Rick McNary

Writer and Photographer

Into the Unknown: At the Lewis and Clark Museum in St. Charles, MO

Into the Unknown: At the Lewis and Clark Museum in St. Charles, MO

Into the Unknown: The Lewis and Clark Museum in St. Charles, Missouri

If Lewis and Clark had a theme song, it would have been, “Into the Unknown,” from the movie frozen.

Or are you someone out there
Who’s a little bit like me?
Who knows deep down
I’m not where I’m meant to be?

Every day’s a little harder
As I feel my power grow
Don’t you know there’s part of me
That longs to go, into the unknown?

Into the unknown!

If you don’t know this song, I encourage you to Google it. Also, if you’re going to be a songwriter for kids, put lots of “ooohs” and “aaahs” in there because that makes them easy to sing. For example, my two- and four-year-old granddaughters belt out, at full volume, that part of the song that has lots of oohs and aahs. I sing it with them.

I recently reread, Undaunted Courage: The Lewis and Clark Expedition, by Stephen A. Ambrose. On our journey home from The Great Smoky Mountain National Park, we stopped in St. Charles, Missouri, to visit the Lewis and Clark Museum at the point on the Missouri River where they began their journey into the unknown.

I love a good map. Whether it’s paper or digital, I will pour over a map to get my bearings of a new place, understand the major geography, waterways, highways, and any other landmarks. I like knowing where I’m going.

Lewis and Clark didn’t have a map. No one did.

In 1804, there was no accurate map that detailed the land from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. If you haven’t looked lately, there is a LOT of rugged country between point A and point B. Namely, the Rocky Mountains.

In 1804, the U.S. had just purchased the Louisiana Territory from France and President Thomas Jefferson wanted to know if there was a waterway that connected the vast continent from the east to the west. They had NO idea what the Rocky Mountains looked like since they highest mountains along the east coast were in the Appalachian range is 6,684 feet about sea level. The base of the Rockies begins at 6,000 feet and double in size rather abruptly.

He commissioned two good friends for a military expedition: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. They, in turn found forty-three soldiers and take off from St. Charles on the Missouri River to start paddling, poling, dragging, and portaging their boats upstream, over mountains, and down waterfalls for the next two years, four months and ten days. They even must build new boats along the way. He wanted America to expand from sea to shining sea.

Until the crossed the Rockies, it was all upstream. There was no such thing as a motorized engine in those days which was good because there were no Quik Trips along the river to fill up on gas and get a hot dog and chips. The fastest a person could travel any long distance at that time was eighteen miles-per-hour on horseback.

The museum in St. Charles is the first of many museums, signposts, and historical markings along the trail that Lewis and Clark took to the west coast. Someday, I’d like to follow that route in car. I’ll probably stop and get a hot dog or two along the way.

As I’m at the museum, and having just recently finished the book, here are five things that impress me most.

  1. Self-reliance on providing their own food. This Corps of Discovery could not pack enough food to sustain them for the next two years, so they had to believe they could fend for themselves, in the wild, on plants and animals. At one point in the trip, they nearly starved to death.
  2. They made their own map. To do so required the use of various rudimentary to us, but standard to them, tools like sextants, compasses, surveyor chains, and a chronometer, all anchored by the stars in the sky and a horizon line. As we traveled to and from Tennessee on our vacation, we relied heavily on the map on our phones and a woman’s voice telling us, “In five hundred feet, turn right at exit 3B.” Shortly later she would tell me, “No, I said to exit at 3B. Now do a U-turn and go back to exit 3B. Don’t you listen?”
  3. Unusual leadership model. This was a military mission that required strict adherence to chains of command and there is usually one top dog. Although technically – through political machinations or political mischief – Lewis was given command as captain, but Clark was given the lower status of lieutenant. However, Lewis insisted that they would share command equally so demanded that they both be called Captains. It worked exceedingly well throughout the journey, a model almost unheard of which is a testament to trust and friendship. Oddly enough, someone in the ranks didn’t believe it was going to be military and there was already a court martial the second day of the trip. Handing out, “50 lashes, put hard on,” was a common punishment. There wasn’t much rebellion after the first few weeks.
  4. Their diplomacy with the Native American tribes along the way were crucial to their success both in navigating to and from, but the simple act of staying live. Lewis and Clark understood their vulnerabilities and need for cooperation from those who lived on the land.
  5. Without Sacagawea, the trip would have been a disaster and, most likely, they would never have made it to the coast. One of the most remarkable women in the history of humanity, she was guide, interpreter, negotiator, new mother packing an infant along the trip, and worth every honor bestowed upon her legacy. She had been captured from her tribe, the Shoshones, when she was a child and raised by the Hidatsa.

The most remarkable story inside the overall story is when the Corps had reached the headwaters of the Missouri in present-day Montana and needed to cross the Rocky Mountains in the Bitterroot area of present-day Idaho to get to the western slope to find the Colombia River. They desperately needed horses since their boats were of no use, so they negotiated with the Shoshones who weren’t a bit interested in helping them. As Sacagawea was interpreting for the Corps and speaking to Chief Cameahwait, she suddenly recognized him as her brother. She had been in captivity so long that both she, and her brother, had changed significantly that they didn’t recognize each other at first, but then she recognized his voice. Once again, she saved their skins. Her navigation skills also proved valuable as she guided them through some of the most difficult terrain in America. And I’m sure, on occasion, she had to say, “No, I said to exit at 3B. Now do a U-turn and go back to exit 3B. Don’t you listen?”

Having spent a week in The Great Smoky Mountains of both Tennessee and North Carolina seeing old log cabins hewn by hand, running my hands over old plows that broke up rocky soil, touching the cutting edges of axes and adzes used to hollow trees into canoes, then to stand on the banks of the Missouri imaging Lewis and Clark pushing out into the unknown, I have come to the conclusion I am a sissy. I’m not sure I could build a structure to live in with a hand saw and an axe. I’m not sure what I’d do if I ran out of food after a week in the mountains and had to live for the next two years, four months and ten days.

My respect for the pioneers has deepened immeasurably on this journey. We are living today with the rewards of the risks they took yesterday. They weren’t perfect, but my goodness they were tough and without them, we most likely would be divided up into numerous countries like Europe rather that one United States of America.

I love America. I’ve been to other countries around the world, and I’ll take our country over them any day of the week. In fact, when I return from a foreign country, I find the first spot of bare ground and I bow and kiss the ground.

I’m grateful for those pioneers who ventured into the unknown, for their unknown became our known and I love our country, warts, and all, from sea to shining sea.

The Great Smoky Mountains and Log Cabin Building

The Great Smoky Mountains and Log Cabin Building

“If I only had an hour to chop down a tree, I would spend the first 45 minutes sharpening my axe.” – Abraham Lincoln

You need your imagination to read this post!

I discovered why I like touring old buildings like the Bud Ogle’s log cabin in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park on the Tennessee side and the Mountain Farm Museum on the North Carolina side: everything was handmade. Back then, they had no other choice. However, today, I have a woodworking shop filled with machines that would have made their works so much easier. Yet, here I am at my age, wanting to build more things by hand rather than machines because of the enjoyment in the process.

As I stepped up the creaky stairs of the cabin, I let my imagination wander and I could hear Bud Ogle’s axe striking the wood as I ran my hand along the axe marks on the log cabin. With rhythmic movement of a 4/4 count, I could see his sinewy body swing the axe in an arc as he reached high above his head, then pulling the axe into the wood with the last movement of his legs drawing the head into the log.

Bud Ogle Cabin – Great Smoky Mountain National Park
hand hewn feed trough against hand hewn logs

Not far away, his wife was storing food in the root cellar they dug in the side of the hill where a small, fresh spring of water coursed along the bottom, keeping it cool. I could smell the smoke from the open-air brick stove heating up the sizzling bacon in the cast iron skillet.

I could see the children up in the barn, dropping feed into the hand-hewn trough made from a single log – the feed bunk for the cows they were getting ready to milk. The barn was often the first structure built because protecting their animals was a matter of life and death to people who lived in that era. The gates to the barn are handmade from wood, not from metal.

I looked on as the older boys dragged another log up from the valley to be hewn for the main cabin. They would build one cabin with a stone fireplace they built, then, five years later as the family expanded, they would build a cabin on the other side of the fireplace so the two could share one heat source. The saddlebag cabin was practical.

As the sons reached an age where they could marry, the family would build a “weaner” cabin where the newlyweds would stay until they built their own place.

The Noah “Bud” Ogle cabin was built in the late 1800’s and the logs are all hand-hewn with half-dovetail corners. While it was once a working farm, it was enveloped into the National Park when it was established in 1934 and became an historical site for tourists like me to inspect.

A wooden hinge on a gate

A few miles up the valley is another similar place, the home of the famous Walker Sisters. Their home and land, too, were folded into the National Park but they struck a deal that they could live in their home until the last one died which was 1965. For 30 years, the five sisters were a part of the tourist attraction to the National Park. I can’t imagine tourists coming by my home each day, poking around, asking questions. But the Walker Sisters figured out a way to make a living off those tourists by selling them handmade items.

Over the mountain and down on the other side into North Carolina, there is another farm you can tour along the Oconaluftee River. Like the Ogle homestead, the farmstead abounds with structures and equipment all made by hand or used to make things by hand.

As I walked around these historic structures, I conclude that I was born in the wrong century. I now have a burning desire to build a log cabin, all with lumber I have hewn by hand. I just don’t think my tennis elbow can take swinging axes and adzes that much.

There’s a surge, especially among a younger generation, of relearning the lost crafts of woodworking with hand tools rather than power equipment. Personally, I find myself drawn into these lost arts for a variety of reasons:

  1. It is a quiet art. No loud power tools running, just the quiet songs of hand planes shaving off one fine strip of wood at a time, the gentle thump of wooden mallet striking a chisel, the rasp of a saw cutting a board.
  2. It’s like choosing to hike to Pike’s Peak rather than driving a car; it’s all about the journey.
  3. It involves a greater skill set, one that only comes with practice.
  4. It is unique and can’t be mass produced.
  5. It is a nod to the artisans who’ve gone before me.

I still might build a log cabin with hand hewn logs. It just might take me longer and that’s okay.

wooden hinge on gate
wooden latch
A saddlebag cabin that shares one common fireplace
The Great Smoky Mountains and The Great Outdoors

The Great Smoky Mountains and The Great Outdoors

I love National Parks, State Parks, and City Parks because, without them, most of us would not have easy and inexpensive access some of the greatest natural wonders in America. After spending a few days in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina – the most visited National Park in America – it appears I am not alone in my love for them.

The main reason I love them is because they give me a chance to go outside. I not only enjoy going outside, it turns out, I need to go outside. Everyone benefits by getting close to nature and, for those who don’t, they are subject to Nature Deficit Disorder – the idea that people, children especially, need to spend time in the outdoors. Richard Louv, author of the book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, interviewed a child who told him that he liked playing indoors more than outdoors, “’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

Thanks to John Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt, we have an incredible National Park System that provides access for the public to some of the most pristine and protected places on earth. While many of us in America take that for granted, the history of European feudalism, aristocracy, and land ownership, only the wealthy had access to the most beautiful places.

However, the beauty of democracy is that anyone can enjoy nature at its most glorious display.

What the National Parks don’t provide access too, the State Park System does. In Kansas, where I live, 98% of the land is privately owned and is often posted with “No Trespassing” signs. The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks provides public access to some of the most beautiful areas in Kansas. Although a state agency, they are not funded with taxpayer dollars. Instead, they operate entirely on revenue generated from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, camping permits and other usage fees. In addition, thanks to the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1934 which sits aside the 11% excise tax on firearms and ammunition to be used for conservation programs, training programs and infrastructure such as state-of-the-art gun ranges. In fact, the resurgence and conservation of wildlife like whitetail deer, turkey and other game animals is funded almost entirely by hunters.

But you don’t have to go to a national or state park to enjoy the physical and mental health befits of nature. There has been a surge in the last few years, driven by both health and economic benefits, for public access to trails. In Kansas, the Kansas Trails Council has received considerable support by numerous community foundations to build trails in cities, most of which can be found on this map. While traveling, I frequently use the app, All Tails, to find a trail near me. This is a great way to break up long road trips!

Here are good reasons why I enjoy The Great Outdoors:

1. Being in nature cleanses my soul like pure mountain water cascading through my veins.
2. Hiking in the mountains and breathing pure mountain air clarifies my purpose and sharpens my “why.”
3. God whispers to me more in nature than anywhere else.
4. Nature inspires significantly more awe-struck moments when my heart bows in wonder at the world God’s hands has made.
5. There are trout waiting in crystal streams to torment me while I fly fish.

Here are a few images I captured. The one with the mountains on fire is looking out our cabin as the setting sun threw her glow over the valley.

“The mountains are calling, and I must go.” John Muir 

Traveling to the Smokies: Road Trip Tips

Traveling to the Smokies: Road Trip Tips

Being a woodworker, I rate hotels based on comparing the quality of their towels to various sandpaper grits.

Sandpaper grits are scored on their varying degrees of their rough surfaces. If you wanted to remove large portions of wood, or skin, you would use a 60-grit sandpaper that leaves scratches as deep as the Grand Canyon. If you wanted a smooth surface to piece of furniture or, your fingernails after you clipped them, you’d use a 1500 grit (the texture of fingernail files).

For example, the Comfort Inn Suites in St. Charles, Missouri, our first stop on the trip, I gave a rating of 120 grit. Not coarse enough to start surface bleeding but still coarse enough to leave welts if rubbed vigorously. 

After the past twenty-plus years of traveling by plane, trains, automobiles, and the occasional ox-drawn cart (not kidding), I’ve come up with a few helpful travel tips.

Lodging: I’ve stayed tents in Africa where we were awakened by troop of baboons murdering a dog. Large groups of baboons have also been called a congress. I prefer the latter; it makes more sense.

I’ve also stayed in five-star hotels (someone else paid that bill, not me), and I’ve come up with a couple of questions that I ask before I book the hotel:

1. Is this just for a quick overnight stay? The 120 grit towels are fine.

2. Am I going to be there a while and it’s my home away from home for a few days? Then I jump up to about 600-grit. 

How do I determine grit? The price of the hotel and the reviews. I almost always use a third party (Orbitz, Expedia, Etc.) because they have the most honest reviews. 

Clothing: No more than four changes of clothes. If I’m gone for longer than four days, I still only take four complete changes of clothes. First, if you are gone for, let’s say, two weeks and have fourteen changes of clothes, you’re going to be mixing your stinky old clothes with your fresh clothes after the third day. I have learned through hundreds of thousands of miles of travel that you can get your clothes cleaned anywhere, even the hotel sink and the shower rod as a drying line. 

Gas stations: I can tell how clean the bathrooms before I ever go inside by two things: 1. How clean and pot-hole free the driveway and parking lot are: 2. If the windshield washing tub is filled with clean, soapy water and a decent scrubber. If it’s filthy, or empty, you can bet the bathroom smells like a troop of baboons have been in there.

Happy travels!

Curling One More Fine Wood Shaving at a Time: A Tribute to Doyle Fox

Curling One More Fine Wood Shaving at a Time: A Tribute to Doyle Fox

            People, like me, who work with wood have a love affair with tools and live with the motto that we are just one tool away from perfection. Lately, I have cultivated a deeper affection with hand tools, those stately tools that, as they age, seem only to increase in function and beauty – like some people I know.

            I was recently bequeathed some hand tools from the family of Doyle Fox of El Dorado. I’ve known him – and his children – for years, but never knew he was a craftsman of fine woodworking until his daughter said he was moving and had some walnut for sale.

            The first thing I spotted in Doyle’s garage was the Cities Service green paint job on an old workbench. My father had worked for Cities Service for decades and my childhood toybox was painted that unique green color. It turns out, Doyle and worked with my dad years ago.

            I also noticed a workbench which fine woodworkers use. There are a variety of skill levels of woodworkers, but the crème de la crème of the craft the use of hand planes, saws, chisels, and mallets to create exquisite pieces of woodworking art. Once I learned Doyle was fine woodworker, my esteem for him elevated far above the previously high level at which I held him in regard. To a fine woodworker, there is a song a hand plane sings as it glides over a piece of wood, curling a fine shaving of wood with each pass. It’s a sound like no other.

            He was moving from his home that he and his wife, Bonnie, had shared for 64 years. She passed in 2017 and now, in 2023, it was time for him to downsize and find new homes for his tools. But not all of them. There are just some things you can’t let go of.

            We chatted for a while, he showed me the lumber and, by the time I left, I also bought a couple of workbenches. Yes, even the one with Cities Service green paint chipping away on it; I had to have that one.

            He moved to a smaller home but took some of his more prized tools with him. I don’t blame him, for a craftsman like Doyle, tools become a part of your personality, your identity, even your reason for existence. As I gaze lovingly on the tools in my own shop – more than four decades worth of collecting – they are more than pieces of equipment, they are a part of my life’s journey and identity.

            Doyle recently passed and the family asked me to come over and browse his tools to see if there was anything I wanted. I smiled as I saw his tools in the spare bedroom where he kept them because he no longer had a shop. They were his favorite tools, the ones which held such sentimental and artistic value to him that he just could not bear to part with them while he was alive.

            His children and grandchildren are the proud new owners of many of those tools and I’ve offered to teach any of them how to use them should they want to learn the craft of their grandfather.

            I confess, I had a hard time taking any of his tools. Not so much because they held monetary value, but because I know how much a craftsman values their tools. I recently lost a 40-year-old log turner and grieved over it like I lost a pet. I even put out a reward for anyone who found it and, low and behold, someone found it! I got so excited I danced a little jig.

            I tried to put myself in Doyle’s place and ask, “Who would I want to have my tools?” Certainly, my family, but for practicality’s sake, I would want someone like me who understands their value and will use them to perpetuate the craft, curling one fine shaving of wood at a time.

            For anyone, be it man or woman, who find artistic expression in working with their hands to craft works of art from the materials that Mother Nature provides, there is a bond that is formed with each tool.

            Even my power tools hold a sentimental value to me. I have a new wood turning lathe that it is a signature piece of my shop. However, it’s not just the beauty of the beast that I adore, it’s what we can do together that excites me. Currently, I’ve been asked to restore railings, balusters and Newell posts on The Victorian Rose, a gorgeous home built in 1885 in El Dorado, Kansas. Those Newell posts are 48” long, something my new lathe can handle. I confess, as I stood in front of my lathe the other day deciding how to go about turning these big posts, I giggled out loud with excitement at the challenge and the opportunity. That tool is a part of my identity already.

            I have built a lot of things in my long-term love relationship with wood and have typically used power tools. However, I’m moving more into the handheld tools and am discovering new ways to love old tools.

            I created a space along my tool wall specifically to display Doyle’s tools. A sign will soon hang there so all who enter my shop will take notice and ask the story behind the display. But I know Doyle would not want me to set them there as only a display to collect dust. Rather, he would want me to use them to carry on the tradition of the delicate dance of a craftsman and his tools.

            I’ve started working on a piece of furniture with Doyle’s walnut lumber and his tools. I admire the tools on display each time I walk by, but something magical happens when I pick them up and begin using them. Suddenly, I can see his aged hands grasping the plane and humming along with the song it sings as it curls fresh shavings. I hear the rhythmic thump of the wooden mallet striking a chisel, as he peers intently at an invisible line while creating works of beauty for family and friends. I see him run his hands over a piece of his furniture, caressing it as a father would a child or a mate, his lover.

            Doyle is now a part of my shop, a part of my story and now, a part of my craft. I will endeavor to bring him honor as I become a part of his woodworking legacy, humming in harmony with the song of the plane as I curl one more fine shaving of wood at a time.

A piece of handcrafted furniture by Doyle
Doyle Fox
Doyle’s Display in my shop

Subscribe to Updates via Email

Enter your email address to receive updates.