Their side of the mountain: finding joy in the wild life

Here there are no cellphones. No Gore-Tex. No palm pilots.

Not even zippers.

As far as the folks here are concerned, these gadgets might as well not have been invented yet.

Indeed, for two weeks along a bend of the Flathead River's North Fork, it may as well be 1835. Scraggly men adorned with all manner of menacing knives stride amid hundreds of tepees and canvas tents, muzzle-loading rifles cradled in their arms.

They are part of an estimated 3,500 doctors, deputies, and train conductors who don buckskins and camp every summer on the edge of Glacier National Park in an homage to the mountain men of the 1800s. These "buckskinners" have driven vans and trailers stuffed with authentic paraphernalia of the fur-trading era from as far away as Texas, Florida, even Alaska, in search of simpler times and a square-jawed social code that seems no longer alive in today's America.

It may mean going 10 days without a shower, but to those assembled it's a small price to pay.

"Back-to-nature's a big appeal, but so is the honesty," says Robert "Sully" Sullivan, whose wife, Linda, hand-sews the period clothes. "There's camaraderie. Family values. You don't have to worry about leaving your wallet out overnight here. Or a gun."

Indeed, the dozens of traders on hand at the Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous leave pricey wares unguarded night after night. The rare crime is treated harshly. "Somebody from 10 camps down sees your kids doing something wrong, they're going to correct them," says Mr. Sullivan, a Ravenna, Ohio, resident who works for General Electric. "That wouldn't happen in the city."

Adds Larry Merical, a retired deputy from Montana's Flathead County: "If you needed help, there's nobody here who wouldn't help you. We're all brothers. It's something you've never been around - this kind of comradeship - and so these people come here once a year to renew that."

This camp is a paean to the original fur trappers' rendezvous, which occurred throughout the west from 1824 through 1841. As mountain men went deeper into the Rockies in search of beaver pelts for the booming millinery trade, St. Louis-based traders would meet them part way, loaded with goods to exchange for the valuable furs.

After trading their pelts for blankets, beads, knives, guns, and, of course, whiskey, these adventuresome loners would return into the uncertain frontier. Many, perhaps most, lost their lives - to native Americans, treacherous competitors, unforgiving nature - but some persevered and eventually helped the United States creep inexorably westward.

When hats of silk became the rage in 1840, beaver pelts were no longer needed, and the rendezvous became a part of history.

Until the late 1950s or 1960s that is, when muzzle-loading aficionados began reliving the glory days of the fur trade. In 1974, as these celebrations grew increasingly popular in the West, the Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous was born, a kind of national convention for those who mix guns and nature with patriotism.

Modern mountain men may go easier on the whiskey, but, perhaps because most buckskinners are history zealots, today's rendezvous bears much resemblance to the originals. Traders peddle beads, quillwork, greasy grub, blankets, hats, and furs.

Perhaps a dozen small gun dealers proffer arsenals of muzzle-loading rifles and pistols, and dealers of handmade knives seem to know that, as one buckskinner said, "you can never have enough good blades." Cannons cost a little more than $500, and most have sold.

"Womenfolk" spin wool or visit the traders' tents in search of notions. Little boys stalk each other with toy muzzle-loaders, while their sisters content themselves with three-legged races and mind their younger siblings.

Games and entertainment predominate: tomahawk-throwing, canoe jousting, and, naturally, shooting. Muzzle blasts echo through the camp during the day; by night, sleep is tough to come by as encampments attract musicians, drummers, and those who simply need to howl.

There is a limit to the realism, however. Located a discreet distance from the camp is a row of Sanicans. The parking lot, with cars adorned by bumper stickers reading "I'm not a hippie - just a well-groomed mountain man," is roughly a six-minute walk away.

Nor are all the "womenfolk" content to mind the cookfire. Sally Lippoldt of Grand Junction, Colo., proudly holds the 50-caliber Great Plains Lyman rifle she won in a raffle two years ago, and has used to win shooting contests at rendezvous around the US. Here, she could be seen blowing away baby carrots dangling in midair. She and her husband, Harold, both enter the contests, and she says, "we really enjoy going to rendezvous together."

With buckskinners' love of history comes an almost fanatical desire for accuracy that affects all areas of camp life. "There will be absolutely no dusters, cowboy boots, chaps, T-shirts, tennis shoes, sandals, rubber packs, or logger boots," read the rendezvous rules. "Cover up anything that is being transported to our camp that is not pre-1840. Boom boxes will be shot."

Historical accuracy is also pricey: Procuring an authentic set of clothing - shirt, belt, trousers, moccasins, hat, and a coat cut from a Hudson's Bay Point blanket- could easily cost $600. Add teepee and poles for $1,300, then another $1,000 for bedding, period storage baskets, metal plates, and cookware. That doesn't include weaponry, buckskins, or native American beadwork, which can run thousands of dollars more.

But whether they brought a bedroll or an 18-foot teepee, everybody's equal around the campfire. "It's a cross-section of the world here," says Barry Maxfield, a.k.a. Mouse, an anesthesiologist from Wausau, Wis. "There's everything from the chronically unemployed to high-class professionals. And the thing is, it doesn't mean diddly-do - when you're at rendezvous; you're just who you are right here."

That proclamation notwithstanding, few in camp call themselves environmentalists, or even liberals. At least loudly. The ambience is decidedly conservative and right-leaning, which seems a somehow apt homage to the original mountain men, who proudly denuded forests and exterminated millions of bison in the name of Manifest Destiny.

If anything dominates the Rendezvous, however, it is the laughter. Peals of it from one tent wake others nearby. "It's because they can actually get away from their cares," Mr. Merical says.

He gets up from his table at Frenchy's (speciality: buffalo burgers) and sets his straw hat atop his gray head. "If the world could be like this ... they'd call it heaven, and not earth."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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