occurred at mile 20 of the 7689-mile transcontinental journey. It could not have occurred if he were, on August 16, 1805, safely surrounded by the crowd of 33 that departed from Fort Mandan. He could not have become “a complete Indian” if he had driven a pickup camper to that same spot in Montana. It was the combination of privation and anxiety and fear and aloneness in the vast wilderness that led Lewis to that moment. In the course of 15 months and 2500 miles of hard travel, Lewis had shed layer after layer of the thin skin of civilization until he was reduced to an elemental existence. That was the foundation. More than that, however, was the challenge that the Other represented. Cameahwait was a fellow human being with a completely different operating system. Any time we truly let ourselves see human life radically refashioned in the Other but with equal validity and dignity, it calls into question the cultural habits we consider “normal” and cling to with such tenacity. Lewis had to earn that moment. In a sense, he walked 2500 miles from an outpost of his culture to get his soul ripe for a close encounter of the profoundest kind. It’s the journey that is the one essential factor in this story. Take the journey away and there is no metamorphosis. Add the industrial revolution to the journey and it is instantly less likely to bring about such an epiphany.
When Lewis came back to civilization he had his portrait painted in Philadelphia, the second city of the British-speaking world, the cultural capital of the United States, by the French artist C.B.J.F. de St. Memin. I believe that the famous portrait of Lewis standing in a somewhat effeminate pose wearing the ermine skin tippet given to him by Cameahwait was his attempt to capture and freeze the moment in which he was “completely metamorphosed” in the American West. I believe that was the greatest moment of Meriwether Lewis’s remarkable life. I believe that moment was Lewis’s peak life experience precisely because of how far he had ventured from the safety of the cultural reinforcements of our home civilization. It was Lewis’s moment of maximum exposure. It was a moment of cultural nakedness, but it was also a moment in which, no doubt for the first and last time in his life, he exchanged his core identity with that of the Other, in this case a principal leader of the Shoshone Indian nation. To exchange cultural tokens in this way was not a mere survival strategy at a pivotal moment in the expedition in the presence of an anxiety-ridden western tribe. It was a moment of supreme risk for Meriwether Lewis. It can be argued that it was a risk that Lewis should not have taken. Four years, one month, and 25 days later Lewis would be dead. Lewis’s road to Damascus portended not a conversion but a collapse of core character integration.