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Dear Mom, Love Meriwether
By LISA BRITTON
Of the Baker City Herald
In 1806, Meriwether Lewis finished an 8,000-mile exploration of America from the East Coast to the Pacific Ocean that took more than two years to complete.
And no matter how far he ventured from home, Lewis' mom always knew what he was doing.
"Dear Mother," recites performer Tim McNeil, "I expect my absence to be equal to 15 to 18 months. I go with the most perfect preconviction to return safe."
So begins the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, told through letters Lewis sent home to his mom.
McNeil brings the explorer to life in a program titled "Meriwether Lewis, Letters Home."
This week was McNeil's first "Meriwether Lewis" performance at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. He will return again Aug. 20-21.
McNeil said he combines both Lewis' journal entries and letters to tell the story of the Lewis and Clark journey.
His stories describe three legs of the journey: at Fort Mandan on the Missouri River; at Canoe Camp on the Clearwater River in Idaho; and again in central Idaho on the group's return trip.
"Game is abundant. I think our chances of starving are consequently small," Lewis says, sitting on a wooden barrel with a portable desk balanced on his lap.
A quill pen scratches across a pad of paper.
Then he stops, recalling one of the first unique animals they encountered: prairie dogs.
"These animals sit by their burrow and bark like a little toy dog," he says.
The group captured a prairie dog by pouring gallons of water down a hole until the animal escaped its watery home.
The explorers caged up the prairie dog and four magpies separately and boxed 67 specimens of earth salts and minerals and 60 species of plants, all addressed to President Thomas Jefferson.
Lewis doesn't gloss over much in the letters, recounting even the life-threatening situations.
The explorer had traveled ahead of the group and decided to kill a buffalo for dinner.
Lewis hoists a flintlock rifle to his shoulder, aims and squeezes the trigger.
"I selected a fat one and shot him well," he says to the audience.
Suddenly, Lewis realizes a bear had crept up to within 20 feet, he says, whirling around and aiming at an unseen animal.
"I raised my gun to shoot, but realized it wasn't loaded," he recites.
So he ran, then turned and raised the gun stock to strike the animal.
But it suddenly lost interest.
Lewis relaxes, then rushes on to describe the second close call with "an animal of a brownish-yellow color" that nearly pounced then disappeared into its den.
"I began to think that all the beasts of the neighborhood had conspired to destroy me," Lewis sighs, sitting down to continue his letter.
His stories continue over land and water, describing each Native American tribe the group encountered.
The Walla Walla Indians were quite taken with the entertainment these strangers enjoyed in the evenings and even waited for the music to begin, he says.
"So Cruzatte broke out the fiddle and the men sang and danced," he says.
The only tribe that really caused them trouble were the Blackfoot, Lewis says.
Following a seemingly safe dinner with several Blackfoot warriors, the groups made camp for the night.
Then the warriors began stealing weapons from the explorers, beginning a fight between guns and arrows.
The firearms prevailed.
"We took their bows, arrows and shields and threw them in the fire," Lewis wrote.
Then the explorers jumped on their horses and rode 120 miles before stopping to rest.
Lewis' only injury
Lewis went unscathed for most of the trip right up until he went elk hunting with the French fiddler Pierre Cruzatte.
Lewis slinks along the stage, stalking an elusive elk.
He suddenly jumps and yells: "Cruzatte! You shot me."
But the fiddler was nowhere to be found, he says. The rest of the party searched for the Frenchman, who adamantly claimed it was an accident when the others brought him back to the camp.
"Remember, Cruzatte was blind in one eye, nearsighted in another. I was dressed in elk skin.
"It may have been an accident."
For more information about upcoming events and performances at NHOTIC, call the Center at 523-1843.