Postcards From The Edge (Of America): The Adventures of Lewis & Clark


On May 14, 1804—205 years ago tomorrow—Lewis & Clark began their excellent adventure. The great Michael Stusser is with us to recap America's most celebrated road trip.

Imagine taking a road trip with some friends, but this time, you're not in a Winnebago during Spring Break or runnin' a quickie to Tijuana and back. There are no cell phones, no GPS systems and no 24-hour convenience stores. Nope, this little jaunt is about 8,000 miles round-trip, and you'll be lucky to travel 12 clicks on a good day. There's no reliable map to guide your path. You'll have to chow stewed dog meat to stave off starvation. Oh, and you'll encounter hail the size of grapefruit, rattlesnakes galore and potentially hostile tribes who very well may want to kill you.

The good news? You can't get lost because you have no idea where you're going.

We're talking, of course, about the great journey of Lewis and Clark, the original cross-country Hikapalooza over 200 years ago when the first U.S. citizens reached the Pacific by land. Together, the members of the expedition braved that big mass of unknown territory known as "the geography of hope," an uncharted land full of rumors, from Bigfoot to savage cannibals. Not to mention gold under the rainbow.

A Three Hour Tour...
President Thomas Jefferson was the one who came up with this crazy idea, but he made it sound pretty simple: Explore a water route up the Missouri River and then along the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Coast. Yeah, right.

While the idea of finding a path connecting the two shores was a good call, it was pretty much impossible because of those pesky Rocky Mountains (who knew?). So what was supposed to be a quick trip to the Pacific ended up lasting 28 months.

To organize the expedition, Jefferson called on Meriwether Lewis, a 29-year-old fellow Virginian and his personal secretary. Lewis accepted the challenge and got his old Army buddy, William Clark, to ride shotgun. Of course, for Clark, partnering with Lewis meant demoting himself from Lewis's previous superior officer to the equal-ranking position of captain. It was an important political move, and one that he wouldn't forget (stay tuned).

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I'll Trade You a Piece of Gum for That Tomahawk
The trip began on May 14, 1804. At least for a little while, the journey was the kind of cake walk President Jefferson had predicted. Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska were in full summer swing, flowers were blooming, and gentle hills greeted the group at every turn.

But the Corps knew that as they ventured further west they would enter what were contractually Spanish and French territories. Of course, the land really belonged to the many bands of Native Americans living in the west who had called the area home for over 15,000 years. Lewis and Clark were a little nervous that the natives wouldn't be too happy to see a bunch of pasty white strangers tramping on their land, but rather than be selfish or aggressive to the new explorers, the hundreds of Indian tribes inhabiting the region acted more like AAA, aiding the expedition time and time again with food and shelter.

The first indigenous peoples the Corps came upon were part of a small group of Oto and Missouri Indians. Knowing there might be some tension for crashing the party, Lewis and Clark had prepared gift baskets for the people they encountered, offering the natives specially minted bronze Presidential Peace Medals. Then they set up a virtual Swap Meet where they traded materials such as canteens, looking-glasses, fish hooks (popular), uniform coats (very popular) and guns (more popular). That was the usual routine: Dole out a few gifts (tobacco, beads, chewing gum) and march a little in formation, after which Lewis would calmly inform the tribes that they were now a part of the United States. Strangely, this didn't anger the Native Americans, but only because, after multiple translations, they probably had no idea what old pale-face was saying.

Their hospitality plans certainly worked, and throughout the Corps' journey, the men continued to receive crucial supplies, advice and guidance from the 50-some odd Native American tribes they encountered. At one critical juncture, the Nez Percé tribe gave them meals when they had little to eat themselves. Other tribes provided canoes, improved footwear and important information about the terrain ahead.

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Are We There Yet? Are We There Yet? Are We There Yet?
When the Corps left "Fort Mandan" (North Dakota) in April of 1805, they began the big push west. Leaving two riff-raff soldiers behind at winter camp, they headed out with 32 men, Sacagawea and her son.

It was at this point that they faced their biggest physical obstacle: the Rocky Mountains. Without horses, there was no way the group would be able to carry their gear across, a problem soon solved when the Corps encountered a band of Shoshone Indians. In one of those "you've gotta be kidding me" coincidences, Sacagawea's brother turned out to be the chief of the tribe, so they got a pretty sweet barter deal on a bunch of stallions. It still took the Corps two solid months to cross the Rockies. On the up side, they got great views of the Gates of the Mountains, Three Forks and the Bitterroot Range (so called because when they saw those suckers and realized the ocean was nowhere in sight, "˜twas a bitter pill).

Even after they made it over the Rockies, they kept running into problems: broken boats, grueling climbs, swarms of mosquitoes, even grizzlies. They trudged through snow in the Bitterroot Range, battled the Missouri River's fierce currents for its entire 2,400-mile length and dealt with nasty rains that literally rotted the clothes off their backs.

When the crew reached present-day Oregon, they knew they were getting close. Although it was new to them, the area was a huge marketplace for Natives all over the west, bustling with hundreds of traders and merchants. Soon thereafter, on November 18, 1805, the crew finally strolled up onto the sands of the Pacific. Though it took the Corps a year and a half to reach what was known as Cape Disappointment, their attitude was quite the opposite.

"Ocian [sic] in view! O! the joy," exclaimed the spelling-impaired Clark in his journal. History was made. Like teenagers at Lover's Lane, they carved their initials and the date on a tree to commemorate the journey from sea to shining sea.

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Home Sweet Home
The voyage was successful, but it wasn't all Slurpees and Motel 6's. As happens on many road trips, not everyone got along. Clark became fed up with Lewis, whose authoritative ways and constant slights didn't exactly facilitate a "we're in this together" attitude. In fact, Lewis was hit with the moniker "Frown" for his general demeanor and management style. Sentries caught sleeping on night watch received 100 lashes, and members of the Corps who wanted to go AWOL and join Native American tribes along the way had to run for their lives, lest Lewis shoot them dead.

On March 23, 1806, the Corps left newly-built Fort Clatsop, and headed home. The two leaders took separate routes homeward (not because they couldn't get along, but to map more turf), and found more people heading west just as they returned. Commerce flourished up the Missouri, and in the Rockies, the fur trade was in full swing. The frontier floodgates had officially opened.

In the last week of September 1806, two years and four months after departing, the Corps of Discovery arrived back in St. Louis. Congress gave each member of the expedition double-pay and a chunk of land. Lewis became governor of the Louisiana Territory and Clark took over command of the Louisiana military.

All seemed right with the world. Clark basked in his newfound fame, married a nice gal and (leaving future road trips to others) settled in St. Louis as a socialite. But Lewis met a more surprising fate. Only three years after his return, during a trip to Washington, D.C., he killed himself in an apparent bout of depression.

Lewis and Clark were two very different men, but they nevertheless managed to lead the Corps of Discovery to resounding success. They saw the amazing variance of the country: the great salmon runs of the Columbia River, the giant Evergreens and the sheer vastness of the land. And, most importantly, the duo made it back to tell the tale. They also set the trend for doing exactly what thousands still do today to get to know our great land: Hit the road, Jack. Tread lightly.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine, available wherever brilliant (or lots of) magazines are sold.

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