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Letter from Wild West - August 2009

By Gregory Lalire 
Originally published on Published Online: June 03, 2009 
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Exploring the Possibilities with Walker
We can't be first, but exploration is still possible

When we use the term "exploration" today, we often mean leaving the interstate to drive on roads less traveled, perhaps even unpaved. But that's OK. To boldly go where no man, woman or child has gone before, you practically have to pull a Captain Kirk and head off into space. Either that or "explore thyself," as Henry David Thoreau once urged. As early as 1901, Henri Bergson predicted in "The Dream" that the major task of the 20th century "will be to explore the unconscious, to investigate the subsoil of the mind." I guess by now in the 21st century, we are down to exploring the substratum (i.e., residual bedrock) of our exhausted brains. Or perhaps just video gaming and text messaging our heads off.

Ah, for those 19th-century days when there remained uncharted land, with unknown topsoil, to explore, and men (no women or children or city slickers allowed) who did not have to dig into their unconscious to find the dauntless courage to proceed where no one (except maybe a few red-blooded Indians) had proceeded previously. At least, in this issue, explorers Joe Walker and John Wesley Powell provide vicarious thrills.

Walker (1798–1876) blazed the overland trail across the Sierras to California and kept blazing away most of his life. Powell's big first, running the rapids of the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, was also, according to author Will Bagley, a last: "His 1869 voyage marks the symbolic end of the romantic era of the exploration of the American West." If Powell's great adventure of 140 years ago was not enough, Bagley also deals with the engrossing mystery of what happened to three of Powell's men who walked out on the one-armed adventurer after developing either a strong dose of self-preservation or a yellow streak. Bagley also offers a Top Ten list of Western explorers (P. 8) that might raise a few eyebrows. He ranks Walker No. 3 and Powell No. 8, but leaves off John "the Pathfinder" Frémont altogether, as it is a list of greatest Western "explorers," not "self-promoters."

But if Bagley's opinion upsets the John Frémont fan club, what must members think of Joe Walker, who guided Frémont's second and third expeditions. Never one to talk much about himself or his fellow man, Walker said: "Frémont, morally and physically, was the most complete coward I ever knew. I would call him a woman, if it were not casting an unmerited reproach on the sex." The feeling was not mutual; John praised Joe's "spirit of exploratory enterprise" and gave the Walker name to a pass, river and lake.

Others, though, have criticized Walker. His foray into California with 40 men in 1833–34, according to Washington Irving's 1837 account, was a violation of Captain Benjamin Bonneville's instructions for him to keep along the shores of the Great Salt Lake; furthermore, as others have charged, Walker's exploring party drank, stole horses, baited bears and gambled at Monterey like a bunch of "land pirates." The Walker fan club brushes off such criticism. Historian Robert Utley points out that Walker "hardly ever boasted, got drunk, indulged in raucous high jinks [or] relaxed his self-control" and states, "In mastery of the mountain man's craft, none surpassed Joseph R. Walker." In exploratory achievement, Utley rates Walker right behind Jedediah Smith, while author Gary Smith gives Walker clear title to No. 1, for "doing great things and having these incredible adventures over and over again during his long life."

Until a recent stroke, Smith himself went "exploring" by four-wheel drive on many of the same paths Walker took. And today, many adventurous souls raft the Grand Canyon white water first experienced by Powell. I tip my hat to these modern explorers. It's not possible to be first anymore, but better to be second, third or one millionth than to never have explored at all. I plan to tell my son those very words—the minute I learn to text message.


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