Lewis and Clark and Us

The expedition helped to forge a great nation. How does it hold up as a family vacation?

THE map, folded delicately on cloth backing into a book-sized rectangle, slid easily out of its buckram case. Opened up, it expanded twenty-eight-fold to reveal the vast watersheds of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers, crossed by parallel strands of pointed mountains running north and south. I had asked John Lannon, the associate director of the Boston Athenaeum, if his library, a venerable repository, had anything in its holdings from the Lewis and Clark expedition, and he had replied, apologetically, that he didn't have anything directly from the expedition, but he did have this one item....

Nicholas King was a mapmaker who lived in Washington, D.C., where he held the position of Surveyor of the City. One of the chief aims of the Corps of Discovery, the group under the leadership of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, was to chart a water route across North America, if one existed. Clark in particular was meticulous in his cartographic duties, recording celestial measurements and making detailed notes. He supplemented firsthand observation of the route already traveled with secondhand reports of what lay ahead. Long before the expedition's end Lewis and Clark had sent maps and cartographic data back east -- straight to President Thomas Jefferson -- together with floral and faunal specimens. Jefferson forwarded the mapping materials to Nicholas King, who began assembling the information. The Missouri and its tributaries took shape in blue and black. The first stage of the map followed Lewis and Clark to Fort Mandan, in present-day North Dakota, where the corps spent the winter of 1804-1805. The journey continued from there across the plains of Montana to Great Falls and Three Forks; in fits and starts across the Bitterroot Mountains, a grueling passage; down the Columbia and through its majestic gorge to the Pacific; and then back, retracing many of the original footsteps, but with a swing to the south by Clark, following the Yellowstone River to its confluence with the Missouri.

King finished his map, taking in the whole American Northwest, even before Lewis and Clark returned to Washington, and he drew three copies. Months later, with the expedition's final notes in hand, he made extensive corrections on one of them, adding geographic features and proper names. That was the copy on the table in front of me.

Some of the handwritten notations are believed to have been penned by members of the corps. Of the thirty-three men in the expedition's permanent party only one did not survive the trip -- Charles Floyd, a victim of a burst appendix. On the map, near what is now Sioux City, Iowa, one can read in tiny script "Floyd's grave."

I MADE the acquaintance of the King map in advance of a 7,000-mile pursuit of the Lewis and Clark Trail with my family last summer. The impetus for this expedition was, of course, Stephen Ambrose's (1996), a book of old-fashioned narrative history -- unabashed in its nationalism, gruff in its enthusiasm, frank in its opinions, and a good yarn besides. The United States had acquired the vast Louisiana Territory, encompassing all or part of what are now fifteen states, from France in 1803, but entertained only a vague idea of what was actually in it. Thomas Jefferson assembled an expedition to find out more. Ambrose quotes liberally from Jefferson's instructions to Lewis describing what he expected. The instructions display a Jefferson whose misinformation was sometimes endearing -- for instance, he was intrigued by the idea that one tribe of Indians was descended from the Welsh, and he wanted Lewis to listen for evidence of this in the Indians' speech -- but who was relentlessly curious, and far-seeing in his ambitions. No detail was beneath his notice. In admonishing Lewis to make multiple copies of everything he wrote, Jefferson urged that one of the copies be "on the paper of the birch, as less liable to injury from damp than common paper."

has captivated everyone I know who has read it. The book has also prompted many people to wonder if the Lewis and Clark saga might be an appropriate focus for a trip with children, "appropriate" here meaning not just worthy but practical. Are there sights and activities enough to hold the attention of young people? Can the long distances be managed in a manner that children will tolerate, even enjoy? The answer to such questions is yes.

SOME journeys in modern America have the effect of diminishing the achievement of those who made the same journeys hundreds of years ago. It is sometimes hard to appreciate, for instance, the barrier that the Appalachians once represented. A journey on the route taken by Lewis and Clark produces no belittling effect upon the imagination, perhaps because the Missouri River is so large and constant, and because the horizon at the end of the plains beckons unapproachably for so long. Moreover, the journals kept by Clark, by Lewis (though his have mostly been lost), and by many of the other members of the Corps of Discovery give a minutely detailed account of what happened on every day of the expedition. Over the years Lewis and Clark buffs and the government have pinpointed just about every campsite and put up historical markers and interpretive signs. There are reminders, every time you stop, of the demands posed by logistics, illness, and diplomacy, not to mention by an unruly and sometimes violent river whose course was dimly known.

Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery left the St. Louis area in a specially designed keelboat in May of 1804. The party returned in September of 1806 (without the keelboat). I and my wife, Anna Marie, and our three children, ages ten, twelve, and fourteen, left St. Louis in a rented Ford minivan in the middle of last July. We returned in the middle of August (with the minivan). Our strategy was to intersperse bursts of vast distance -- say, 700 miles in a day -- between stays of two, three, or four days at selected spots. If we were to make the trip over again, we would stay longer in three specific areas. These stand out as offering not only a microcosm of the original Lewis and Clark expedition but also many historical sidelights and family amenities.

The first of these is the region around Bismarck, North Dakota. There is a fetching candor about this compact state capital (population: 53,500) on the Missouri. The capitol building is a modest Depression-era skyscraper, as if the government had insisted that some symbol of its power stand taller than the grain elevators. To a family hailing from Boston, a city like Bismarck boasts a touch of the exotic. The city also occupies a stretch of the Missouri that we came to appreciate as typical of the river: a powerful ribbon, fringed green with cottonwoods, and winding through a floodplain sharply defined by ocher bluffs and hills. (Karl Bodmer's painting View of the Bear Paw Mountains From Fort McKenzie superbly captures the Missouri's character.) From Fort Abraham Lincoln, on a grassy, windswept knob across the river, George Armstrong Custer set out in 1876 for his final destiny at the Little Bighorn.

The winter that Lewis and Clark spent just north of Bismarck, at the place they called Fort Mandan, was crucial to their success. With the Mandan Indians they bartered for supplies to tide the corps over. Several Hidatsa villages lay nearby, at the confluence of the Knife River and the Missouri, and from the Hidatsa the corps obtained intelligence about the journey ahead. Among the Hidatsa, Lewis and Clark also found the young Shoshone woman Sacagawea, who had come from farther west and who would be an interpreter. At the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site the little that remains of these Hidatsa communities has been protected: when the sun is low, it reveals on a bluff above the river the shadowed depressions where earth lodges stood. Portions of the bluff that have been eroded sharply by water offer a cutaway view of archaeological strata -- one can see clearly, for instance, places where hundreds of years ago buffalo bones were buried in middens. Our children meandered for half a mile, peering intently at the layers. The Knife River site, maintained by the National Park Service, offers a well-stocked visitor center but little in the way of modern restoration. It is an excellent example of how intelligent commentary and modest display can make a natural setting speak across the ages.

The second area we would concentrate on is a tract beginning in Helena, Montana (another small and splendid state capital), and running up to Missoula and then west across the panhandle of Idaho. I had written to Stephen Ambrose in advance of the trip to ask what few things a family on an expedition such as ours, with limited time, should not fail to experience, and near the top of his list he put a length of the Missouri just north of Helena called Gates of the Mountains: "You must take the boat tour." If you want to see Gates of the Mountains -- and you do -- the river tour is, in fact, the fastest and most direct way; hiking into this six-mile stretch of sheer cliffs and dramatic gulches would take about a day. The trip by motor launch opens up a secluded world of bald eagles and bighorns beneath a narrow, winding strip of sky.

One of the few places a boat can put ashore is where Lewis and Clark made camp on July 19, 1805. Lewis wrote,

This evening we entered much the most remarkable clifts that we have yet seen. these clifts rise from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the hight of 1200 feet.... the river appears to have forced it's way through this immence body of solid rock.

From the campsite a long, strenuous hike leads to Mann Gulch, where a 1949 forest fire killed thirteen smoke jumpers -- a tragedy recounted in the book Young Men & Fire, by Norman Maclean, better known for his memoir A River Runs Through It. The roof of an overhang the trail passes is marked by Indian pictographs.

Lewis and Clark had trouble getting across the western mountains. The high country was higher than what they had imagined, and more rugged, and it stretched on for longer. The mountains were covered with snow even in summertime. The expedition crossed the Continental Divide at Lemhi Pass, but the route from there became impassable; so Lewis and Clark turned north and followed the Bitterroot River until they came to an Indian trail along ridgelines in the Bitterroot Mountains at elevations as high as 7,000 feet. This is the Lolo Trail, and it runs for about a hundred miles from Lolo, Montana, near Missoula, to Weippe, Idaho, about two thirds of the way across the panhandle. A two-lane highway, Route 12, parallels the Lolo Trail, in some places closely and in others, where it follows the course of the Lochsa River, ten or fifteen miles to the south.

This is one of the great drives in America: the mountains drop right down to the Lochsa, whose crystalline waters trill over rounded stones, and then rise up sharply again on the other side. Near the beginning of this drive is an ordinary yellow road sign warning of sinuous roadway ahead -- NEXT 77 MILES.

About our westward course along this stretch of Route 12 Ambrose had advised, "Turn right, follow almost any logging road to the top, and you are on the Lolo Trail, where the hiking is also superb." Those logging roads, fashioned from hard-packed earth, curl narrowly along steep drop-offs for ten miles or more, gaining three quarters of a mile in altitude, before hitting Forest Road 500, which braids in and out of the Lolo Trail. Here, high on the ridge, in the late summer of 1805, Lewis and Clark spent some of their most trying days -- out of food, disoriented by a sudden snowstorm, and without the slightest evidence that the mountains would ever end.

Private Joseph Whitehouse wrote in his journal on September 16, 1805, "Camped in a thicket of Spruce pine & bolsom fir timber. all being tired & hungry obledged us to kill another colt and eat the half of it this evening. it has quit Snowing this evening, but continues chilley and cold." Our experience of the place was different. We had a large-scale map and plenty of provender. The coolness was welcome. We made snowballs in late July, and peered from the trail through wooded slopes that tumbled downward at 60 degrees. A small herd of elk loped into intermittent view on a carpet of flowering bitterroot, as angled shafts of sunlight sliced between vertical shafts of trees.

The third area we should have explored longer is western Oregon, where Lewis and Clark, having reached the ocean, settled in for the winter of 1805-1806. The quiet functionality and understated diversity of Portland is well known, and the city makes an easy base of operations. The Columbia River meets the Pacific at Astoria, a comely harbor town that retains something of a raw feel ("We Ain't Quaint!" is its unofficial motto) and that rises from waterfront to high ground and extraordinary views. The site of Fort Clatsop, Lewis and Clark's winter quarters, lies only a few miles away. "The fort has been reconstructed," Ambrose wrote in his letter, "and the living history program is outstanding (get them to show your kids how to start a fire on a rainy morning without matches or paper)." Starting a fire in wet weather was an urgent necessity for Lewis and Clark: during the more than three months they spent at Fort Clatsop, it failed to rain on only twelve days. As it happened, we had cloudless sunshine, but Ambrose was right about the Fort Clatsop facility and its programs. The museum at the visitor center is excellent. One nice touch: outside the entrance, markers on a map of the Lewis and Clark route are moved with the passing days to show the location of the expedition westward in 1805 and eastward in 1806; journal entries from the same dates are posted alongside. Less than an hour from Fort Clatsop the Pacific crashes below the headlands and tall pines of Ecola Point. The salt air on a steady breeze proved to be a powerful restorative, and we just stood for a while, leaning toward Japan. William Clark wrote in his journal on November 7, 1805, "Ocian in view! O! the joy."

THE strategy our family has adopted for long-distance travel -- intense push, long rest, repeat -- has served us well on a number of occasions, and it served us well this time. It is both more efficient and more relaxing than an evenly spaced journey, especially when children are involved. In exploration, Stephen Ambrose writes in Undaunted Courage, "the planning process ... is as much guesswork as it is intelligent forecasting of the physical needs of the expedition." If we were to repeat our Lewis and Clark expedition, we would make one big adjustment -- starting and ending in Bismarck, rather than duplicating the original journey by starting and ending in St. Louis. The stretch between the Mississippi and the Dakotas is just too long, and the time saved can be well spent in other places.

A question about long-distance car travel that often comes up: Should personal stereos be banned, on aesthetic and communitarian grounds? Yes, in your next life. In this life bring one per customer -- and a battery recharger.

Grownups will inevitably have more taste and more tolerance than will children for some of the literary aspects of a Lewis and Clark trip. ("Read the journals aloud," Ambrose had urged -- a highly worthwhile activity, but one for which a family in its full complement may have limited patience.) Fortunately, for reasons dictated by geography, much of American history and commerce moved west on the same general route that Lewis and Clark did, which means that plenty of other things to do and see are within easy reach along the way: whitewater rafting, rodeos all during the summer, and kitschy western weird stuff everywhere. Three of the greatest national parks (Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Teton) and some wonderful smaller ones (Badlands, Theodore Roosevelt) also lie in the neighborhood. We gave each child the right to pick one "must-see" destination, prompting forays to Old Faithful, Mount St. Helens, and the ghost town of Bannack, Montana.

Good books and maps are essential. In addition to the Ambrose account we took with us the one-volume edited by Bernard DeVoto. the book based on last fall's PBS documentary, by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, is useful for its photographs and its reproductions of paintings and documents. The National Park Service has often been a target of criticism on matters of high national policy, but I have always been impressed with its service-oriented outposts at actual park sites. Even the most rudimentary Park Service maps for the carbound are clear and elegant; visitor centers and ranger stations usually also stock topographical maps for the more adventurous. One of the best investments we made was in the Forest Service's large-scale map of the Clearwater National Forest, which enfolds the entire Lolo Trail. General inquiries about Lewis and Clark's route should be addressed to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, National Park Service, 700 Rayovac Drive, Suite 100, Madison, WI 53711; 608-264-5610.

One other map proved indispensable: a map of Powell's City of Books (provided at the door), a sprawling bookstore in Portland, Oregon, with a well-deserved national reputation for a vast stock and a smart staff. A long display area is devoted to Lewis and Clark materials. In a brilliant stroke, new and secondhand books are shelved together. Thomas Jefferson said nothing in his orders about keeping an eye out for a good bookstore, but if the Corps of Discovery had returned with news of Powell's and nothing else, the expedition should still have been accounted a great success.

Cullen Murphy is the managing editor of The Atlantic and the author of (1995), a book of essays. He writes the comic strip Prince Valiant.

Photograph by Glenn Oakley. For more about Oakley and his work, visit his page at Smithsonian Magazine's Image Gallery.

The Atlantic Monthly; March 1998; Lewis and Clark and Us; Volume 281, No. 3; pages 32 - 38.