The Traveling Teacher: Lewis and Clark in Missoula, Montana

About Jake Miller

Mr. Jake Miller teaches 7th grade American history teacher near Harrisburg, PA. He is the 2016 National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year and a 2017 NEA Teacher of Excellence. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, and several other periodicals, but Miller has called TER home since 2012.
A Montana landscape, photographed by the author. Courtesy Jake Miller.

A Montana landscape, photographed by the author. Courtesy Jake Miller.

In my previous travels, I’ve visited both Philadelphia and Denver. After a 3-day respite at home, I headed back for the Mountain Time Zone to experience all that Big Sky Country has to offer.

What took me west this time was a Gilder Lehrman Teacher Seminar on Lewis & Clark, led by Elliott West out of the University of Arkansas. This was, according to our master teacher, the most coveted of all the workshops this summer, and the room was filled with 30 excited and enthused teachers to obtain more resources from one of the most daring and successful explorations on the North American continent.

I’ve never done a Gilder Lehrman workshop, so this was my first experience on something of this nature. Some of the positives from the trip include a cast of all-star teachers (from all grades and subjects, not just history) who get to meet one another and share a worthwhile experience. The workshop takes care of the housing and food (albeit, on campus in a dorm) as well as providing a stipend of up to $400 for one’s travels. In the evening, there’s plenty of time to explore whatever city that’s hosting the event, which is also quite a great experience.

On the negative side, the seminar is pretty much a lecture-based style of learning. I don’t know about the rest of the readers, but after teaching for 9 years, I don’t sit easily in a classroom for 4 days of 8 hours of lecture. I was disappointed that the workshop format didn’t involved discussions that made more use of the other 30 incredible minds in the room.

In terms of the content, this was the first time the professor handled this topic, so there were some questionable inclusions for the seminar. For example, we visited a Jesuit mission that served as the first church in Montana (and had nothing to do with Lewis & Clark), but did not visit Lolo Pass, the most important trial on the entire Corps of Discovery expedition. Similarly, many of our speakers (including Prof. West, our workshop leader) hardly touched on Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Sacagawea, and others on the trail. It would’ve been more apt if this workshop would’ve been named Indians of the West.

In all, many of us left class wanting more. Thankfully Missoula had plenty of things to offer to appease our hunger.

This city of nearly 70,000 feels like a big town. It was very pedestrian- and bike-friendly, and had plenty to do in the city (in terms of places to eat and have fun) and even more to do outside of it among the Bitterroot Mountains and the various rivers that traipse through the city. I went on more hikes and mountain bike trails than I had in my life, and I grew up in a town that was rich in both. I was just continually captivated by the views of the clouds and haze sitting atop the mountains like halos on angels heads. The warm sunshine that beat down on our skin (with just an average of 20% humidity, by the way) helped enrich my mind and spirit in ways I couldn’t have predicted.

Because of the lack of humidity (and rainfall), it was also interesting to note how water sprinklers were both essential and everywhere. The University of Montana (or U.M. for the locals) were covered with the most of them to feed a verdant, lush lawn which stood as an awesome color complement to Mt. Jumbo in the background. The campus itself was something that would’ve made both Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Muir proud.

The lack of rain sadly led to a fire outbreak in eastern Washington, which, though 100’s of miles away, sent its smoke billowing into the valleys and ravines of the town.

One other cultural tidbit I picked up on is that most residents in Missoula didn’t believe in air conditioning. The days were certainly warm (one day hit 99 degrees), but the nights dropped down into a crisp range of 50’s, making one forget about air conditioning quite quickly. My initial reaction and pondering led me to think about the winter, but the locals said that the snow was part of the culture, and the averages were tolerable.

All that snow that was trapped in the mountains was melting into those omnipresent rivers, so about 8 teachers and I decided to rent tubes and take the bus as far up the line that we could, floating down for 2.5 hours. With just enough rapids and even more collegiality, that was probably the best experience of the trip.

In all, the city of Missoula is a place that any American should visit, whether a lover of the outdoors, small town culture, or unadulterated meccas off the beaten path. And I didn’t even make it to Lolo, Glacier National Park, the fringes of Yellowstone, and more. No wonder Norman Maclean based his autobiography A River Runs Through It in such a melodic, divine place.

Next up on the Traveling Teacher series is home to the Erie Canal, Frederick Douglass, and Susan B. Anthony – Rochester, N.Y.

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About the Author:

Mr. Jake Miller teaches 7th grade American history teacher near Harrisburg, PA. He is the 2016 National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year and a 2017 NEA Teacher of Excellence. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, and several other periodicals, but Miller has called TER home since 2012.

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