EXACTLY 180 years ago today, a band of 40 men set off from Illinois on a journey to nowhere. At least, it was nowhere at the time. By the time their 863-day odyssey was over, they would push back the American frontier. Their maps of the continent would be more accurate than any of their day. They would blaze a trail to the Pacific Ocean - the first individuals to do it by traveling in what would one day become the United States.
Others would follow the expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Eventually, a young America would lay claim to all the land they blazed and more , transforming itself into a transcontinental nation.
Yet today - long after Missoula, Mont., and Portland, Ore., have become as much a part of America as Philadelphia and Boston - the Lewis and Clark expedition continues to fascinate a dedicated band of followers.
There is a Lewis and Clark group, which holds annual meetings along various points in the trail. There are books about the natural history and the geography the explorers described, as well as other specific aspects of the journey. One article, devoted exclusively to the Newfoundland that accompanied Lewis, is called ''Our Dog Scannon.''
Why the interest?
One reason is that this is a tale of discovery. It is the very first chapter in how the American West was won - and in many ways a much different chapter from what would follow.
It took nearly three months after pushing off from the mouth of the Missouri River on May 14 for the expedition to reach this grassy meadow a few miles north of Omaha, Neb.
The site is important because it was Lewis and Clark's first significant encounter with Indians. Historians say it set the tone for future meetings with tribes - meetings that created a great amount of goodwill.
The party named the site Council Bluffs (not to be confused with today's city in Iowa). Sitting there today, although the course of the Missouri River has since shifted eastward, one can almost imagine the Aug. 3, 1804, meeting where white men and red men exchanged speeches and smoked a peace pipe.
And yet, barely 16 years after the white men talked peace with the Indians, Council Bluffs would become a United States military outpost, from which punitive raids against the Indians would be launched.
In many ways, this is a story that runs counter to much of American Western lore, says Gary E. Moulton, who is editing the first comprehensive edition of the expedition's journals since an eight-volume set was put out in 1904-05.
The explorers fought no battles and started no wars. The Lewis and Clark expedition ''exploded much of the myth of the West,'' Mr. Moulton says.
Instead of rugged individualism, this was a government-subsidized team effort. Lewis and Clark provided an amazing example of unified leadership and, after their first winter, had shaped the force into a very disciplined military unit. Expenses were paid with $2,500 appropriated by Congress and about $38,000 worth of equipment and supplies from the military.
The primary goal was to try to find a feasible water route between the Missouri River and the Pacific. Such a discovery would have been important if it had worked out that way.
British, French, and Spanish traders had traveled up the Missouri as far as North Dakota in search of fur pelts. Others traded for pelts with Indians on the western coast of the continent and then sailed to China.
Geographers of the day believed that a set of low-lying hills somewhere in the West served as the source of both the Missouri River, which flowed to the east, and the Columbia, which flowed out to the Pacific, Moulton explains. If Lewis and Clark could find the source of the Missouri, it was thought a single short land route would lead to the Columbia. This would have greatly helped American expansion into the Northwest fur trade.
But Lewis and Clark bumped into the Rockies and found that a feasible water route did not exist. Their journey would become famous for other things. Their detailed maps and descriptions of the region's Indians and the flora and fauna began to demystify the American West.
Inevitably, some myths were built up about the expedition itself. The most notable one is the story of Sacagawea, who joined the expedition with her husband at Fort Mandan (in what is now North Dakota) and became the only woman on the trip.
Biographers would later build the teen-age Indian into a brilliant guide and major character of the expedition - a role she did not play.
But she did help to allay the fears of the Indians, since women did not travel in war parties.
And, incredible as it may seem, Sacagawea, kidnapped at an early age, turned out to be the sister of the Shoshoni chief whom Lewis and Clark encountered at the foothills of the Rockies.
That more myths about the expedition have not been created is testimony to how much was written down during the trip.
''It's amazing how much work they did do under the circumstances,'' Moulton says. ''And they recorded it all!''
More than 1 million words were written among the journals kept by Lewis, Clark, three sergeants, and a private, says Moulton, who plans to put out an 11 -volume set of them. The first volume, an atlas showing their maps, is already out; the second volume, recording the expedition's first year, will probably be available early next year.
''There's such a body of literature,'' Moulton says. ''That's what fascinates people.''
Beginning Friday, St. Charles, Mo., will be host to a Lewis and Clark celebration.
And in August, the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation Inc. will hold its annual meeting in Great Falls, Mont.
The amount of interest ''surprises me,'' says Robert E. Lange, editor of the foundation's quarterly magazine We Proceeded On (a phrase used innumerable times in the expedition's journals).
''I think it's just the fact that people are interested in American history - more so than people think.''
The foundation now boasts about 70 members.
Donald Jackson, a noted Lewis and Clark scholar, had this to say in the foreword of a 1970 book on the expedition:
''Why, I have often wondered, does the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition seem to belong to everyone? Why does each generation discover it again and tell it over and over?
''Perhaps because it is everyman's daydream of ordinary men doing extraordinary, improbable things. The eastern city-dweller, who may never see the Bitterroot Range of the Rockies or experience a rainy winter along the Oregon coast, can read the narrative and suddenly become aware that superhuman feats do not always call for supermen.''