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Following the Lewis & Clark Trail

I have been leading modern-day explorers over the Lewis & Clark Trail more or less regularly since 1997, and as you read this I have embarked with another enthusiastic group on our own great journey west.

As I prepared for this year’s expedition and found myself growing more and more excited about it, I wondered why – given the enormous amount of work entailed – I keep doing it, and more interestingly, why I like it so much. After all, despite annual fine tuning and improvements, the itinerary has stayed basically the same. We begin in St. Louis, as the Corps of Discovery did, and end up on Oregon’s Pacific Coast. One might expect the newness to wear off at some point, and ennui to set in.

But it has yet to happen, and I continue to eagerly await each year’s journey. I have been around the block a few times, and I am therefore aware of the very real danger of burnout from repetitive trips. So even during the Bicentennial Celebration (2003-2006) when we were running three expeditions per summer, I made sure that no tour director led more than one each year. Secondly, this adventure is the very epitome of an adventure of the mind. I have written about this subject in an earlier Trail Talk, but basically this type of travel substitutes the thrill of being where history happened coupled with learning new things which enrich our lives for the adrenaline rush of risking life and limb in some pointless physical activity (spoken like a dedicated couch potato).

We travel through major American cities that would startle the members of the Corps of Discovery, but we also traverse hundreds of miles of open prairie and occasionally walk in the actual footsteps of our heroes in locations they would easily recognize. Six major twentieth century dams along the Missouri River preclude even the semblance of a water journey, but we follow the river course faithfully and get out on the water ourselves several times. In fact “the river”, which is actually a succession of changing rivers on our westward course, is the touchstone of this journey; we are rarely out of sight of the water and often overnight in riverside hotels overlooking their coursing waters.

Since this Vanishing Trail was launched in 2001 three different tour directors have conducted this tour, each lending a unique perspective to the experience. One was from Oregon, one from St. Louis, and one from South Dakota. The Oregonian, who is – alas – no longer with us, was an expert on the Oregon Trail, a much later event in American chronology and a part of America’s so-called Manifest Destiny era rather than the period of exploration. My tour director from St. Louis (Kris Lokemoen, who also wrote all the articles on our history website: Explore the Lewis & Clark Trail) finds the western half of the Lewis & Clark Trail more interesting than the east, while I – with my feet planted firmly in the West – favor the earlier history of the lower half of the journey. The three of us provide perfect examples of a fact of human nature: the further away something is from the familiar, the more exotic and interesting it becomes.

However, I credit the participants in our big adventure as the main reason that I have never experienced burnout on the Lewis & Clark Trail. Each brings an eagerness and perspective to share with other members of the group that is contagious. We learn from each other as we proceed, and make new memories to cherish about our shared adventure based on the contributions of each individual. This is more or less true of every tour, but seems to intensify with theme tours because of the common interest we all start with. There is a special bond between participants who have been reading books and eagerly awaiting their special excursion for many months – not unlike the preparations Lewis & Clark made prior to the start of the exploration we are tracing.

I’ve had several inquiries about whether the Lewis & Clark Trail will be offered again in 2014, which is surprising to me, since it has been six years since we could muster the minimum number of participants to even run. But I do know that interest in the Lewis & Clark Trail never really disappears because of its universal appeal, and it’s just a matter of reaching the right people. We haven’t decided yet whether we will offer it again next year, but if interest continues it is a distinct possibility. If you are one of the many who contacted us too late, or for one reason or another couldn’t make it this year, stay tuned!

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Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. She is a frequent presenter at numerous history conferences and trade association meetings and is a regular contributor to ABA’s Insider online magazine.  Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.

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