Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen E. Ambrose

How many of you would choose a book as a travel souvenir?

Even seeing the cover of Undaunted Courage brings up such a delightful diversion from the throes of fibromyalgia the summer I turned 60. On so many different levels–the book itself, the surprises, the memories.

Husband Guy had heard me say that I’d like to see northeast Nebraska, where Grandma Leora Wilson wrote about in her memoirs, where she remembered local Indians going around the neighborhood near Bloomfield trading dress goods for chickens or cash. Little Leora was a preschooler when her mother traded hens for dress goods, and their mules had come up to the gate and brayed at the newcomers. The Indians laughed at the mules.

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We drove up through Niobrara, Nebraska, but couldn’t find the GAR Hall where the sheriff’s sale took place after Leora’s father “went bust” in 1896.

We decided to go on to see Mount Rushmore, and paid over $2 per gallon for gas for the first time at Valentine, Nebraska. We listened to KINI, the Rosebud (SD) reservation radio station on the way to Chadron, where we turned north. Coming into Hot Springs, South Dakota, was a Veteran’s Administration sign–Battle Mountain Sanitarium.

“Wait, Hubby! Someone is buried here. Someone on your side. Yes, your mother’s grandfather is buried here!” I’d worked on genealogy decades earlier so was surprised that I could remember his name.

Amos Mark Runkle, Civil War veteran from Pennsylvania, resident of the Marshalltown (Iowa) Veterans Home, eventually died at the sanitarium in South Dakota. We stopped into the office and learned where his grave was located. Why was he even there? Probably because of a lung disease. We were heartened at how well kept the small hilly cemetery is, as we were probably the first ones in the family to visit his grave there.

In the town of Hot Springs we took our suitcases to the Red Rock River Resort so I could nap, then looked around Black Hills Books and Treasures. Undaunted Courage turned up as my first choice as a souvenir of the trip.


We had a lovely birthday meal at the Blue Vervain Restaurant. This Iowa farm girl had never had beets and goat cheese with honey thyme cider sauce, with game hen on mashed garlic sweet potatoes and baby asparagus before.

The next day we drove through Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park, stopping to watch a bison graze and a prairie dog town with hundreds of mounds with heads popping up and down. Soon we could get glimpses of the spectacular Mount Rushmore in the distance. It’s changed since I first visited there as a junior higher, in 1958–not even wanting to go along on our family’s first and only vacation, until Grandma Wilson agreed to go with us.

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Mount Rushmore August 1958. Grandma still always wore a dress in those days.

But the updating is well-done and very accommodating for the myriads of visitors to flock there, and even a new trail where we could see the carvings from several interesting angles.

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But the trip had been daunting and fibromyalgia fog kept me from concentrating enough to enjoy my new book. Sis Gloria is a fan of thick books so asked if she could read it. Somewhere along the line she forgot whose book it was. By the time I was able to tackle it again, she confessed that she’d read it with a pink highlighter.

An underliner and a starrer myself, I read my own books with a pen, but it was actually fun to discover what had delighted Gloria as she read. Sometimes we were impressed by the same details, sometimes not.

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But what a wonderful history of a band of men on a remarkable trek across this continent when so much of it had been unseen by white men, and uncharted. President Thomas Jefferson chose Meriwether Lewis to lead the expedition, to hunt for a waterway to the Pacific, to ascertain natural resources, to report on everything they did and saw. Thirty-three men started out and the number of participants fluctuated, but only one man was lost during the two years it took, probably due to a ruptured appendix.

Lewis’s diary was so complete that much of the trail can be followed to this day. We knew a man in Idaho whose hobby it was to explore sections of the Lewis and Clark Trail. Undaunted Courage has great maps, with the stories along the route to imagine what it must have been like.

It also brings back fond memories of the summer I turned 60.

What books bring back memories for you?


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