After three times traveling the trail they blazed, the author imagines what the two captains of Jefferson's Corps of Discovery would make of the civilization we have built on the tremendous promise they offered
In the spring of 1804, in a heavily loaded keelboat and two oversize canoes, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and nearly four dozen men crossed the Mississippi River and started up the Missouri, fighting its muddy, insistent current. Sent by President Thomas Jefferson, they were embarking on the United States's first official exploration into unknown territory, launching a legacy that reaches all the way to the modern space program.
Crossing the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, they would become the first U.S. citizens to experience the Great Plains: the immensity of its skies, the rich variety of its wildlife, the harsh rigors of its winters. They would be the first American citizens to see the daunting peaks of the Rocky Mountains, the first to struggle over them, the first to cross the Continental Divide to where the rivers flow west. And after encountering cold, hunger, danger, and wonders beyond belief, they would follow the mighty Columbia to its mouth and become the first of their nation to reach the Pacific Ocean by land.
Jefferson, for whom the expedition was a favorite project, called them his Corps of Discovery. When they returned--two and a half years and more than eight thousand miles later--they brought back news of a dizzying diversity of Indian tribes that had called the West their home for hundreds of generations; news of an amazing natural abundance, including 122 animals and 178 plants never before described by science; news of a landscape that in both its beauty and its sheer breadth was beyond anything Jefferson had ever dreamed. It was, Lewis wrote, "one of the fairest portions of the globe, nor do I believe that there is in the universe a similar extent of country."
Within their journals, the historian Bernard DeVoto wrote, "was the first report on the West, on the United States over the hill and beyond the sunset, on the province of the American future.... It satisfied desire and it created desire: the desire of a weltering nation." In being "first," therefore, Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery were also the last. They saw the West as it was before the rest of the nation followed them across the continent--and changed it forever.
One January afternoon some years ago, I found myself huddled around a fire inside an earth lodge near Stanton, North Dakota. The temperature outside had managed a high of three degrees below zero. A north wind howled across the prairies. The sun was slipping below the horizon, to be followed by nearly sixteen hours of darkness. The word cold does not begin to express where the night was clearly headed.
Across from me, patiently feeding the fire with cottonwood logs, sat Gerard Baker, a Mandan-Hidatsa and a ranger for the National Park Service. He had built the earth lodge as a "living history" demonstration for the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, where three Hidatsa villages had stood when Lewis and Clark wintered in the area. I was retracing the explorers' route, trying to connect their experience with my own over a gap of nearly two centuries, and had asked if I could spend a night in the earth lodge, which with a dusting of snow looked something like a sod igloo. Gerard seemed bemused by my request, but he agreed to accompany me, and, even provided our supplies.
First he smudged the interior in all four directions with the smoke from a bundle of sweet grass. "For the spirits," he explained. Then, in an iron pot, he boiled potatoes, onions, red peppers, and buffalo tripe, the spongy membranes of a buffalo stomach--a rubbery meal that we ate with our hands. I told him tales about my trip upriver from St. Louis, about all the changes I had seen compared with what the captains had described in their journals. …