- Historic Sites
If Lewis And Clark Came Back Today
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
November 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 7
It was on the coast that the Corps of Discovery got into the habit of carving their names into tree trunks. From the journal accounts, it seems, few trees near the sea escaped their knives. Reading between the lines, I get the impression they emblazoned the date and their names and initials with particular gusto, relief, and pride, as the most tangible evidence they could think of to prove they had actually crossed the continent. But mixed in with those emotions was also a tinge of fear—fear that they might not make it back to their homes, that they would never be heard from again, that they and their remarkable achievements would be lost to history. Marking a tree was both a boast and a plea to be remembered.
The tree markings have long since disappeared. But other things now bear their names. On our hurried return toward St. Louis, I would point out some of them: towns, counties, and national forests, rivers and mountain passes, high schools and colleges, campsites and cafés, the Lewis and Clark Search and Rescue Association, and the Lewis and Clark 24-Hour Wrecking Service. Where they ran out of whiskey, there is a Lewis and Clark Distillery. Where they switched from eating horses to eating dogs, there is the Lewis and Clark Animal Shelter.
We could follow federal highway signs marked “Lewis and Clark Trail” all the way from the Pacific to the east bank of the Mississippi, where they embarked on their journey. Near St. Louis I would drive them over the Lewis Bridge and then the Clark Bridge before I dropped them off, on the Illinois side, at the Lewis and Clark Motel. “We proceeded on,” I would tell them on behalf of their nation, “but you weren’t forgotten.”
There would be much for them to report on to Mr. Jefferson, some of it with great pride, some of it with great sorrow. Before we parted, I would add one more bit of information, telling the captains about what happened back in North Dakota on the morning after the cold night in the earth lodge with Gerard Baker.
Thanks to his sleeping bag, Gerard woke up warmer than I did. My feet felt like blocks of ice, and it took some time near the fire to restore them. Gerard teased me, saying that in honor of my experience he might give me an Indian name; what did I think of “Man Who Sleeps in Buffalo Robes” or “Smells Like Tripe”? Then he invited me back for the summer, promising that we could visit a traditional sweat lodge he had built. A friendship was forming that has now lasted for a decade and a half—despite the distances between our homes and the differences of race and culture.
We have many things in common. Among them is a passion for history, not just out of intellectual curiosity but based on a more practical belief: that the journey to a better future must include discovering the past and learning from it. And while our approach is to explore history by being clear-eyed about its darker moments, we both try to pay attention and respect to the spirits of those who came before us.
Gerard’s desire to keep alive the traditions of his people had led him to the journals of Lewis and Clark, one of the best-written records about the Mandans and Hidatsas before the epidemic that nearly ended the tribes’ very existence. My search to understand my nation, by retracing its pursuit of the next horizon, had led me to the same source. Along the trail of the Corps of Discovery, our paths had crossed, and if I could meet their spirits, I would thank the two captains for bringing us together.
That morning was as cold as the morning before. The sun was shining, but the temperature was not going to reach zero, and the north wind still howled. We had planned on hiking to the site of Fort Mandan, a walk guaranteed to be both bone-chilling and fatiguing. For a moment we considered staying put, near the comfort of our fire. But like Lewis and Clark, we were moved by the spirit of discovery. We packed up our gear and stepped out to face the new day. And then we proceeded on.