FORT BENTON, MONT. — It ranks perhaps as one of the greatest self deprecations in American history.
On Aug. 18, 1805, Meriwether Lewis sat near a river in what is today western Montana, dipped his pen into ink, and wrote across the pages of his journal: "This day I completed my thirty first year. I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the happiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation."
Nearly 200 years later, in one of his final acts as president, Bill Clinton issued a firm veto of Lewis's personal appraisal by proclaiming two national monuments in honor of him and his partner, William Clark.
Certainly, the often-angst-ridden Lewis could never have imagined becoming something of a pop-culture hero.
Yet with the bicentennial commemorating Lewis and Clark's trek from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean and back beginning in two years, the explorers already are attracting recognition from more people than they ever received in their own lifetimes.
The discoverers of the prairie dog have become intrepid icons as the original outdoorsmen. While Americans ask Vasco de who? and Ponce de what? the homegrown explorers are more popular now than when Thomas Jefferson sent them on their way in 1804.
With a PBS documentary, a Hollywood feature film, and a bestselling book, "Undaunted Courage" by Stephen Ambrose, posthumously their story has become a multimillion-dollar industry. Dozens of books have been published in the past five years alone.
Here in Montana, county governments are busy trying to upgrade the rural roads along the Lewis and Clark Trail, operating on the premise that if you pave it, the tourists will come.
But the federal Bureau of Land Management, which administers scenic float trips down the same section of the Missouri River that Mr. Clinton's proclamation protects, is ironically, afraid of the explorers' newfound publicity. It's concerned too many boaters could destroy the very view they've come to enjoy.
Beyond the commercial aspects, however, the Lewis and Clark expedition is giving many a tangible way to make history meaningful. "If you want to get your kids interested in history, take them on the Lewis and Clark Trail. Stay at their campsites and recite passages from their journals that refer to places you can see. It brings the magic of experience to life," says Mr. Ambrose.
Fittingly, Clinton used his executive power to create two new monuments in the East Room of the White House, the same room where President Thomas Jefferson and Captain Lewis pored over crude maps to chart the epic route.
One of the new monuments, which encompasses 377,000 acres of public land along the upper Missouri River, is intended to preserve the only significant stretch of that journey that has remained virtually unchanged.
Stretching over 150 miles from Fort Benton to the famous "Missouri Breaks," the monument flanks an ancient watercourse lined with breathtaking geological formations, deep canyon walls, native-American artifact sites, and abundant wildlife.
"This monument has less to do with a particular site or isolated event than with historical pathways," says Bob Decker, director of the Montana Wilderness Association. "It applies to a part of the West that can still be seen and felt as it was by native plains tribes, Lewis and Clark, fur trappers, and steamboat captains."
The second monument enshrines a natural geological monolith, called Pompey's Pillar, along the Yellowstone River, where Clark carved his name into sandstone on July 25, 1806.
The site was named after the son of Lewis and Clark's Shoshone interpreter, Sacagawea. Its monument designation attracted no controversy compared with its counterpart.
In the river town of Fort Benton, one of the oldest permanent non-Indian settlements in Montana, the lore of Lewis and Clark is the backbone of the local tourism industry.
But it is set against a backdrop of antifederalist sentiment. Critics say the monument status will lead to a ban on oil and natural-gas drilling and reductions in livestock grazing and recreational use. Montana Gov. Judy Martz and US Sen. Conrad Burns are among those who believe the designation was heavy-handed. They have threatened to have it overturned by President George W. Bush.
"I can't imagine the Bush administration overturning the monument designation," Ambrose says. "It would be outrageous, and I would fight it with everything I've got."
While floating the Missouri River passageways, Ambrose says he wonders how Lewis and Clark would respond to their fame. Upon their return to civilization in 1806, they were given a hero's welcome and were feted at a White House ball.
"What would surprise them is what has happened in the modern world, but not that they are still remembered and extolled," Ambrose said. "They would have thought that was fair and right."
Contrary to Lewis's lament, Ambrose says the explorers set the stage for the US to become the most powerful nation - opening the West and its vast resources.
For some, it led to a new beginning, but for native plains peoples, it marked the beginning of the end for a way of life that had persisted for millenniums.
But Ambrose says a centuries-old oversight was rectified when the monuments were created. After their return, legislation was passed that granted Clark the same military rank as Lewis. "Unfortunately, issues of budget and bureaucracy intervened - some things never change - and Clark never received his commission," Clinton said. "Today we honor his service."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society