January brings New Year’s Resolutions, decisions we hope will bind us to new behaviors or attitudes that make a difference in our lives. These decisions sometimes require sacrifice, and sometimes it is impossible to see how much that sacrifice will cost.
January 13, 1977 brought a New Year’s Resolution for the young men of La Salle: Expedition II. The day before, the 20th century brutally interrupted their 17th century journey to retrace the explorer’s route to the Gulf of Mexico. Incredible cold had frustrated their ability to move canoes down the Kankakee River, forcing them to store their craft and hike along roads to navigable water. Two trucks had slid off an Indiana highway and collided with the men as they trudged along the shoulder.
A cattle truck and an eighteen-wheeler slammed into four of the teenage marchers. Steel shattered bones, tore cartilage, pounded organs and ripped open flesh. Blood splattered the snow where the injured lay broken. One, who lay trapped but protected by his pack under one of the trucks, had a dislocated shoulder. The others remained hospitalized with more serious injuries.
The crew gathered that Wednesday night in Hebron High School. The sound of bouncing basketballs in the gym reverberated along corridors where men and boys dressed as La Salle’s voyageurs tried to hold their emotions in check. Some sat sobbing in a stairway or searching their souls over the decision they had all made together to leave the river. Their commitment to period authenticity had vanished with the blow of a diesel hammer.
By the next day the travelers knew that their injured comrades would survive. The question they faced was whether, under the circumstances, the injured should be replaced or even that the quest that had begun for most of them more than two years earlier should continue or be abandoned.
La Salle II was no longer a lark for campers, if it ever was. It was not an outdoor “high” that might involve a bit of danger. The expedition had become a life-or-death equation, and the final answer still lay a thousand miles or more across the frozen earth of the Midwest and, if the rivers ever thawed, the frigid waters of the Mississippi. Everyone had signed on to this project knowing that “death and dismemberment” were possibilities. But that’s not as easy to swallow after it becomes a reality.
Nevertheless, the word coming back from the hospital was that the injured were in favor of continuing. No one was anxious to replace them for the rest of the trip. Who was available to do it anyway? The only “alternate” was already spelling the sick and lame as it was.
So here was the time for a New Year’s Resolution: Put up or shut up. The crew voted to continue. The risks, now starkly obvious, did not take everything into account. The coldest winter in Midwest history would force the crew to parallel the Illinois River, crossing the state of that name on foot and then proceed down the Mississippi until, south of St. Louis, it ran freely again. What was remarkable was not that the crew resolved to continue but that they followed through under some of the most trying times of their lives.
For the rest of us, traveling through our own expeditions of life, this is a time to make resolutions, to seek the best of us in what we intend or say or do. We can only hope that we, too, can follow through on our journey downstream and see the resolution to year’s end.