I Love What I Get to Do

I Love What I Get to Do

Clay S. Jenkinson • Bismarck, ND

There are cultural tours and then there are cultural tours. Ours are on the casual side, because the emphasis is adventure, conversation, wit, humor, friendship. The food is great. The lodging is excellent. But it is the quality of the conversation that makes these what they are.

I’ve always been a little gun shy of cultural tours—the tedious tour guide with the umbrella, the incessant on and off of the bus, which is always called “a luxury coach.” Really?! I tend to want to see the world in my own way.

But these are different. You can measure our success by the number of people who come back for other trips, and even more by those who return again and again for the same adventure. It’s uncanny. It’s deeply satisfying to me.

I always say that there will be plenty of information, learning, “matter,” on this tour—but the real purpose of it is something else. It is about the joy of ideas, the boundlessness of curiosity, the mix of rigor and playfulness, the ironies and sarcasm, the things we get to look at.

On the annual Lewis & Clark tour, I take people to things they would never otherwise see. It’s hard enough to get into the White Cliffs section of the Missouri River, but it can be done; but to take people to Lonesome Cove, or up the Wendover Death March—that’s unique. If your idea of a cultural tour is a “Leaf Peekers’ Adventure in New England,” you are thinking of something and somebody else. Our tours involve a minimum of standard features and a maximum of true conversation.

It’s the quality of the things we talk about that make these trips magical for me.

Becky is superb at setting things up, working with the outfitters, preparing the itinerary, taking the calls, helping people know what to pack. And her great heart makes people glad to be alive. My work is to create engagement in the humanities—as often as possible on location—but to make sure that it is not academic, pretentious, ponderous, overtly instructive. My creed is that the life of the mind is joyful, that academic jargon has its place (but not out on the Lewis & Clark Trail), that it is best to combine rigor and playfulness, and that laughter is the best lubricant for ideas.

I love these journeys. They never get old for me. I wait all year for the Wendover Death March and that second morning on the great Missouri River, in the heart of Karl Bodmer’s painting of the Stone Gates. I live all year for the mornings in the reading lounge at Lochsa Lodge, or that moment when I move my bags in Cabin 2A at Lochsa, and then hasten down to the river. My spirits rise when I get over Lolo Pass or survive the first drowning incident that Becky attempts on the river. My soul recovers out there, in the midst of some of the greatest scenes in America, with old friends and new, on the second glass of wine.

At Dry Camp up in the Bitterroots, our last night camping, I always drift away from the group around the fire, and wander down the road a bit to some place where I can lie down under the tall pines. I go silent. I watch the tops of the trees sway ever so slightly in the night breeze. I watch the stars, and like Huck wonder if they was always there or if they wuz made. I drift into reveries and sometimes into that half-sleep one gets in a slightly eerie place. I listen for the message on the wind. I wait for the first shooting star. This sometimes takes five minutes. It might take an hour. I dream of my dream of life. I think about Meriwether Lewis, and Thomas Jefferson. I think of people I have met in the mountain west. I feel monstrously alive, humbled by the magnitude of things, eager to live more deliberately, and almost too lazy to drift back to the fire, where the last of the crooners are singing at the Moon.

I love what I get to do.