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Why Lewis and Clark Matter

Amid all the hoopla, it's easy to lose sight of the expedition's true significance

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Finally, this is a story of the kind novelist Henry James once called "the visitable past." We can still float the Upper Missouri and look on what Lewis described as "seens of visionary inchantment." We can stand at LemhiPass and see the distant Bitterroots. We can hike parts of the Lolo Trail and visit FortClatsop.

Historian Donald Jackson once observed that Lewis and Clark were the "writingest" explorers in American history. The expedition diarists—all seven if we count the still-missing Robert Frazer journal—wrote about everything from bison, thunderstorms and tribal politics to river currents, mountain ranges and prairie plants. Some of it is dull, recording miles traveled and campsites set up. But there are also passages of the most marvelous, flashing prose, which brings the West alive, leaps the abyss of time and dances for us across the page. And all of it, whether dull or delightful, is written in a way we can understand.

Lewis and Clark matter today because they act as a benchmark by which we can measure change and continuity in everything from the environment to relations between peoples. But more than that, their adventure reminds us that we are not the first Americans (native and newcomers alike) to face difficult choices in troubled times. William Clark, Sacagawea and Coboway lived in a complex, often violent age. The winds of change blew as hard then as now.

When honestly told, the Lewis and Clark story inspires without leading us into simpleminded platitudes. History humanizes us by giving names, faces and texture to our physical and mental landscapes. Not only do the Lewis and Clark stories entertain us, they serve as a map and guide for life on the American road.

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