ST. LOUIS — Like aging rock stars on a comeback tour, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are enjoying a huge surge in popularity.
America this week celebrates the bicentennial of the expedition's departure from the St. Louis region, when the explorers and a roughly 40-member crew set off to explore the Louisiana Territory and seek a Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean.
The explorers logged about 8,000 miles as they navigated the Missouri River, crossed the Rocky Mountains, reached the Pacific and returned with knowledge of the land and its natives.
They could never imagine that their journey -- one of the nation's greatest adventure stories -- would spawn re-enactors and produce commemorative stamps and coins, an expedition-inspired beer, historical cookbooks, theme parties, even Lewis and Clark air fresheners.
"I think it's perhaps the most important story in our history," said Scott Mandrell, 38, who portrays Meriwether Lewis nationwide. The Alton, Ill., resident traveled about 400 miles on horseback last year, will spend much of this summer on the river in replica boats, and has spent stretches of time as Lewis away from his own wife and children.
"I'm in uniform almost every day of the week," he said, adding that throughout it all he looks after a 140-pound Newfoundland named Seaman, in a nod to the dog who accompanied the explorers on the original trek.
He and other re-enactors with The Discovery Expedition of St. Charles, from the city about 25 miles northwest of St. Louis, are expected at dozens of bicentennial events. Mandrell, a schoolteacher, said the sacrifices are worthwhile as long as he's sharing the Lewis and Clark story.
"If we hope to be a nation with a bright future, we have to remember the character that defined us in the beginning," he said.
There's no question Americans are focusing on Lewis and Clark.
Official Lewis and Clark seed collections, sea salts, and even auto air fresheners are among the approved items for sale, said the national Lewis and Clark bicentennial licensing agent Diane Norton. Part of the proceeds from items with the bicentennial logo will pay for future educational programs, she said.
There are theme dinners and costume dances; vacationers are retracing parts of the explorers' trail on summer travels, and collectors are awaiting commemorative coins and stamps. At a celebration marking the Louisiana Purchase in March in St. Louis, a supply of 1 million Jefferson nickels ran out early. It featured a peace medallion Lewis and Clark gave to Indians during the expedition.
American Indians are participating in many of the events and educating visitors about their history and traditions. Other tribes are keeping their distance, noting that the arrival of the white explorers marked the beginning of the end of the Indian way of life.
Tom Schlafly, president of The Saint Louis Brewer Inc., sells Schlafly microbrews in the hometown of Anheuser-Busch, the world's largest brewer. Schlafly has introduced Lewis and Clark Expedition Reserve, an American pale ale, to commemorate the bicentennial events in St. Charles from May 14-23, where the expedition set off from the riverbank to explore the West.
"There's a great national fascination; this is just one of the great events in the United States," said Schlafly, whose brew was made to taste like the full-flavored, hoppy ales people in the region drank around the time the expedition left.
Scholars have explored countless aspects of the journey, but there's always more.
Mary Gunderson, of Yankton, S.D., wrote "The Food Journal of Lewis & Clark: Recipes for an Expedition," which was published last year. It includes researched and re-created recipes based on what the explorers ate. "There are some things that I don't include, like beaver. That's not available in a modern grocery store," she noted.
Gunderson said her great-grandparents settled near the Missouri River 60 years after the expedition passed through present-day South Dakota.
She said those who live near spots where Lewis and Clark traveled have a natural fascination with the expedition.
"This bicentennial is personal to so many people. So many people feel like, `It's mine,'" she said.
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