In May of 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, under the direction of President Thomas Jefferson, along with their expeditionary force called The Corps of Discovery, set out on the adventure of a lifetime. Their primary purpose was to find a navigable water route to the Pacific Ocean through the recently acquired land of the Louisiana Purchase. Secondly, they were instructed by President Jefferson to explore this unknown land–its geography, animal and plant life, and native peoples, and to record their findings. How brave and how daring they must have been! To leave everything familiar and set out into the unknown must have excited and terrified them at the same time. They had no idea what lay ahead. Oh, there were rumors,…volcanoes, dinosaurs, etc., but that did not deter them. They also had no clue as to how vast this unknown land was. Everyone assumed if they traveled up the Mississippi River to the Missouri, they would soon end up at the Pacific Ocean. Little did they know this trip would take years, not months, and it would take all of their physical and mental strength to forge ahead through dangerous terrain and into lands populated by unfriendly native tribes.
From the time I was a child in elementary school turning the pages of my social studies book, the story of Lewis and Clark has captured my imagination and thrilled me like no other tale in American history. I’ve always had a bit of the “pioneer spirit” coursing through my veins and the story of what these men encountered and endured never ceases to amaze me. Add to that the fact that Sacagawea (talk about “girl power”) AND her infant son played a vital role in this trip and, WOW! Hollywood couldn’t write a better script. Obviously, with my keen interest in The Corps of Discovery, any memorial, monument, trail, or point of interest remotely associated with Lewis and Clark becomes an item on our itinerary, whether we plan ahead or not. Such was the case of Pompeys Pillar and Hat Rock State Park.
We had left Theodore Roosevelt National Park and were heading west through Montana on our way to Billings for Labor Day weekend. As we drove along I-94, I saw a sign for Pompeys Pillar National Monument. Now I knew what we were going to do the next afternoon! Pompeys Pillar is located about 25 miles east of the city of Billings and is the site of the only visible remaining physical evidence on the Lewis and Clark trail. In 1806, after reaching the Pacific Ocean, The Corps of Discovery was on their way back east when they happened upon this large pillar of sandstone and shale along the banks of the Yellowstone River. William Clark climbed the rock formation and carved his name and the date into the rock face. They named this area Pompeys Pillar in honor of Sacagawea’s son, Jean Baptiste, whom the men nicknamed, “Pompey.”
The entrance fee into the monument is $7 per private vehicle, FREE with your National Parks Pass. There is ample parking for cars, buses, and RV’s. A day use area near the Yellowstone River and shaded by cottonwood trees has picnic tables and plenty of space to relax. As you leave the parking area and head toward the interpretive center, your steps take you along an inlaid path which follows the Lewis and Clark journey, dotted with signs and information about their adventures. When you enter the building, the inlaid Yellowstone River winds its way down the long hallway past the gift shop and museum displays. The center was built in 2006 and in my opinion is one of the most beautiful visitor centers I’ve seen. One could easily spend an hour or more looking at the displays and browsing through the gift shop. But the main attraction is walking the trail and up the 200 steps to view Clark’s actual signature preserved on the rock wall. It was quite a thrill for me.
Another unplanned Lewis and Clark stop happened as we were driving from Idaho to Washington state. We learned an important lesson that day. Out West, rodeos are a BIG deal. I mean a REALLY BIG deal. So big that you have to drive 50-100 miles past the rodeo before you can find someplace to camp for the night. There were no sites at any state parks, private rv parks, casinos, Wal-Marts, etc. So we kept driving until we reached the town of Hermiston. We pulled into a Wal-Mart there thinking we would spend the night, but didn’t have a good vibe about it. We “just happened” to see a small advertisement sign for Hat Rock Campground. We called, they had an opening, so off we went. It is adjacent to Hat Rock State Park and after we picked up some info from the camp office, we discovered just what “Hat Rock” was! YES! Another Lewis and Clark stop!
The rock, which looks like a hat—thus, the name— was one of the first landmarks Lewis and Clark saw as they traveled down the Columbia River on their way to the Pacific. In fact, it is one of the few remaining natural landmarks not underwater, due to the many dams and reservoirs that have since been constructed. Hat Rock State Park is a lovely FREE day-use park right on the banks of the Columbia River with hiking trails up to the fenced-in area around the rock, more trails along the banks of the river, a boat ramp, picnic areas, and fishing. We had a great time hiking around the practically empty park—it was early in the day, on a weekday, and in mid-September—the weather was absolutely beautiful and we spent a couple of hours enjoying the peace and tranquility.
One reason I love the story of Lewis and Clark is that as I read about all their adventures, I can see the hand of God leading them step by step. The Lord had his hand of protection on them as they traveled westward. Sgt. Floyd was the only man they lost and that was due to a burst appendix. When they encountered unknown native tribes, God sent them Sacagawea, a young Shoshone girl who had been captured and sold to a French trapper. She was able to communicate with the different people groups they met, she also knew the lay of the land and could lead them to their destination. I could write volumes about how much her story, her capture and being sold into marriage, reminds me of Joseph,….”what you planned for evil, God meant it for good,…” Every part of their story has the fingerprints of God,…from finding shelter and food to turning right instead of left and thus avoiding calamity; from embracing the different skills and abilities of each member of the Corps to welcoming newcomers, like Charbonneau and Sacagawea; and from never straying from their ultimate goal of reaching the Pacific to recognizing the need to stop and rest, though it would delay their arrival by weeks or months. In our travels, we have looked for those fingerprints of God,…ways in which He has directed and re-directed our steps so that we could be protected and be blessed by His creation. When we take the time to look and recognize His work in our lives, it gives us yet another reason to praise Him.