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Retracing Lewis and Clark

By Brittany Yingling

With a thin film of sweat spreading across his forehead, Private Thomas Proctor Howard tugs the loose seat of his billowing white canvas pants and peels his blue felt coat and voluminous, black hat. As he sheds his 19th-century skin, Private Proctor – or, as he is known on the Athens campus, Ohio University junior Brian Dearing – announces, with complete sincerity, that he is fully prepared to march two miles, wearing the entire ensemble, in the middle of the July heat.Brian Dearing

The crowd, including President Robert Glidden and Honors Tutorial College Dean Ann Fidler, erupts in laughter. They have gathered to celebrate Dearing's voyage as a member of the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles. The Expedition has lured people from around the country who are taking time off from work, school and 21st-century benefits to commemorate the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's journey with a journey of their own. The group is tracing the path Lewis and Clark carved, re-enacting the voyage through period clothing, customs and equipment.

Dearing has spent the past month and a half training to follow the expedition route - beginning in Illinois and ending in Oregon - that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark carved 200 years ago. He has learned to spark fire from steel and flint. He can fire a tomahawk effortlessly into the bark of a tree stump. He goes four to six days without a shower and sleeps alongside seven other men in one of four barracks. He is preparing to recreate the "ultimate camping trip" - the voyage of Lewis and Clark.

"I have always excelled in history," Dearing said, but the defining moment came in high school, as he watched a document about Lewis and Clark in which a historian began to cry during the interview. "I was like, 'I'm going to be that guy."

As a freshman at Ohio University, he and his former adviser, Ann Fidler, began toying with the idea of embarking on a journey to retrace the steps of Lewis and Clark. The wheels began to turn. Dearing began planning to lead an expedition that would span the summer, bringing together people of all majors to thoroughly document the trip - from photography and film to geological studies.

Brian Dearing. Photos by Rick FaticaThen he stumbled upon the Discovery Expedition that was officially following the Lewis and Clark trail, but "I didn't think much of it at the time, because I was planning to do my own expedition." Then, at a football game in Marietta, he spotted what looked like pirates standing across the field. The pirates, as it turned out, were members of the expedition. Gone was the idea of a self-guided voyage.

After receiving funding from the Provost's Undergraduate Research Fund, Dearing left to join the expedition the first week of April and began training at Camp DuBois, in Acton, Illinois, where the original Lewis and Clark expedition trained 200 years ago. A local resident, who spent three years crafting the barracks, walls, captains' quarters and bathroom facilities, constructed the $65,000 fort that houses the new expedition.

Dearing rises at 5:30 every morning for the flag raising ceremony, followed by daily chores and tours with local schoolchildren, who are subject to Dearing's off-kilter sense of humor and his tendency to place class clowns in a set of stocks. "If our main goal is education," he said, "then I think we are succeeding with flying colors."

But it hasn't been all fun and games. The only night that the expedition members were away from the fort - to hear Thomas Jefferson's letters set to music by the Belleville Philharmonic Orchestra - several pranksters climbed the walls of the fort, used a cement block to bash the windows and siding of Dearing's '99 Sebring convertible and climbed back out. Although they caused more than $5,000 worth of damage, Dearing was reimbursed and even appeared in the Acton Telegraph, who reported on the incident.

The modern day amenities - from television to Internet to shorts and t-shirts - haven't posed much of a problem. "Time's not an issue," Dearing said. "Time is so insignificant. When the job's done, it's done."

The expedition left on May 14 to begin following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark and their corps of men. Although they will aim to keep the same schedule as the expedition, they might stay longer in large cities. "If we can reach more people in a bigger town, then we're going to do that."

Dearing plans to use the trip to complete his senior thesis and to create a children's book or travel narrative to continue the legacy of Lewis and Clark. "This is a mission of discovery and through this I also hope to discover a lot about myself." While his trip is not the typical student's road trip to Florida, Dearing believes that it is more similar than one might think. "In a sense, this is like study abroad, except it's study abroad in time."


Brittany Yingling is a student writer with Research Communications.

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