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Ah, wilderness

A colorful account of George Washington's 1784 trek into the Appachian hinterlands

The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West
By Joel Achenbach
Simon & Schuster, 367 pp., illustrated, $26

One of the perplexing aspects of Thomas Jefferson -- the expansionist visionary who preached democratic agrarianism and bought the Louisiana Territory from France for $15 million -- is that he never was personally curious enough to explore the Western Frontier. His universe, in truth, began at Monticello and tilted eastward, across the Atlantic Ocean, to Europe. He was an Old World man with New World values. George Washington, by contrast, a surveyor by profession, had an insatiable drive to conquer the Appalachian wilderness. In the pre-steamboat/railroad era the transportation-obsessed Washington wanted to find an innovative way to connect the Ohio and Potomac rivers. He was somewhat unique in this regard among the so-called Founding Fathers. Following the Revolutionary War, Jefferson, for example, continued playing Charlottesville squire. Washington, however, compass in hand and his mind filled with decades-old memories of the bloody French and Indian War, once again ''lighted out for the territories," to paraphrase Mark Twain, in 1784.

Now, thanks to Joel Achenbach's ''The Grand Idea," a truly riveting analysis of Washington's penchant for westward exploration, we understand this rough-and-ready side of our intrepid first president much better. In fact, Achenbach, whose clear prose is rife with deft humor, allows the reader to understand the real Washington in so many new ways he literally grows in stature. Throughout the narrative Washington shares center stage with the Potomac River, the thoroughfare he believed would become the commercial vortex of America. ''The Potomac is a time tunnel, a route to the past, if not the West," Achenbach writes. ''It's a portal to George Washington's America, to a moment when the nation was young, when rivers were highways, when water ruled the planet . . . when no one knew how this experiment in self-government called the United States was going to turn out."

Always the grand overseer of Mount Vernon, Washington, due to the Revolutionary War, had let his duties as landlord take the back burner. But once the commander in chief of the Continental Army was free of martial responsibilities, he headed west, where dozens of country folk owed him money. He was determined to collect it. He had a scheme, a burning passion really, that had been consuming him for years: connecting East and West via a water route. So it was that on Sept. 1, 1784, the 52-year-old war hero embarked on a 680-mile trek into the wild frontier.

Achenbach makes excellent use of the diaries Washington kept during this wilderness trek. Most of the entries are of a financial nature. He did, after all, own nearly 5,000 acres in Pennsylvania alone. And there were also his large land parcels in Ohio and Virginia. His leased lands, however, weren't earning him any liquid income. A fun aspect of ''The Grand Idea" is the spectacle of the Father of the Country chasing squatters off his property, demanding the rents due him with a cool, almost frightening, Clint Eastwood-like glint. There is a muscular, no-nonsense aspect to Washington that separates him from his more effete friends who had served in the Continental Congress. Put another way, the Washington encountered in these pages was not a politician, glad-handing his way across the countryside in search of votes. He was the steely-eyed bill collector, sword always ready to settle a financial dispute. ''When the general moved among frontier folk, he didn't mix," Achenbach writes. ''He passed over these people like dark nimbus clouds. He once referred to ordinary farmers as the grazing multitude."

Achenbach, a popular Washington Post reporter-columnist, knows how to keep his reader's attention. He offers irresistible descriptions of white-water rapids, ramshackle taverns, muddy boots, pristine forests, torrential rains, immovable boulders, backwoods drifters, gritty trappers, muggy nights, and treacherous river forks. Achenbach, however, uses such colorful backdrops -- and characters -- to tell a more important story: the birth of America as a nation. At times ''The Grand Idea" reads like a history primer, reminding us of what life in pre-industrial America was like when even dirt roads were practically nonexistent.

It's a tribute to Achenbach's storytelling abilities that by the time Washington dies in December 1799 you feel the loss. But you also realize what a triumphant life he led. The last chapters detail the successes wrought by Washington's Potomac failure: the hiring of Pierre-Charles L'Enfant to design a federal city, his freeing of his slaves, and the construction of the Great Falls canal, to name a few. ''George Washington's greatest gamble involved something larger than the Potomac scheme," Achenbach writes. ''He believed that American independence, won with the sword, if aided by a sound national government, could give rise to an empire of stunning power and endurance. The United States today is, in many ways, the country that Washington envisioned, only more so, an exaggeration of his Union, not merely an actor in a most conspicuous theatre, but a dominating force on the planet."

At times Achenbach's wry humor, breezy prose, and overwrought pontifications can be annoying. (The regular use of the word ''planet" made me think I was reading a New Age magazine.) But, taken as a whole, ''The Grand Idea" is one of the most illuminating and enjoyable popular histories I've read in a long while. As it turns out, the wandering Washington really did sleep at about every frontier inn and dined in about every isolated lodge the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains had to offer. And, most importantly, thanks to Achenbach, Washington's 1784 trek is no longer a forgotten footnote in our national memory. In many ways, it lives on as an apt metaphor for the entire 19th-century Westward Expansion-Manifest Destiny movement that trampled behind the path he blazed.

Douglas Brinkley is professor of history and director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans.

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