Location: Lolo, Montana, eleven miles southwest of Missoula
During our stay in Missoula, the city was socked in by the smoke of a fierce wildfire. As we got ready to head out of town, we went to Safeway and stocked up on sandwiches and snacks for the road. Some firefighters — God bless ’em — were there loading up for another hard day with Gatorade and other supplies.
We headed west for the little town of Lolo, where our destination was Traveler’s Rest State Park. This campground was named by Meriwether Lewis, but its roots are far more ancient than the Lewis & Clark Expedition. This spot was known to the Salish, Nez Perce, and Shoshone for millennia as a great place to camp during a journey back or forth across the Bitterroot Mountains. It’s easy to see why when you stroll the serene wooded nature trails and see the loveliness of Lolo Creek, the big flat area perfect for camping, and the turkeys hiding in the tall grass.
The Corps of Discovery camped here from September 9-11, 1805. The rest and relaxation came after they left their eventful stay with the Shoshones, and gave them a chance to get back some of their sense of themselves as a unit, as well as to rest themselves and the horses before what they knew would be an epic journey across the mountains. While talking with their Shoshone guide, a man known as Old Toby, they learned of an overland shortcut between the site and the Great Falls of the Missouri that would have enabled them to avoid the terrible month-long ordeal of the portage and shorten their arduous journey up the Missouri by weeks. Toby’s news probably elicted a “Now you tell us” feeling in the explorers.
It was also at Traveler’s Rest that Private John Colter met three young Indian men the Corps called “Flatheads” but whom were probably Nez Perce. The braves were out on a mission to recover 25 horses that had been stolen by the Shoshones. With Toby acting as translator, the young men told Lewis and Clark that their journey across the mountains should only take about six days, a prediction that would soon prove wildly optimistic.
The Corps of Discovery camped at Traveler’s Rest again on the east-bound return journey from June 30-July 3, 1806, glad again to see the beautiful spot. As Clark wrote:
Descended the mountain to travellers rest leaveing those tremendious mountanes behind us—in passing of which we have experiensed Cold and hunger of which I shall ever remember.
Lewis did some of his beloved botanizing and nature writing, while the men enjoyed good deer hunting. This time, the Corps was traveling with two Nez Perce guides. Before the Nez Perce left for their own further adventures, Lewis and Clark paid the young men by giving them each a rifle, powder and balls, ribbons for their hair, and a large supply of meat. In exchange, one of the young men gave them a horse, and Lewis got a Nez Perce name: Yo-me-kol-lick, which means “White Bear Skin Folded.” Historian James R. Fazio has a good comment on this: “I like to think of it as a tribute to Lewis the gentleman with the powers of a grizzly when needed.”
Because of the shortcut, Lewis made the decision at Traveler’s Rest to split up the party so he and Clark could squeeze in some additional exploration before heading back to civilization to report to Mr. Jefferson. This decision almost cost Lewis his life–a story for another time.
For years, local historians debated where the actual campsite of Lewis and Clark was, but much more is now known thanks to a fascinating archeological study. Today, Traveler’s Rest has the distinction of being one of the only places with actual physical evidence of the Corps of Discovery. The key to the puzzle lay in the knowledge that Lewis and Clark were by-the-book officers — and some 200-year-old mercurial poop.
In their medicine kit, Lewis and Clark carried 50 dozen “Rush’s Bilious Pills,” a powerful laxative that at the time was believed to be a cure-all for just about any ailment. (People liked their medicine dramatic in those days.) Nicknamed “Thunderclappers,” these pills contained large doses of calomel, a mercury compound. Fortunately for the Corps, the pills were so powerful and fast-acting that the body didn’t have time to absorb much of the toxic mercury. Instead, most of it ended up in the latrine, where it remains in the soil to this day.
To make a long story short, the Corps of Discovery slept here–and left a little something of themselves behind. Once archeologists had located the mercury-laced pit, they broke out the “Blue Book,” Baron von Steuben’s field manual for the United States Army. Combined with other sources, they could guesstimate where Lewis and Clark would have set up camp relative to the latrine. Discoveries of a U.S. Army button from the period and a bit of bullet lead that can be traced to Kentucky, as well as traces of ancient teepee rings and fire hearths, would seem to confirm that Lewis and Clark and the Native Americans both found the same spot to their liking.
We really enjoyed this beautiful park. Besides the turkeys, we saw a black and yellow snake sunning himself in the path. There is a good visitor center here with very nice and enthusiastic rangers whom we loved talking with. This is a great stop for nature lovers and history buffs alike.