One of the hallmarks of our tours is that we offer the opportunity to walk where history happened. When you think about it, this really is a powerful motivation. While American history is a great deal shorter than that of the rest of the world, one can still get goose bumps standing in actual ruts made by covered wagons filled with the hopes and dreams of pioneers a hundred and fifty years ago. Experiences like this occur nearly every day on one of our Vanishing Trails Expeditions, and encourage us to place ourselves in the shoes (or moccasins) of those who came before.
I’ve always been fascinated with the past, possibly dating back to a crumbling brick four-square house which we drove past every Thursday afternoon on the way to my weekly piano lesson. One day my father shared with me that that particular house had served as a station on the Underground Railroad. With that revelation the derelict structure took on mythic stature in my imagination, prompting me to wonder what manner of people risked their lives here to help others on the road to freedom. Where did the runaway slaves hide? Did the sheriff come pounding on the door in the middle of the night, rousing them out of bed, to search for hiding places? Did their hearts pound as they feigned ignorance. And did the people secreted behind walls, under a staircase, or in the woodshed hold their breath, praying that the sheriff hadn’t brought along a bloodhound?
Yes, I had a vivid imagination, but that’s what makes history come alive, and what we strive for on our interpretive journeys. It really doesn’t matter how long ago the event took place or whether the participants were famous or workaday. There are lessons to be learned from them all, which help us to understand how we arrived where we are today.
The actual route of Lewis & Clark’s Corps of Discovery has been largely obliterated by a series of dams, turning the once mighty Missouri River into a string of placid lakes. But there are still many places the men would recognize, especially out on the prairie, away from the cities and highways. Their iconic keelboat was sold for scrap at the end of their journey, but we can still climb aboard an exact replica of that utterly impractical vessel, and hear the man who built it describe its features, faults and upgrades added by Clark before departing Wood River on their great journey west. We can try our hand at the tiller and feel for ourselves how slowly the clumsy tub responds – and wonder how they ever managed to get it all the way to the Mandan Villages. (The answer is: they did a lot of pulling, rowing and poling. And no, we don’t try that.) We do however, climb the gentle slope of Spirit Mound as a small group of the men did on a hot August day in 1804, and marvel as the Gates of the (Rocky) Mountains appear to open as we approach and as Lewis was the first white man to observe.
There is no substitute for being there. The background materials and the local experts who lend insight to the sights contribute greatly, but it is the fact that history happened here that makes it come alive – an unmatched experience for our memory books.
This month’s Trail Talk is Sponsored by
Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. She is a frequent presenter at numerous history conferences and trade association meetings and is a regular contributor travel trade publications. Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.