Lewis and Clark: Their footprints are gone

  Not long ago I was assigned a story for an outdoor magazine. The idea was to find a small portion of the Lewis and Clark trail that remains relatively unchanged since their storied journey, to go there and immerse myself for a couple of days, following their footsteps, and report on the experience.

No problem, I thought. Montana has more Lewis and Clark trail than any other state, especially if you add in the border country near Lolo Pass on the Idaho side, and, I assumed, more pockets of wild land than any other state along their route. Surely I could find a fragment of territory sufficient to support a vigorous weekend hike that would echo Lewis's and Clark's experience of the Western landscape, even if today’s herds of buffalo are few and fenced, the wolves beleaguered and scarce, and the throat-catching rapids tamed by dams.

I didn’t expect to be chased around by grizzly bears, as Lewis and Clark routinely were, or to run rapids on the pre-dammed Columbia River so fierce that Native Americans lined up by the hundreds to watch the white explorers drown. Yet the phrase, "essentially unchanged since the days of Lewis and Clark" has been bandied about by various tourism agencies and government offices around here ever since the bicentennial hoopla started up. Reading some of their brochures, you'd think nobody had followed their example and come West in the last 200 years.

It didn't take long before my naive optimism started to fade. I studied maps. I contacted government agencies, talked to Lewis and Clark coordinators, called environmental groups, compared notes with hiking friends, read through the expedition journals. Every time I thought I had a promising lead -- just the right sort of spot -- I'd find that the "pristine" country was more a patchwork of clearcut and logging road, or a 4-wheel drive road, or agricultural land, or only half a mile from a state highway, or only long enough to escape the sound and sight and clutter of settlement for a few hours at a stretch.

I kept talking to my editors, explaining my plight. Initially we all assumed that it was only a matter of time before I found a suitable hiking trail, that it was all a sort of historical scavenger hunt with the prize sure to turn up around the next bend. But it didn't.

There is no place that qualifies, anywhere. There isn't one spot of the route where people can lose themselves for a three-day hike and feel that they are treading in the intrepid footsteps of the Corps of Discovery, in the kind of wilderness the explorers experienced throughout their 28-month expedition.

Nothing.

OK, the editors said. How about wild country that qualifies close to the route, something in the vicinity of the route, maybe someplace from which you might be able to catch a glimpse of the route?

Eventually, I had to settle for that compromised strategy. Given that broader focus, I could consider the wilderness of the Bitterroot Mountains, or the roadless areas on the Montana/Idaho border known as the Great Burn, the Sapphire Range, the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness. I went for a long weekend into some lovely, If constrained, backcountry and saw views similar in scope to those witnessed by the explorers (as long as I was willing to look in the right direction). I read excerpts from their journals from the exact same days, thought about the fortitude and endurance and sheer conspiracy of luck that allowed that journey to succeed.

But I couldn't shake the profound disappointment of not being able to find just 15 or 20 miles of wild trail where I could sense the ghosts of history. Mind you, I wasn't surprised that things had changed profoundly in the centuries since. I know full well the impact of settlement, of highway construction, of clearcut logging, of mining and subdivision and grazing and cultivating and damming. I know. A lot has happened in 200 years. What was a surprise was how complete and uncompromising the transformation was.

I wrote my story. I extolled a nearby fragment of wild landscape. I liberally quoted the explorers and compared our experiences. But the whole thing was permeated and overwhelmed by an inescapable sense of loss. I had been unable to uncover even a fragment of untrammeled land left along the legacy of this formidable trail. So now, when I see brochures boasting about the landscape, saying that it is possible to experience what Lewis and Clark must have felt, I know that it is a bald-faced promoter's lie.

Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He lives and writes in Bozeman, Montana.

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