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In Search of Sacajawea

I'm guessing we all know something about her. Lewis And Clark, and all. I now know she was more interpreter than guide, but still there with them.

I've met her -- metaphysically speaking, of course -- but also physically along the Corps of Discovery's western course.

As a prelude to my telling, I should mention that my brother worked at Monticello (you know, Thomas Jefferson's hilltop slave compound) for several years in several positions. I was most privileged to have a close look at a lot of what Thomas Jefferson was -- Lewis and Clark's sponsor of course, Sacajawea never separate for me, always there with them, if not for their entire journey, but certainly there for a lot of my journey of life so far; on through the spirit and native life associations of the 1960s in my own time as a park ranger in Yellowstone and Everglades National Park.

Because of Yellowstone Park, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana are neighborhoods in my life. Three Forks, Montana -- the headwaters of the Missouri, the Madison, Jefferson and Gallatin rivers (you can tell it was the Louisiana purchase) build to the Lewis and Clark waterway west from St. Louis.

And there we stood in the empty Three Forks State Park, right where Shoshone Sacajawea, “bird woman,” taken away from her family and tribe. Of course the ground and the rivers have changed over the years, but it is still pretty raw and real. She is here. Probably the first time I've been where she’s…

Fort Benton, Montana. After open prairie Montana you drop down into a canyon, a gorge like a meteor crater, Fort Benton on the Missouri, the river running deep and cold, full of the Corps’ history here. They saw this without the little town with its grand railroad hotel, without any of us to come anywhere around, they must have felt what we get near to feeling beside the big river with another humiliating statue of Sacajawea behind us; this statue a lesser humiliation of her then Charlottesville, Virginia’s Sacajawea beneath Lewis and Clark clutching at their legs (soon to come down?) and her in this version lying prone beneath them. Remember, this young woman traveled with them with a kid on her back. She got them horses from the Shoshone to get them over the Bitterroot Mountains and in part helped lead them over the mountains in winter. We pay her our respects.

Speaking of the Bitterroot Mountains, once in Montana we stood on Lemhi Pass, between Montana and Idaho where she stood, a large replica of the "peace coin" the Corps carried marked on the ground. From up there, their view ahead, their coin to inform the tribes that they now had a new boss back east -- no votes taken by the tribes of course. Their course ahead of them -- rugged to say the most. We joked, “Let's turn back."

From there we followed them down to what is now the Sacajawea Memorial Area -- a section of tiny forest dedicated to her (we are in her Shoshone Tribe’s neighborhood) by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Quiet, all-encompassing, footpaths and benches.

On down to the Salmon River and Salmon, Idaho, to the Sacajawea Center, unknown to us and unfortunately for us closed. But it's another stop close to her.

Again, I've learned that here, here she was home. And when I get back home to Sacramento, I'm digging around in my pocket for some change and I pull out a darkened/worn nickel. Thomas Jefferson on the cover and on the flip side a replica of the Lewis and Clark coin, 2003, 200 year anniversary of Lewis and Clark, 1803, and my brother was at the Monticello ceremony to commemorate it. So with the coin in hand I get that "meant to be" metaphysically and physically.

Now I have a Sacajawea coin (still available) on my key ring along with a strap of leather from Fort Benton, Montana. One morning I used a Sacajawea coin to pay for morning coffee. The young lady barista at first didn't think it was legal tender and did not know who Sacajawea was. Now she does. I gave her a “Who Was Sacajawea“ book, almost elementary school but tells her tale quite well.

If you know her tale at all you will know that she was eventually reunited with her Shoshone tribe while with Lewis and Clark. The state Capitol in Helena, Montana, has a Charles M. Russell mural in one of the legislative chambers depicting the tribe’s celebration of her return. Monumentally metaphysical and physical. They're with the Shoshone is where the Corps gets the horses across the Bitterroot Mountains courtesy of Sacajawea being able to interpret four languages. No wonder she's on a coin. And if you'd like some more you are now on your own.

That concludes the prelude, all of which will lead me north from Sacramento to northwestern Oregon for Fort Clatslop outside Astoria, and her and them, long journey’s outward and at the mouth of the Columbia River and the vast Pacific. Somewhat my journey’s end with her, with them, that is, until we get back to Salmon, Idaho and the Sacajawea Center and eventually at her resting place on the Wind River residence — better use of it than a reservation -- in Wyoming.

Would like to meander up the Pacific Coast Road North but got to there so I-5 North will be my Missouri River. I brought along the Lewis and Clark journals to finally read on site. The wonder of their journey and then the politics of their journey and the current Lakota Sioux protesting any reenactment of their journey and who in the hell were Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson to make the Louisiana deal? Napoleon — there’s another mural in the Helena state capital that depicts Napoleon signing off on the deal -- first time I've ever seen Napoleon involved -- usually it's Lewis and Clark and Jefferson, period (not a Charles M. Russell).

But before I leave my town, lunch with a friend from those parts in Oregon. He grew up around all the Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea a person could want. He's a fount, a deep well of information and enthusiasm. We both can't wait.

California's Mount Shasta is a large exclamation point on Northern California. Just thinking on Lewis and Clark and Yellowstone National Park. The Corps of Discovery didn't discover it so it slept, except for native inhabitants, until the time for it was right enough for us.

The Oregon border, no mountain looming unless you consider Shakespeare in Ashland.

Going way up, Astoria, Oregon, on the Columbia River and the Pacific. I've been to Portland, somewhat impressed, then on up to Seattle, too too much, Bellingham just enough and out to the San Juan Islands for orcas and the spectacular ocean, then off to Olympic National Park where the ferns were trees and you could have seen a dinosaur. In fact, Jefferson instructed Lewis and Clark to be on the look out for mastodons on their journey. Such creatures as might still exist -- as a Lewis and Clark journal entry might read.

Coming up on Portland on I-5 with all the same old cross-continent crap -- is it Boise?, is it Illinois?, is it Syracuse New York? — every franchise of everything thrown your way, swinging around it on 205, just the same, traffic, but it takes you around 284 east and the mighty Columbia River, big and bold beside a fine country like highway below towering cliffs and forests, Mount Hood, like the snowed over major “hood" of this neighborhood, enchanted cliffs and forests, mushroom people, the Corps of Discovery in their handmade canoes making their way towards the Pacific, near/mere specks on the big water. I can see Sacajawea kneeling balanced in one of the canoes, kneeling perhaps in prayer for what she and her infant son had come to.

Come to Stevenson Washington if you can, just across the Bridge of the Gods -- I kid you not, as Lewis or Clark might have entered in their journals and they were wise guys from New York like myself -- wiser now for seeing this great expanse of a nation’s sacred river, over from Oregon to Washington on this funky, iron, almost railroad bridge, no passport check, no sentry box. So America, relax.

Stevenson, Washington, a river town like one you might find along California's Russian River, or on the Hudson in upper New York, settings of parallel/equal beauty, and those forested islands in the river so signature to here.

Out on a short pier, so I'm going in behind the snow brushed hills, quiet, Covid quiet, the big river, "he just keeps rolling along."

Wouldn't be a lower-level motel without a cop car flashing its lights outside my motel window. Ahh, the "deplorables.”

The morning sun just not warm enough yet to melt the frosted ice on the car windows. But the early sun promises a fine new day, the new day stop at one of those unique Oregon coffee kiosks which always manage to hire very fine looking women. This kiosk is no exception, long slender hand and orange nails handing me out my cup runneth over.

Over the gods only bridge, the big river guiding me along, stopping for a view at a posted tale of some Brit bigshot, a Vicecount Hood and his sponsored Brit ship nosin’ up a river and thus the local Hooded names. What is a Vicecount?

No rain, sun, sun, clouds and the shining river, no boats, all images of them, taking me into Portland. Portland way too much, another pile of too much, a fine setting to be sure, but compared to a river village… 

Let's "break on through to the other side,” a two-lane Route 30 west to Astoria, fog and sun and fog and sun along the industrialized Colombia, oceangoing freighters, lumber, forests, cut lumber, then a few more Ace Hardware towns with fewer streetlights, St. Helen's, Knapa, signs for Astoria, Clatsop County (Clatsop the tribe that once lived here) then this great looming iron bridge like Astoria’s own Eiffel tower, more glowering than Parisien, only intimidating to me -- maybe ’Nam staff — but it looks ominous, long carnival ride across the river to Washington. I guess a toll and after the Bridge of the Gods back upriver this bridge looks more like the Bridge of the Valkyrie. So riverside and piers and docks and industrial and commercial fishing and logging and a little look around the Ken Kesey, Jack London towne and a sign for it, Clatsop. Sacajawea in the real.

Across a causeway bridge, gray sky, blue sky, a warm sunny day, traffic, traffic, traffic, water, water everywhere, green, green hills, modern life, modern life, turn off for the fort, quiet, quiet, woods, woods, green moss, green ferns, Sacajawea close by now.

Parking lot with two other cars, the visitors center very much open, sat comfortably in the ancient woods in its earth colors of wood.

Having been a park ranger I am on immediate/intimate terms with the ranger at the desk. I've brought them a sketch of Lewis and Clark returning with a mastodon direct from an intern from my brother's Monticello, a photo from up on Lemhi Pass in Idaho and a short story of mine, “Whale of a Tale" about them and a whale. Look it up in the Corps journals.

We rangers share our Sacajawea and Monticello. Now it's time to walk the 100 sign marked yards in the Merlin woods to the fort.

Oh my, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, the small log fort literally nestled in a clearing in the mossy forest, and not exactly a Fort Apache or any cavalry, John Wayney outpost with all their familiar wooden post upright battlements. This William Rogers Clark design would make Frank Lloyd Wright smile, more slanted, more winged, more horizontal in design; not so much the usual upright posts but more straight across with slanting roofs on the two separate sections with the usual straight up front gate. It's actually funky. Just this rather unique construction was worth the trip, worth a surprise. Let's go in.

Fort Stevens is a lot, campgrounds first. How green was my campground -- as lush as the Emerald Isle, with the Pacific close by, out on a sort of peninsula, a long finger that reaches into the Columbia River along the Pacific Coast.

Shore batteries. Battery Russell where some of the shells almost fell, All gray and abandoned likely the grown-over German "Atlantic Wall" gun bunkers of Normandy which you constantly see on the History Channel. Ghostly/grisly reminders of war and young reminders/memories of running around in the abandoned bunkers of Fort Schyler, New York. Here, the green moss and the vines are winning this war.

Peace. Magnificent Peace, up on a wooden observation tower, right at the black rocks seawall/jetty that protects the river’s mouth from the crashing gray ocean. Magnificent.

War. Now the actual For Stevens. Ghost fort remains of skeletal bricks on the green grass, stand-alone chimneys, some buildings still solid but empty, not exactly "living history," an old gray, peeling stone gun emplacement with an actual big gun. Climb the ladder and you can see the Pacific and the river. You can also see Japanese/Americans locked up on this coast because, so they said, of the war raging out on the Pacific. You could picnic in peace on the well-kept lawns. The Hudson’s Bay Company sure did back in those fur trading/taking days. No picnic for the tribes once the invaders decided their fate. The fate of the Union, Fort Stevens very much in use during our Civil War. Lots of goodies out on this coast. Could the rebs have ever? We will never know and there is no visitor center staff to help you know.

Time for a Buoy Beer as promised by my Sacramento pal, and the Astor Pillar back in town. I don't particularly want to go back into Astoria or any such city right now, too languid from the woods and the surf and the silence, but here goes.

Banging around, stranger in town until I find the Buoy Beer on the wharf, closed. So up the hill through the seafaring, lumbering town to up, up to the Astor Pillar caps. You get it, Astoria for John Jacob Astor and the fur trade. They want $5 to park so I just circled the colorful Trajan Column and its park with its vast viewpoints, the pillar itself, I guess, telling an Astoria history.

I'm still not going over that high iron bridge, just parked at the Flavel mansion on its hill, old Victorian Queen Ann blown up on Queen Alice mushrooms, with one enormous redwood, its own mansion of reddish wood that Paul Bunyan couldn't reach. I have no idea who or what Flavel is or was.

I would poke around some more but it's getting dark and I need shelter for the night. Seaside, Oregon will do. What's in a name gets you every time.

It's disappointing. I want a seaside mushroom village, sea nymphs at the gates. This is a mushroomed up resort town, not too big and certainly not too small, but all in all too much. The Hillcrest Inn doesn't ask for much in cash so here I'll build my port for the night. Resort town? Is there ever really enough warm summer here to go swimming in the ocean? I mean, it's freezing in San Francisco further south. This ain't no Santa Monaco or Fort Lauderdale. More like Fort Bragg, California, cold. Lots of windsurfing stuff but lounging in the summer sun?

Plans for sun-up are back on Route 30 to I-5 south or meander down old 101 coast road. Let's have a little legal pre-rolled and decide. Guess which won?

It was good going, rugged coast window shots and turnouts, vista views and lighthouses, the all-encompassing forest all wet with dripping moss and rain, rain, glorious rain as part of this geography journey, twisting and turning, cows and farms, lumbering scars, motels and more motels -- again, can one go swimming in the summer ocean?

Oh hell, stopping for a coffee and before I realize it this roadside kiosks is a Dutch Brothers kiosk. A frickin’ franchise all gussied up fast food style. It's too late, I'm in. It hurts after all the funky kiosk shacks along the way. I give up. But the cup winds up in a verdant rest area beside a talking stream with the mushroom world all around. America the beautiful, my beautiful.

Shabby in a good way, almost the wild west town way, the town after town going down 101 south, big timber, big fishing, narrow twisting road, gas at three bucks plus, attendants to pump -- takes some getting used to -- do I tip or not? In my case, not. Oregon and New Jersey make pump attendants mandatory and that's it. Talk about uniting two rather different Americas.

The American speed merchant I-5 to the east beckons. Coos Bay Oregon you pick up Route 42 East so you still have time to meander before you new blast off for the end of the trail in California for now -- before on to Sacajawea in Idaho and the Wind River Rez residence.

(Journal Note: Too much covid in or out or take or stay or closed, so always the local grocery stores. Yes, some salmon and some crab, but mostly the usual American fare.)

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