I was driving back from my camping trip through Arco, Idaho, a town of about 1,200 people. I’d been driving for about five hours and thought this might be a good place for a rest. A large banner announces you’re entering “The First City in the World Lighted by Atomic Power!” Looking for an appealing place to pull over, the entire town appeared too much like ‘any town’—fast food restaurants, quik-stops and car lots. But in a few blocks I’m on the outskirts and a funky old wooden storefront appears. ‘Fresh Juices’, ‘Natural Foods’, ‘Indian Beads’, the hand painted sign hangs loosely on the doorway. I’m stopping here, and I pull into the dirt lot.
I swing open the screen door. The inside doesn’t really resemble a natural food store at all. Yes, there’s some fruit and a few snacks, but front and center is an unusual older woman doing beadwork at a wooden table. She has salt and pepper hair wrapped up in a bun, and is stocky and outspoken. Immediately she starts engaging me, asking what I’m looking for.
“Dunno. What is it you’re beading?”
I look at the finery she’s working on. The beadwork is beautiful and intricate.
“I’m making a handle for a knife.”
“That’s beautiful. Do you sell that here?”
“This will go for $200. No, this is for a customer in Northern Idaho. I only do custom work now.”
We chat for a while about her beadwork. She’s spunky, and an obvious storyteller. I seize the opportunity for a good yarn or two.
“I’ve settled down now. I’m from California too—oh originally that is. I was from nowhere for a long time.” I ask her what she means. “Well, I was living like the pioneers of old. I had my own wagon. Hell, one time I was on national TV.” This caught my attention, so I sat down to listen.
“I was traveling all around Wyoming and Idaho with only a wagon and two horses pulling it. I got arrested for going too slow on the road. ‘magine that! How can you be going too slow? I got a ticket for going 5 miles per hour and then when I wouldn’t get off the road, they put me in jail. Then the national news got a hold of it and boom—I was on TV. That was in the 70’s you know and we all looked eccentric. I was just living like they used to a long time ago. I was trying to emulate pioneer life and I did that for years—wandered with no home, with only my wagon and horses. Maybe I was the first homeless person!” Her eyes twinkled when she said that. I told her that I’d been traveling for a few days with a mountain man. She knew who I was talking about immediately.
“Chuck? You saw Chuck?”
“Yep. And I’m gonna send him some photos too since I have his winter address.”
“Well, tell him that you met the “Fire Lady”. He knows me. We traveled together some.”
“I’ll do that.”
That was my only stop in the entire 16-hour drive home. How strange, I thought. Serendipity must be the word for that funny thing that happens when the universe of human karmas has a Harmonic Convergence. How in the world could I possibly be meeting these two people, one a mountain man and the other his female counterpart who knows him, on the same trip, but hundreds of miles apart? And why did I stop here in Arco, the town lit (or lighted) by nuclear power? But I need to backtrack to tell the story of Chuck Streeper, the last Mountain Man.
I was hiking in the Wind Rivers, Wyoming. I had tried to get other friends to come with me but either their schedules never worked out or my trip seemed too rigorous for my middle-aged friends. So I set off alone, with just my dog. I had visited the Winds briefly when I was sixteen, hitchhiking around the West with two girlfriends. We were on the last leg of our summer vacation and a motorist insisted we detour to see this part of the Rockies. He said we wouldn’t regret it and would never forget it. He was right. We had just spent two full weeks hiking the Tetons. We’d been in Glacier National Park also and had some shoulder-to-shoulder encounters with bears. With those experiences under our belts, I couldn’t see how this area would rate much higher. We were dropped off at a trailhead (I can’t recall which) and hiked in for a day or two. What I vividly remember was looking out from our campsite over a great divide, and seeing the Wind River Range in the distance. We hiked for two days and were still not there! We were tired and anxious to go home, plus the mosquitoes drove us out. I vowed to come back some day. Now thirty years later I was keeping that promise I made to myself.
The wonderful thing about the Winds is that there are only a few entrance points, and all require at least eleven miles of hiking before you enter the sanctuary of its spires, alpine meadows, and sculpted rock slopes carved by ancient glaciers. The Winds form “the largest fault block range in the Rocky Mountain chain, with some of the greatest vertical displacement on Earth”. They are situated on the continental divide and contain many of the tallest peaks and most dramatic landscape in the contiguous United States. Titcomb Basin and Cirque of the Towers are a mecca for climbers from all over the world.
Because it takes so long just to hike in, I planned a trip for at least five to seven days. Part of the fun is getting into all the backpacking gear. Backpackers can become obsessive about traveling light. At times it’s the main focus of conversation on a wilderness trip. One can spend hours (and I have) checking out cook stoves for utility and lightness (I finally settled on a Titanium one that cost $50!). And don’t forget, the only humans you are going to see ‘out there’ are backpackers, some more experienced than others. For at least the next week, these people are your ‘people’, your crowd, your fellow ‘cult’ enthusiasts and lovers of the great outdoors.
The first day I planned to begin my hike from a little used trailhead called New Fork Lakes. Some areas of the Winds are well traveled, and I wanted to stay far away from the crowds. An easy seven miles on the first day takes you into New Fork Park, a wide expanse of meadow about 1.5 miles in length bisected by a meandering river. From there it’s another seven miles to the high country of Lozier lakes, above timberline, my ultimate destination. I entered New Fork Park around three in the afternoon and noticed that the best campsites were across the river on the other side of the meadow. I’d become an expert at sleuthing out the best spots to camp from afar, and could easily see that this prime site was already taken. I was surprised to see tents since I hadn’t encountered any people all day. I moved up stream and found a smaller, but adequate site. I made camp and went back down to the river to fill my water bottles and wash off. Returning to my campsite I noticed a man coming toward me. He appeared very different from the usual ‘backpacker’. Although he had on jeans and a thick red flannel shirt, he sported an unusually large fur hat–the kind trappers wore in the 1800’s. He had long stringy blond hair and a full beard. His face was weathered and gentle. I quickly ‘scouted’ him out. He seemed harmless enough. I couldn’t quite place him. He was different from the ‘locals’ of Wyoming, and definitely not a backpacker.
“There’s three bull moose over there. I didn’t want them to scare you, so I thought I’d come tell you.”
I was close enough to camp to grab my camera and then I came back to join him. We walked around and around till we found the perfect and closest spot to observe the moose. My dog growled for a while, then finally settled down. We lay in the grass for what seemed like an hour, watching a large bull with a full rack and two smaller bulls.
“What are you doing here? Are you all alone?”
Now of course, the one thing that scares a woman traveling alone is weird men, or at least the thought of encountering them. Here was a man who obviously wasn’t a backpacker, who seemed highly eccentric at best, and with whom I was laying in the grass in the middle of nowhere and he asked me if I was all ‘alone’ out here.
“Just me and my dog.” Somehow I intuitively ‘knew’ he was o.k. I felt immediately comfortable and at ease with him.
I asked him where he was hiking from and if those were his horses out to pasture.
“I had to leave one of my horses up on Doubletop Mountain. He refused to go any further. He’s been with me 25 years. Put on more than 50,000 miles. I hated to do that. He won’t make it through the winter I think, but he just wouldn’t go no more.”
“Hmm.” I’m trying to piece this together. That just doesn’t sound like any part of my experience in San Francisco. “So, how long have you been traveling out here?”
“All my life. I’ve gone from west to east a few times and from Canada to Mexico. When I was a teenager I was fascinated by the Mountain Men, men like Jim Bridger and John Coulter. I wanted to live like them and I wanted to see if it could be done. I’m 59 now and I never looked back.”
Now I knew I’d never met anyone like this man before. I searched my memory. Mountain men—they were the trappers and explorers of the early 1800’s. The Wind River Range was actually in the Bridger-Teton Wilderness, named after the trapper Jim Bridger. In fact, the area around Pinedale and the upper Green River Basin was, by1825, the center for trading furs in the Rocky Mountains. Crow Indians led a group of freezing trappers to South Pass at the southern end of the Wind Range. This pass later became a vital passage over the Rockies on the westward migration over the Oregon Trail. So the whole region was imbued with the history of these trappers.
“The Mountain Men traveled alone, were guided by Indians sometimes, and caught their own food. Is this what you’ve tried to do?”
“I learned to tan hides as a boy in Visalia. That was the one thing I knew how to do when I started. I definitely had some fits and starts in the beginning, even times I thought I’d give up. I had to learn to trap. I never used a gun. I trapped, made my own clothes, and my own fire.”
I was stunned. Here I was, entering these mountains tentatively as a guest. In order to survive for just five days, I had spent weeks preparing my gear. What this man was describing was a way of life gone. He was like a ‘white Ishi’, except he chose to go back in to become the last Mountain Man. Nobody was left to teach him how. This was definitely a dream I had in my teens—to live freely and unencumbered in the wilderness. But it was just a fanciful flirtation. Here was someone who had taken his dream very seriously and been living it for 34 years. Chuck was a living illustration of my road not taken.
“Do you want to come camp with me and my friend?”
He had a friend here too? They did have the best spot in the valley, and I was very interested in this man’s story. Chuck helped me move my gear over to his clearing down the way. We passed his three horses in the pasture and a man came out to greet us. He was wearing a short jacket reminiscent of Civil War apparel with similar pants and a hat from the same period. Clean-shaven, Rich was a man around forty. When Chuck explained who I was, I sensed Rich wasn’t too happy about my joining them, but he kept to himself about it. He had a rougher presence, more fitting with the Wyoming image of the rugged independent man, and wasn’t as soft spoken as Chuck.
Chuck explained that Rich was riding with him “because he wanted to experience the feeling of the Mountain Men”.
“I’ve been trying to hook up with Chuck for a few years. Chuck’s a legend at all the Mountain Men gatherings. They want to be what he actually IS.”
I didn’t know there was such a thing as ‘Mountain Men conventions’. Rich later told me that these ‘conventions’, called rendezvous’, met at least once a year and there was a lot of ‘hoopla’ that went on at them. “Show your skill without a kill” was a common theme, with archery, knife and ax throwing, open fire cooking, and black powder shotguns. Chuck never went to these. He didn’t need to. He was living the life out there, 24/7. But people at these rendezvous talked about him, because he was the only ‘real McCoy”, the last man living the way Mountain Men did 175 years ago.
“I’m just taking time off work to ride with Chuck for 2 weeks.”
Rich explained that a lot of Mountain Men probably dressed like he was. While many wore traditional buckskin, if they could get wool they preferred it and the short wool jacket he was wearing might have been something they’d have traded for. He also carried a black powder shotgun with him. That was a little scary.
“Oh its not loaded. Besides, if I shot it I’d only get one shot and then I’d have to thoroughly clean it and I don’t want to do that. I carry it just for the feel, so I can know what it must have really been like for them.”
I had definitely left the world of backpackers and California homegrown camping, and entered the world of the 1800’s and a different strain of men living with the earth.
I was surprised to see that Chuck and Rich had plenty of the amenities of packhorse camping. Chuck explained that he no longer trapped much nor lived off the land.
“I’d been living out mostly alone for over 30 years. Sometimes people would join me for a time. But always they left and I was alone again. For years, I never came into a town. I trapped, tanned, and lived off the land. I’ve traveled all over the country this way. After about ten years I met someone who said ‘Why don’t you write an article about what you’re doing?’ I wrote one and mailed it into a western magazine. From then on I’d write about 3 or 4 articles a year and for that I’d receive $300, which was enough for any extras I needed like some extra clothes or items for my horses. But now I’m too old to spend my winters out. The snow’s too deep and it’s just too hard, trapping and surviving alone. So I went around the country digging up mason jars I’d left with all my savings I’d stashed away. From all those jars I had over $100,000. I bought a house in Visalia in California where I grew up. Now I spend my winters teaching school kids about frontier life.”
That night we laid our sleeping bags out on a tarp under the night sky. Rich and I had down bags, but Chuck used bedrolls with layers of blankets. I have to say that his system looked a lot more comfortable than mine.
We spent a few hours talking and playing a game of watching for satellites. Chuck received mail in a few places around the country. He subscribed to an astronomy magazine and knew a lot about satellites and other astronomical phenomena.
“Best time to see them is before midnight. They don’t have their own light you know, so they need the light of the sun to reflect them. They usually go from east to west, but some go north to south. Did you know they come in different shapes?”
The game consisted of seeing how many we could count before about eleven o’clock. “I didn’t even know that 9/11 happened for several months. I did notice that there was no plane activity for weeks during that time. It was very quiet and very strange. I had no idea anything had happened until I left after the winter snows got too deep.”
Chuck and I had an instant bond. We spent hours that night talking about everything, literally, under the moon. Rich finally got tired of our chatter and went to bed in the tent. Chuck’s life alone has led him to become introspective and comfortable with his own company. I had always wondered what extended time in nature might do to a person. Chuck was an example of how solitude in nature has a kind of meditative effect, deepening and allowing the soul to take on a slower, gentler, rhythm. His ease with himself put me at ease.
The next morning Chuck and Rich decided to explore further up the mountain. They invited me to accompany them and asked where I’d like to go. Since my hiking plans couldn’t take me everywhere, I chose a difficult route up to Palmer Lake. The plan was to take all three horses, with my dog following behind, and arrive at the lake for lunch.
Rich’s horse was a BLM (Bureau of Land Management) wild horse that he’d broken. (The BLM routinely gathers up wild horses and sells them inexpensively to cowboys and handlers who want to break them. For Wyomians, it’s a good way to acquire a spirited yet cheap horse. These are the spicy tidbits backpackers and tourists never hear about.) A handsome mare, his horse was spunky and responsive. Chucks’ horses were older and seasoned. While Rich and Chuck had western saddles, Chuck provided me with a hand-made wooden saddle—v-shaped and very small. He had carved it from scratch and although I had sore sits bones, the saddle worked like a dream.
We meandered up the valley following the path of the river. A marmot emerged on a rock to sun itself. That ensued an entire conversation the likes of which I’d never heard before.
“Now that’s good tasting meat!” says Rich.
“You’re kidding. They have too much round fat. Besides, they need cooking for three days in order to taste good.”
“I like ‘em.”
“Now Beaver, on the other hand, they have marbled fat and that’s good eating, especially the tail.” says Chuck. “Slow-cooked…that’s great stuff.”
I could learn a lot here.
That evening back at camp, Rich is spending time watching the slopes on the craggy mountains that surround the valley.
“There’s deer moving on those mountains.” I look and look but don’t see a thing. Rich is starting to grow on me. At first, I just thought of him as a sulking, quiet man. But he’s just someone you ‘slow cook’ in order to get to know. He’s a history buff, well-read, part Wyoming redneck, part intellectual, with lots of opinions, but curious and extremely capable when it comes to the outdoors.
“Where?” Chuck and I are both straining and don’t see anything.
“There. See. They’re moving. There’s a whole lot of them.”
I don’t see a thing and don’t believe him. Chuck doesn’t see anything either but he does believe him.
“Rich is an expert hunter. My eyes aren’t what they used to be. If he says they’re there, they are.”
I spent about 15 minutes trying to see something moving with my naked eye. Finally I gave up and got out my binoculars. Sure enough, there were deer on the mountain. Once I saw them with the binoculars, I could pick them out without them. But they were like ants, moving occasionally and slowly in little groups. My admiration for Rich deepened. He knew many things I did not.
I also was finding myself privy to many interesting conversations over dinners. “The Mountain Men”, a movie with Charlton Heston was always a hot topic. Stories about Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith or other Mountain Men seemed to float into every conversation as well. One I remember about John Colter sounded like a classic:
Colter was trapping beaver (the profession of the Mountain Men. They made their living by trapping and selling the pelts at the rendezvous’) when he and his partner were attacked by Blackfeet Indians. The Indians killed Colter’s partner and stripped Colter naked and took all his possessions. To Colter’s amazement, the Blackfeet set him free and told him to run. Soon enough, he realized this was a game of “human hunt.” After running a few miles, naked, Colter killed an Indian pursuer with his spear, then stole his blanket and continued running till he came to a river. By hiding in the river under a pile of logs Colter evaded the other Blackfeet. Then he walked 200 miles wearing only a blanket and eating bark and roots back to Fort Raymond. He made it there, half-dead, after eleven days.
It was stories like these that pumped these two men full of juice.
That night we slept again under the stars. In the twilight Chuck pointed out the great buffalo in the craggy peaks watching over us. It rained lightly the next morning when we took the horses down to the river to drink. The sun was barely up. I’d awakened in the middle of the night to find the dog sitting on a small knoll nearby, staring into the night attentively.
Before breakfast the three of us walked to a large boulder that jutted out from the hillside with an overhang one could walk under. On its’ ceiling from underneath hung thousands of black and white moths in different stages of emersion from their cocoons. Some were still in cocoon, some were breaking through, and others were waiting to fly. What a wonder!
I ask Chuck over breakfast if he’d ever seen Ted Turner’s ranch. I have to admit that I’m slightly enamored by Turner. The stories I’ve heard are about how he’s hired top-notch biologists and botanists from all over the country to try and restore his land back to original prairie. Turner’s the largest landholder in the United States, outside of the federal government. His dream, so I’m told, is to buy as much contiguous land up as possible, restore it to prairie, reinstate the buffalo, and try and show others how buffalo can be farmed as a profitable cash crop as opposed to cattle. I admire his dream and his environmentalist spirit.
“I got to admit that my concern with Turner was that I wouldn’t be able to cross his land to get to where I wanted to go. But he was very amiable. I met him and Jane.”
Chuck also tells me he was on David Letterman one time. But that’s not what’s impressing me about Chuck anyways. Most of the time I’m wishing that I had a few months to wring stories out of him. He’d seen so much, felt so much. I wanted to know about the pang of going hungry during winter snows, waiting for your traps to fill. I was too curious about so many nights alone under the stars: How deep inside can one feel when you look up every night into the infinite? Who were all those people and lovers that he met up with over the last thirty years? None of them could stay with him. How was it to be bound to Nature; to watch your friends, each like comets, pass through your night, rarely to return?
We took the day off, ebbing and flowing, sometimes together and sometimes apart. Rich and I went to pick huckleberries for lunch. As we moved over rocks down the river, through pines and brush, we talked about wolf and buffalo reintroduction. Rich was strongly against wolf reintroduction and felt it was pushed on the Wyomians by ‘animal rights activists’. He said ranchers agreed with him.
I happen to be passionate about wolf reintroduction. We couldn’t disagree more on this issue. But I listened to him, interested in his point of view. From his viewpoint, I am another ‘California activist’ who doesn’t have to live with the wolves in my backyard. For me it’s just an idea. Rich’s perspective was that of a typical hunter. We are on opposite ends of the spectrum, but our conversation seems to only draw us closer to one another. Rich knew so much more than I do about living in nature, yet I also brought something holistic to the table that is missing in his practical perspective. I felt a mutual respect forming between us.
Rich found a fishhook and some line left by a previous resident around our campsite. I go down to the river with him to fish for trout. He was marvel to watch. He knew exactly where to drop the line, how not to cast a shadow, and where the fish are biting. Thanks to him, we had 3 nice fish to eat for dinner—all caught within 1/2 hour.
“In the winter, my wife and I go bag our elk limit. We hunt to supplement our food. We need that elk to live. We cut up what we kill and then put it in the freezer. It lasts all winter. Last winter we went out—it was 10 below and the snow was deep.”
This was a different perspective than most hunters I knew. I have a client in California who hunts big game for sport. When you walk into his home, it’s like an animal morgue, with trophy heads all over the walls. But Rich had to hunt in order to eat meat. Besides, elk hunting is very controlled in Wyoming and necessary in order to cull the herd.
I decided that I had to get Chuck to teach me how to use a fire drill to start a fire before we parted ways. Today was the day. He had told me that he taught weeklong workshops on it to elementary children during the winter. I had always wanted to learn. Now I could learn from the expert. I asked if he would show me.
“I’ll do better than that. We’ll make one together.”
There were no fires allowed this summer in the Winds because of dryness. But we went through all the motions from beginning to end. First Chuck took me down to the river amongst the reeds. We hunted around for some soft sapling willow. He cut one down. This would be the bow. Now he looked for a sturdier piece that would be the drill and brought it back to camp. Next he showed me how to whittle the strong piece just right with his large bow knife. I had to work on the drill till he considered it perfect, and sharpened at both ends. We found a fairly straight, flat piece of wood and notched it. Although sinew might have been used in the past, this time a bit of string found around camp sufficed. He showed me how to twist the drill around the string in a twirling motion, over and over again against the tinder. It definitely was difficult and took me over 45 minutes to get a spark. But he made me persist and the tinder began to finally smolder!
Chuck got this grand idea but wouldn’t let on what he was doing. He brought me over to where his gear was stashed and began getting out different pieces of buckskin clothing. First he had me put on some fringed pants. Then a fringed jacket made of deerskin. Now I understood. He was dressing me up in his traditional Mountain Man clothing. These were clothes that he had personally tanned and sewn. He used this mostly when he went on a special ride or ceremony. In a few days he was headed down to a Buffalo Ranch outside of Pinedale to give a talk. He would wear these clothes.
He tied a beaded belt around my waist and hung his large hunting knife in its beaded sheath through it. A beaded tobacco pouch went around my neck and a leather bag swung over my shoulder.
“Now you’re starting to look good. Wait, you need my hat.”
Then Rich decided that one more item was definitely needed. He went to get his one-shot musket.
“Stand in front of the buffalo rock and I’ll take your picture.” I had my digital camera with me.
“Nobody will believe this.” I said. “They’ll think I went to the airport and posed in front of one of those backgrounds.”
“I have an idea.” Chuck was half giggling now. “Stand in front of this pile of horse shit. No airport set would have that in the photo!”
These guys were loving this.
“Wow, do you look sexy.” This was too funny. You could almost see them drooling. I couldn’t help imagine myself in San Francisco in this get-up. It was definitely not a turn-on for city men. Somehow, I felt appreciated. “Now you can show this photo to everyone and tell them the story of where you’ve been.”
Later that day Chuck took his large knife and came over to get me.
“Let’s go. I want to show you something.”
I followed him into the brush. Suddenly my anxiety settled in. Even though I had spent three days with these men, I didn’t really know them, and here I was, in the middle of nowhere going off into the pines with a man and his extremely large knife. He began looking around for something. When he saw what he wanted, he carried it over to a clearing. He set the large tree stump down at the edge of the pines, then anchored it with some rocks and dirt.
“I’m going to teach you how to throw a knife.”
This was something I had no interest in learning. Fire drill, yes. Knife throwing, no. But it seemed like I had no choice, as the lesson was about to begin.
“Stand here, and hold the knife like this. Then throw. One half turn around is what you want to achieve.”
He made it look easy. I could do this. I held the knife as he showed me and threw it. It hit the dirt. He made me try and try again for at least forty-five minutes. I was ready to give up long before. By the end of an hour I was hitting the wood more than not.
“Knife throwing is very competitive. Most of the time they are throwing axes at these fairs. There are some incredible women ax throwers.”
Rich was watching now. “Oh yeah. There are lots of gatherings where women excel at ax throwing. My wife is an excellent ax thrower and likes to go to competitions. She wins a lot.”
I was amusing myself thinking about keeping up my training at home in the Bay Area. I’m not really in the ‘ax throwing competition loop’ on the West Coast.
The next morning I began packing up my gear. We all had talked about going up to Lozier Lake together, but Rich and Chuck changed their plans. They had to get back to the Green River area for a ride on a Buffalo Ranch. I was going to continue my backpack trip alone up to the high country. Rich asked if I would take a digital picture of him and Chuck and send it to him.
I had them pose and I took a few shots. I realized that I felt close to them both and was sad to leave them. Rich had endeared me to him through his complete allegiance to Chuck. I had gained so much respect for his abilities and instinctive know-how of the outdoors. Chuck of course was special. I had never met anyone like him—completely made of the natural environment. I was seeing living history and how nature molds the soul. “Society is like a big fire,” he told me. “Next to it is warm, but get too close and it hurts.”
I realized that what I idealized when I was young—a kind of ‘Tom Brown living naturally with the Earth’—is a choice that I could never have made. There was too much I would have given up; and I saw all that Chuck had to give up in order to take that road. But he was satisfied with the ways it had enriched his soul and was at peace with his missed opportunities. We all make choices and take those forks in the road. Chuck’s was just an extraordinary choice—a story of how one man bridged the past with the present.
In one sense, Chuck’s journey was courageous; but in another sense I felt sad. Sad because the life he strove to live was no longer required, nor honored by our society. Sad because a Mountain Man living in the 1800’s, though alone, was not lonely. There were whole cultures of Red Men living in these mountains that shared with the Mountain Men and guided them. There were trading posts where these men gathered to exchange stories. Presidents honored them and called upon their services as guides. Sad because that way of life was truly gone and we will never again know what it was like.
One man a culture does not make. Chuck had chosen a heroic path, but he was born at the wrong time. He was a man living out of time, in a space that echoed from the emptiness of a culture that once was.