One day he got a call from a young filmmaker from Walpole who had an assignment from the BBC to interview the governor about reviving old mill buildings and mill towns. Duncan agreed to the request, and when the time came, “this guy that looked like he was 14 years old walks in.” His name was Ken Burns.
When Burns’ first film, Brooklyn Bridge, was nominated for an Academy Award a year and a half later, he invited Gallen and Duncan to attend a special screening in Hollywood, where the governor was using the success of On Golden Pond to promote the New Hampshire Film and Television Office. A friendship took root.
Gallen died shortly before his term ended, at which point Duncan went back to writing. Neither he nor incoming Governor John Sununu wanted much to do with each other, so as an “excuse to get out of New Hampshire,” Duncan decided to take a different tack. He would retrace the Lewis and Clark Trail.
In a sense, his exploration of democratic landscapes began with Lewis and Clark, who were the first to probe the continent, at a key moment of American history. “That’s both an adventure story and a travelogue,” he says, “and it’s also a look at some possibilities that might have been, had we chosen a different path.”
While some of those paths might have led to a more peaceful relationship with the original inhabitants of the continent, Duncan takes a nuanced view of that history.
“Some historians are more interested in saying, ‘Well, the history of the West is one unmitigated disaster after another wrought by white people,’” he says. “That’s the antithesis of what I was probably raised on as a young child, which was this glorious, triumphant march of civilization across the continent. Well, neither of [those views] is right.”
But politics wasn’t through with him yet, and as he was writing a magazine piece about the explorers, he got a call from Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign asking him to be its deputy press secretary. The next 16 months were spent crisscrossing the country with Mondale, who lost the 1984 election in a landslide.
Around that time he and Dianne moved to Walpole, where he reconnected with Burns, whose second daughter was about the same age as the Duncans’ Emme. It turned out that the two men had a lot in common.
“At the dinner table, I would start telling an excited story about Lewis and Clark, and my family would be rolling their eyes, and he’d be excited,” recalls Duncan. “And he’d start telling an excited story about Huey Long, and his family would roll their eyes. We learned that we both read the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July. So we realized that we had both a shared interest in storytelling, and in American history, and a belief in the purposes of our country, and democracy.”
Burns even helped with the reporting for Duncan’s second book, Grass Roots: One Year in the Life of the New Hampshire Presidential Primary (1991), in which Duncan followed a volunteer from each of the presidential campaigns for the year leading up to the New Hampshire primary of 1988.
By the time he had finished his research for that book, he had signed on as national press secretary for the Dukakis campaign. (“My job was to say, with a straight face, ‘No, he doesn’t look ridiculous,’” he says, adding that some reporters took to grading his performances on an Olympic scale of one to 10, depending on the difficulty of the task.) The election results weren’t any better this time.
“After ruining two good Democrats,” he says, “then the party got together and said, ‘If we can just get Dayton to stay out of this and go back to writing, maybe we can win the White House’—which they promptly did in ’92.”
By then he had expanded his magazine piece about Lewis and Clark into a book, Out West: An American Journey. In retracing the route of the Corps of Discovery in the mid-1980s, he met up with a raft of colorful characters. One was Gerard Baker, a Hidatsa Indian who was then serving as district ranger at the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park North Unit in the Badlands.
“One afternoon this guy shows up in an old Volkswagen bug, and he’s researching a magazine article about the Lewis and Clark expedition,” recalls Baker, now superintendent of Mt. Rushmore National Park. “Usually I’m kind of standoffish, but this guy immediately got into where I was at from a historical standpoint. We kind of spoke the same language. In fact, I liked him so doggone much that he babysat for my kids.
“He asked a lot of good questions,” Baker adds. “His interest was not just skin-deep. It was in his heart.”
Baker invited Duncan out to a sweat lodge, even though in those days he was “pretty closed to non-Indians doing that.” Later, when a bison escaped the park’s boundaries and Baker was forced to shoot it, he invited his guest to help with the butchering—and to partake of the raw liver. Duncan accepted the invitation.
“You go first,” Baker says, in what has become the wry gesture of hospitality. “It’ll give you some of the buffalo’s strength.” He watches intently as I chew the slice of liver: warm, a little crunchy, and surprisingly sweet and strong tasting.
Baker also suggested that his guest spend a night in an earth lodge in the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site near Stanton, North Dakota, where the Hidatsa were living when the Corps of Discovery wintered in 1804-05. To make the experience more authentic (and help his visitor survive the sub-zero blizzard blowing in), Baker provided Duncan with five buffalo robes—then pulled out his own bedding, a down-filled Eddie Bauer sleeping bag good to 20-below, and informed his guest that it was the responsibility of the person with the most buffalo robes to keep the fire going all night.
“Dayton was a true brother, because I got along with him immediately, which means I gave him a bad time from the start,” says Baker, who makes an appearance in The National Parks. “I took him back home, among my relatives, and oh, they’d be merciless on him. Tease and tease, and he’d laugh and tease back.” Baker’s family later adopted Duncan into their clan.
The personal connection was enhanced by the fact that Duncan had read and thought a lot about the U.S. government’s history with the native peoples it was displacing.
“There were a lot of things that happened between the tribes and the government, and he had a really good understanding of that,” says Baker. “He was so open and honest. We had some really, really good discussions. [Out West] is actually a pretty damn good history book.”
“What Dayton combines is a kind of reporter’s ear for details and a good story with a historian’s rigor for scholarship,” says Burns. “And then there’s a new sort of x-factor, which is the personal. He’s a really emotional person, and he feels these things as much as he thinks them and sees them and hears them. That combines to make the writing not only well rounded, but to make his overall approach incredibly humanistic.”
Sept|Oct 09 contents
A Hymn to the Parks By Samuel Hughes
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