MHT Day 26: Back Over the Mountains
Today I woke to cool temperatures in the 50s, made dreary by foggymistycloudy skies and the expectation of rain. Nevertheless it wasn’t actually raining, so I donned rain pants just in case, left the rain jacket off and began my ride to the base of the beautiful Bitterroot mountains on Highway 12 along the Middle Fork of the Clearwater River. To my great delight, in about 20 miles, before I even started climbing the winding river road to the summit at Lolo Pass, the foggymistycloudy stuff cleared up and, while cool temperatures remained, at least I saw blue skies from time to time.
So that was my start to the day returning back over the Bitterroots. What about the Corps of Discovery? Despite warnings from the Nez Perce that the forbidding mountains were not yet passable, the expedition resumed its eastward trek toward home on June 15, 1806. Two days later, Lewis wrote
we found ourselves invelloped in snow from 12 to 15 feet deep even on the south sides of the hills with the fairest exposure to the sun; here was winter with all it’s rigors; the air was cold, my hands and feet were benumbed.
Duh. Maybe he should have listened to the people who had lived there for 500 generations. At any rate, the captains decided to leave the baggage where they were and return with their horses to the flats below until they could procure Indian guides and the barely-marked path became passable. Not until June 25 could they return to the place where they had left their baggage, accompanied by several young Nez Perce guides who not only knew the trail, even in deep snow, but who knew where grass would be abundant for their four dozen horses. Five days later they were back at Travellers Rest on the east side of the mountains, having covered the 156 miles from Weippe Prairie in six days with the Nez Perce guides what it had taken 11 days to cover with the Shoshone guide in 1805.
At Travellers Rest the captains confirmed earlier plans to split the party first into two groups, then to split those two groups again into two groups. Historians and other scholars have criticized that decision, though ultimately the expedition survived intact. Lewis would take himself and nine others north, following the land route known by the Nez Perce and other mountain tribes as the “Trail to the Buffalo” and go to the Great Falls of the Missouri. There they would split again, one group preparing to portage what had been left at the Great Falls in 1805 while Lewis and the rest of the group would explore the Marias River north toward Canada and to conduct a “peace” mission to the notoriously hostile Blackfeet. Clark, with the remaining 23 persons, would return to Camp Fortunate, where they had met the Shoshone on the Jefferson River, recover the cached items there, then follow the Jefferson River to Three Forks where the Missouri River begins. At Three Forks, a sergeant and nine men would continue down the Missouri until they met with the part of the Lewis contingent that stayed at Great Falls. Clark and 12 others, including Sacagawea and her son, would take most of the horses and go until they found the Yellowstone River, then build canoes and paddle to the Missouri, where, if everything worked out, all the disparate parts of the expedition would regroup and head for St. Louis.
Most of this plan worked out, except that Lewis’s “peace” mission turned out to be the only time during the three-year expedition where there was a violent encounter with Indians. They met a small party of young Blackfeet and attempted to explain their new relationship with the United States. But the young warriors attempted to their guns and horses, and Lewis and his party killed two of the warriors. Presuming that the “peace” mission was shot to hell, they galloped as fast as they could for 24 consecutive hours back to the Missouri to escape a retribution-seeking war party they believed would pursue them. There they met with the men on the Missouri, and continued down river to the Yellowstone to meet Clark’s group.
Much of my day today was spent successfully dodging serious but scattered thunderstorms all over Idaho and Montana while retracing at least part of Lewis’s northern route. I had to forego part of that route knowing I would head into heavy rain if I didn’t, but at least I covered part of the “Trail to the Buffalo,” which, as the Indians had know for thousands of years, was the shortest route between the Columbia and the Missouri rivers. (Note: On the way west on this Magical History Tour, I covered part of Clark’s route, except that I was going the wrong direction when I stopped at Pompey’s Pillar on Day 13 and at the Big Hole Battlefield on Day 18. Tomorrow I’ll follow the rest of Clark’s route to the Yellowstone River, this time going in the right direction. I’m getting dizzy trying to remember where I was, when I was there, and what direction I was going.
Because of the threat of rain and because I had made most of the important stops on the outward half of my journey, today I didn’t stop at any historic sites or interpretive centers. I did, however, make one stop based on a recommendation of a North Carolina friend. (Thanks, Janet.) I stopped for coffee at the Lochsa Lodge, originally built as a hunting lodge in the 1920s, long before U.S. Highway 12 was finished in 1963. It sits about 1/4 mile from where Lewis and Clark camped when they were struggling through the mountains in 1805 with their Shoshone guide.
While I was at the lodge enjoying a warming cup of pretty decent coffee, I struck up a conversation with another motorcyclist. Ned, a sixth-grade teacher from Portland was headed home at the end of a nearly three-week long solo trip through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia. Ned’s journey featured a dual-sport bike good for on-road and off-road riding, while mine, of course, is a big Harley bagger that much prefers asphalt to rocks and gravel. But we both have a wanderlust satisfied only on two wheels, and enjoy the solitude that riding alone offers. We didn’t have long to talk since he was trying to beat the rain in Idaho and I was hoping to do the same in Montana, but our conversation reminded me again of how many interesting people I meet while traveling on a motorcycle. The history lessons I learn are good; the country I see is amazing; but most of all I love meeting people from all over who help enrich and round out my life.
Tomorrow I’ll follow Clark’s Yellowstone track for a while, then say goodbye to the Lewis and Clark Trail as I dive south into Wyoming. But I’ll keep writing if anyone wants to keep reading.