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The Surprising Lewis & Clark Trail

No one questions the historic significance of the sites along the Lewis & Clark Trail – the first trans-continental exploration designed to fill in the blanks on the map and hopefully stimulate commerce.  Following the trail is educational – the opportunity to walk (or paddle) where history happened, and all that.  But the fact that much of the journey is spectacularly beautiful is less well-known.

Having traveled the entire trail more times than I can count, I can testify that one of the surprising side benefits to his journey is the often breathless beauty of this vast hinterland.  Stretching from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Oregon, the route leads through what are today known as  “fly-over” states.  To modern city dwellers it seems surprisingly undeveloped, and therefore would probably be easily recognized by the men of the Corps of Discovery.  Participants in our tour program are often at a loss for words when presented with the vast expanses of the plains which still provide ideal habitat for abundant wildlife.

In an area where there are often more cattle than people, it is perhaps understandable that these stunning vistas are a well-kept secret.  But for those of us who live here, both the beauty and the fact that it is largely unknown are self-evident.  Perhaps that is why it is so enjoyable to be able to share this region with the unsuspecting.

It is just this natural beauty combined with the wide open spaces that makes traveling western trails such an effective antidote to twenty-first century stress, overcrowding, noise and pollution.

Unfortunately, not everyone appreciates its potential as an escape valve.  Joel Garreau labeled the western portion of the trail “The Empty Quarter” in his controversial 1981 book, The Nine Nations of North America.  People who live in this part of the world were NOT amused by his dismissal of any possible useful purpose for the area, derisively recommending that it be depopulated and devoted to what he called a “Buffalo Common”.

Like the men of the expedition, our journey begins in the city of St. Louis.  And like them, populated areas become more and more scarce as we move westward.  However, in 1804 St. Louis was home to only 1,000 people and with the exception of St. Charles (now a St. Louis suburb) was the last Euro-American village the Corps would see until their return 28 months later.  Today it takes awhile longer to run out of cities, but we have to use our imaginations to conjure up anything like the Mandan Villages in present-day North Dakota, where the Corps of Discovery spent the winter of 1804-05.  These villages had a combined population greater than that of St. Louis or the infant capital, Washington, DC, at the time.

Because Lewis & Clark were the “writingest explorers in the history of the world” we have their testimony as to how the land looked in the nineteenth century.  Lewis even drew pictures!  Their scientific discoveries were astounding to Americans, most of whom were still huddled within 50 miles of the Atlantic Ocean, and hailed as a great contribution to the world’s knowledge.  Yet few entries were devoted to aesthetics.

There are a few exceptions:  Lewis waxed poetic about the astonishing Great Falls he discovered pretty much where his informants, the Natives, said they would be.  But he was mostly impressed by how many there were, and daunted by the challenge of transporting the tons of equipment, food, and supplies around them all!

Time and again the information Natives gave the Captains was unhelpful because they never traveled by water and couldn’t understand why anybody would.  It seemed self-evident to the inhabitants that the obviously shorter and safer route was overland!

The Lewis & Clark Trail, which as you read this I am once again traveling with our own group of sojourners, is now a National Historic Trail administered by the National Park Service – yes, all 3,700 miles of it!  It is an unforgettable journey and an opportunity to connect with our roots, and – surprisingly – beautiful.

This month’s Trail Talk is sponsored by

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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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