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What Do the L.A. Freeway System and the Lewis and Clark Expedition Have in Common? It's All in the Numbers

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Here's how I drove to LAX this morning: the 10 to the 57 to the 60; the 60 to the 605 to the 105. Your route across the Southland may be different, but I suspect you can see mine in your mind's eye, a cartography of movement through space. Those digits, and the freeways they represent, are also how we identify ourselves in this place over time.

Joan Didion once compared Angelenos' high-speed navigation to the 19th-century rivermen who ran the Mississippi and the Missouri, those wet western highways that were every bit as tricky and snagged as the 101 or the 405.

Her comparison works in another sense, for the earlier west to which she refers also came to be dominated by numbers. Not simply those associated with a six-shooter or a 20-mule-team, crucial though those technologies were to the murderous pacification of the region and the commercial exploitation of its mineral riches. It was also defined by raw data that some diligent discoverers generated and which ultimately reframed their generation's mental map of the west.

It is logical that this was so, for numbers bring order. We see patterns in them, allowing us to classify and categorize the world around us, whatever the dimensionality, however random.

That's what President Thomas Jefferson had in mind in June 1803 when he instructed Captain Meriwether Lewis about the tasks he and William Clark were to undertake on the Corps of Discovery Expedition (1804-06). Putting in close to the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri, they were to work their way upstream through a portion of the 828,000 square miles that the United States had acquired with the Louisiana Purchase.

Economic development was the stated ambition and projected outcome, Jefferson affirmed: "to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by its course & communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or and other river may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce."

Photo: Lewis and Clark. | Paintings by Charles Willson Peale/Wikipedia/U.S. Public Domain

That said, the president was much more interested in the scientific commission he encoded in what seems a plodding discussion of the Corps' need for daily reckoning. Noting that "Instruments for ascertaining, by celestial observations, the geography of the country through which you will pass, have been already provided," the one-time surveyor urged his protégée -- Lewis served as the president's personal secretary -- to be meticulous in their use.

Beginning at the mouth of the Missouri, you will take careful observations of latitude & longitude, at all remarkeable points on the river, & especially at the mouths of rivers, at rapids, at islands, & other places & objects distinguished by such natural marks & characters of a durable kind, as that they may with certainty be recognised hereafter. The courses of the river between these points of observation may be supplied by the compass the log-line & by time, corrected by the observations themselves. The variations of the compass too, in different places, should be noticed.

The precision of their work would allow others to replicate it, the first step in the mapping of the vast and uncertain wilderness, wresting order out of perceived chaos.

Jefferson had had considerable experience with the power of numbers to make rational that which seemed overwhelming. In Query #5 of Notes on Virginia (1785), in which he describes his home state's scenic wonder, Natural Bridge, Jefferson confesses to being staggered by its dizzying power:

"You involuntarily fall on your hands and feet, creep to the parapet and peep over it. Looking down from this height about a minute, gave me a violent head ach. If the view from the top be painful and intolerable, that from below is delightful in an equal extreme. It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime, to be felt beyond what they are here: so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing as it were up to heaven, the rapture of the spectator is really indescribable!"

To bring his mercurial emotions in line Jefferson then plotted the site's numerical dimensions -- "The fissure, just at the bridge, is, by some admeasurements, 270 feet deep, by others only 205. It is about 45 feet wide at the bottom, and 90 feet at the top; this of course determines the length of the bridge, and its height from the water. Its breadth in the middle is about 60 feet, but more at the ends, and the thickness of the mass at the summit of the arch, about 40 feet." Like guy wires, these measurements steadied Jefferson's nerves, solidifying the apparently unstable.

Many felt similarly unsettled by the Louisiana Purchase. One of them, Samuel White, a U.S. senator from Delaware, castigated the president's decision: "When I contemplate the evils that may arise to these States, from this intended incorporation of Louisiana into the Union, I would rather see it given to France, or to Spain, or to any other nation...upon the mere condition that no citizen of the United States should ever settle within its limits." Most troubling was its territorial extent, a broad sweep of land from the Gulf of Mexico to the northern Rockies. White called it "this new immense, unbounded world."

Jefferson also may have felt some nagging anxiety about the overnight doubling of the new nation's physical size. As suggested by his insistence on the Corps' observational mission, the expedition may have been designed to calm the nation's jangled nerves. The voluminous records of its 33-month-long trek up the Missouri River, across the Rockies, and then down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean (and back again), would tether the ballooning western territory, anchoring the Louisiana Purchase in place. What once had been unknown had become known.

Numbers were the base of that newfound knowledge. Look at William Clark's almost-telegraphic entry for June 1, 1804, a day of no special significance:

Set out early a fair morning Passed the mouth Bear Creek 25 yds. Wide at 6 Miles, Several Small Islands in the river the wind a head from the West the Current exceedingly rapid Came to on the point of the Osarges River on the Labd Side of Missouries this osages river Verry high, felled all the Trees in the point to Make observations Sit up untill 12 oClock taken oservation this night

Ok, so spelling and punctuation may not have been Clark's strong suit. His words, however, reflect a close reading of the river and the land through which it flowed. They illustrated as well the Corps' scrupulous commitment to precise night-sky calculations about its location, so much so that a copse of trees paid the ultimate price for their dutifulness.

The results of this particular survey Clark then included in his journal:

Course & Destance June 1St

S. 48° W 4 ms. to pt. Lbd. psd. Little Muddy on [Lbd.?] Sd. river 50 yds Wid
S. 45° W 6 Ms. Isd psd. Bear Creek L. Sd. 20 yds. Wid
S. 39° W 3 ms. to Pt. of Osge River

Now extrapolate from this single set of references (abbreviations and all) to those that would accumulate over two-and-a-half years. In setting down, day after day, the Corps' longitude and latitude, its location, direction, and distance, Lewis, Clark, and the others tasked with jotting down this information performed an invaluable cartographical act. Their numbers counted.

They monitored another variable as well -- climate. Jefferson thought it an "object worthy of notice," a body of knowledge that they were to build by noting "the proportion of rainy, cloudy, & clear days, by lightening, hail, snow, ice, by the access & recess of frost, by the winds prevailing at different seasons, the dates at which particular plants put forth or lose their flower, or leaf, times of appearance of particular birds, reptiles or insects."

This practice of paying keen attention to weather regimes and the biological responses to them, called phenology, of which Jefferson was devotee, gained a hand from a technical device, argued atmospheric chemist Susan Solomon in a recent talk at Pomona College. In the Corps' baggage were three thermometers that, until they broke, provided another gauge of their experience, a calibrated tool of reference and discovery.

What Lewis and Clark were not prepared for was the fact of a climate quite at odds with the one they (and their presidential patron) were familiar with as residents of the humid and mild east. Blistering summer heat, frigid blizzards, and intense aridity, "scenes of barrenness and desolation," along with rainforests dank and damp -- these extremes framed portions of their journey, were dutifully recorded in their diaries; they helped shape some of the subsequent cultural discussion about these lands' potential for future settlement.

This national conversation, which went viral in the Antebellum Era and was infused with the conceit of Manifest Destiny, the notion that continental expansion received divine blessing, depended for its articulation on another of the Corps of Discovery's contributions. As Lewis and Clark and their colleagues triangulated their location, registered heat and cold, and logged miles to and from, they initiated the lengthy process of organizing the west and bringing it into a symmetrical relationship with the east, an indispensable accounting.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

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