TWO 20th-century adventurers - Missouri college administrator John Hilton and Oklahoma chiropractor Tom Warren - have just finished retracing the 1804 to 1806 expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on a trip sponsored by the environmental group American Rivers.
While they did pole canoes and ride horses part of the way, much of their trip was by jet boat. And they didn't have to worry about their next meal - unlike the Lewis and Clark party, which was reduced at one point to devouring candles, bits of leather, and a couple of horses.
Still, it was a valuable exercise, designed to point out what civilization in the form of power dams, irrigation, and industrial and agricultural pollution has done to rivers in the Northwest.
Also last week, my family and I retraced a bit of the famed route ourselves - over the Lolo Pass between Montana and Idaho and west along the Lochsa River, which eventually joins the Clearwater to the Snake to the Columbia and on into the Pacific Ocean. (We traveled in the comfort of a Dodge Caravan.)
Ours was part of a 3,300-mile trek to fetch our 16 year-old, who had spent a month backpacking and peak-climbing along the Continental Divide in central Colorado.
And while, like Hilton and Warren, one could lament the impact of civilization hereabouts - the commercialization of places like Aspen, the devastation from mining in Kellogg, Idaho, and Butte, Mont. - what struck us most on this vacation journey was the beauty that remains nearly 200 years after Thomas Jefferson dispatched his personal secretary (Captain Lewis) to scope out the Louisiana Purchase.
Even in midsummer, if one gets off the interstate and travels the two-lane roads of the American West, there is an uncrowded and unhurried peacefulness, a quietness and timeless aura that defines what "recreation" should be all about.
The route from Rawlins to Lander, Wyo., in the late afternoon, for example, and then on through the Wind River Indian Reservation the next morning into the Tetons. Or the drive up Highway 71 from Cambridge, Idaho, to Oxbow, Oregon, along the Snake River just south of Hells Canyon with stops to eyeball a brown bear cub in a berry bush, then some bighorn sheep.
The national parks are more crowded, of course, with frequent traffic jams to videotape the wildlife or geothermal wonders. And the results of the catastrophic 1988 fires at Yellowstone are still much in evidence.
But even here, the natural beauty remains extraordinary. Yellowstone was the first national park in the world, and the languages heard there - French, German, Japanese, "Australian" - testify to the universal awe it inspires.
Back home in Oregon, the desk pile of mail included a copy of "Our National Parks," a new collection of photos and writings by the late Ansel Adams. I had not known that the man who captured in stunning black-and-white pictures the nation's "crown jewels" was also so eloquent in words, although I might have guessed it from the one conversation we had some 15 years ago.
"We are constantly seeking a satisfactory definition of the Parks which embraces the factual, administrative, and intangible objectives; such a definition must be both positive and fluid, yet never deviate from a clear, idealistic focus," he wrote in an essay first published in 1950. And then Adams got to the root of what drew him to Yosemite and Yellowstone, Denali and Haleakala, and why so many of us are privileged to visit them - and the wide-open spaces between - today.
"We have been given the earth to live upon and enjoy. We have come up from the caves; predatory and primitive ages drift behind us. With almost the suddeness of a Nova's burst to glory we have entered a new dimension of thought and awareness of Nature.... We have, in part, mastered its resources and believe we are able to extract therefrom what is required for milleniums to come without exhaustion of their source. We are now sufficiently advanced to consider resources other than materialistic, but they a re tenuous, intangible, and vulnerable to misapplication. They are, in fact, symbols of spiritual life - a vast impersonal pantheism - transcending the confused myths and prescriptions that are presumed to clarify ethical and moral conduct. The clear realities of Nature seen with the inner eye of the spirit reveal the ultimate echo of God."