By Correspondent, Great Escapes
updated 9/22/2004 1:03:15 PM ET 2004-09-22T17:03:15

The ghosts of Lewis and Clark have tapped our shoulders throughout our journey down the Missouri, but this is something else altogether.

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As we check into our riverside hotel in Chamberlain, S.D., I look out the window and see a man with a fox fur cap and fringed buckskin sipping a beer and eating a slice of pizza on the lawn near the waterfront. Then another man in a linen shirt, cravat and a tricorn hat steps into view with a cell phone pressed to his ear. Then one more, looking like a post-revolutionary war soldier, marches over and I hear him ask, “Time for colors, Captain Lewis, sir?”

Yesterday's heroes today

These are the men of the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles, Missouri, a team of living historians who are recreating the Lewis and Clark expedition in replica boats and costumes. As much as is practical, they are trying to follow the same itinerary, and live the same way, as the original explorers 200 years ago. Today marks their four month anniversary on the expedition, and some are looking as haggard as their honorees must have.

But it may have more to do with age than conditions. While some estimate the average age on the Corps of Discovery expedition was 25, here it looks closer to AARP membership. One on the roster is 80 years old. Another, Jim Rascher, has missed his wedding anniversary for the last seven years, but this coming one, his 50th, he says he can’t miss or it will be his last. Who else can find the time to volunteer to keelboat up the Missouri for weeks or months or years but retirees?

“Captain Lewis, I presume.” I extend my hand to a trim, handsome man of erect bearing wearing an early military hat with bear fur and a white deer tail. He nods back in the affirmative. He is Scott Mandrell, 38, a teacher at Wydown Middle School in Clayton, Mo., and a former member of the Army’s 3rd U.S. Infantry “The Old Guard” fife and drum corps. He has a wife and two young children at home, whom he sees periodically when they rendezvous at certain stops en route.

Mandrell has been reenacting history since he was 9 years old and grew up just 4 miles from Lewis and Clark's 1803 winter in Camp Wood River, Ill. He has been working on this re-creation mission for ten years now, and when I ask if when this challenging project is over he will submit to the same fate as Meriwether Lewis (widely thought to have committed suicide), he grins. “I may be ahead of schedule on that one.”

We also meet the bespectacled Peyton “Bud” Clark, of Dearborn, Michigan, a former Ford Motor Company engineer, who plays his great, great, great grandfather on this journey. One of the secrets of the original expedition was that William Clark was not really a captain. His commission, as requested by his friend Meriwether Lewis, never came through, so Lewis decided to ignore the government and pretend Clark was of equal rank regardless. Bud had the honor of rewriting history when he met in the East Wing of the White House an administration ago and received, on behalf of his grand relative, a posthumous commission of “captain” from President Clinton.

Tongue lashings and expeditionary learning
Bud Clark, who says he is trying to live the spirit of his ancestor, describes William Clark as honorable, one who lived by the creed, “Death before Dishonor.” When I ask if he’ll give lashings, as his relative did to maintain discipline, he replies, “Lots of good tongue lashings.” Nor will he recreate the master-servant relationship William Clark had with his black slave York, here played by Lynn “Smokey” Hart, a half black/half Yankton Sioux Indian who is also a world champion rodeo bullfighter. But he does line the men up in the morning, soldier fashion, and leads them in the martial anthem “Chester” as they raise the 17 Stars and Stripes up the spruce-wood mast:

“Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav'ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New Columbia's God forever reigns”

Then they fire up the 150-hp Mercury outboard hidden beneath the western cedar hull of the 55-foot-long keel boat, check the fish finder for depth, and chug out into the Fort Randall Reservoir, communicating with the two pirogues by radio. They’re looking for a campsite to set up and show off the old ways to some local school children.

The great experiment of this re-creation at first puzzles me. When Thor Heyerdahl set off on Kon Tiki, sailing in replicas of ancient Polynesian boats, he was out to prove a theory. When Living History buffs don civil war costumes and chase around old battlefields, it is a weekend of grown-up Hide and Seek. But three years laboring up the Missouri in period dress, sleeping on wooden boards on cramped boats, enduring the North Dakotan winter, portaging the upper reaches, crossing the Rockies in moccasins, camping in the December rains on the Columbia, and then doing it all in reverse, seems a bit barmy.

But then Scott Mandrell — ahem, Captain Lewis — describes the educational aspect of the expedition, and the mission seems indeed noble. All the way up and back they have arranged for students who live on or near the Missouri to visit the expedition and their camps. The crew presents life and the environment as it was and how it has changed, and the children interact with history in a way no book can provide. There are interactive video-conferences piped to classrooms, orchestrated by Jim Sturm, a tech wizard who follows the expedition in a tricked-out mobile home pulling a trailer with a satellite dish. Expeditionary learning, wherein a young mind is exposed in a full-bodied, sensory way to a subject, is a powerful tool, less abstract, more profound, than conventional learning.

And it is through this first-hand exposure and discovery that issues then and now can be brought to consciousness, and perhaps moved in some way towards resolution. The environmental impact of the dams and weirs, of irrigation and power schemes, of urban sprawl along the river, is more keenly appreciated when riding a keelboat across a stagnant and heavy man-made lake.

At this very spot Lewis described “immense herds of buffalo, deer, elk and antelopes we saw in every direction feeding on the hills and plains. I do not think I exaggerate when I estimate the number of buffalo which could be comprehended at one view to amount to 3000.” When a child hears this passage, standing where it was written, and looks about to see perhaps 3000 boats and automobiles but no wildlife whatsoever, the question of how and why this came to be must be logged.

Descendents of Crazy Horse
But Scott Mandrell is concerned about the next leg of his journey, as his forbearers were. In these bicentennial years not all Americans are celebrating what Lewis and Clark did. Scott’s redux exercise has received a threat from a group called “The Descendents of Crazy Horse.” Crazy Horse was the Oglala Lakota warrior with strong convictions to preserve his people's traditional way of life, and who fought against George Custer's Seventh Cavalry at Little Big Horn in 1876. Like virtually all the western tribes that Lewis and Clark shook hands with and gave Jefferson peace medals to, the Lakota were overwhelmed by the encroaching white race, ultimately robbed of the way of life, and consigned to some of the poorest land in what was once their own country.

The Descendents sent a message to Scott that they intend to try and stop the expedition as it travels upstream towards Pierre, South Dakota, in an effort to raise awareness about the broken treaties and the marginalization of American Indians that began in the wake of Lewis and Clark. It was at Pierre that Lewis and Clark had their ugliest encounter with Indians, and their closest call. When a Teton Sioux insulted Clark he drew his sword, and immediately a party of warriors drew bows and arrows. It could have been a disaster, but the grand chief ordered his warriors to stand down, and the rest is history, good or bad depending upon perspective.

Scott, however, is sanguine about the threats, and believes they fall within the framework of the objectives of the expedition. “Our goal is to educate, and bring heightened awareness about the cause and effects of Lewis and Clark. The First Nations want a voice, want their issues to be heard, and we might be a vehicle for that.” And Bud Clark adds, “In regards the native Americans, we want to help in the healing process.”

William Least Heat-Moon has said that our nation “didn’t learn what they taught themselves. Lewis and Clark went as students; they came back as teachers, and we failed to learn the lessons that they had learned.”

Scott Mandrell and his scruffy band of re-discoverers have a chance to help change that, to move consciousness and understanding in a better direction. And that, I believe, makes them heroes of our time.

The Great Escapes media team is traveling the length of the Missouri River in September, filing daily dispatches along the way. If you have a question or comment, mail us at  greatescapes@msnbc.com.

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