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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2004
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Wild & Whitewashed
Cutting through the myths in search of Lewis and Clark's America.
by Daniel Duane

THE BEATING WINGS OF A GAME BIRD — frightened in the forest — thrum with a weighted vibration that resonates in your heart. I was ducking through lodgepole pine saplings when I felt this, while hiking part of the Lolo Trail across the Bitterroot Range, the most arduous stretch of Lewis and Clark's 8,000-mile journey. The Bitterroots are often billed as the landscape least changed since the Corps of Discovery passed through 200 years ago, and to a degree this is true — just north of the Lolo Trail lies a vast and untouched wilderness on national forestland.

But my avian encounter is rarer than it should be. While much of the Lolo Trail itself runs through rugged terrain, a two-lane highway parallels portions of it, and even in the more remote areas, the historic footpath has been superseded by a U.S. Forest Service road called the Lolo Motorway. These days, most expeditions involve four-wheel-drive vehicles. And decades of commercial logging, including a recent binge on the Lolo Trail itself, have left so many clearcuts that one is almost never without a view of large-scale industrial forestry. It's not always easy, in other words, to see the past through the fog of the present.

Based on the little that was known about North American geography, and especially on what he dreamed would be true, President Thomas Jefferson had directed Lewis to explore the Missouri River's tributaries to their northwestern headwaters, link them to the headwaters of the Columbia River, and navigate the Columbia to the Pacific, in the interest of establishing "the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent."

On August 12, 1805, nearly a year out, the Corps of Discovery found the source of the Missouri on the Continental Divide. But when Lewis crossed what is now called Lemhi Pass, he looked down not at the plains of the Columbia but at "immence ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered in snow." To wit: the Bitterroot Range. There was no all-water route across the continent, and the best path to the Columbia lay through country so rugged that no paved road crossed it until U.S. Highway 12 was built in 1961. The Bitterroots have indeed changed, but they offer a glimpse of a time gone by.

Arriving in the late spring, when even the motorway was impassable under heavy snow, I'd been poking around for several days, seeing those portions of the Lolo Trail accessible from Highway 12, which runs east-west between Idaho and Montana. I'd been reading the relevant sections of the journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and now I was walking up a mountainside and skirting a ridge, my clothes soaked by worsening rain. Grizzlies, wolves, Indians, a band of soldiers adrift in the biological majesty of the unspoiled North America-it's one of the great creation myths of our national identity, defining the American experience as a heroic adventure in a wild world. But what does it mean to go looking for it now?

HISTORICAL TOURISM is a peculiar business, traveling not just through the world as you see it, but as we collectively conjure it-a joint production of the physical landscape, your imagination, and whatever picture you assemble from all the conflicting versions of the past. Even something as simple as deciding what the "Lolo Trail" is, for example, can lead you down a road every bit as treacherous as the Bitterroots themselves.

Start with the fact that contemporary scholars think of the Lolo Trail as having been less a single trail than a whole web of roughly parallel paths through the same country. Then there's the little issue of the name: Nobody actually knows where "Lolo" comes from, and the best theory pins it on a rough transliteration of the name of a French trapper who used to live near Lolo Pass.

At Howard Creek, the first place you can easily walk one of those original footpaths, a Forest Service interpretive sign dispels the notion that Lewis and Clark were true pioneers by explaining that Nez Perce, Salish, and Shoshone Indians had been traveling this way for centuries. The sign also offers two additional names for the trail: "Q'u seyna Iss Kit" is apparently Nez Perce for "The Trail to the Buffalo Country," and "Nap-Ta-Nee-Sha" is Salish for "The Trail to the Nez Perce," which the Salish used when heading west to fish for salmon.

The same sign explains that "two historic land routes," the Nez Perce National Historic Trail and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, now cohabit in the physical space of the Lolo Trail/Q'u seyna Iss Kit/Nap-Ta-Nee-Sha. Two significant historical events involved crossings of the preexisting and many-named web of trails now known collectively as the Lolo Trail, and both of these events are enshrined by the modern bureaucratic designation of national historic trail.

In order to avoid the impression that the Lewis and Clark experience was more significant than the Nez Perce experience, a separate interpretive sign is devoted to each. The Lewis and Clark panel emphasizes the group's reliance on Nez Perce, Salish, and Shoshone guides to help them across the Bitterroots-the crossing would likely have been impossible without them-and especially the fact that "the gratitude that Lewis and Clark felt...was not honored by later generations." The Nez Perce panel commemorates the ghastly events of 1877, when the United States Army chased 750 Nez Perce men, women, and children off their ancestral lands-lands previously deeded to them in a formal treaty with the U.S. government-because the Nez Perce were harassing gold prospectors on Nez Perce property.

Next comes the problem of the landscape itself. A Forest Service plaque elsewhere along the Lolo Trail corridor is titled "Soldiers as Naturalists," pointing out what many of us hold so dear about Lewis and Clark's journey, that it was "the first major expedition launched by the United States to explore new lands with an emphasis on scientific inquiry." Shaking off the vertigo brought on by the Howard Creek interpretive signs — I found the Nez Perce catastrophe, and its historical link to Lewis and Clark, more upsetting than I'd anticipated — and went on a naturalist hike of my own.

Climbing that slope of evergreens, where the Corps of Discovery had struggled over fallen timber, I kept my eyes out for species they recorded here. It didn't take long: The damp air rang with the songs of a cedar waxwing. Well, it sounded that way to me, and at least some of those bright-green shrubs in the shadowy understory were snowberry, and that was almost certainly a female pileated woodpecker I saw lighting on a sunlit branch, while a colorful male tried to make time with her.

I was delighted to find a western trillium blooming pretty and white in the red duff of the mulching pine needles, but trying to see the mountains that Lewis and Clark saw also produces the creeping realization that their mountains no longer exist-or at least not along the Lolo Trail. Head north into what's called the Great Burn, a 250,000-acre roadless area that the Sierra Club is working to protect (see page 26), and you can still find forests every bit as pristine as the ones Lewis and Clark described. But if you hew to the route the explorers actually followed, you'll see entire slopes riddled with logging roads and scarred by the dragging of felled trees. The visual effect is so jarring that other Forest Service interpretive plaques struggle to explain.

Reading them, you can almost hear a worried ranger thinking, Gee, you know, the Lewis and Clark bicentennial is coming up, and people are really going to wonder why their national forest looks so lousy. One of these signs explains that the federal government, in the 19th century, tried twice to entice railroad companies to build tracks across the Lolo Trail country by giving them alternating square-mile sections of land in a checkerboard pattern through the proposed track corridor. The railroads never happened, but the companies were allowed to keep the public property for which they had paid not so much as a penny. That property eventually fell into the hands of timber harvesters, and the result is the hideous clearcuts today.

"This land," begins another plaque, putting a particular spin on the issue, "was the aboriginal territory of the Nez Perce and Salish People. They viewed the Lewis and Clark expedition as a business venture into a very old cultural landscape-the territory of sovereign nations with richly developed cultures. The people who followed Lewis and Clark practiced a more visually evident style of land management than did the American Indians. American Indians utilized resources made available by natural events. Today, on the other hand, we often create disturbances to make resources available. The look of the landscape along Lolo Creek reflects that style."

This is an exquisitely tortured piece of writing. The text addresses the theft of Indian lands without naming it, puts an argument about the true purpose of the Lewis and Clark expedition-commercial and territorial expansion-in the mouths of local peoples, implicitly readdresses the fantasy of Lewis and Clark as pioneers in an empty wilderness, and explains that sinking feeling in your very own stomach-call it Clearcut-Induced Nausea Syndrome-in a masterpiece of compromise: "a more visually evident style of land management." Translation: They left the land alone, and we trashed it. I shudder to think of the committee meetings, rewrites, and arguments.

Continued
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Illustration courtesy Kirk Caldwell.

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