Ponder the lessons of Lewis and Clark

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

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photoJohn Laird is The Columbian's editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at john.laird@columbian.com.

One of the most significant sites in U.S. history remains remotely detached from today’s Americans. Lemhi Pass on the Montana-Idaho border marks the first step by Meriwether Lewis over the Continental Divide. As such, it is the fountainhead of all that was good and bad about Manifest Destiny.

In accordance with many other historic mountain passes, Lemhi Pass ought to be traversed today by a busy highway. But because Lewis was more lost than found when he crossed Lemhi, the pass at an elevation of 7,373 feet today offers no utility to modern travelers. It is reached only by a steep and winding dirt road.

As Lewis ascended Lemhi on Aug. 12, 1805, his hope was to gaze upon the Columbia River, with the Pacific Ocean on the horizon. What he saw, though, likely inspired a two-word utterance, the first word being, “Oh … .” His journal describes “immense ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered in snow.” Today, that remote area in Idaho remains largely inaccessible, aptly named the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Back in 1805, a crestfallen Lewis suddenly knew there would be no Northwest Passage with an easy portage across the Divide.

Fast forward 207 years. On Sept. 20, my wife and I parked our car several yards shy of the pass and walked to the top. The same view greeted us on a crisp, clear morning.

My first thought as an under-informed Lewis and Clark enthusiast was a comment made by the late historian Stephen Ambrose. When he was interviewed for Ken Burns’ PBS documentary about Lewis and Clark, Ambrose said: “To manage the portage of the Great Falls, to get over the Lolo Trail, to go down that Columbia River, these are feats that, had they not welded themselves together into that team, they just could not possibly have accomplished. So, I think the No. 1 human lesson of the Lewis and Clark expedition is what can be accomplished by a team of disciplined men who are dedicated to a common purpose.” My second thought at Lemhi Pass that morning was how we Americans today fall so pathetically short of that teamwork example.

Blizzards in the Bitterroots

Later that day, we found U.S. Highway 93 and drove north back into Montana, following the expedition’s approximate route over Lost Trail Pass. We spent the night in Missoula, then drove west through the Bitterroot mountains on the Lolo Trail. Two centuries ago, this was the toughest stretch of the 28-month odyssey as the explorers fought off starvation and blizzards for 10 days. The same luck that brought Sacagawea to the expedition the previous winter, and brought them Shoshone horses that helped them over Lemhi, and brought Sacagawea to the miraculous reunion with her brother Cameahwait, that same serendipity had served up Old Toby, the Shoshone guide who ushered them down the Lolo Trail to the Clearwater River.

Back then, the trek from Lemhi Pass to beyond the Bitterroots took almost six weeks. We made the same journey in two leisurely days. Then we rejoined a pampered, advanced civilization that spends much of its time fighting not for survival but over ideologies.

At the end of the Lolo Trail, I pondered the same question that often pops up in my rhapsodic relationship with Lewis and Clark: How do today’s Americans stack up against those 32 collaborative adventurers who completed the epic journey?

Well, many things we do better. Spelling, for example, or at least our spell-checkers are better. And, although William Clark was a master cartographer, our geographic skills are more advanced. Near Lemhi Pass, Lewis wrote that he bestrode “the most distant fountain of the waters of the mighty Missouri in surch of which we have spent so many toilsome days and wristless nights.” Today, we know the Missouri’s source actually is 100 miles southeast of where Lewis stood.

But some things we do much worse. Teamwork, for example, seems scarce these days. My guess is that, if today’s Congress had been in charge of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Manifest Destiny would’ve been postponed for at least a generation or two.