Lewis and Clark at 35 Mph

updated 07/20/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/20/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IT IS QUIET ON THE MISSOURI, and Tom Warren and John Hilton have paused for a moment. Their trek upriver from St. Louis has taken them to this peaceful spot west of Culbertson, Mont., where the river flows past lines of cottonwoods without a ripple. Warren spots a pair of cormorants diving for fish. "Lewis called them black loons," he says.

Lewis? Scenes like this are what brought Tom Warren here in the first place: to see the world as Lewis and Clark saw it in 1804 when they passed this way en route to the Pacific Ocean. But now, abruptly, the riverine quiet is shattered as Warren and Hilton rev up the 270-hp Chevrolet engine on their 21-foot jet boat. They are retracing an epic expedition that has become part of American legend—and they are in a bit of a rush.

Carving an 8,000-mile passage through the wilderness and then returning to civilization took Meriwether Lewis and William Clark—dispatched by Thomas Jefferson to explore western lands acquired in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase—2½ years. Retracing the outward half of the trek, which is what Warren and Hilton are doing, will take about 2½ months. Hilton, 46, could swing only a brief leave of absence from Mineral Area Community College, in Flat River, Mo., where he is an administrator, and Warren, 39, has his chiropractor's office in Tulsa to think about. Then too his wife, Sue Lynn, agreed to the undertaking because she thought he'd said 2½ weeks.

Still, Warren has been postponing his dream for a long time. He was hooked on Lewis and Clark after he read about them as a 9-year-old. "They just got to me," he says. "Part of it was the Daniel Boone mentality among kids at the time. It was also that they set out to do a job and did it. No excuses." Eventually, Warren ran out of excuses himself. "Finally I just had to go," he says. Two years ago he called Hilton, his best friend. Hilton, recently divorced, jumped at the chance.

Warren set about getting sponsors for the trip, which he estimates will cost $150,000. The Jetcraft boat and a Chevrolet supply van, driven by Hilton's son, John, 24, were lent by the manufacturers. Texaco anted up a free credit card for fuel. American Rivers, a conservation group, is sponsoring the outing. (Callers to 1-900 I GO WEST—$1.95 per minute—will get flavorful progress reports.) And, in case anyone needed a further reminder of which century this is taking place in, Nutri/System contributed the food. (All the sponsors are, of course, represented among the jet boat's many decals.) The boat has a cellular phone, a VHF radio and a device that determines river depth. In addition, there's a Global Positioning System that pinpoints the location of 150 of Lewis and Clark's campsites.

The expedition, which got under way June 1, calls for a switch to 21-speed Raleigh road bikes for the two-week, 350-mile crossing of the Continental Divide through the Bitterroot Mountains. (Lewis and Clark, encountering heavy snows on horseback, took one month for this segment of their journey.) Then it's back to the jet boat for a final leg through the Snake-Columbia river system. Warren and Hilton plan to end the trip with a flourish by paddling canoes the final two miles to the mouth of the Columbia.

Lewis and Clark did it the hard way, foraging, on foot and sans credit cards. Warren and Hilton are out there somewhere right now, doing it the 20th-century way. Still, as Hilton says, "You get close to an original campsite, and you're touching history. You can hear the tinkling of the pans. You can feel the fire."

MICHAEL J. NEILL
GRANT PICK on the Missouri River

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