by Kevin Taylor & r & Following Lewis and Clark & r & It's in the steep, narrow places of the world - a gap between forbidding mountains, say - where so many threads of human stories twine together.
The segment of U.S. Highway 12 that twists across the spine of the Bitterroot Mountains in north-central Idaho is such a place. It's a gap between here and there, salmon and buffalo, now and then.
You can drive it in a day from Spokane. It's a drive filled with voices calling from the ages. It's layered with stories; from the original people who still live there, to Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery (which almost lost hope there) to mountain men, loggers, miners and the Army Corps of Engineers dam builders. And despite a century or so of intense exploitation, the surrounding mountains are still beautiful and still forbidding.
Snow is just leaving the higher reaches of the Bitterroots now, opening a window for hikers.
The section of Highway 12 from Lewiston, Idaho, to Hamilton, Mont., is especially worth a visit this year - the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's harrowing traverse of the Bitterroots in early September 1805.
Starting on the Lewiston side, a must-stop is at the Museum of Nez Perce Culture at Spalding. The museum has a fabulous display of clothing, tools and gear used by the Nez Perce (Nimiipuu), as well as photographs.
In addition, early rising visitors can help raise a teepee every morning at 9 o'clock. If you're lucky, National Park Service Ranger Kevin Peters, a Nez Perce Tribal member, will conduct a workshop where you can make a flute from PVC pipe and learn to play it.
What's cool is that the museum items aren't dusty artifacts from a dead culture. The Nez Perce, like Peters, are still here - just as they have been for thousands of years, just as they expect to be for thousands more.
Many of the museum pieces have stories that have never died, such as this summer's exhibit of beadwork, clothing, cradle boards and other items donated by tribal elder Mylie Lawyer, who is still spry and engaging in her early 90s.
The items were made by members of Lawyer's family, and used and passed down through the span of generations. At least one, a game piece, predates the arrival of Lewis and Clark.
Mylie Lawyer's thread entwines with the Corps of Discovery - another of the prominent story threads here. Her family name is derived from her grandfather, Lawyer, who was among the prominent Nez Perce band leaders in the 1850s.
Lawyer's own father, Twisted Hair, was the leader of a village on the Weippe Prairie that was alarmed by the approach, one snowy autumn, of a stumbling, starving band of white men - the Corps of Discovery.
The villagers had a short discussion about whether it would be best to kill or help the woeful strangers. The effects of their humanitarian decision are still rippling across time.
Just west of Orofino is Canoe Camp. This is a small state park on the aptly named Clearwater River believed to be close to the site where the Corps - again with the assistance of the Nez Perce - carved five dugout canoes to speed their way from Idaho to the Pacific in fine style.
This bend in the river is known locally as Pink House Hole, a spot where loggers would assemble rafts of timber for the crazy ride downstream to mills at Lewiston. (A house you could see from the riverbank used to be painted pink.)
On the eastern side of the divide is Traveller's Rest, where the Corps - just like earlier parties of various native bands - stopped for a break before hitting the mountains. Traveller's Rest is the only archaeologically verified campsite of the Corps of Discovery in the Bitterroots. It's a day-use Montana state park run by the Traveller's Rest Preservation and Heritage Association, says Loren Flynn, executive director of the nonprofit group.
The site, at a crossroads of major trade and travel routes, has been a commercial center for thousands of years, Flynn says. It's a place where goods from the salmon cultures of the Coast could be swapped for goods from the buffalo cultures of the Great Plains.
Out of respect for all the earlier Nez Perce and Salish travelers, the "dig" in 2002 consisted of scanning the soil for magnetic anomalies and then making pinpoint excavations that revealed fire pits and latrines that fit military practices of the early 1800s. The latrines also contained traces of mercury, believed to come from the Rush's Pills that Lewis and Clark dosed their men with for every ailment, from venereal disease to aches and pains.
On the weekend of Sept. 9-11 -- the actual anniversary of the Corps of Discovery's stay -- the park will be the site of the National Park Service's traveling Lewis and Clark exhibit as well as its own annual Traditional Trades Week. The latter offers workshops and demonstrations on everything from flint-knapping to brain tanning to making your own elk hide journal.
Or you could kick back and, just as people have done along this road for thousands of years, enjoy the flow of stories as they weave a tale of shared humanity. -- Kevin Taylor
Traveller's Rest (interpretive historical site): (406) 273-4253
Nez Perce National Historical Park (museum, more): (208) 843-2261
Lolo Hot Springs Resort (camping, splashing): (406) 273-2290
Lolo Pass Visitor Information Center (hiking, camping, permit info): (208) 942-1234