Fresh Eyes on the West

Tracing the path of Lewis and Clark helps us rediscover the meaning of home

Peter Fish

The Missouri River. Green water mirrors cottonwoods and willows. Cloud puffs drift across a silent blue sky.

Then: "Bear! Bear!"

As we watch from the opposite bank, hunter George Drouillard, rifle at the ready, plunges into the willows, pursuing a dimly seen brown blur.

Back on our side of the river, a 12-year-old audience member pipes up: "Hey, that's just a guy in a bear suit."

Well, yeah, kid, strictly speaking it is just a guy in a bear suit, not a real specimen of Ursus arctos horribilis, the American grizzly. And strictly speaking this is not the Corps of Discovery's encampment of June 27, 1805, but a modern reenactment performed by the Great Falls, Montana, Lewis & Clark Honor Guard as part of the city's Lewis & Clark Festival, held each June.

They take their roles seriously, the members of the Honor Guard. Tents, canoes, and rifles are reasonable facsimiles of what Lewis and Clark and their party would have used in 1805. Once the excitement of the bear hunt has died down, Lee Ebeling, a Great Falls engineer who is the Honor Guard's navigation expert, sits beside his tent and demonstrates his Hadley's sextant, a near-perfect replica of the one Meriwether Lewis brought on the expedition. "I got this off eBay," Ebeling explains.

Two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and 30-odd other men ― eventually joined by one 15-year-old Shoshone woman, her trader husband, and their infant child ― across the unknown American West to find easy passage to the Pacific. Two centuries is a long time. But even now their story remains uniquely compelling, unduplicated for heroism and adventure.

Best of all, Lewis and Clark's journey is one that the modern traveler can share. The explorers' complete route extends more than 8,000 miles, from Camp Wood, Illinois, to the Oregon coast. But the best of the trail ― the most beautiful, the least altered ― lies here in the West. To follow the explorers along the Missouri River, across the Rocky Mountains, and down the Columbia River to the Pacific will show you an American West whose capacity to inspire pleasure and awe remains undiminished.

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