Lewis remembers when he first saw him. Freshly promoted to Ensign after a confusing bit of business that left them calling him a hero, he feels lost and out of his depth, not sure whether he is meant to be commanded or commanding. The way the other men whisper about Lt. William Clark and make their plans to impress him, Lewis expects another bureaucratic peacock who had bought his commission, easily flattered and distant from the blood and sweat and heat of battle. What he finds instead surprises him: a tall, flame-haired man only a few years older than himself who meets his eyes with a steady gaze and speaks in a quiet, firm Kentucky drawl. Lt. Clark works his men hard, but he is fair, and no one can accuse of him of shirking action.
As the months pass and the troops undertake mission after mission, Lewis learns to hide his insecurity. He finds himself growing tougher in the field, flourishing and feeling more at home giving orders or taking long marches. Still, there are nights, alone under the stars, where he feels a profound loneliness, an unshakeable knowledge that he is here by accident, simply in the right place at the right time. On those nights, he can’t help but think of Clark – a man with direction. A man born to lead.
Clark retires from the army that winter, and slips out of Lewis’s life for the next eight years. With a lull in conflict, Lewis finds himself in Washington, and discovers, almost to his dismay, that he thrives in politics. He meets with diplomats, attends democratic sessions, and becomes the personal friend of President Jefferson in a series of small moments that leads to hand-drawn maps scattered across a desk and the words hanging in the air like gun smoke: “I want you to go west.” It is an absurd task: go beyond the borders of the country, into the unknown, to the edges of a territory owned by America yet empty of Americans. As the enormity of the charge dawns on him, Lewis feels the old shadows slipping in through cracks in the walls, the creeping dread slithering back to surround him. Here he is again, trapped in a place he had never meant to be.
But the shadows recede, because the President also tells him he can bring anyone he needs with him on the expedition, anyone whose skills he would find useful. Which is what leads to him writing the most important letter of his life, quill shaking, to his former officer: “Dear Sir,” he begins, “I need you…”
The October sun is still hot overhead, and Lewis dips a hand into the cool dark water alongside the canoe, splashes some on his face. He sighs. It is so quiet here, but he can still hear the rushing in his ears of the cacophony of senators and bankers and covered wagons full of settlers always charging brashly into the future. “Master Lewis,” calls the rough man behind him who has been paddling steadily all this time. “Do you have any stories? To entertain us while we work?” Lewis shakes his head. He gave up trying to tell his story long ago. He turns back to the water, willing the steady rhythm of the river to drown out the noise. It is so inviting.
The trail, Lewis soon discovers, is less rapids, landslides, and encounters with new civilizations, and more trudging. In the first few days, he is shy, made awkward by the newfound equality with his commanding officer. But gradually the long hours walking, eating, and sitting around a fire become comfortable by necessity, and he finds himself at ease. “Lewis,” Clark says, taking off his boots and stretching his legs out at the end of the day, “Do you have any stories?” and Lewis finds himself talking about his father dying when he was only a little boy, about learning of the ways of the Cherokee who lived just beyond his land, about the icy winter nights when he would take his dog out at midnight and pace for hours, thrilling at how empty and sharp the world felt. Then he closes his eyes, and listens in exchange as Clark tells tall tales of the rollicking adventures he had with his nine brothers and sisters, of rafting down the Ohio River and feeling the ground shake from distant cannoning during the War. Those are the best nights – nothing but the crackling of the logs, the pleasant ache of work in his muscles, and Clark’s low chuckle at his own jokes.
When the French trapper and his young Indian wife join their party that winter, Clark flirts with her openly, complaining loudly that he’s missed women, that he hasn’t seen one in months. Only then does Lewis realize that he hadn’t noticed.
His greatest injury comes not from Indians or wild animals, but is brought ignominiously at the hands of that blockhead Cruzatte, who mistakes him for an elk and shoots him in the arse. They’re on a hunting expedition two days from the rest of the party, and Clark has all the medical supplies, and so as Lewis lies on the bottom of the canoe trying to ignore the throbbing, searing pain, he repeats it like a mantra: “Clark will make it okay. We’re coming. Clark will make it okay.”
When they finally reach camp the other men laugh, but Clark is silent. As Lewis lies on his stomach in his tent, biting on a strip of rawhide to keep from crying out, Clark tears cloth into rags, soaks them in warm water, and carefully cleans the wound. Lewis’s eyes widen, not from pain, but from surprise at the gentleness of Clark’s touch. His fingers, roughened by war and the trail, are soft as they trail across his skin. He tries to lie very still, tries to focus on nothing but that feather light touch on his body, willing it to carry him away from the pain, away from the incredible weariness that has plagued him more and more as of late. Suddenly he feels very hot.
“Are you alright, my good man?” Clark asks, breaking his reverie. “You’re trembling.”
Lewis nods. “I must have a fever,” he whispers, but his head is perfectly clear, clear with the intoxicating, horrifying knowledge of Clark. Clark is everything. He always has been.
They return to Washington the conquering heroes, the darlings of the Capitol. They are a dynamic duo, brimming with stories of the trail and novelties to display. They become a household name. “Lewis & Clark” always together, a partnership, an inseparable pair. He doesn’t say it, but Lewis thrills to hear their names together every time. Lewis & Clark. A single unit. Inseparable, always. Together they can do anything.
He is a failure. He has tried to write the book he promised, but his journals feel hollow, lists of trees and rivers and trades, shells empty of the experiences that he cannot seem to relate. Jefferson grows angry with him and he leaves Washington in disgrace. He fumblingly tries to find a wife, but without luck. He is a failure. As Clark becomes the darling of Washington and the most successful ambassador to the Indians in history, Lewis languishes in the territories, botching bill after policy after deal. When Clark gets married that January, Lewis knows that their paths are now irrevocably separate. Clark names his firstborn Meriwether Lewis in his honor, but Lewis can’t help feeling like he is being replaced. He is a failure.
The country woman who owns the inn, little more than a rough hewn cabin on a wagon-rutted path, doesn’t recognize him nor his name. He doesn’t know whether it makes things better or worse. He feels even smaller and even more insignificant than ever, but at least she’ll leave him alone. He knows he’s supposed to be moving on to Washington tomorrow, but he can’t. The inn is so dark, and he feels the walls closing in on him. He misses the smell of the pines towering above him, the rough embrace of the dirt under his body, the clouds and stars a constant canopy. He piles furs onto his bed but he cannot get warm. He orders coffee and stew to his room, has the landlady build a fire in the grate. Why is he so cold?
Lewis remembers how, as a boy, a neighbor got caught during a blizzard and died from the cold. They had hauled him in and tried to revive him, but it was too late. As the man shook by the hearth, fingers frozen and skin chapped, he had whispered, “I am so warm” before he had died.
Lewis has often wondered what that had felt like – to be shivering and yet feel safe and comfortable. Now he knows. On the third day, the landlady knocks on his door, peers in with a worried expression to where he sits curled next to the fire, wrapped in blankets and basking in memories. He feels nothing but serenity. “Are you alright, Master Lewis?” she asks. He smiles at her. Foolish woman. “Don’t worry,” he reassures her. “Clark is coming for me.”
That night she hears the gunshot, and then all is silence.
Eighteen months after they set out on their journey, they finally see it for the first time: the Pacific Ocean, an endless expanse of wrinkled grey silk spread under gunmetal skies. The rest of the company is still below pitching camp for the night, but Clark has called Lewis to follow him up the hill, to chase the cries of the gulls wheeling overhead. At the summit the two men stand silent for a moment, side by side, staring out at the coast. This is it. This is the meaning of the hundreds of nights and the thousands of miles. “We made it,” Lewis whispers. “We truly made it.”
Clark claps an arm around his shoulders in celebration. “They’ll remember us for this forever,” he declares. “Lewis & Clark – the pair that crossed America.” Lewis smiles at the sound of their names together, and at the wonderful weight of Clark’s arm that remains around him.
At that moment, the sun, veiled all day behind thick clouds, makes a breath’s appearance before melting into the ocean, and the landscape is suffused with liquid gold. Clark is gazing west, eyes fixed on the horizon, but Lewis can only stare at the man beside him, luminous and wrapped in light. The world may remember the journey, but for him, this moment is everything.