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The Evocation of the Mountain Men


Breakfast at Sunrise- Alfred Jacob Miller


The true mountain men of our past likely lived in a paradox of being at home everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. They loved the life far removed from others but traveled just as widely when the fancy suited them. This is a largely romantic idea for us today, forced to be a part of civilization since the collapse of the frontier. Anemoia is the nostalgia for a time never personally known. It is what describes nearly all the hunters I know. If they could find a way to make their living hunting and trapping, and someone cajoled the blessing of their wives, a career change would be instantaneous.


Immersion and simplicity made the life.


Jim Beckwourth

The prototypical mountain man lived life on his own terms. He was his own master, making preparations and deciding his course of action. Then again, he was his own nursemaid when alone and sick, snowed-in deep within the Rockies. It was this sense of adventure that he craved. There was easy work to be found, but none that fed his soul so directly. This simple life was adhered to out of convenience as much as creed.


Life was measured in freedom.

John Colter chose to break off from the Corps of Discovery and a hero’s welcome bigger than any in our young country’s history to pursue his own way of trapping and exploring. Andrew Garcia could have remained in town to find an easier living after his horses were stolen, but instead he chose to make his way on the open prairie of central Montana. Jim Beckwourth was born a slave but became a businessman. Whatever mold or expectation there was of each man never stopped them from determining their own footsteps. Self-determination made each man unique.


Jim Bridger in his later years.

No one was more rugged, gritty, or leathery.

Hugh Glass’s self-doctoring after the grizzly attack and abandonment of his cohorts is now well known. Peg-leg Smith’s story of amputating his own leg after being shot by an Indian is more obscure. If you read the biographies of the men who lived from 1830-1860, you’ll find them to be grizzled from hardships that leave their credentials beyond question. The antithesis of the modern urbanite enduring withdrawals when the Wi-Fi is out, these men were intimate with endurance.


Privation was frequent.

Zenas Leonard wrote of men being “insensible” with starvation and “couldn’t scarcely stand, much less walk at speed.” Rufus Sage told of the growing pains of hunger. They grew to become “the greatest annoyance” until he felt “weakness and lassitude.” Cold was just as dangerous as hunger. When the wood ran out, sage had to suffice for fuel but the wind would quickly scatter it. The threat of Indian raids and revenge were omnipresent and Colter’s run has become legendary. Making their own way was the exact opposite of easy.


Romancing the story.

How many of us have read of the Rendezvous and wished we could have attended. We talk about being born in the “wrong time.” There is something about their lifestyle that many of us want to shroud our own in. Modern day responsibilities keep us in civilization more often than we want. Our mettle is not tested by the number of grizzlies hunted anymore (see William H Wright for his stories in The Grizzly Bear) and the frontier has long since been closed. The vicarious attention we give their saga’s is as close as we will ever come to experiencing it. Our reach for the unattainable doesn’t stop us from trying, or dreaming.


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