North by Northwest on the Lewis and Clark Trail

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Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Two hundred years ago, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were in what is now Washington state, nearing the end of the westward leg of their historic and hazardous expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase from St. Louis to the Pacific. To see them through, they’d brought along the Corps of Discovery, more than 30 hardy souls, plus nearly two tons of goods – including 15 rifles, 288 knives, 4,600 sewing needles, a four-volume dictionary, 193 pounds of “portable soup” paste, and I’m guessing at least 1,000 rolls of toilet paper.

As I venture south from Olympia on Interstate 5 to pick up the tail end of the Lewis and Clark Trail, I’ve also got two tons of goods with me – all of it in the form of the 2006 Honda Ridgeline pickup truck. Gotta love progress: Every 30 minutes or so, I’m knocking off the distance it might have taken Merry and Bill a week or more to travel.

The Ridgeline is a refreshing take on a familiar theme, a pickup for guys who wouldn’t have looked twice at a pickup before. It’s comfy, sophisticated, even refined – call it a “blue state” pickup. The engine is a 24-valve 3.5-liter V-6 that delivers a solid 255 horsepower – without guzzling fuel like a V-8. The cabin offers room for five, and the top-of-the-line RTL model includes a six-disc CD changer, dual-zone climate control, and a satellite-linked navigation system. Out back, under the cargo bed, hides a unique in-bed trunk that’s accessible by flipping up the lockable cargo floor. Wherever I stop, the Ridgeline attracts passers-by like a 100-pound salmon.

Just before I reach the Columbia River at Longview, off to my left I spy the distant, broken peak of Mount St. Helens. The areas around the adjacent Gifford Pinchot National Forest are loaded with enough diversions – fishing, camping, kayaking, hiking – to fill a month with adventures. Although the great volcano has been rumbling a bit in the past year, it looks peaceful today, with just a faint whiff of steam venting from the top. Still, the corner of my eye keeps watch – if I start seeing lava, we’ll see what this truck can really do.

State Route 4 west from Longview follows the Columbia River, shadowing Lewis and Clark’s route through Washington. Near the village of Cathlamet I reach the Julia Butler Hansen Refuge for the Columbian White-tailed Deer (a species that had been nearly driven to extinction by the settlers who populated the area after the Corps of Discovery literally put the area on the map). During a hike through the refuge I spy several deer and elk. Stay a little longer and you’re sure to run into a few of the local coyotes and beavers, too.

Just west of the refuge the broad Columbia again arcs into full view. In early November, 1805, Lewis and Clark were canoeing this very stretch, hoping to find the coast before being locked in the vice-grip of winter. Today, the small town of Skamokawa offers guided kayak tours, excellent food, and an unstuffy bed and breakfast.

I climb into one of their kayaks and I’m soon bearing into the huge waterway – the Columbia is as wide as a big lake here – and inhaling the view. Across the water lies the Oregon coast, a gray mist obscuring the hilltops. The air is fragrant with pine; my dipping paddle is the only sound to break the steady murmur of the surging current. Ignore the occasional passing pleasure boat, and you could be back in the 1800s.

Several hours later I’m back on Route 4 west, heading inland. Too bad those first pioneers didn’t have a Ridgeline. Not only is this newfangled pickup ready for action, being equipped with a virtually indestructible steel-reinforced composite (SRC) cargo bed and full-time four-wheel drive, it’s also as pleasant to travel in as a luxury sedan. The XM Satellite Radio is feeding me hilarious, uncensored stand-up comedy as the GPS system alerts me to turn south on SR 401 back toward the Columbia.

Thanks in part to the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, just 13 miles up the 101 from the fishing village of Ilwaco, much of this corner of Washington state has remained unchanged since Lewis and Clark first blazed a trail here two centuries ago. The 15,000-acre refuge includes mudflats, grasslands, streams, and old-growth western hemlock forests. It’s home to black bears, deer, elk, bobcats, salamanders, and bald eagles.

By now Washington’s famous rain is beginning to fall, along with the sun and my blood sugar level. I pull into the bayside hamlet of South Bend, a slice of the Washington coast dubbed the Oyster Capital of the World. As oyster farmers unload a boatload of the bivalves just down the street, I park the Ridgeline at the Harbor Grille and head in for a beer and a plate of perhaps the freshest, most delicious oysters I’ve ever tasted.

A memorable day amid unspoiled woods, an evening rain, fresh Willapa Bay oysters – this is the bounty for finishing the Lewis and Clark Trail. And it didn’t take me 4,600 sewing needles to get here.

More Information: Get some zzz’s next to the mighty Columbia River at Skamokawa’s Twin Gables B&B, with rooms starting at just $95. The simple, comfy Seaquest Motel in South Bend offers rooms with kitchenettes from $69. Rent a kayak downriver at Astoria Scuba and Kayak and paddle the Lewis and Clark Water Trail from Skamokawa..

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