1999: Parts Undiscovered

Monday is Columbus Day, our holiday in honor of the man who was once said to have discovered America. It no longer being fashionable to imply that America had ever been lost, this holiday now seems to be more a celebration of the contributions of Italian-Americans rather than anything having to do with America at all. Consequently, this seems to be one of those holidays that is "observed" but not really "celebrated" by most of us. I wonder if there should not be a sunset clause on holidays; I feel that days of the year are a bit like the numbers of basketball players: if we keep retiring them we eventually won't be able to put a full team on the floor.

America may not have been discovered when Columbus put his foot down in the Caribbean and then returned across the Atlantic, but something definitely happened a few hundred years later when Lewis and Clark went coast to coast by land and river. I think we can be pretty confident that no human being before them and their party had seen the entire width of the continent. Their exploration was termed the voyage of discovery, which is a bit ironic, because what they were looking for they did not find: a water passage across the continent. It was, of course, an extraordinary trip anyway, not just for what they found but for their having lost only a single man, him to illness.

I drive across the country with some regularity, and am profoundly moved by the sites and vestiges of the early voyagers. In spite of the Interstate highway system that can cut Lewis and Clark's yearlong journey to five days, many places along the way remain so desolate that one can easily picture oneself in the shoes of the explorers. Lem-hi pass in Idaho is where Lewis and Clark crossed the continental divide; you can look off for miles and imagine the explorers picking their path of descent to the sea. The confluence of the Missouri and the Yellowstone Rivers on the Montana-North Dakota border, which Lewis and Clark confronted as a bewildering choice when they met it going upstream, is peaceful farmland and woods. Sacagawaea, the young Indian woman who was the one person who actually knew where she was going, is buried at a desolate site in the middle of Wyoming; I bought a belt near there made by someone I was glad to believe was her great-great-granddaughter.

I am not sure what moves me so much about these isolated spots with their ghosts. Beautiful as they are, they attract me not in the way the other beautiful landscapes do. There is something spiritual I find in them. It is, perhaps, a recognition that I, and each of us, is on a lifelong voyage of discovery of ourselves. Most of the time we are too busy acting as though we know what we are doing to discover something new about ourselves. Or we are going from where we are to some known destination along a path we know we want to travel. But it does happen, if we let it happen and give ourselves the time and quiet to integrate our experiences and to step back from our daily lives, that we can discover something new about who we are and who we want to be.

I have three old maps in my office, and I love each for a different reason. One, an 1854 wall map of the US, shows the middle of the country completely filled in with the names of Indian tribes. A map published a few years later would omit them all, depicting the center of the country as a vast empty space to be filled in by new settlers brought in from the east on the newly constructed railroads. A great deal of discovery had been done, and would be undone for political reasons within a decade. The oldest of the three maps, a 1650 map of North America, confidently shows Baja California as a carefully articulated island; the Pacific Northwest is a bit of a blur, tinted in aqua rather than either the green of the land or the blue of the ocean, as though the mapmaker wanted to be able to say, whether land or sea was later discovered there, that that was what he had meant to depict. The map is full of wonderful detail, but in many respects the mapmaker was faking it. But my favorite is the simplest, and dates from the late 1700s. It is a polar projection. Most of the coastline, down to the 50th parallel, is accurately depicted, and most rivers and settlements are accurately labeled across Europe, Asia, and North America. But where the Pacific Northwest should be, a large area is labeled "Parts Undiscovered." A perfect statement of our existential dilemma, the mapmaker confidently asserts that something is there; that neither he nor anyone else knows what it is; but that it will be found out someday. That's the right way to think about our souls, I think, as real places that are, temporarily, undiscovered.