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American Impressions, Chapter 2: Montana
Backtracking Lewis & Clark

The Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806 is as much fact as mythology. The approaching bi-centennial is generating its share of both. Bestselling books such as Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage and the Ken Burns-PBS series on the expedition are sending thousands of fans on the 7,500-mile trails between St. Louis and the Pacific. My interest in Meriwether Lewis and William Clark was generic until I decided to backtrack as much of their trail as possible in late fall in Montana, where they covered the most ground. My aim was simply to compare what the two men saw and wrote about in their journals 200 years ago with what's there now -- and what's not -- through a journal of my own.

Day One: In the area of Ledger and the Marias River, northeast Montana.

The plains were so endlessly empty in every direction that I might as well have been in the middle of an ocean. The last time Meriwether Lewis was in the neighborhood he'd been galloping southeast by moonlight to escape Blackfeet Indians, two of whom he and his men had killed when his exploration of the Marias River turned into a disastrous foreign policy venture. Lewis and his men rode until two in the morning through empty country that has barely changed since, right by a roll of prairie hills now crossed by County Route 366, also called Ledger Road.

There is nothing along Ledger Road except the small town of Ledger (pop. about 12), a missile control station eight miles further, and an abandoned anti-ballistic missile facility another eight miles hence. I had heard the ABM facility described as an enormous ruin, the biggest man-made feature in that area of the Plains, and also, now, the most useless. I wanted to see it in the middle of the hills Lewis would have seen, back when campfires and tipi rings formed the extent man-made imprints on the plains.

Twelve ABM facilities were designed in the late 1960s as America's missile-defense shield. They were to be massive, windowless boxes of concrete covering an acre of land each, built to resist a nuclear blast. But a 1972 treaty with the Soviets limited ABM sites to one for each nation, immediately making the Montana site surplus property. Construction there stopped, leaving a shell of a building thick with 10,000 cubic yards of concrete. What had been one of the military's most secretive and critical defense projects overnight became a nesting ground for prarie swallows and bobcats, its wall billboards to obscene and ironic graffiti like "Aim high," "you bit the big one," "Not responsible for loss or accident."

The floor's concrete was covered with white birds' feathers, gravel, rotting pop bottles, bolts, mud, and in one corner of the building the decomposing skeleton of a deer-size animal. As I walked around, irrationally scared myself, swallows swooped out in a frightening drove from hidden crannies in the ceiling. Their chicks chirped wildly then fell silent, maybe lulled by the low howl of wind snaking around the building's 40 or so support pillars. The pillars were all encased in faded yellow steel. On one, the outline of a man had been spray-painted, named Dick (I assumed for Dick Nixon), then drilled with 41 bullet holes that barely marked the steel.

The building is impossible to be rid of. It would be far more expensive to remove its nine-feet-thick steel-reinforced walls than it is leaving it there, in the middle of the nowhere a white man saw for the first time on the moonlit night of July 27, 1806, as Meriwether Lewis was galloping away from hostile Indians "through a beautiful level plain" and past "immence herds of buffaloe all night."

Day Two: Great Falls.

Like the 500th anniversary of Columbus' "discovery" of America in 1992, the Lewis and Clark expedition, which is five years away from its bicentennial, is re-emerging in a prison-house of interpretive quote marks, of revisionism, of "yes, but" qualifiers. One could get lost in the arguments.

At the centennial of the expedition in 1904, St. Louis hosted a world's fair and drew 20 million visitors to an event that also unveiled the hot dog, the ice cream cone and the song "Meet Me in St. Louis." It was a celebration. If the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls is an indication of the bicentennial's tenor, the St. Louis example is history. "It's not going to celebrate. It's going to commemorate," says Jane Webber, 44, the center's director. The interpretive center strains to convey the sense that Lewis and Clark were not the first white men to see the west as much as the first white men to tread on the west's Indian country.

The center is on one side of a chasm that splits those who want to see Lewis and Clark as heroes, myths and all, and those who want to reinterpret their heroism.

"This is America's epic," says Robert Weir Jr., 51, chairman of the bicentennial committee of the National Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. "This is the story of the kind of people that we are. It exemplifies our spirit, how we want to know what's across over the hill, over the mountains and across the river. It helps to define what Americans are."

Many Indians see it differently.

"We were their hosts and they were not very good guests," says Jeanne Eder, a historian and a Dakota Sioux. Eder, 50, does not hesitate to say that her work on the National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Council -- she is one of three Native Americans on the 25-member panel -- is all about redress. "It's time after 200 years that the native people go to tell their side of the story and to give a balance. That's where your revisionism is going to come in."

Raised in the Sioux culture on an Indian reservation, Eder was in her 20s when she first read the journal pages where Lewis addresses Indians as "children," and refers to Jefferson as their "Great White father."

"I was very angry," Eder recalls. "It just reminds me of how for years history has been written to patronize Indians and remind people that the Great White father is here to take care of them." She laughs at that, too.

The expedition was well armed and always ready to use its weapons. It assumed that every tribe was hostile and uncivilized, just as it assumed that every tribe could be tamed to embrace white civilization. The more I read the journals or heard people like Eder speak, the more I thought of the expedition's Indian relations as one of the nation's earliest examples of its foreign policy -- well-meaning, naive, often disastrous in consequences. I began to see Lewis and Clark as the great white forefathers of "The Quiet American," the Graham Greene novel of the 1960s that showed Americans' innocence unleashed on Vietnam. The weapons and intentions were different. The understanding of foreigners was not. It has always been preconceived, always assuming the worst while yet projecting more idealism than any other nation dares. From Montana to Somalia, the consequences have not often been something to celebrate.

Day Three: The Lemhi Pass, southwest Montana.

On Aug. 12, 1805, Lewis crossed the Continental Divide for the first time at the Lemhi Pass, on the southern end of today's Montana boundary with Idaho along the Bitterroot Range. There, he saw the mountains of the west, and at that moment the myth of an easy Northwest Passage -- which pioneers and presidents down to Jefferson were convinced existed -- died. Yet Lewis exulted in what he saw.

Easy to see why: The Lemhi Pass is one of the places along te trail that is still as enchanting as the journals describe it, an estuary to the mountains of the West that dip and rise to the horizon, their razor crests as daunting as their beauty must have been that August day.

Chuck Cook, a 70-year-old retired history teacher and president of Dillon-based Camp Fortunate Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, took me there in his four-wheel-drive. We reached the pass by climbing up a rutted and muddy one-lane road with Cook's pick-up truck, driving two dozen miles without meeting another car. As we drove, Cook recited relevant parts of the journal from memory, the way Lewis and Clark lovers usually can, and stopped at Camp Fortunate. Like the Great Falls that are now chopped up by five hydro-electric power dams, Camp Fortunate, too, is now the location for a dam that has covered up one of the most important camps on the trail. It was there that Indian Sacajawea, the most mythologized of the expedition's characters, was reunited with her brother. But the submergence of history didn't bother Cook. "It was a Bureau of Land Reclamation project. It happened," he said. And we moved on.

When we reached the Lemhi Pass and stood astride the Continental Divide, literally with one foot on the Pacific watershed and one foot on the Atlantic, all controversies fell away. History wasn't arguing here. It simply was.

Day Four: Billings and the Nez Perce trail, central Montana.

Descriptions of Eden-like abundance of wildlife on the Plains are relentless in the journals. "This scenery already pleasing and beautiful was still farther hightened by immence herds of Buffaloe, deer Elk and Antelopes which we saw in every direction feeding on the hills and plains," Lewis writes early in the expedition. "I do not think I exagerate when I estimate the number of Buffaloe which could be compre[hend]ed at one view to amount to 3000."

The abundance wouldn't let up until the Rocky Mountains. Bears seemed to be everywhere, including white bears. Pastures were "boundless," streams and rivers as clear as they were rich in fish. Every day was a nature show. Today, wildlife has been tamed to the point of invisibility on the Montana plains. Chuck Cook showed me a few elk, but they were fenced in on a farm, raised for their antlers, which are sold to Japan as an aphrodisiac. We also saw a coyote parallel the truck for a mile then disappear behind a bluff. That was it for wildlife in five days across Montana.

But the plains also are exacting a human price. Aside from the western mountains that are becoming a salon community of part-time Hollywood exiles, Montana is emptying out. Old people are dying, young people are leaving, towns are disappearing. The rain never really followed the plough, and the plough is becoming too expensive to maintain west of the 100th meridian.

"They came, they saw, but they didn't conquer," Don Baker, a 72-year-old Montana historian, said over coffee after delivering a lecture and slide show about the ghost towns of Eastern Montana. "Nature is taking it back. It was oversold. There were people who came here thinking they could grow bananas. You have to be smart to survive in Montana. You have to be smart and ambitious and resourceful."

Driving through the heart of Montana, north from Billings to Malta on two-lane U.S. 87 and 191 (toward the Little Rocky Mountains Lewis had mistaken for the big ones), the empty road is dotted with a few isolated farmsteads in ruins, a few towns propped up by Social Security and the local gas station, and the most unsettling feature of all, because it's so frequent -- white crosses by the side of the road.

The Montana Highway Patrol plants the crosses to mark highway deaths. But the crosses might as well double-up as another memorial. They line the same part of the Nez Perce Indian trail, where 239 Indian men, women and children died in 1877 as they were being pursued by the Cavalry (which lost 266 men in the campaign). The Nez Perce was the tribe that had saved the Lewis and Clark expedition when it emerged in tatters on the northwestern side of the Rocky Mountains, back when the Indians could still call that place home, before the gold prospectors arrived.

So goes every trail in Montana. Whether made of history or asphalt, they all cross.

Backtracking Lewis and Clark ended up being as revealing in what's along the trail today as what's not. Lewis and Clark's 600 campsites -- only one of which was authenticated just last September -- cut a 19th century interstate of conquest, trade and settlements. In a few generations the plains have been emptied of wildlife, Indians have been segregated, rivers diverted, dammed or submerged, and untold features in the land altered to make way for roads and industry. It's the price of life as we have chosen to live it. Most of us, anyway.

But I'm not prepared to trash Lewis and Clark. I have grown to love their journals and admire their courage. They were above all brilliant explorers. Any exploration disturbs its grounds, sometimes fatally, most of the time unwittingly. Lewis and Clark cannot be held responsible for 200 years of hindsight, although I can imagine the next five years' interpretive swath cutting through the trail as the bicentennial approaches -- the revisionism, the debates, the attempted correctness of it all.

It all sounds very loud compared to the most silent moment I experienced with Lewis and Clark. It took place two months after I'd left Montana when, visiting the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, I was invited into the society's library vault. And there, boxed up in five or six protective cases and stacked on a bottom shelf among other treasures of American history, were the actual journals in their deep-red bindings, their barely-yellowing papers, their overwhelming tranquility. The curator opened two volumes, one by Clark and one by Lewis. The two men's script was tiny and meticulous. Their words, their ink, their drawings and doodles.

Those words are not the end of the trail, but its only true beginning. Interpretation can wait.


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