Bumbling along in explorers' footsteps


"It's usually easier to befriend a redneck than to shoot him." First-time author W. Hodding Carter took this sage advice to heart as he and a friend trekked into the great American wilderness in an adventurous and funny, if ill-prepared, attempt to re-create the romance and glory of the Lewis and Clark expedition, from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean.

"Westward Whoa" recounts in a wonderfully innocent and self-deprecating way the trials that Mr. Carter and trusted buddy Preston Maybank encountered in their travels west on the tempestuous Missouri River, through the Montana hinterlands, the Continental Divide, and finally on the Columbia River to the Pacific.

Son of former Carter administration State Department spokesman Hodding Carter, the author comes from a long line of journalists, and his family's Mississippi newspaper championed equality during the civil rights era. With this book, Mr. Carter plays another kind of pioneer.

His inspiration for taking a three-month holiday from life in search of the Northwest Passage springs from a series of young-adult history books he read as a child, which were "a little fuzzy on politics and accuracy but strong on guts and glory." And it was something else about the first expedition that made him swoon.

" '[Lewis and Clark] were the first Americans ever to cross the continent, but they and their men couldn't do it alone. A young Indian girl, Sacajawea, helped them find their way.' That captured my heart," he writes.

Stirred by that romanticism, the two name their rubber raft Sacajawea, christening it with McDonald's tea on the banks of the Missouri. Within hours, problems arise. They overestimated the strength of the engine, underestimated the amount of gasoline it drinks. The quarreling begins, and Mr. Carter laments that the journey will take an extra two months. He wants to quit -- and we're on page 29.

Mr. Carter's voice is so infectiously charming and innocent, and the prose is so affable, even the hardships sound fun: suffering from swollen feet and mosquitoes and tornadoes. They're innocent babes in the wooded arms of Mother Nature.

The two travelers leave behind the many creature comforts of home, which they soon discover they probably should have brought: an extra propeller for the boat engine, rain gear that doesn't leak, a gun, another unbreakable compass ("our first one broke the first day when Preston stepped on it").

In the book, Mr. Carter also leaves behind painfully self-conscious ruminations of self-discovery that weigh down heavier travel adventures.

Mr. Carter doesn't expound on grave family secrets. He doesn't make a vain effort to reach his inner self (there's a chapter about his vision quest, but that's different). Their expedition is a rollicking, all-American, dyed-in-the-mosquito netting tale of getting from point A to point B, wrought in unfailing reverence to the pioneering spirit and especially to the two trailblazers who did it first.

GHe tells the story with a comfortable rhythm, filled with a little joy, a little irreverence, a little angst.

But Mr. Carter also broaches some of the issues about L&C; raised in the wake of the politically correct. Opening up the West was one thing; contributing to the demise of the Native American culture is another. Mr. Carter, sympathetically, understands this delicate balance.

Once he and Mr. Maybank met two Indians while fishing in the Missouri:

" 'Hi fellas!' " Preston said, once we were out of earshot, in a mock-cheerful voice. 'We're retracing the Lewis and Clark Trail. You know, those were the guys who made it possible for us to steal all this land from you and completely wipe you out. Isn't that wonderful?' Then he changed to his regular voice. 'It's awful, isn't it?' "

The best part of the narrative is the people that Mr. Carter and Mr. Maybank meet. Much of the time, the locals are the type that eat meatloaf regularly and wear Desert Storm T-shirts, and Mr. Carter befriends them. More important, he respects them -- because they are a part of Americana, because they always seem to help out these forlorn travelers, and because he generally assumes that they are carrying firearms.

They meet a pathologically lying redneck paddling down to New Orleans in a canoe. A serial killer. A Japanese student on a Harley. Lovely, and lovelorn, teen-age girls.

The interactions are poignant, and give dimension to their trip. You'll have to read the book to discover whether they made it to the Pacific, but they were changed men for the experience. The book doesn't deal in destinations, though. Their travels are such hapless fun that you don't want the adventure to end.

Title: "Westward Whoa: On the Trail of Lewis and Clark"

Author: W. Hodding Carter

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 299 pages, $21

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