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Rambling Men

On the path of Lewis and Clark.

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I want to go on a great journey.

I don't know if you still can, though. Can you travel off the map anymore? Can you go where nobody in your world has ever been before? Can you go "into the unknown"?

I guess you could go someplace you don't know and not bring a map. Then you'd be, in your own mind, as much an explorer as Columbus, Magellan, or DeSoto, never knowing what lay over the next hill or around the next bend. But, unlike those guys, if you didn't make it back to work, somebody would eventually send a helicopter or something.

When I walked out of a recent showing of Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West, I was awash in mixed emotions. First of all, it's a magnificent film, especially on the big screen of an IMAX theater. You have to go see it. The scenery is staggering, and the story -- even in this radically truncated version -- is possibly the greatest saga in American history. Just to rekindle the thought of it stirs the soul.

But I also felt a certain emptiness as I reemerged into the light of present day. First of all, the times when maps had blank spaces are long gone. And the possibility of such great adventures is probably gone too. I mean, to really understand what the Corps of Discovery -- and that's what they called themselves, not the Lewis and Clark Expedition -- was doing, you have to think in terms of flying to Mars, or being beamed onto a spaceship, or swimming the Atlantic. They were leaving their world, and it was generally asssumed they would all die.

But Lewis and Clark made it, and only one person in their party of 30 died -- and his condition was incurable at the world's finest hospital back then. What those people accomplished -- through hard work, luck, dedication, skill, and more luck -- should be taught to every school kid in the country.

But the world they traveled through is gone -- psychically, sure, because all the maps are filled in now, but physically as well. The giant herds of buffalo are dead, the prairies are farmed, the rivers are dammed, the forests are cut, and most of the millions of native people are dead, along with their culture. It's impossible to think of this without feeling a sense of loss.

But setting aside what's probably a bad case of White Man's Guilt, we are left with a great journey -- and a great film. Besides, some of the scenery the explorers encountered is still around, and it couldn't be presented more lovingly than in this film.

Right there on about a hundred-foot screen, you'll see the Great Plains -- and, thanks to computer animation, you'll see them swarm with buffalo too. You'll also see the Great Falls of the Missouri, be chased by a grizzly, ride whitewater rapids, and look across the Continental Divide at the Bitterroot mountains -- the existence of which no white man knew about until Lewis walked up a hill and saw them. He was not happy to see them, and his whole party almost died crossing them.

The film leaves out a lot, of course. There's obviously no way a trip of more than two years could be treated completely in 40 minutes. Among the highlights it skips are a skirmish in which two Blackfeet were killed, another incident in which Lewis was accidentally shot by one of his own men, the party's witnessing of the salmon -- some 8 million of them -- arriving in the Columbia River, and their return to a world which had literally written them off after they stayed out a year longer than anticipated. (It's worth noting that in 1804 nobody, at least no white people, knew that the Rocky Mountains existed. The expedition, along with expecting to possibly find dinosaurs, hoped to go up the Missouri, walk over a hill, plop their canoes into the Columbia, and float to the Pacific.)

So my first piece of advice is simple: Go see this film. My second is to read a book about the expedition. There are four basic options: Stephen Ambrose's biography of Lewis, Undaunted Courage, is a great one. For my money, though, skip the middleman and go straight to the journals. Bernard DeVoto edited a 500-page version called The Journals of Lewis and Clark. There's an eight-volume set (for about $220) called Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Then there's the mother lode of journals, the 12-volume behemoth just out from the University of Nebraska. Each volume runs about $75.

Another option is to grab a copy of Traveling the Lewis and Clark Trail by Julie Fanselow, then hit the road and see what's left of the world Lewis and Clark visited. And, just hang on, because this nation is about to be hit with a tidal wave of Lewis-and-Clark-o-Rama, with the expedition's 200th anniversary starting next year.

For now, go see the film at the Pink Palace, where it will be through June 27th, and see for yourself what feelings it inspires.

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