Historian John Boles ’65, the William Pettus Hobby Professor, reflects on his long experience of leading the Association of Rice Alumni’s Traveling Owls in the footsteps of explorers Lewis and Clark.
About 20 years ago, Rose Sundin, who then managed travel for the Association of Rice Alumni, asked if I would be willing to accompany a Lewis and Clark trip up the Columbia River and offer lectures about the Corps of Discovery. I hesitated, because even though I had enjoyed lecturing on similar trips before, they had always been to the U.S. South. After all, I taught U.S. southern history.
Then it occurred to me that the Lewis and Clark expedition was the brainchild of Thomas Jefferson and that both Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had been born in Virginia — in a way, their famous exploration of the West in 1804–1806 could be seen as a geographical extension of southern history. So, in the most fortuitous act of rationalization of my life, I agreed to go on the trip, developing a number of lectures built outward from Jefferson’s lifelong fascination with the West.
My goal would be to provide background on the rationale of their exploration, describe their interactions with Native Americans, discuss their scientific curiosity about dozens of plants and animals new to Europeans, and try to give a sense of how arduous and dangerous their experience was two centuries ago.
The result, over the next 19 years, has been a series of trips with different formats, each celebrating the most illustrious explorers in American history. That first trip was on a small boat from the Pacific Ocean up the Columbia River to the Snake River in Idaho. Then came two trips through Montana, featuring visits to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, and two days and nights on a historic, narrow-gauge train.
Beginning in 2004, the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition, came six river trips that closely followed their trek through central and western Montana and into Idaho. These trips have been wonderful adventures for my wife, Nancy, and me, and for more than 200 Rice travelers over the years.
The trips after 2004 have included two-and-a-half days of canoeing on the Missouri River along its scenic White Cliffs section; camping out at documented Lewis and Clark campsites; following the duo’s arduous 19-mile portage around impassable waterfalls; and taking a motorboat trip where towering cliffs hug the water’s edge before opening like a giant door to reveal the river and mountains beyond. The explorers called this place “the gates of the rocky mountains.”
Lewis and Clark left detailed journals of their trip, but one has to see the terrain to appreciate the difficulty of their travel, to understand the vastness of the West that threatened to overwhelm them, and to sense the awe that both challenged and inspired them.
Our most recent expedition began and ended in Great Falls, Mont. We ventured to a site where three smaller rivers — the explorers named them the Gallatin, the Madison and the Jefferson — come together to form the Missouri. Further westward, we saw the Beaverhead Rock that Sacagawea recognized. We hiked over the Lemhi Pass, crossing the Continental Divide near where the explorers met Sacagawea’s people, the Shoshone, and then hiked or rode horseback over a tremendously rugged section in Idaho called the Lolo Trail, picnicking at the top at a place the Native Americans called the Smoking Place. There we witnessed stunning views of mountains in every direction — just a few highlights of our travels.
The realization that we were seeing places that were literally unchanged from the way Lewis and Clark described them in their journals 200 years ago made our trips a fascinating exploration of the geography and history of the nation. And what beautiful scenery — sheer cliffs of remarkable variety and color, unusual geological formations, and a wide variety of plants and flowers, including plentiful bitterroot and bear grass. Travelers never tire of seeing American bald eagles soaring overhead or the occasional glimpses of snowcapped mountains in the distance (in July!). At night, we were amazed at the brightness of the stars and the Milky Way. In the mornings, we woke to the sound of birds, the smell of coffee and hearty breakfasts prepared by youthful crew members.
Our travel throughout these trips has been wonderfully augmented by a skilled and personable tour director, Barbara Batey, who seemingly knew everything about the geology, flora and fauna of the region and kept us miraculously on schedule. On most trips, we have been ferried from place to place by a colorful bus driver, Bob Laird, who kept his bus immaculate and provided water, candy and corny jokes that evoked plentiful groans.
But I think what ultimately most impresses every Rice traveler are their fellow Owls. Nancy and I have discovered over and over again how pleasant, intelligent, curious, interesting and good-spirited the participants are, even when some of the episodes — sleeping in a tent, using primitive toilets, hiking along a mountain trail — provided ever-so-brief moments of authenticity with Lewis and Clark’s intrepid journey. Friendships were renewed or newly made that last for life. Natural beauty, a sense of history, the camaraderie of good people enjoying one another’s company: the Traveling Owls’ Lewis and Clark trips have become a pleasant memory for dozens of Rice travelers.
For me, seeing and experiencing this portion of the Lewis and Clark adventure has given added depth to their journal writings. These explorers had never seen such openness, such “tremendous” mountains, such strange outcroppings of igneous rock, and they struggled to explain what they saw. Even today, it seems impossible they could have successfully completed such a trip — and Sacagawea carried a small baby the entire way. The magnitude of their accomplishment cannot be grasped until one has seen at least a part of their journey, which did indeed require “undaunted courage.”