It’s pretty hard not to focus on the Missouri River right now in light of the historic flooding going on in Lewis & Clark country. Many of Lewis & Clark aficionados dream of floating on the river and recreating parts of the journey, and some, like the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles, have even done it. But look at it now:
A fascinating account, more poetry than travelogue, can be found in John G. Neihardt’s slim volume, The River and I, first published in 1910. Neihardt was in his mid-20s at the time that he and two friends, whom he identifies only as The Kid and Bill, hiked from Great Falls (the nearest railroad stop) to Fort Benton, where they planned to assemble a homemade boat and then float the river from Fort Benton to Sioux City, Iowa. From the beginning, it is captivating to imagine the young men’s journey as they hike through sagebrush and prickly pears in a country almost unchanged from the way it appeared to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark a century earlier.
Neihardt’s description of the Great Falls of the Missouri, still undammed at the time of his adventure, adds another dimension to the awe felt by Lewis in 1805:
A half-hour more of clambering over shale-strewn gullies, up sun-baked watercourses, and we found ourselves toiling up the ragged slope of a bluff; and soon we stood upon a rocky ledge with the thunders beneath us. Damp gusts beat upward over the blistering scarp of the cliff. I lay down, and crawling to the edge, looked over. Two hundred feet below me — straight down as a pebble drops — a watery Inferno raged, and far-flung whirlwinds all but exhausted with the dizzy upward reach, whisked cool, invisible mops of mist across my face.
With the dubious help of skeptical locals, the young men establish their “navy yard” at Fort Benton and proceed to build a light gasoline-powered boat that proves no match for the brutal whims of the capricious Missouri. And as for supplies in Montana, they soon learn not to rely on the “towns” labeled on the map:
At a point about fifty miles from the “town” so deeply longed for, a lone cow-punch appeared on the bank.
“How far to Rocky Point?” I cried.
“Oh, something less than two hundred miles!” drawled the horseman. (How carelessly they juggle with miles in that country!)
“It’s just a little place, isn’t it?” I continued.
“Little place!” answered the cow-puncher; “hell, no!”
“What!” I cried in glee; “Is it really a town of importance?” I had visions of a budding metropolis, full of gasoline and grub.
“It guess it ain’t a little place,” explained the rider; “w’y, they’ve got nigh onto ten thousand cattle down there!”
Though only 80 pages, The River and I is not a quick read, but a book to savor, full of youthful philosophy, poetical descriptions of the river as it existed 100 years ago, and a fair dash of humor and adventure. History buffs will enjoy as well the differences between then and now, including Neihardt’s enthusiastic ruminations on what it means to be a man (with strong echoes of Teddy Roosevelt and The Strenuous Life) and the near-obsession, common to the period, of carefully documenting the ethnicity of everyone involved and attributing their character traits to their race. Who knew being a Cornishman could be so significant?
John G. Neihardt went on to become a significant man of letters in the West, authoring epic poems and interviewing dozens of participants in key events such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Named the poet laureate of Nebraska in 1921, he held the post until his death in 1973. His most famous work is Black Elk Speaks (1932), a narration of the visions of Lakota holy man Black Elk. Neihardt worked with Black Elk for several years in the early 1930s to record his life and philosophy, earning the Lakota name Flaming Rainbow. The book is still in print and was especially popular in the 1960s, when it greatly influenced changing perceptions about Native American wisdom and the beginnings of the “new age” movement.
More great reading: Montana Yesterday (where I first learned about this book)
John G. Neihardt (great information from the Nebraska State Historical Society)