Lewis & Clark's Montana: Following the Explorers' Path through Big Sky Country Reveals the Soul of the American West

Article excerpt

The guide rests her paddle and points to a patch blue sky in a noose of black clouds. "We call those sucker holes," she says. "That blue suckers you in. Then it starts to pour."

On command, raindrops fall. Fat, splattering, riling the surface of the Missouri and sending fast streams down the cliffs lifting above the riverbanks. The rain falls harder, stings the scalp. Lightning spooks the horizon. We paddle fast to shore and try to lug tents and stoves and sleeping bags onto the bank. The mud is so slick that each movement becomes a pratfall.

Later that night, after the storm has sailed east across the plains, somebody pulls out a flashlight and reads a journal, one written on this same stretch of Missouri River in 1805:

It still continues to rain the wind hard from N.E. and could ... the grownd remarkably, slipry, insomuch that we were unable to walk on the sides of the bluffs where we had passed as we ascended the river.

They are always ahead of you, Lewis and Clark. They have experienced what you have experienced; they have described it with the passion and precision of people seeing a world for the first time. But then, that was their job.

Almost 200 years after they made their journey across North America, Lewis and Clark are hot. They have been anointed with the Ken Burns PBS documentary The West. Historian Stephen Ambrose's biography of Lewis, Undaunted Courage, climbed the best-seller list last year, letting Meriwether Lewis sit alongside the men from Mars and women from Venus.

Given such resurgent fame, it's small wonder many localities along the trail claim Lewis and Clark as their own. Montana's claim is the strongest. In miles and travel days, the Corps of Discovery spent about a quarter of their journey here, more than in any other state. But the rapport is more spiritual than statistical. Lewis and Clark's was an epic journey, Montana is an epic landscape. Big dream meets big sky.

A FLOAT DOWN THE MISSOURI

Virgelle, Montana, wasn't around when Lewis and Clark passed through. It's a tiny ranch town with a tin-sided mercantile store that might have been cut-and-pasted from a Walker Evans photograph. But Virgelle sits beside one of the few stretches of Missouri River that Lewis and Clark would still recognize.

You know the story. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson created a Corps of Discovery, its purpose "to explore the Missouri River ... and find a path across the continent to the Pacific Ocean." To lead it Jefferson chose a young Army captain from Virginia whom he praised for "firmness of constitution and character, prudence, habits adapted to the woods, and a familiary with the Indian manners and character." This paragon's name was Meriwether Lewis. In turn, Lewis chose his former commanding officer, William Clark, to serve as his right-hand man. With 43 men they set out in 1804 from Wood River, Illinois, and traveled up the Missouri in a keel-boat and canoes.

By the time they reached what is now Virgelle, they had been traveling more than a year. They had lost one man to appendicitis. They had gained a French interpreter, Charbonneau, his Shoshone wife, Sacagawea, and the couple's infant son, Jean Baptiste.

Don Sorensen, who grew up in this wheat ranching country, has restored much of Virgelle. He bought the mercantile store and turned it into a B & B. He's started running canoe trips down the river, with enough success to appease his doubtful family. "When I started, my dad thought I was crazy. Now he thinks I'm half-crazy."

We push off from Coal Banks Landing alongside a party of Boy Scouts, making the river crowded by Montana standards. But the Scouts paddle ahead, and the river quiets. It's a gentle float, even in early summer, when the current runs relatively fast. We are aware of being lazy. Paddling downstream cannot approximate the struggles Lewis and Clark had moving in the opposite direction, poling, sometimes dragging their boats up the river. …