Spring is here, and I'm thinking about camping. Don't misunderstand me: I'm not thinking about actually going camping, in the sense of venturing outdoors and turning my body into an All-U-Can-Eat buffet for insects. I'm just thinking about camping.
What got me on this topic is a book I'm reading, called Undaunted Courage, by Stephen E. Ambrose, about the ultimate camping trip: the Lewis and Clark expedition. If you're a product of the U.S. educational system, you no doubt remember this historic endeavor, in which a tiny band (they didn't even have a keyboard player) set out in three tiny ships -- the "Nina," the "Pinta," and the "Merrimac" -- and became the first Westerners to make the perilous voyage around Plymouth Rock and discover the Monroe Doctrine, without which the cotton gin would never have been invented.
That's pretty much how I remembered it, too, but the actual facts, as set forth in Undaunted Courage, are these:
Never miss a local story.
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase, in which he paid France $10 million for a humongous batch of land without having any idea what was in it. Why would Jefferson make such a purchase? The answer is simple: He didn't have a wife. There was nobody to say to him: "You spent $10 million for WHAT? Take it back RIGHT NOW!!" Guys without wives are always making impulse purchases that border on the insane. If hang gliders had been invented in 1803, Jefferson would have bought one of those, too.
Anyway, the United States found itself in possession of this extremely large parcel of land, and nobody knew what it contained in the way of geography, natural resources, shopping, etc. So Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on an expedition to check it out and also see if they could find a way across the continent to the Pacific Ocean, which Jefferson hoped would be a better trade route for beaver pelts bound for the Orient. Back then, the beaver belts had to be transported by river to St. Louis, then overland to the East Coast, then by ship to London, then by another ship to the Orient, where they had to be burned immediately, because as you can imagine after all that travel they smelled like the inside of Marlon Brando's laundry hamper.
"Forget it!" the Orientals would say. "We'll just go naked!"
So in 1804, Lewis and Clark set out in search of a better route. Reading about their brutally difficult, extremely dangerous trek across the continent, I was reminded of the summers when I was a counselor at Camp Sharparoon, and I used to set off, leading a party of boys ages 10 and 11, into the vast uncharted wilderness around Dover Furnace, N.Y., fully aware that we would have to survive for an entire night with nothing to sustain us except roughly 200 pounds of marshmallows, Graham crackers and Hershey bars. We used these to make the famous campfire treat called "s'mores." Sometimes we'd hook up with a group of girl campers and make "s'mores" together; this is when I observed a fundamental difference between boys and girls:
HOW GIRLS MAKE "S'MORES" -- (1) Place Hershey bars on Graham crackers. (2) Toast marshmallows. (3) Place toasted marshmallows on Hershey bars to melt chocolate.
HOW BOYS MAKE "S'MORES" -- (1) Eat Hershey bars. (2) Eat marshmallows. (3) Throw Graham crackers at other boys.
Anyway, Lewis and Clark -- whether because of religious reasons, or sheer ignorance, we shall never know -- did not take any "s'mores" ingredients on their expedition, so they had to survive by shooting, and eating, things like elk. I am deeply impressed by this. I have always procured my meat by taking a number at the supermarket; you could leave me out in the woods for a year with a machine gun and an electronic Elk Detector, and I'd still never be able to shoot an elk. And if I DID somehow manage to shoot one, I wouldn't have a clue how to eat it. I mean, what part do you eat? You can definitely rule out the eyeballs, but THEN what? You just pick up a haunch and start chewing? I don't even know what a "haunch" IS.
Guess what else Lewis and Clark ate? Dog, that's what. In fact, Lewis is quoted on page 322 of Undaunted Courage as saying that -- bear in mind, this is after two solid years of camping out -- he liked dog even better than elk.
My feeling is, you have to be pretty desperate to eat a dog. I mean, with elk, at least you know they don't like you. But a dog is going to be hanging loyally around your campsite, thrilled to be there, ready to fetch you a stick. How can you just pick up a frying pan and say, "Here boy!"?
The point is that things were pretty rough for Lewis and Clark, and since this year marks the 190th anniversary of their return, I think it would nice if Americans commemorated their courageous effort to open up our continent. Perhaps some of us will even want to pack our sleeping bags and retrace their steps through some of the still relatively unspoiled wilderness they explored. Others of us will want to wait until there is plumbing.