Ramblin’ Man: Meriwether Lewis Monument
In rural Tennessee there stands a sad shrine to troubled greatness: a lonely column broken at the top to symbolize a life abbreviated. It marks the grave of Meriwether Lewis, one half of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition. Three years after the end of the expedition, Lewis met his own end not far from this spot—most likely from suicide.
A lot of people just don’t understand just how insidious depression and mental illness can be. One almost envies them in their naiveté.
Going there was a personal pilgrimage for me. One of the high points of my life was taking more than a month to follow the path of the Lewis and Clark Expedition through Missouri and Illinois and Nebraska and Kansas and South Dakota and North Dakota and Montana and Idaho and Washington and Oregon, reading their journals all along the way.
Historical pilgrimages, by the way, are the way to go. You’ve got all the fresh sights and sounds inherent in travel along with historical, cultural, and literary layers added on.
The Journals of Lewis and Clark are required reading. They are our American Homer, our Odyssey. Lewis’s entries are eruditely descriptive, while the succinct straightforwardness of Clark’s entries put Hemingway to shame. Lewis and Clark complemented each other perfectly on their odyssey, and served as yin to the other’s yang.
I personally have always been drawn more towards Lewis than Clark. He had more of the soul of a poet and his tragic fate only adds to his fascinatingness. To give a little extra insight into the mind of Lewis, here’s an entry from the journals, date of Sunday, August 18, 1805—a little over four years before his death:
“This day I completed my thirty-first year, and conceived that I had in all human probability now existed about half the period which I am to remain in this sublunary world. I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the happiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation.”
It is perhaps no coincidence that Lewis wrote these words about being at a critical juncture in his life at a critical geographical juncture. The Expedition was ensconced in the mountains of the West, in search of the headwaters of the Columbia River. It had been the dream of traders and nations to find a feasible route connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific called the Northwest Passage—and the most logical route would be to find some connection between the Missouri and Columbia Rivers. The Lewis and Clark Expedition dashed that dream to bits.
The journal entry goes on:
“I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now soarly feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended. But since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought and resolved in future to redouble my exertions and at least endeavor to promote those two primary objects of human existence, by giving them the aid of that portion of talents which nature and fortune have bestowed on me; or in future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.”
Adjusting for rising life expectancy, I currently find myself in the same strait as Lewis—and these words of regret regarding precious time squandered sting something awful because I obviously am no Meriwether Lewis. He was a real outdoorsman, a scientist, a writer, a leader of men, while I’m a—who even knows. My only consolation is that you’re probably no different: over-entertained, over-stimulated, under-rigorous with yourself, under-cooked. But let’s not be too hard on ourselves.
Meriwether Lewis was undoubtedly too hard on himself. Although rumors swirled that he was murdered, William Clark and Thomas Jefferson believed that he committed suicide. While I’m willing to leave a little bit of room for the possibility that he was the victim of a violent robbery, it seems reasonable to believe that he killed himself.
A lot of people just don’t understand just how insidious depression and mental illness can be. One almost envies them in their naiveté. Among these naive folks can be classed those who assert that Meriwether Lewis, a man who successfully led a band of thirty odd persons through uncharted wilderness for over two years, could never succumb to dark thoughts of suicide. He simply wasn’t “the type,” they say. Well, sadly, there is no “type.”
So often our strengths and our weaknesses are one and the same. That is, in some situations a certain facet of our character comes in handy and may win glory; in other situations, it might be a liability. What made Meriwether Lewis a great explorer may have made him not so great a governor, and in some ways surviving in the wild may be easier than surviving in society and politics.
Or maybe the drudgery of desk-bound life was a colossal let-down after spending more than two adventurous years in unmapped Nature. Or maybe the specter of personal financial ruin was something more awful to him than any Grizzly bear. Illness and addiction may also have played a part. Rarely is there any one reason for depression.
In the fall of 1809, Lewis was on his way to Washington, D.C. to justify some of his expenditures as governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory and also to work on the long-delayed publication of the journals. He stopped at an inn—not even big enough to be called an inn, actually, but a “stand” called Grinder’s Stand.
According to the Mrs. Grinder, Lewis was acting erratically the evening of his arrival, and early the next morning she heard gunshots. Lewis was found bleeding from his head and stomach and died shortly thereafter, and was buried about a hundred yards away. Grinder’s Stand and Lewis’s grave are both located in the same park. Here’s how to get there:
1. From Nashville, take I-40 west.
2. Take Exit 192 and drive south on McCrory Lane.
3. When you hit Highway 100, get on the Natchez Trace Parkway. This is the northern beginning of the Parkway.
4. Drive on the Parkway for approximately 63 miles to the Meriwether Lewis Site.
The Natchez Trace Parkway more or less follows the path of an old Indian route that was later built up to be a road for traders, soldiers, and outlaws. It starts just outside of Nashville and ends in Natchez, Mississippi.
The Natchez Trace Parkway could justly be called the perfect drive for people who hate driving. It’s got very few exits and entrances, so it’s not so convenient for your typical driver; it’s got a 50 mile per hour speed limit—and from what I saw, speed limits are more strictly enforced down there; and it has all sorts of parks and walking paths and historical markers all along its length—impressive prehistoric Indian mounds and streams and waterfalls and caves and parts of the original Trace that you can hike on.
I encountered the Meriwether Lewis site on a cool, rainy day. For a place of heartbreak and death, this melancholic weather was ideal. Lending even greater gravity to the scene was the fact that it was the middle of the week in the depths of February, and so I was the only one there. Just how I like it.
You can actually retrace Lewis’s steps on a stretch of the original Trace, go up to the site of Grinder’s Stand (with a replica sitting nearby), then head across a grassy field to a small graveyard where Lewis’s somewhat grand column of a gravestone stands.
I did all this, pausing at every place, trying to soak in the atmosphere, trying to recall what I knew and remembered about Meriwether Lewis. What drew me to the man? I guessed it had to be that he was that rarest of men: both a man of action and a man of contemplation. Men of action tend to be nauseatingly, idiotically single-minded, while men with brooding intellects tend to be rootless and useless. Lewis was the synthesis of both. He’s a man to be emulated in everything but his end.