Undaunted Courage and the Corps of Discovery

I left Gros Ventre campground at Grand Teton National Park early in the morning and headed into Jackson.  I’d been to the Tetons in the late spring and summer before, but never the fall.  The air was crisp and the leaves were turning golden, but there wasn’t much snow in the mountains yet.  I grabbed a shower at a nearby KOA and drove into Idaho, my twelfth state so far.  Around noon I stopped in Idaho Falls, where I got resupplied at a Fred Meyer and got a haircut, then it was onto Interstate 15 bound for Montana. 

Above:  I left Grand Teton National Park in the morning and headed east into Idaho, then north to Montana, where I drove up to Lemhi Pass, where Lewis & Clark had crossed the Continental Divide in 1805.  I spent a frosty evening at the top of the pass at the "Stephen Ambrose campsite."

My main goal that afternoon was the fabled Lemhi Pass, which is on the border between Montana and Idaho.  I’m a big history buff and had wanted to cross over Lemhi Pass ever since I read Stephen Ambrose’s magnificent book, “Undaunted Courage,” a wonderful biography of explorer Meriwether Lewis, co-leader of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.  The other goal was to visit the headwaters of the Missouri River, one of my extreme geographic sites, which was near Lemhi Pass.  Indeed, these were the two main reasons I decided to drive up here from southern Utah.

Lewis & Clark and their band of 30 men (and one woman), known as the “Corps of Discovery,” were the first group of Americans to explore the American West, leaving from near present day St. Louis in 1803, spending the winter of 1805-06 on the Pacific Coast at the mouth of the Columbia River, then returning to St. Louis in 1806.  It was an epic adventure and one that I’ve always been fascinated with.  Because the American West had been virtually unexplored at that time, they had no idea what they’d encounter during their travels.  For example, they figured the Rocky Mountains (which were called the "Shining Mountains" at that time because they'd glistened with snow year-round) were something like the lowly Appalachians and would take only a day or two to cross over.  Wrong.  Actually it took them over a month to get through the rugged Rockies.

After leaving St. Louis in the spring of 1803, Lewis & Clark followed the Missouri River west for over a thousand miles, first sailing, then paddling, then, as they approached the Rockies, wading and pulling their heavy canoes behind them.  Finally they approached the headwaters of the Missouri and crossed over the Continental Divide at Lemhi Pass.  They figured that once they got to the top, they would see a river on the other side heading west and would have an easy time getting to the Pacific Ocean.  Once again, wrong.  Instead, off to the west before them were nothing but more mountains, and they realized that they had a lot of work cut out for them before they would see the Pacific.  They were greatly discouraged but they mustered up their resolve and proceeded on.  The Lewis & Clark expedition's crossing of the Continental Divide was, in my opinion, one of the most notable events in American history.

Historian Steven Ambrose wrote “Undaunted Courage” about this journey and I read it when it came out in 1998.  To this day I think it’s one of the best historical books I’ve ever read and I was captivated by his description of Meriwether Lewis, partly because Lewis reminded me so much of… well, myself.  I felt a strong kinship with Lewis, considering his interest in geography and surveying, his temperament, and just about everything else.

That summer, back in 1998, I decided to take a two-week road trip and follow the Lewis & Clark expedition’s journey.  So I left Portland, drove back east to St. Louis, and then followed their trail west, up the Missouri River while stopping at every Lewis & Clark site.  The climax of my trip would be crossing the Continental Divide at Lemhi Pass, just as they had done.  But alas, it had been raining heavily in western Montana in the days beforehand and the dirt road heading up to the pass was a muddy gumbo, and too much for my two-wheel drive Toyota truck to handle, so I didn’t make it.  I was really heartbroken having to turn around, but I vowed that someday I’d cross over Lemhi Pass.

The Tetons, then Montana


Lemhi Pass -- Finally

After leaving Idaho Falls, I got off Interstate 15 south of Dillon, Montana and followed my maps and GPS on my way up the Lemhi Pass road.  The road was dry, thankfully, and during the hour that I drove up the dirt road, I passed only one vehicle.  A few miles from the pass, I pulled over, got out and walked over to Trail Creek, which I'd been following for a few miles.  I stood astride Trail Creek, which is essentially the headwaters of the Missouri River, just as one of the Corps of Discovery explorers had done 211 years earlier:  

"Two miles below (the pass), McNeal had exultingly stood with a foot aside this little rivvier, and thanked his God that he had lived to bestride the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri."  -- Captain Meriwether Lewis, August 12, 1805.

Oh sure, geographers debate the actual "headwaters" of the Missouri River because the river braids into a number of smaller streams here in the Rockies, but I figured if Lewis & Clark called this the headwaters of the Missouri River, then so would I.

It was a glorious afternoon and, back in the truck, my heart raced a bit as I approached the pass, which was now just a few hundred yards ahead.  I finally got to the top late in the afternoon, and soaked it all in, trying to envision what Lewis and Clark must have felt when they had reached this same spot 211 years earlier, almost to the day.  And thankfully, there wasn’t a soul around.

In the preface to his book “Undaunted Courage,” Stephen Ambrose described how his family had camped at the top of Lemhi Pass each year on the Fourth of July, as a way of celebrating this great nation.  After looking around for a few minutes at the top of the pass, I found what must’ve been his campsite, a flat area a hundred yards to the south of Lemhi Pass with a large fire ring.  I was overjoyed, not just at reaching Lemhi Pass but by the prospect of camping at the “Steven Ambrose campsite” that night.  Ambrose, who passed away a few years ago, was an incredible historian, so it was a real honor to camp at the same place where he’d spent so many Fourth of Julys with his family.

I made a campfire that night and enjoyed a dinner of BBQ ribs that I’d gotten at Freddies in Idaho Falls.  As I sat there that chilly evening, I thought about the incredible Lewis & Clark expedition and the fortitude of those brave men.  And of course, I thought about Ambrose, too. 

It was the coldest night of my trip so far, and for the first time I broke out my second sleeping bag, a luxury I’m sure that none of the men in the Corps of Discovery had at their disposal.  As I drifted asleep in the back of my truck that frosty evening, I was deeply humbled.

Lemhi Pass




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