Why All the Fuss over Second-Place Finishers?

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), December 4, 2005 | Go to article overview

Why All the Fuss over Second-Place Finishers?


Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

The second-fiddlers of the world must be scratching their heads over this one: our ongoing national obsession with Lewis and Clark.

The frenzy of bicentennial celebrations honoring the explorers' 8,000-mile trip from St. Louis to the mouth of Columbia won't abate until every state the Corps of Discovery passed through has gussied up its connections to the expedition.

Now its Oregon's turn. About this time 200 years ago, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and crew were discovering just how miserable a Pacific Coast winter could be. Today we're learning the many ways their efforts can be appreciated as museums, theaters, parks and universities jump on the celebratory bandwagon.

And it's worth noting how remarkable a thing it was that 33 people in boats found a way from the Mississippi across the country to the Columbia, a trek that included hellish portages around the waterfalls of the Missouri River in Montana and seemingly endless Bitterroot Mountains in Idaho.

But the two-year-long celebration is out of kilter with the American psyche. It's sort of like pulling out all the stops for, say, Ernst Schmied or Alan Bean.

Schmied - for those who have forgotten their mountain climbing history - was a member of the second group to successfully climb Mount Everest in 1956, three years after Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay made the first ascent.

Alan Bean was on the second Apollo flight that landed on the moon 10 months after astronaut Neil Armstrong uttered the famous "giant leap for mankind" line.

Nothing against Bean or Schmied, but we're a culture that prefers the first-place finisher.

Not only were Lewis and Clark not the first people to cross the North American continent, they weren't even the first Europeans to do it.

That honor goes to Alexander Mackenzie, a Scottish fur trapper and explorer who traveled from Montreal to the Pacific Ocean by canoe a decade before President Thomas Jefferson sent the Corps of Discovery up the Mississippi River.

Mackenzie gets the credit he deserves in Canada, but south of the 49th parallel, he's mostly a footnote in the historic record.

Back in the day - we're talking way back - Jefferson was so concerned about Mac- kenzie's successful Western adventure and what it might mean for control of the Pacific Coast that he pushed harder to get Lewis and Clark outfitted and on their way. …

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