They were called the Corps of Discovery. Commissioned by President Jefferson to learn, among other things, if there was a navigable water route across the American West, the soldiers of the Lewis and Clark expedition returned from their three-year voyage of discovery knowing a great deal more than the geographic reality that there was no passable water route to the Pacific. Faced with circumstances barely fathomable to us, these intrepid adventurers learned in sometimes dramatic ways the same things each of us must learn. Allow me to share with you one such learning experience recorded by Captain Meriwether Lewis.
Hunting buffalo along the Missouri River one day, Lewis allowed himself to be distracted and neglected to reload his rifle after shooting one of the huge animals. Suddenly, he became the hunted, with a large grizzly less than 20 steps away. Seeing the bear, Lewis raised his rifle only to discover it was unloaded. With the bear coming after him, in his words “open mouthed and full speed,” Lewis’ only hope was to make it to the river where the bear would have to swim and he would have an opportunity to defend himself with his pike. He got to the water, turned around, and introduced the bear to the razor-sharp point of the pike. The bear abruptly reconsidered its dinner plans, decided “foolish explorer” was not on his menu for that day, and beat a hasty retreat. Of this incident, Lewis later recorded in his journal:
“I returned to the shore [and] charged my gun, which I had still retained in my hand through this curious adventure. My gun reloaded I felt confidence once more in my strength. [I] determined never again to suffer my piece to be longer empty than the time she necessarily required to charge her.”
What did Meriwether Lewis learn from the instruction so freely given by a hungry grizzly? Simply this: that his survival was dependent on keeping himself prepared for whatever he might encounter. Lewis learned that only a loaded firearm could protect him in that environment and that it was his responsibility to make sure it was ready for use at any time.
The American West has changed considerably since the days of Lewis and Clark, and we can only speculate on the courage the Corps of Discovery must have required of its participants. They faced an unknown, uncharted, often hostile wilderness, with primitive supplies and even more primitive means of transportation, and with no Cabela’s or Costco in sight.
But was their courage really all that different from what we must from time to time summon up in our own lives? Certainly no one of us would choose to confront a grizzly bear, but don’t we face other snarling 500-pound beasts that threaten to spiritually, mentally, or emotionally consume us? I believe we do; we just have other names for our grizzlies, such as toxic work environment, marriage that isn’t working, unemployment, a life-changing health issue, etc. How do we adequately prepare ourselves for these behemoths that enter our lives?
Any consideration of how to best prepare for life’s greatest challenges needs to begin with regular scripture study and consistent personal prayer. Verses too numerous to list remind us of the importance of and blessings that come from earnest scripture study and sincere prayer. These two things lay at the very foundation of our personal preparedness for life’s challenges.
But our preparation for facing life’s greatest trials need not — and should not — stop with prayer and scripture study. There are other things we can also do. Some years ago during a particularly difficult time in my life, a friend advised me to “find places of refuge.” I wasn’t sure what my friend meant, but in time I learned.
I learned that solitude — places where I can be truly alone, away from others and beyond the reach of electronic devices — can be a refuge, a place to go to recharge my batteries. I’ve discovered that such solitude can most easily be found in natural settings, in places of great beauty. In Montana, we’re surrounded by such places.
I learned that surroundings that temporarily transport me to a different time and place offer refuge. They stir my heart and renew my soul, and I leave better prepared to respond to whatever comes my way. For me, a quiet hour or two wandering the galleries of the Montana Historical Society museum accomplishes all of that and more.
And I learned that reading — and re-reading — great books that touch my heart and affirm the importance of what we do with our lives can bring peace and help me recharge. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop” and Margaret Craven’s “I Heard the Owl Call My Name,” but each time I come away from reading either book I’m a little better prepared to face life’s biggest challenges head-on.
We can’t avoid all of life’s grizzly bears, but we can be better prepared to face them.