Lewis and Clark displayed our spirit

December 16, 1997|By Dayton Duncan

NEARLY 200 years ago, in late November of 1805, the members of the Lewis and Clark expedition huddled near the mouth of the Columbia River, having become the first American citizens to cross the continent by land.

Far from home and pinned down for weeks by a relentless Pacific storm that William Clark (in his own imaginative spelling) called ''tempestous and horiable,'' the small band of explorers nevertheless found a tangible way to commemorate their remarkable achievement: They began carving their names into tree trunks -- so many times, it appears from Clark's journal entries, that few trees near their sodden campsites escaped their knife blades.

With each cut, they seemed to be boasting, ''I was here,'' yet also pleading, ''Remember me.''

A great story

Those tree markings (and in most cases the trees themselves) have long since disappeared. But the story the Corps of Discovery left behind remains embedded in our national consciousness, and each generation etches it anew with a fresh flourish. The overwhelming public response to our recent PBS documentary -- in some cities it even outdrew the commercial networks -- is merely the latest evidence of the persistent appeal of Lewis and Clark. Why is that?

For starters, it is a great adventure story, filled with tense scenes of suspense, ordeals to overcome, moments of seeming triumph snatched away by yet another unexpected obstacle, even sudden twists in the plot more remarkable than fiction. Underlying it all is the timeless desire to discover what lies around the next bend of the river, what waits just beyond the farthest horizon.

Sent by a young nation that itself would soon embark toward the Pacific, Lewis and Clark took our first transcontinental ''road trip.'' Since that time, road trips have held a special grip on the American imagination. Think of ''Huckleberry Finn,'' ''On the Road,'' ''Travels With Charley,'' ''Lonesome Dove'' or ''Wagon Train,'' ''Star Trek,'' ''Thelma and Louise'' and so many others. We readily respond to tales of journeys, perhaps because journeying is so intertwined with our past. ''We proceeded on,'' the most recurrent phrase in the expedition's journals, also summarizes much of our history.

Cast of characters

There's also a fascinating cast of characters, beginning with the two captains. The brilliant but troubled Meriwether Lewis -- capable of switching from exaltation to deep melancholy at a moment's notice -- was perfectly complemented by the gregarious, trustworthy William Clark. Sharing the command in contradiction to military protocol, learning on the trail to trust each other without question, theirs became one of the great friendships in American history; two very different men, now rightfully linked together forever.

But this is more than a ''buddy story.'' The crew included rough frontiersmen from Kentucky and Pennsylvania, soldiers from Virginia and New Hampshire, French-Canadian boatmen, sons of white fathers and American Indian mothers, a black slave and a )) young American Indian woman who brought along her infant son.

By the time they reached the Pacific, this motley collection of individuals had molded themselves into a cohesive Corps of Discovery, a community-on-the-move whose sense of shared purpose enabled them to surmount all the odds and achieve great things. That hard-earned sense of unity culminated on the continent's farthest shore, in an extraordinary and powerfully symbolic moment. The captains invited everyone -- including the slave and American Indian woman -- to vote on the crucial decision of where to build winter quarters. Even now (perhaps now most particularly), their story reminds us of an essential American promise: from diversity, strength, from different origins, a common destination, e pluribus unum.

They remind us of more. Within Lewis and Clark's journals is a vivid description of the West at the dawn of the 19th century.

They met an astonishing variety of American Indian peoples -- nomads who followed the buffalo on horseback, farmers living in permanent villages of Earth lodges, refugees from tribal wars scavenging for roots in the mountains, people who survived on fish and traveled by boat. Lewis and Clark were crossing their homelands and quite simply would never have succeeded without the American Indians' repeated generosity and help.

In return, on behalf of the nation poised to move westward, a grateful Lewis and Clark offered ''the hand of unalterable friendship'' and promised that ''the Great Spirit will smile upon your nation and in future ages will make you outnumber the trees of the forest.''

Unspoiled beauty

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