Lemhi Pass ranks as one of my favorite history places. It’s a mountain pass over the continental divide at the Montana/Idaho state line high in the Bitterroot Mountains. Here Meriwether Lewis, scouting ahead of the rest of his expedition on their way west, stood in awe of the never-ending mountain ridges rising before him and realized the huge challenge ahead. It was a heart-sinking moment for him.
Today, the spot remains in a pristine state of wildness. I’ve been there three times, and every time its desolation and sweeping vistas transport my mind back to August 1805 when Lewis wrote: “[W]e proceeded on to the top of the dividing ridge from which I discovered immense ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered with snow.”
Nearby is the source of the Missouri River—where a small gurgle of water gushes from the ground. On one trip to this spot my traveling companions were a mixed group of whites and American Indians, all teachers from reservation schools. Near the area where Lewis and a few of his party went on ahead to find the Shoshone Indians, I found myself with two new friends of Shoshone-Bannock heritage. Straddling the narrow stream where the water pours from the ground and meanders down a hill to eventually become the Missouri River, we tasted the water and wondered at the journey it would take. Lewis called it “the most distant fountain of the waters of the mighty Missouri, in search of which we have spent so many toilsome days and restless nights.” He wrote that expedition member McNeal had “exultingly stood with a foot on each side of this little rivulet and thanked his god that he had lived to bestride the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri.”
I suppose the reason I like this place so much is its rawness and the wide open vast landscape that makes it easy to imagine the expedition’s challenges. If I’m honest there is probably a small part of me that wishes I could have been on the trail with Lewis and Clark. Today the smells of sagebrush and douglas firs and lodge pole pines mix in the fresh air and the spectacular views are probably not that different than those the Lewis and Clark expedition would have seen. Even today it is an adventure to drive this remote road and read entries from the Lewis and Clark journals about this amazing place. Since this is the first set of high mountains Lewis and Clark encountered, I have to wonder if the men appreciated the beauty around them or if the huge challenge of the way ahead overwhelmed the moment.
The pass is accessible by car and the road is steep in places and conditions can be challenging.