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A Modern-Day Explorer Tracks Lewis and Clark's American Journey

By James T. Yenckel
The Washington Post
Sunday, November 2, 1997; Page E01

Lewis and Clark used muscle power to cross the North American continent, camping along the way. I drove, spending each night in a different hotel or motel. But we came up with pretty much the same conclusion. America is a huge country, which impresses you most when you tackle it overland.

Otherwise, the similarities between the Lewis and Clark expedition's transcontinental trek by boat, horseback and foot to the Pacific Coast in 1804 and 1805 and my recent 12-day drive retracing the explorers' 4,000-mile path are (for obvious reasons) very few. But if I may be so presumptuous as to compare my journey with theirs, we shared at least some common joys and griefs along the way.

Like Capt. William Clark, I took note on the day of my departure from Wood River, Ill., near St. Louis that "a heavy rain" was falling. And again, like Clark, co-captain Meriwether Lewis and everybody else in their party, I can complain about the seemingly incessant rain and howling wind that plagued their nearly four-month winter stay (and my hurried stop) at Fort Clatsop near Seaside, Ore., the end of the westbound leg of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

But most memorably, the trip for me, as it was for Lewis and Clark, proved a journey of discovery. They, of course, headed into an unknown land, unraveling the mysteries of the Louisiana Purchase and the Pacific Northwest for their countrymen. The expedition, proposed by President Jefferson and authorized by Congress, ranks as one of the world's most important explorations. For the first time, it mapped and meticulously documented the lands beyond the Mississippi acquired from France (which doubled the size of the struggling new United States), opening the way for the nation's westward expansion from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

For my part, I got to see firsthand a vast expanse of the American landscape -- rich Midwestern farmlands, the awesomely empty Great Plains, the snow-tipped peaks of the Rocky Mountains and Oregon's rock-studded beaches -- much of which still retains the majestic beauty the explorers described in such wonder. Like them, I also jotted down a few notes about what I saw to pass along to the folks back home.

Mile after mile, I cruised over nearly traffic-free highways and backways, taking in one gorgeous panorama after another -- and in the most surprising places. In a curious twist of history, the expedition explored areas of the country that remain almost as little populated now as they were two centuries ago.

Eastern Nebraska's rolling pastures and cornfields are an impressionist canvas of greens. A chain of sparkling blue lakes, formed by dams along the Missouri River, delighted my eyes all across the two Dakotas. Who thinks of hay as an object of beauty? But western Montana's Big Hole Valley frames vast acres of golden hay that are a natural artwork. Misty, evergreen-clad cliffs towered overhead as I navigated the twisting road through the Columbia River Gorge.

PBS is airing a new two-part, four-hour Ken Burns documentary, "Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery," Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 p.m. The film marks the beginning of several years of big events all along the 11-state route commemorating the expedition's approaching 200th anniversary. But for a history buff like me, certainly the best way to honor the explorers' epic achievement is to follow in their path. I knew that only by seeing the rugged land through which they passed could I fully appreciate their accomplishment.

In September of 1805, the Corps of Discovery, as Lewis and Clark dubbed their group, nearly starved as it floundered in the dense forests, steep slopes and deep snow of northern Idaho's 10,000-foot-high Bitterroot Range. A gray mid-September sky threatened snow a few weeks back when my wife Sandy and I stopped on U.S. 12 in the Bitterroots near their route for a short hike in a grove of giant western red cedars. Just a few steps from our car, we found ourselves ringed by the wet, tangled underbrush that so impeded the expedition's progress.

For much of its westward journey, the expedition traveled up the Missouri River against the current -- pulling, pushing, rowing and sometimes sailing (if the wind was strong) a 55-foot-long keelboat and a small fleet of canoes. The Missouri that I crossed by bridge numerous times flows very swiftly in its race to the Mississippi. I can now more easily understand why managing 10 to 20 miles a day on it amounted to exceedingly hard work for the small corps. I commented on the river's surprising speed to Clay W. Kennedy, the curator of the Museum of Missouri River History in Brownville, Neb. The Missouri is one of the world's fastest navigable rivers, he informed me -- as true in 1804 as it is today.

I think I felt the presence of Lewis and Clark most closely at Missouri Headwaters State Park near Three Forks, Mont., where three tributaries -- the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin (all named by Lewis) -- form the Missouri. Stephen E. Ambrose, author of "Undaunted Courage," the recent best-selling account of the expedition, writes that Lewis climbed a high limestone cliff that gave him "a most perfect view" of the surrounding countryside. Sandy and I climbed what may have been the same cliff, taking in a grand view that surely is only a little changed.

The headwaters are an amazing sight -- and not just for their historic significance as a major Lewis and Clark landmark. From the cliff, the three tributaries and the Missouri each can be seen distinctly, flowing in twists and turns through a rolling, grass-covered valley encircled by distant mountains. Beneath our perch, a couple of youngsters played along the Missouri's high dirt bank while their father sat patiently fishing. As it happens, the Lewis and Clark Trail from beginning to end is prime fishing country.

The corps' hunters helped keep the expedition fed, supplying it where possible with fresh elk, deer, bison and waterfowl. In a modest way, I foraged, too -- but only to the extent of stopping at roadside stands to sample the local fresh fruit. Just east of Lexington, Mo., I stopped on my first full day's drive at Schreiman Orchards to buy a small box of sweet Ozark Gold apples. They provided me with a picnic lunch daily all the way to the Oregon coast.

Lewis and Clark were helped along their way by friendly Native American tribes; since then, a number of tribes, many of whose lands I also crossed, have entered the tourist business in a big way. I left behind my pocket change at the Crow Creek Sioux casino in Fort Thompson, S.D., just one of many gaming houses that have opened on reservations in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark.

In 1978, Congress established the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail as a part of the trail system administered by the National Park Service. But don't be confused by the word "trail." Because the corps traveled so much of the way by river, there is -- with only a few exceptions -- no officially marked footpath or roadway to follow. The two most notable land routes, Lemhi Pass and Lolo Pass in Idaho, are rough, unpaved roads that closely approximate the original path.

The best I could do as a motorist was to seek out the back roads that parallel the water route. Conveniently, many such roads are marked with Lewis and Clark Trail signs. Clark calculated the expedition traveled 4,142 miles from the mouth of the Missouri to Fort Clatsop. The odometer on my rental car read 3,477 miles at trip`s end. (Presumably I had avoided a lot of the bends in the Missouri.) The corps had to retrace its path home; I flew back from Portland.

My chief guide was the park service's Lewis and Clark Trail brochure, which lists 80 prime Lewis and Clark sites on the combined outbound and return routes. They include several full-fledged interpretive centers -- the newest is the North Dakota Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at Washburn, which details the corps' winter stay at nearby Fort Mandan in 1804-05 -- as well as simple roadside historical signs spotlighting a campsite or other landmark mentioned in the expedition's journals. One after the other, the sites bring to life the Lewis and Clark story.

Site No. 1, at Wood River, Ill., is a small modernistic pavilion set on the wooded shoreline of the Mississippi River where it is joined by the Missouri. The Corps of Discovery camped near here during the winter of 1803-04 to prepare for its journey west. It is a very modest memorial to mark what a plaque accurately describes as "one of the most dramatic and significant episodes in our history." Still, one can stand there at the confluence of two of the country's major rivers and see them much as the explorers must have.

Here is where the explorers began their journey in the rain, and this is where on a stormy Monday morning I set out also.

Because of the rain, I didn't linger long at Wood River, a state historic site. Climbing back into my car, I drove across the Mississippi to St. Louis to pay homage to Clark, who is buried with family members in Bellefontaine Cemetery. A tall obelisk worthy of his exploits marks his grave. (Lewis, who never married, is buried in Tennessee, which is not on the trail.)

Then I hurried on to the western suburb of St. Charles, a tree-shaded village on the Missouri where the expedition stopped for last-minute supplies. At the Lewis and Clark Center, a museum in the historic district, I picked up supplies of my own -- a copy of "The Journals of Lewis and Clark," edited by Bernard DeVoto. St. Charles was the gateway to the wilderness for Lewis and Clark; I considered it my gateway to the American countryside.

Every day of my trip was different, each filled with so many interesting opportunities I had to sharply limit my choices. Lewis and Clark took more than two years; I had less than two weeks. Each night I plotted the next day's route, deciding what I wanted to see and what I would skip. My longest day's drive, across the Dakotas, covered 500 miles -- fast miles, because the roads are so empty; my shortest, 200 miles, crossed Montana's Big Hole Valley between Dillon and Missoula, giving me plenty of time to hike the streamside trails of the Big Hole National Battlefield, where a band of Nez Perce Indians clashed with the U.S. Army in 1877.

In Missouri, the Lewis and Clark Trail overlaps the state's "Wine Strasse," or wine road, which winds through a region of vineyard-draped hills resembling the German homeland of its early settlers. And so I stopped at the hilltop Montelle Winery near Augusta to sample its Vidal '96, a nice dry white wine. The little Missouri River town of Atchison, Kan., maintains Independence Park, a nice picnic wayside, to commemorate the expedition's nearby camp on July 4, 1804. At Nebraska's Fort Atkinson State Historical Park, once the largest prairie fort, I strolled the trails atop a grass-covered bluff where on Aug. 3, 1804, Lewis and Clark powwowed with Oto and Missouri Indian tribes.

Later that same month, their expedition held another council with the Yankton Sioux below Calumet Bluff in northeastern Nebraska. Today this bluff is the site of the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center at Gavins Point Dam, a not-too-be-missed Bureau of Land Management facility that details a significant event in Missouri River history -- the construction of six major flood-control dams. Because of the dams, the Big Muddy, now carrying far less silt, no longer lives up to its nickname. The Gavins Point Dam overlooks Lewis & Clark Lake. Upriver in North Dakota, Garrison Dam forms Lake Sakakawea, named for the Shoshone woman who helped guide the expedition.

Lewis, Clark and Sacajawea (a more common spelling) are anything but forgotten along the trail. Their names appear on motels, cafes, a college, lakes, a river, streets, state parks and countless shops. My offhand impression is that Sacajawea is holding her own or even besting the captains.

At Fort Mandan, I stepped inside a replica of the cottonwood log fort the expedition built as shelter against the frigid North Dakota winter. In these humble quarters, Lewis and Clark met Sacajawea, her infant son, Baptiste, and her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, all three of whom would make the trek to the Pacific. A few miles upriver, Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site features a replica of a Hidatsa earth lodge, a far more comfortable dwelling, to my eye, than the fort. Built in an igloo shape of loose earth and sod bricks braced with cottonwood supports, it is typical of the lodges in which the Missouri River tribes lived near Fort Mandan. Dried buffalo hoofs, hanging on the buffalo-hide door, clattered as I entered. "Native American doorbells," said ranger Patrice Tunge, who was leading the way.

Outside Williston, N.D., I turned down a back road to find the spot where the Yellowstone River joins the Missouri. This is Big Sky country, where vistas stretch across low green hills as far as the eye can see -- a view presumably little changed from what Lewis and Clark saw. They recognized the confluence as a potential site for a trading post, and in 1828 Fort Union was built by John Jacob Astor's American Fur Co.. The National Park Service has reconstructed the fort, an imposing palisaded structure that stands nearby.

In Montana, I detoured briefly from the Lewis and Clark Trail to join the Nez Perce Trail at Bear Paw Battlefield, just south of Chinook. The Nez Perce befriended Lewis and Clark, providing them with food when they stumbled hungrily out of the Bitterroots. But in 1877, in an unfortunate dispute, many of those in the tribe felt forced to flee their homeland and were pursued by the Army. Hoping to escape to Canada, they tried to elude capture in the Battle of the Big Hole. But they were trapped at Bear Paw, just 40 miles short of their goal. Chief Joseph is said to have surrendered with the famous words, "I will fight no more forever." A mile-long path, winding among grass-covered hills, circles the small stream valley where the Nez Perce had paused to rest in their flight. The wind, whistling through willow groves where many women and children hid from the battle, seemed to echo Joseph's despair.

Of all the river towns I visited, Fort Benton, Mont., is my favorite -- perhaps because it seems best to have preserved its 19th-century riverfront character. In the wake of Lewis and Clark, riverboats began plying the Missouri as far west as Fort Benton, which claims to have been for a time "the world's innermost port." Situated beneath stark badland bluffs, it offers Lewis and Clark fans a full-size replica of a Missouri River keelboat, the Mandan; the Montana Memorial, a 21-foot-tall riverside statue of Lewis, Clark, Sacajawea and Baptiste in authentic garb; and a shady park with grand river views.

After an early dinner, Sandy and I sat on a park bench for a long while watching the river flow by. Surely expedition members sat and watched likewise at sunset.

The intimidating Bitterroot Range, an 11-day ordeal for the expedition, almost marked its defeat. By car, however, the mountains rewarded Sandy and me with the most spectacular scenery of the trip -- even though heavy rains pummeled us much of the way. Just west of Missoula, Mont., U.S. 12 crosses 5,233-foot Lolo Pass into Idaho, where it joins the cascading Lochsa River, a frenzy of whitewater. For the next 80 miles, river and road weave together like graceful dancers between steep, thickly forested mountain slopes and rocky outcrops towering overhead.

Two days later, the river and mountain views proved nearly as spectacular as we snaked through the winding Columbia River Gorge. Like the Corps of Discovery, our goal lay just ahead of us, and we were eager to reach it. We followed the Columbia to its mouth on the Washington State shore, where the expedition first set up its Pacific Coast winter camp on a sandy beach at what is now Fort Canby State Park. Howling winds, buffeting the corps then as they do visitors now, have bent trees low. The park's interpretive center, perched on a cliff above a forest of evergreens, tells the story.

Among the exhibits is a wooden razor box believed to have been carved by Sacajawea and given in friendship to Sgt. Patrick Gass, the expedition's carpenter and boatbuilder. The razor box delighted me because it was the only item I had seen on the entire trip that had belonged to any member of the expedition -- and it had been handmade, not purchased.

Unhappy with the exposed campsite, the expedition decided to cross the Columbia to what is now the Oregon shore, where local tribes informed them that the elk were more abundant. And apparently this is true today. Soon after we descended the arching Columbia River bridge near Astoria, I spotted a series of "elk crossing" signs. On a small river, now the Lewis and Clark, the expedition built another humble log fort, which was named Fort Clatsop after a local tribe. The fort, rebuilt on the approximate site of the original, is now the Fort Clatsop National Memorial.

The corps settled in to its winter camp on Dec. 7, 1805, and rain fell every one but 12 of the next 106 days. The rain also poured in mid-September when we were there, so I can appreciate the disgust expedition members felt in the wet, chilly climate. But the fort's setting, beneath giant Sitka spruce trees, actually is quite lovely. And the nearby coastline, a jumble of driftwood beaches and waved-splashed rocks, offers views to set spirits soaring.

Of course, it was easier for me to appreciate the views. I did not have to spend even a single night in the cramped, smoky confines of Clatsop's bunkrooms. Rather, Sandy and I checked into a nearby motel in Seaside (the corps used Seaside's beach to make salt from seawater), where our oceanfront room featured a giant hot tub with a water view. After nearly two weeks on the road, I hopped in quickly to soak away the many miles. Pursuing the Lewis and Clark Trail today remains an adventure and a learning experience -- as it was nearly 200 years ago. And I was happy to have shared these aspects of the trip with the explorers.

As for reliving their hardships -- as detailed all along the trail -- I'll leave that to others. My hot tub soak was great.

DETAILS: Lewis and Clark Trail

TRAIL ROUTE: I plotted my 12-day drive along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail from St. Louis, Mo., to Portland, Ore., by using three primary information sources:

The Lewis and Clark Trail brochure, published by the National Park Service and available from the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, 700 Rayovac Dr., Suite 100, Madison, Wis. 53711, 608-264-5610,

"The Traveler's Guide to the Lewis & Clark Trail" by Julie Fanselow (Falcon, $12.95). This 266-page guide details the highways and byways that most closely approximate the original river-based route. Limited lodging and dining information is provided. The guide is available in bookstores or can be ordered from Falcon, 1-800-582-2665.

State tourism offices, which sent me road maps and a list of local Lewis and Clark sites (see below).

My daily itinerary, a very hurried pace, was: Day 1, fly to St. Louis and spend the night in Alton, Ill. (30 miles from the airport); Day 2, Alton to Lexington, Mo. (297 miles); Day 3, Lexington to Sioux City, Iowa (400 miles); Day 4, Sioux City to Pierre, S.D. (387 miles); Day 5, Pierre to Williston, N.D. (496 miles); Day 6, Williston to Fort Benton, Mont. (454 miles); Day 7, Fort Benton to Dillon, Mont. (338 miles); Day 8, Dillon to Missoula, Mont. (196 miles); Day 9, Missoula to Lewiston, Idaho (225 miles); Day 10, Lewiston to Hood River, Ore. (313 miles); Day 11, Hood River to Seaside, Ore. (232 miles); Day 12, Seaside to the Portland airport (109 miles).

WHEN TO GO: Avoid winter, when the Dakotas and Montana can be swept by blizzards, closing roads. May through September is the optimum time, although some historical sites are open only between the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends.

GETTING THERE: With some shopping around, it is possible to book a round-trip ticket into St. Louis and out of Portland from the Washington area airports. United currently is quoting a fare of $513, with restrictions, with connections each way in Chicago. My travel agent booked me a one-way rental of an Avis midsize car (a new four-door Hyundai Sonata) for a rate, with taxes, of $655. I paid $164.13 for gas.

WHERE TO STAY: With a couple of notable exceptions, I stayed in moderately priced motels -- all of which I booked in advance. Lodgings are scarce along much of the route, and I was glad to know a reserved room awaited me at the end of a long day. 1/4

My lodgings, usually best available, were as follows: Alton, Ill., Holiday Inn ($79 with tax), 618-462-1220; Lexington, Mo., Lexington Inn ($43), 816-259-4641; Sioux City, Iowa, Hilton Inn ($111); 712-277-4101; Pierre, S.D., Best Western Kings Inn ($53), 605-224-5951; Williston, N.D., Super 8 Lodge ($44), 701-572-8371; Fort Benton, Mont., Fort Motel ($40), 406-622-3312; Dillon, Mont., Best Western Paradise Inn ($51), 406-683-4214; Missoula, Mont., Double-tree Edgewater ($108), 406-728-3100; Lewiston, Idaho, Grand Plaza Inn ($92), 208-799-1000; Hood River, Ore., Columbia Gorge Hotel ($210), 1-800-345-1921; Seaside, Ore., Best Western Oceanview Resort ($176), 503-738-3334.

The Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River, Ore., is a classic resort hotel situated on a cliff overlooking the Columbia River, which accounts for its higher price. The least appealing lodging was the Fort Motel in Fort Benton -- cheap and clean but charmless. You might want to drive on to Great Falls for more choices. Cannon Beach, Ore., just south of Seaside, is more charming than Seaside and has its own Lewis and Clark connection at Ecola State Park.

WHERE TO EAT: I dined better than I expected in the restaurants of hotels and motels in which I stayed. Menus favored prime rib and steak and grilled trout and salmon, and meals averaged about $20 per person. I packed picnic lunches in an ice chest to take advantage of the many picnic sites along the way.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: Because I had to keep to a tight schedule, I did not have time to experience the Lewis and Clark Trail from a river vantage. In Fort Benton, Missouri River Outfitters (406-622-3295) offers overnight boat trips on a 150-mile stretch of the Missouri designated as the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River. The river, passing through what is called the Missouri Breaks and the White Cliffs, remains much as Lewis and Clark saw it. Outside Helena, Mont., the outfitter Gates of the Mountains (406-458-5241) offers 90-minute boat tours of the Missouri River cliffs Lewis dubbed "Gates of the Mountains." Because of heavy rain, I opted not to drive the unpaved Lemhi and Lolo pass back roads in Idaho -- taking in both cases alternative paved routes.

INFORMATION: Each of the 11 states through which the Lewis and Clark Trail passes offers trail information (all Web sites begin with http://).

- Illinois Bureau of Tourism, 1-800-223-0121,

- Missouri Division of Tourism, 1-800-877-1234.

- Kansas Division of Travel and Tourism, 1-800-252-6727,

- Nebraska Division of Travel and Tourism, 1-800-228-4307,

- Iowa Department of Tourism, 1-800-345-4692,

- South Dakota Tourism, 1-800-732-5682,

- North Dakota Tourism Promotion,1-800-437-2077.

- Travel Montana, 1-800-541-1447,

- Idaho Division of Travel Promotion, 1-800-635-7820,

- Washington State Tourism, 1-800-544-1800,

- Oregon Tourism Commission, 1-800-547-7842,

-- James T. Yenckel

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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