Returning to Charles Kuralt's America for September in Twin Falls, Montana:
Even more harrowing was the adventure of [Hugh] Glass's friend, John Colter, taken with another trapper by a Blackfoot war party on the Jefferson River. Colter's partner was killed and dismembered on the spot. With Colter, the Indians thought they'd have a little sport. He was stripped naked and told to run for his life. This he did, in an astounding footrace across the rocky bottomland with the Indians pursuing, until flecks of blood started flying from his nostrils. He ran all the way to the Madison River, where he dived underwater and hid until dark in a beaver house. During the next two weeks, still naked, he crossed the snow-covered Absaroka Mountains to the Yellowstone River and traveled down the river to Manuel Lisa's fort on the Missouri. He knew nearly every man there. At first, not one of them recognized the naked, bloody, frozen scarecrow who showed up at the gate.
John Colter lived on to describe the geysers of the West to the good citizens of St. Louis, who ridiculed him for trying to peddle such a fantasy as truth. "Colter's Hell," they called it. We call it Yellowstone National Park.
The durable Colter had been among the forty-five men and one woman who crossed into Montana in late April 1805, following the Missouri River west. The little expedition, headed by two Virginians, trusted young friends of the Virginia President, Thomas Jefferson, proved to be the greatest American adventure of all. . . .
In Montana, the captains reached the Three Forks of the Missouri, and named the rivers Jefferson, for the President; Madison, for the Secretary of State; and Gallatin, for the Secretary of the Treasury. ("You went pretty far west," the President observed wryly, "before you found a stream to name for me!") They followed Jefferson's river until it, too, divided into three tributaries. These, they called Wisdom, Philosophy, and Philanthropy, for the President's virtues. (Too many syllables, said the fur traders who came later. They renamed those three rivers Big Hole, Beaverhead, and Ruby. But if you ever pass through the little ranch town of Wisdom, Montana, on the Big Hole, remember it was Thomas Jefferson's wisdom that was meant by those who named it.)
Lewis and Clark deserve a Homer to tell of their Odyssey, one of the most heroic and successful treks in all of human history. They may have one someday, as their trip through the Rockies, hard reality in the pages of their maps and diaries, fades into legend in the mists of time.
Tags: Charles Kuralt, America