In the Shadow of Lewis and Clark

Lewis and Clark History

Meriwether Lewis. William Clark. Do these names ring a bell? Visions are forming in your mind, probably of high school history books and drawings of men in three-corner hats being guided across the country by a comely Indian girl. Well, those hats were great for Boston Common but worthless in the woods. And as for the young Indian woman, Sacajawea, she served as a guide only from Montana's Beaverhead Rock to her tribal home high in Idaho's Bitterroot Mountains. Until then, this brave and stalwart young mother was as lost a loon as the others. So much for myth.

Our two intrepid explorers and their contingent of some 40 additional men left their camp near St. Louis in May 1804 to explore the previously unknown regions west to the Pacific. Upon taking off, Clark took quill in hand to scratch the oft-quoted passage:

Set out at 4 O clock P.M., in the presence of many of the neighbouring inhabitents, and proceeded on under a jentle brease up the Missourie . . .

He then sailed upriver a whopping four miles and called it a day.

Missing Anecdotes
Most history books fail to mention that within a week, three expedition members were court-martialed for being AWOL (absent without leave), and that one—John Collins—was given 50 lashes on his naked back for the additional charges of "behaveing in an unbecoming manner at the ball last night" (the people of St. Charles, just north of St. Louis, had given a dance in honor of these brave men), and "for Speaking in a language after his return to camp tending to bring into disrespect the orders of the Commanding Officer." Poor Collins. But then, the trooper had made a name for himself even before the trip began. Accused by Clark of killing a farmer's pig and caught cooking the evidence, the hapless fellow claimed it was bear meat. More lashes.

Such anecdotes, sprinkled liberally throughout the journals and spilling out of the well-informed forest rangers you meet along the trail, were unfortunately missing from the texts we read as kids. But pick up a copy of Bernard DeVoto's one-volume paperback The Journals of Lewis and Clark, and sit by the campfire or read it by candlelight in your tent while pedaling the Lolo. The cold, dead, mythic names of Lewis and Clark and their men come alive.

Yes, you can feel some of this when reading the words at home, but turning those pages while on the very path they traveled and sweating your way up the same mountain grades they toiled on centuries ago make all the difference in the world. The reason is simple: the shared experience of physical effort, of exposure to the elements, of hunger and thirst, of heat and cold, and of satisfaction at the end of the trail.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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