THEY WERE THE FIRST American heroes after the Revolutionary War, and the models for all those who came after: fearless, supremely competent and self-reliant, even while living off a government expense account, which they overspent by some 1,500 percent. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark went, literally, off the edge of the map. At a time when the United States essentially ended at the Mississippi River, they walked, paddled and rode across the Great Plains, over the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean and back again. With the bicentennial of their expedition approaching in 2004, and with a best-selling account in the bookstores (Stephen E. Ambrose's ""Undaunted Courage''), Lewis and Clark have emerged from the shadow of Disneyland legends like Davy Crockett. They stand at the intersection of such potent trends as multiculturalism (they had a Native American woman translator, Sacagawea), regional cuisine (they were the first Americans to eat grizzly bear and prairie dog) and, of course, Western wear. And in an age when dermatologists jostle society matrons going up and down Everest, who could doubt the greatness of the men who virtually invented adventure travel?
Even Ken Burns, whose two-part documentary on Lewis and Clark will be shown next week on PBS, was astonished by the enthusiasm his subjects still arouse. Writers began to take note when a 1984 poll of American historians chose Lewis and Clark's voyage as the single event they would most have liked to witness. Over the next few years a steady trickle of books appeared, culminating with Ambrose's highly praised account in 1996. Public enthusiasm followed. Tourist visits to the reconstruction of Fort Clatsop, the expedition's encampment on the Oregon coast, have doubled in the last few years. The Portland Oregonian has assigned a full-time reporter to the Lewis and Clark beat. Buckskin-clad enthusiasts have begun to ply the Missouri and Columbia Rivers in their dugout canoes. An ABC mini-series is in the works.
Burns, famous for his monumental multi-hour documentaries on the Civil War and the history of baseball, faced a unique problem in making a film about events that took place before the invention of photography. The Western landscape has had to stand in for the mostly invisible protagonists; the production, coincidentally underwritten by General Motors, has the look at times of a particularly luscious car commercial. It doesn't exactly minimize the expedition's hardships, which included grueling portages, daunting encounters with grizzly bears, boredom, cold, mosquitoes and a New Year's with no whisky and nothing to eat but boiled elk. But these are almost lost in the evocation of a land that seems to exist only at blushing dawn and tangerine-hued sunset, perpetually bathed in fiddle music and lushly plastered with wildflowers. Taking a few more liberties than usual, Burns resorted in places to tasteful, soft-focus re-creations, of figures heroically silhouetted against the immense sky that was, in a sense, his real subject. ""You drive toward the mountains at 60 miles an hour and you can see where you are on a map and it still takes forever,'' Burns mused, ""and these guys had almost no idea where they were going, and they're getting there at 14 miles a day. This was the authentic American journey.''
Their achievement was virtually flawless. Clark, the film tells us, calculated the length of their journey by dead reckoning at 4,162 miles, and was off by less than 1 percent. In nearly 2 1/2 years of wilderness travel the expedition lost only one man out of more than 30. Encountering more than a dozen Indian tribes--some seeing white men for the first time, others armed by British and French fur traders and hostile to the upstart United States--Lewis and Clark successfully negotiated for food and horses and fought only one brief skirmish. It certainly wasn't their fault that most of the tribes they encountered were eventually all but wiped out by disease and warfare. Through no fault of theirs, the expedition failed to find the one thing that Jefferson, their sponsor, sought most of all, an overland trade route to the Pacific. The Rockies were in the way. But that seems far less important now than the way their discoveries were overtaken in the headlong rush of American history. Having sent back a partial account of their journey a year earlier, the explorers were passed, on their return voyage down the Missouri River in 1806, by the first wave of American settlers going the other way.