Would We Have What It takes?
For any of us who have toyed with mountain man skills, we cannot help wondering what the original mountain man was like and would we have what it would take to survive the Rocky Mountains in the 1800′s.
We learn how to set a trap, start a fire with flint and steel, shoot a muzzle loader, and throw a hawk. We learn a bit about edible plants and take pride in killing, processing, and eating hunted game. For good measure we make our own buckskins, spent time in our teepee and learn to tan hides. We convince ourselves that we could be employees for Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company, or even one of the more adventuresome free trappers.
The real mountain men came from the East and found that they had a thirst for the adventure. Many did not like the farm life, or the employment civilization had to offer. I have little doubt that most of them underestimated the life that they romanticized. Many became nothing but a name in an employment ledger never to be heard of again. The natives, wild animals, and natures indifference to humanity, claimed the lives of many.
Once the pilgrims learned the survival skills essential to existing in the wild, they learned more of themselves and a true appreciation for life itself. They would rather be alone than to partner with a man that he could not count on when times became truly dangerous. They learned about diversity. The French, Canadians, Americans, and many different Indian tribes forced them to learn about the difference in language and customs. They learned who they could consider friends and those who were war like. When you consider the difficulties of dealing with Mother Nature and couple that with the complex social interaction that was required to survive, these men were truly amazing.
The rendezvous for these men carried a much higher meaning than just trading for the furs collected throughout the year. The reunion of those thought dead and the celebration of news from the East made this event one that I doubt we can match in these modern days. For those of us who look at the Fort Bridger Rendezvous as more than just a way to spend Labor Day, I hope we can keep in mind what our heroes of the past accomplished to advance our history to what we have today.
Night Time at Bridger
The action packed day at Fort Bridger seems to take a deep breath just before dark. Trader’s row shuts down one by one, those out of period dress retire to their own homes, and the camp takes a few relaxing minutes to eat and reflect on the memories. Then, the camp seems to get its second wind. The warm day gives way to a cool night. Camp fires, capotes, and lanterns set the stage for the evening. Fort Bridger does not allow anyone on the fort that is not in period dress which adds to the authenticity of the event.
Night time is one of my most favorite times at Fort Bridger. As I walk through camp, the kids are playing night games, teepees are lit up like huge candle lights, and dozens of small camp fires are tended by families and friends. Stories, laughter, and guitars are the norm. It does a heart good to just wander around and soak it all in.
For those who have more energy, the buck skinners ball is the big attraction. This event gets bigger each year and has a draw that must be experienced to get the full effect. Even if you are not a dancer, just watching every one of all ages having such a good time gives a person a warm and satisfying feeling.
Within a few hours, sleep wins and the only life stirring is the roaming volunteer Dog Soldiers keeping a vigilant eye on the security of the camp. It is uncanny how thousands of people in the biggest campout in Wyoming can fall to such a silent calm.
Night time at Bridger takes on a completely different life which adds to the most fantastic event of its kind. It will be many months before next Labor Day, but for many of us, remembering the great times at Bridger throughout the year makes the experience so much more than a weekend gathering.
The Train Trip
I was on a train traveling from Lincoln, Nebraska to Salt Lake City, Utah, when I met a woman who wrote for a prestigious magazine. She was from California and was interested in what Bridger was all about. She was familiar with some of the civil war reenactments and asked if it were similar to those events.
As I described the event, I realized that the Fort Bridger Rendezvous is not just a reenactment, but more of a celebration of the fur trade era. The life style was so unique to American history that it could only be celebrated as Fort Bridger can do it. For those with just a touch of imagination, Fort Bridger delivers a somber reverence to the history of the Rockies. Walking through the grounds, you can feel the spirits of Bridger, Carson, Bonneville, or Beckworth, knowing they too walked in that very spot.
Those who participate in the rendezvous vary from historically correct primitive camping and dress to those who visit for just the day. I have never attended an event that has so many events, sights, and sounds in such a large area. In the spirit of the original rendezvous, there are many family reunions and friends who meet there but once a year. Trading and competitions fill the day with fun and good times. Those who attend, hate to see it end.
The Fort Bridger rendezvous is held each Labor Day weekend. Perhaps that too adds to the excitement. The crisp nights gives way to the hot summer days, school is about to start, and for most, it marks the end of the summer. Labor Day is one of those few holidays that are intended to celebrate ourselves as workers. What better way to commemorate the holiday.
After trying to describe Bridger, it is undeniable that here is something magic in the air that cannot be planned and very difficult to describe. It must be experienced. I truly hope that my new train friend can find the time to check it out herself.
Stories Written are Forever Told
I have given a lot of thought to the focus on this year’s Fort Bridger Rendezvous. The medallions and other items that support the rendezvous are centered around those mountain men who took the time to write down their experiences. It is my attempt to honor men like Osborne Russell who took the time to keep journals that provide the written proof that they actually existed and the life we fantasize about today. The thing that impresses me the most of their writings is how matter-of- fact their experiences were. Shooting a buffalo for the evening meal was common. Wading into a winter creek to set a trap was just part of life -doesn’t everyone! As I step back and look at our own lives, I can easily see how our everyday life, which is not interesting today, might be fascinating in a hundred years. It is up to us to create those records today, so that when our life becomes a mystery, we can set the record straight. Stories written are forever told.