Wild & Whitewashed Cutting through the myths in search of Lewis and Clark's America. by Daniel Duane
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SO, HOW DID SUCH A WONDERFUL STORY get so mired in complexity? By starting out that way, naturally. According to the late Stephen Ambrose, author of the best-selling Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, Jefferson had long been aware that colonial adventurers were eyeing the American northwest, and also that they routinely obscured their motives. A group of British capitalists raised a fortune in 1783 to finance an expedition, and when Jefferson proposed a competing team he wrote that the British "pretend it is only to promote knolege. I am afraid they have thoughts of colonizing into that quarter."
When Jefferson got wind two years later of a French expedition, he wrote that "They give out that the object is merely for the improvement of our knowledge" but that their preparations suggest "some other design; perhaps colonizing on the West coast of America." In 1786, Jefferson supported an abortive American attempt to cross Russia and walk eastward through North America; in 1790, the U.S. secretary of war planned a secret (and unsuccessful) mission to scout the Missouri country; and in 1792, when an American sea captain fixed the latitude and longitude of the mouth of the Columbia River, Jefferson contracted a botanist named Andre Michaux "to find the shortest and most convenient route of communication between the U.S. & the Pacific Ocean, within the temperate latitudes."
That trip collapsed when Michaux turned out to be a French agent, but the idea resurfaced ten years later. Working for the British Northwest Company out of Montreal, Alexander Mackenzie became the first European to make the overland journey to the Pacific, effectively claiming the Northwest for England. When then-president Jefferson got a copy of Mackenzie's book, he had the means to do something about it-putting Meriwether Lewis in charge of an American-funded expedition through the Spanish-held Louisiana territories, and out to the sea.
Consider also the possibility that Lewis's 30-man U.S. Army infantry detachment was called "the Corps of Discovery" only in part because Jefferson wanted Lewis to report back about everything he found. The name also provided operational cover, a way to deceive Spaniards and Englishmen encountered along the way about American territorial ambitions-Hey, don't mind us, we're just here to identify the wildflowers.
Upon his return at journey's end, Lewis's first communication to Jefferson had two bullet points: first, that the Bitterroots made an all-water route impossible; and, second, that an empire of furs was waiting to be exploited. As territorial governor of Louisiana, Lewis later blew a fortune speculating on that fur trade, and advocated sending the Army essentially to commit genocide against the Arikara, an Indian tribe that stood in the way. And as for Lewis's own role in the selling of the Lewis and Clark myth, he didn't have much of one-he took his own life before he turned his journals into a book.
But the intent was there: He'd read Captain Cook's best-selling accounts of his South Seas exploits, he knew the public loved a good exploration narrative, and he was so determined to cash in that he actually tried to squash book proposals by enlisted men who'd accompanied him, lest they should steal his thunder.
So the simple myth is contradicted by a convoluted reality. But Lewis and Clark still had a fabulous adventure, they still wandered through a world of miracles, and for all their flaws they were extraordinary men. Lewis in particular was almost magically well-suited for his task. The educated child of the Virginian planter class, he'd been schooled by his mother in medicinal flora, he was routinely hunting alone at night with his trusty dog even before his adolescence, and he spent his young adulthood on various military adventures in what were then considered the western territories-twice walking from Detroit to Pittsburgh to visit remote army garrisons.
He was close enough to Jefferson that "right-hand man" is something of an understatement: Lewis personally orated Jefferson's first State of the Union address to Congress, in Jefferson's stead; for a time, Lewis lived in the White House, sharing most meals with Jefferson; and much of Lewis's preparation for his great voyage was a crash course in the various scientific disciplines of the Enlightenment, under Jefferson's direction. Lewis and Clark were indeed harbingers of doom to every Indian tribe they met, but at least on their expedition they seem to have been singularly gifted at making friends.
MANY AMERICANS still care about this great story and still hope to make contact with it. The Bitterroot Range is a good place to start, and particularly one of the most lovely campsites imaginable: Blessedly undeveloped, what Lewis and Clark called "Travellers rest" is still a tallgrass meadow humming with crickets. Cottonwoods shimmer in the down-mountain breeze and wide Lolo Creek drains out of the mountains and into the Bitterroot River. Pushing onward, on the morning of September 11, 1805, the Corps followed a "good road" for seven miles up Lolo Creek and camped. When the valley narrowed the next day, filled with fallen timber, the Lolo Trail became "most intolerable," swinging up steep mountainsides. "Some of our Party did not get up untill 10 oClock PM," Clark wrote. "Party and horses much fatigued."
On September 13, they crossed Lolo Pass at Packer Meadows, from which I could see the snow-covered mountains Clark recorded. Thunder boomed among dark clouds to the northwest, spring beauties bloomed at meadow's edge, and the creek ran glassy-smooth through bear grass and camas. I didn't see the reintroduced wolf pack that still passes through here, but a squirrel family worked busily around their hole, and I did see a deer and her fawn, of the kind the party killed nearby. Despite the stillness, I also heard the rush of an approaching wind, bearing in from all that thunder. On the far side of the meadow, the spruces began to swing and then a wall of rain appeared, rippling the stream as it marched closer. When the hailstones hit, the squirrels dove into their hole and the songbirds dashed for the pines.
Lewis and Clark also faced rain and hail, as their Shoshone guide led them down to a salmon fishery on the Lochsa River. It was still raining when I found the place they camped, and I stood across from the small island they recorded, imagining their disappointment: no salmon in sight, the grass eaten by the horses of recently departed Indians. "Here we were compelled to kill a Colt for our men & Selves for the want of meat," Clark wrote. "The Mountains...much worst than yesterday...our men and horses much fatigued." Over a good pork chop, I watched small clouds form in the darkening forest, shredded mist tearing on treetops. A man could feel awfully far from safety, in these tangled canyons, and I was glad to be indoors.
Which brings me to that game bird. Lewis and Clark followed the Lochsa four miles downstream before the truly arduous part of their crossing began-the descent into starvation and hypothermia. Climbing what is now called Wendover Ridge, their path meandered around the "emence quantity of falling timber" and several of their horses "Sliped and roled down Steep hills which hurt them verry much...the one which Carried my desk & small trunk Turned over & roled down a mountain for 40 yards & lodged against a tree."
I had good trail running shoes, as I traced their route, and a Gore-Tex jacket, but the soldiers would've been off their horses and leading them up the muddy slope in moccasins with no traction and even less insulation against the cold. They camped at a snowbank, melting a little for water, and they awoke before dawn to the first flurries of a storm. By the middle of the next day, with the path obscured by six to eight inches of snow, Clark wrote, "I have been wet and as cold in every part as I ever was in my life, indeed I was at one time fearfull my feet would freeze in the thin Mockersons which I wore."
The higher I climbed, the better the view of the Lochsa River running wide to the west, and I felt sure that Lewis and Clark wished it were navigable enough for them to build canoes and get the hell out of here. Then the rain started again, and water seemed to drain from everywhere at once-from the sky, the trees, the saturated forest floor. Crossing a logging road, I found the ridge proper and I understood why the Nez Perce traveled this way. The drier ground supported less brush, and I could see far enough to have a clue where I was, although I could also see horribly haircut mountains, roads gouging the red soil.
Every leaf carried water, my pants were drenched, and the cold and the hard climb gave me what I'd come for. That's when I heard the thumping whirr of a bird big enough to eat. I've never hunted anything at all, though I've always wanted to try, but I felt instantly the difference between the inconsequential fluttering of a sparrow and the weighted drumbeat of game fowl. Your heart responds, your stomach responds; you know there's warm blood in those veins. Perhaps because I was hungry-though less for calories than for contact with a distant past-I couldn't help but hear food. The grayish bird stood stock-still among the saplings, looking at me with one eye, and I knew I could kill it with a rock.
"Nothing killed today except 2 Phests," Clark wrote on Sunday, September 15, using his shorthand for pheasants. Scholars have since determined that he meant grouse like the one awaiting my next move. Two of these birds would have made a paltry meal for such a big party, but I was alone, and that single grouse was more than enough. I stepped forward and it walked across the trail in front of me. Following as quietly as I could, I pushed through the water-bearing boughs of the young trees and found it hard going. Then the bird took flight and I started running, crushing from shrub to sapling, over a deadfall, through a tight copse of young pines and around an ancient stump and then the bird was gone.
Vanished as if it had never been. And I was wet to the bone. And I was shivering, very far from the road. So I turned back down, eager for dry jeans and maybe a bowl of soup. The rain began gushing, big gray sheets fading the mountainscapes and every little leaf fluttering under the fat falling drops. I never would've killed that bird, but I was glad I got a chance to chase it. We access these worlds through a joint production of the physical landscape and our imaginations, with some help from the history books. And if we let our senses guide us-and maybe do a little close reading-we can always find something worth looking for.
DANIEL DUANE is author of several books, including Lighting Out: A Vision of California and the Mountains (Graywolf Press, 1994), Caught Inside: A Surfer's Year on the California Coast (North Point Press, 1997), and a novel, A Mouth Like Yours, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
ON THE WEB: The Sierra Club's efforts in Idaho and Montana are part of its Lewis and Clark Wild America campaign, which is helping people rediscover the lands and rivers the Corps of Discovery experienced, and working to protect the wild places that remain. For more information, go to www.sierraclub.org/lewisandclark, where you can take action to protect wild salmon, download a fishing guide, order a travel adventure guide or film, or read Lewis and Clark's journals as well as stories from modern-day explorers on the Trail.
This article has been corrected subsequent to publication.