Courage undaunted

This monument marks the burial site of Meriwether Lewis. The ruins of the Grinder house are visible on the ground adjacent to the visitor's center, far right. Natchez Trace Parkway, Lewis County, Tennessee, September 18, 2014

This monument marks the burial site of Meriwether Lewis.
The ruins of the Grinder house are adjacent to the cabin-style visitor’s center, far right.
Natchez Trace Parkway, Lewis County, Tennessee, September 18, 2014

“Of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction, careful as a father of those committed to his charge, yet steady in the maintenance of order and discipline, intimate with the Indian character, customs, and principles; habituated to the hunting life, guarded by exact observation of the vegetables and animals of his own country against losing time in the description of objects already possessed; honest, disinterested, liberal, of sound understanding, and a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if seen by ourselves – with all these qualifications as if selected and implanted by nature in one body for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him.”Thomas Jefferson, writing of Meriwether Lewis

Two hundred and five years ago, on the evening of this day, famed young explorer Meriwether Lewis was traveling to Washington DC via the notoriously dangerous Natchez Trace, and made the fateful decision to stop at an old inn called Grinder’s Stand in Tennessee.  His journey as well as his life ended there, in the early hours of the next morning.

The circumstances of his death are surrounded with mystery to this day, though most historians believe it was suicide.  If Lewis did take his own life, he made a tragic mess of it, shooting himself twice yet surviving, reportedly pleading for help, until the next morning.  That a renowned frontier marksman would err so egregiously with a gun at close range, twice in a row, was among many suspicious details that gave rise to the widespread, though generally less accepted, theory that he was murdered.

Despite the questions that persist about his untimely fate, however, there is no lack of consensus about the importance of his work.  Likewise, the details of his biography offer abundant documentation of his bold spirit amid the perils, difficulties and setbacks he encountered in his relatively short life.  His story is one of history’s endless stream of reminders that men and women of past generations accomplished astounding progress with very few of the comforts we consider necessary today.

Recently I re-visited the site where Lewis met his death. I was traveling alone down the beautiful Natchez Trace Parkway, which runs directly between Jeff’s home town and the north Alabama county where many of my relatives live.  It’s an enjoyable journey, one I have always loved and have driven alone many times.

But it was a bit eerie to be the only human at the melancholy site (the tiny visitor’s center is open only on weekends, and I was there on a Thursday).  Walking the grounds, it wasn’t hard to understand how the fanciful legends sprang up, hinting that the ghost of Lewis still haunts the area. As with many historic parks, especially the remote ones, the atmosphere is thick with unseen or imagined remnants of the past.  It was with some relief that I spotted a woman walking two large dogs; apparently she had pulled over from the parkway for quick break.

Perhaps I had heard it before and only noticed it because of my somber experience at the Lewis memorial, but on this recent trip, numerous relatives cautioned me not to drive the Trace after dark.  Apparently it’s still regarded as a dangerous place (at least for a woman traveling alone), if only because of the isolation that constitutes much of its allure.  I had noticed on the way down that my cell phone had no connection anywhere en route, and the 72 miles of the Trace I drove featured no populated rest stops or emergency services.  I moved my return trip to an earlier hour to get back to Jeff’s family before dark.

After hearing so many caveats, I felt bold and maybe a bit foolish for venturing down the Trace so many times by myself, with never a thought (until now) about how safe it might be.  I can’t claim undaunted courage; more like ignorant naïveté.   Still, it seemed appropriate to share some small portion of the trepidation that must have attended the travels of our country’s earliest inhabitants, whether indigenous or immigrant.  Their courage and perseverance are worth remembrance.

One year ago today:

The inspiring force

20 Comments

  1. glad to see you alive and undaunted 🙂

    • Thank you! Some days I feel semi-daunted, and some days completely daunted, but I keep getting up off the mat for another round (so far anyway).

  2. raynard

    Julia, while I’m not known to” watch scary movies on Halloween weekend, I do have this thing about my wife being out alone at night unless i’m with her or the dogs. She’s thinks she” can take care of herself and fill in the blank.. I remind her that there are too many men these days in my opinion taking advantage of women.. Let me get off my’Oprah/Dr Phil soapbox before my O.C D. moment kicks in..On your last day of blogging, with fan fare or quietly ” cutting off the light and locking the door behind you( last one out lol).. Thank you now for the difference your blogs made in my life in the areas of sharing, encouragement, writing and blessing.( hey they still do the Charlie Brown comics in reruns lol) be blessed

    • Raynard, I think it’s sweet that you don’t want your wife out alone. Jeff has never been all that protective of me, although he seems more so in recent years, but my father and brothers were always very protective types. As a southern woman I tend to see it as gallantry. I do plan to keep blogging at least twice a week (and may re-blog some things on impulse now and then if I get to wander around everyone else’s blogs as I hope to do) but the nice thing about WordPress is that the blog archives are available online anytime – the digital equivalent of re-runs!

  3. singleseatfighterpilot

    You’d have been traveling the trace with more trepidation if, like Lewis, you had previously been shot through the buttocks! No kidding, a near-sighted Frenchman shot at what he thought was an elk, and the musket ball passed clear through both of Lewis’ cheeks. Clark was a faithful friend, continually passing a cleansing cloth through the wound, much like a rifle barrel was cleaned. It is possible that Clarks medical attention saved Lewis from death by infection. (Not one of the salient points of history, that.)

    • Man, I bet he walked the rest of the way after that – can you imagine how hard it would have been to ride a horse that way? There’s a lot of stuff in history that doesn’t make it into the school textbooks. Some of it is urban legend (like George Washington’s wooden teeth, a fiction) but a lot of it is true. I guess being shot through the butt is a mixed blessing. Not fun but not fatal. However, he is very lucky he didn’t die of infection. I have to wonder what became of the near-sighted Frenchman. The Elk was laughing his own you-know-what off, I’m sure.

  4. Wonderful post, Julia. So informative. Some things I must admit I never knew about Lewis.
    Regarding your chance taking on that northwest passage of your own. I remember when car phones had just gone on the market. They were bulky and plugged into your cigarette lighter outlet. I was returning home from school when my car just konked out. Being with crutches and braces I was all but stranded. Fortunately a passeer-by whom I knew stopped by my house and my brother soon arrived to the rescue. Needless to say I now am never without communication.
    -Alan

    • Alan, we are fortunate to have ways of getting in touch when stranded. Now people panic without cell phone service, but it wasn’t so long ago that nobody had anything like that. Years ago when Jeff was on ER call at the hospital, he had to carry a mobile phone that was almost the size of a shoe (like on the TV show Get Smart). Things have come a long way, relatively quickly. My niece told me that she thought people can sometimes dial 911 from a cell phone even when there’s no service and still get through, via an emergency satellite service. I don’t know whether that’s true but I guess I could try it.

  5. Julia, congratulations on your 700th post. I’ve been sidelined with a broken hip. Just barely got in reading your posts because of the pain meds.
    Been reading your posts since your UR devotional was published and web address given. Seems I remember Jeff had just received his diagnose.
    I’m to be in recovery for 4 months…ugh! But not complaining…could be worse. 🙂

    • Merry, I am so sorry about your hip. I hope you recover quickly. The good part (if there is one) is that at least you should be well in time for spring. Maybe you can have a nice peaceful and cozy winter, catching up on reading and taking a break from strenuous tasks. I know a broken hip can be very serious. I appreciate that you are still reading, in spite of your situation. Yes, I think you have been with us from the beginning, or very nearly so. I started the blog when we found out that Jeff had the second cancer (in the colon) in addition to the appendix cancer, which was a much more serious condition with a far worse prognosis. I had some devotionals coming out in Upper Room around the same time, I think, and mentioned the blog there when I first started it. I was fairly active there at that time during the months Jeff was first taking chemo. I need to get back over there. I have another one coming up in the Nov/Dec issue; it will be published online on 12-26, according to the editor. Get well soon!! I will keep you in my prayers. ❤ ❤ ❤

  6. Intriguing story, Julia. Lots of mystery. Glad you survived to write this post.

    • Thanks Alys. Some places have a haunting type of attraction, and that spot is one of them. I know I will probably stop there again (preferably when the visitor’s center is open). Donner Pass is another such place for me.

      • You are rich in experiences, Julia.

        • Thanks, I have always thought so myself, though I sometimes wondered whether I just felt that way because everything is so interesting to me. As I may have mentioned earlier, there have been times when people have made fun of me for getting excited over “nothing.” But I never minded because privately I felt that I ended up with more big things to enjoy because I cherished the not-so-big things too. Life is nothing if not endlessly absorbing. I just don’t understand how anyone could ever be bored.

          • I can’t remember the last time I was bored. Probably one summer in grade school. I know exactly what you mean.

            • Alys, even then I bet you weren’t really bored, just more amused by what was inside your head than what was outside it at the time. At least that’s the way it is when people think I might be bored… 😀

  7. Michael

    On a recent trip to Seaside Oregon I got to visit the saltworks of the Lewis and Clark expedition where they replenished their precious salt supply for the return journey. They made three quarts of salt – tirelessly boiling the salt water down over a stone oven in large iron pots. I also visited the “desolate nook” across from Astoria where the expedition was bogged down for three weeks in inclement weather.

    • Hey, this gives me more places I’d like to go! Jeff and I want to take a California coastal cruise someday, and I’ve noticed that some of them stop in Astoria. I didn’t really know anything about the place, but now I do… 🙂

  8. Michael

    Your blog was where I first heard of the theory of Lewis’s possible murder by land pirates-“highway men.” It does make more sense as he was an excellent shot and even today most suicides by handgun are pretty efficient affairs requiring only one shot. I had read a previous article pressing suicide which made a plausible argument based on his state of mind. I suppose it will always have an element of mystery surrounding the circumstance of his end.
    You can also visit their winter camp- Fort Clatsop which is about 5 miles south of Astoria.

    • Now I want to take a cruise that has a stop in Astoria. Lewis definitely had some mental health issues, but I think almost everyone did in those days — I know I would have! Until I started researching it, I didn’t even realize there were several different theories of who might have done it, including at least one that is tied to a political enemy of his. I guess history will always love the unsolved mysteries.

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