There are so many lessons and morals to be drawn from the expedition of Lewis and Clark that each generation tends to pick a new one according to its temperament and needs. Here is one that seems suitable for us as of July 2002: If we as Americans could see the future, we might never set to work creating it.
When they dipped their oars into the Missouri River and started rowing west through Indian country almost 200 years ago, the captains were looking for something they would never find--because it wasn't there. The Northwest Passage, the fabled missing link in a continuous navigable waterway between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, existed only in the explorers' minds, but its image was enough to move them forward, and that was enough to alter history. Their adventure, like most great ones before and since, was born of equal parts hope and ignorance, sustained by fortune and determination, and consummated by an accomplishment that was unimaginable at the outset but, looking back, appears inevitable. Columbus, remember, was trying to reach India.
What Lewis and Clark and their party finally found--although they didn't know it at the time--was not a path between the oceans but a story whose power to challenge and absorb would bridge the more profound gap between their day and ours, between that age of new possibilities glimpsed and this one of unforeseen upheavals survived. By the time President Jefferson sent the captains up that muddy river and out of sight, the young nation already had a Constitution, but it lacked an epic. It had a government but no real identity. Lewis and Clark helped invent one.
It still lives, despite interstate highways, despite the Web, despite vanishing forests, despite terrorism--despite everything. Great narratives never grow obsolete. There are much better maps of the West than those that the Corps of Discovery created, but there are still no better stories.
And few that are so perennially relevant, as demonstrated by the effort to prepare for the expedition's bicentennial, beginning this January. In the 11 states whose land and waterways the explorers touched, plans have been under way for several years to re-create, commemorate and just plain profit from the first and greatest American off-road trip. From the Falls of the Ohio, where a festival will celebrate the place at which Clark climbed aboard Lewis' keelboat, all the way west to tiny Fort Clatsop, Ore., where visitors will chat with Lewis and Clark impersonators, the roadside plaques are already being engraved, the campsites cleared and the motel rooms painted. Whether one's interest in following Lewis and Clark centers on geography, natural history, Native Americans or the simple pleasure of eating a cheeseburger on the same spot where the corps was attacked by an angry grizzly, someone somewhere is hoping to be of service with a pamphlet, an exhibit, a parade, a rental canoe or a cold lemonade.
"If the expedition was just about a grand trip across the West, as great as that would be, it wouldn't capture my attention or the attention of so many Americans," says Gary Moulton, history professor at the University of Nebraska and editor of the 13-volume set The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. What captivates scholars like Moulton, not to mention countless amateur history buffs, is the way the story grows and changes, adapting itself to evolving American moods.