Valley Voices

Shirley A. Bruegman: Cruising the Lewis-Clark Expedition Trail, plus wine and jitterbuggers

Suitcase checked, I stood in line to place my coat and purse in the gray tub, soon to be swallowed by the X-ray machine. A young man sat on a stool, methodically checking documents.

Looking at mine, he smiled and said, “You don’t need to take off your shoes today.”

“The plus side in celebrating too many birthdays,” I mumbled to myself.

My traveling companions waited at the boarding area surrounded by layers of coats and scarves sprawled restlessly across the seats. They had obviously been informed about unpredictable weather.

A couple of years ago, two friends and I took a cruise down the Mississippi River. This time, there would be five of us on a paddle boat following the Lewis and Clark Expedition Trail. Overnighting in Spokane, we feasted on cracked crab while pondering what special excursions to mark on our registration forms.

No surprise: I chose an afternoon of wine tasting.

Across the table, I heard rather loud whispering. Lifting their glasses, my friends announced, “We registered for zip lining. The two of us can check it off our bucket list, and it will make for good bragging rights.”

The next day, we boarded our home away from home for seven days. Unpacked and showered, I was ready to partake in what boaters do best: eat. The staircase led me to the dining room, where I met my friends. Our table conversations ranged from health issues to politics and how lucky we were to be traveling.

The boat would make its way to the next port on the itinerary while we slept, and drivers followed on roads alongside the river. Each day, hopping on and off buses, guides would share unbelievable stories about the struggles of Lewis and Clark as they sought a route to the Pacific Ocean.

I smiled when I heard that their survival was attributed, to a large extent, to a feisty and skilled Native American woman, Sacagawea. We visited museums, many architectural masterpieces; watched fish swim up ladders to cross a dam; and browsed through Bing Crosby’s home as “White Christmas” played on an old phonograph. It was in one of many turn-of-the century towns where we saw brightly painted houses with gingerbread trimming.

I was looking forward to being transported from one river to another, a 100-foot drop. The evening it happened, I met a couple from Germany who explained the “lock” was akin to a bathtub. The captain would carefully steer the boat into an enclosure and cement gates would close. Not sure who pulled the plug, but I could feel us descending. Then, the front gate opened and we were on our way.

Trips involve people, ones we know and those we meet along the way. Sometimes, they walk through our lives for only a brief time but leave footprints. One such person was the piano player in the Paddle Wheel Lounge. After dinner, the place would be packed, tables pushed together, old and young singing and tapping their feet.

One evening, the uninhibited, including three from our group, took to the floor. The cruise director encouraged me, but, fearing embarrassment, I declined his invitation. It had been ages since I had danced the jitterbug anywhere outside my living room. Looking back, I wish I would have given it a try.

A ferocious wind and freezing rain threatened on the day scheduled for the zip line adventure. Late morning, the boat’s management determined it was too dangerous. I’m not sure if my friends were disappointed or mostly relieved.

The trees along the riverbanks were ablaze with gorgeous yellow and red leaves when we disembarked and left the great Northwest for the trek home. It was indeed an educational experience. But, so much more.

I was inspired watching a passenger, with the help of a three-pronged cane, walk the gangplank each day, ready to get on the bus. And I will not soon forget the afternoon we wandered, soaking wet, down the main street of a tiny town and stumbled into The Big River Grill. We threw our coats on the bar stools to dry. After days of dining on lobster and steak, we laughed as we ate hamburgers, grease running down our chins.

This trip, once again, confirmed that life is about relationships. Not unlike a boat’s captain, friends will help us navigate through good and bad times.

Shirley A. Bruegman of Fresno can be reached at