Jeremiah Johnson: You’ll do well, Del; providing you don’t get into trouble with all that hair.
Del Gue: Ain’t this somethin’? I told my pap and mam I was going to be a mountain man; acted like they was gut-shot. “Make your life and go here, son. Here’s where the people is. Them mountains is for Indians and wild men.” “Mother Gue”, I says “the Rocky Mountains is the marrow of the world,” and by God, I was right. Keep your nose in the wind and your eye along the skyline.
My self reliance avalanche started with a snowflake – a light, fictionalized account of a ten-year-old boy who runs away from home to literally carve out a new life deep in the wilds of the Catskill Mountains. In My Side of The Mountain, Sam Gribley possessed only a small knife, string, axe and a flint and steel set. In time, he had carved a warm home deep in the broken trunk of an ancient hemlock and trained a peregrine falcon as his pet and companion. To my amazement, in a time before child endangerment laws, Sam was allowed to live rough after his father physically finds him and recognizes his son’s maturity and independence. At night, I would lie in bed and crane my neck to trace the purple contours of the serpentine San Gabriel Mountains and Mt Wilson. I became fascinated with hunters, explorers and mountain men – those rugged societal contrarians who, chafing at the yoke of a controlling and material world, preferred the reverent counsel of a quaking aspen and the garrulous conversation of a high alpine blue jay. Deep in the wilderness, these sons of Thoreau thrived in their own self-sufficiency.
I mingled with these free spirits in the pages of books and in Outdoor magazine’s monthly adventure feature entitled, ” This Happened To Me – Amazing True Life Experiences”. In between pages of dead elk and rocky mountain big horn sheep, there were illustrated tales of hunters stranded in caves with killer cougars and mountain men left for dead by grizzlies. The men in these magazines were predominantly hunters, military veterans or societal anachronisms who advocated pioneering and self-reliance. They sported buck knives as big as machetes, could field dress a five point buck faster than your Mom could make hot chocolate. They could survive sub arctic temperatures by crawling inside the freshly gutted carcass of a musk ox they had just felled with a bow and arrow.
I graduated to tales of the old West by Zane Gray and Louis L’ Amour, understudying the techniques of desperados and cowboys. Yet, it was the novel Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher that struck me like a thunderbolt. It was the story of Sam Minard, a settler drawn into the romanticized life of a mountain man only to have it ripped away when Crow Indians murder his Indian wife. Vengeance drives Minard to declare war on the Crow nation and in doing so, this Rambo of the Rockies becomes an immortal force as wild and the mythic as the western landscape that sustained him.
In 1972, George Roy Hill adapted the novel into the film, Jeremiah Johnson. I crouched in the flickering darkness of the Rialto theatre watching Robert Redford battle Indian assassins, skin “grizz” and blunt a succession of fierce Rocky Mountain winters. The Old West held huge appeal for this young romantic eager to head west. The fact that I lived less than an half hour from the Pacific Ocean posed a great logistical problem because if I wanted to “ go west” to live in the wilds, I must head east. I resigned myself to the fact that I had been born a century too late.
After a demeaning afternoon of weeding and sweeping the trash area of a suburban backyard, the allure of a four by four, flat roof log cabin shanty softened with beaver pelts and bear skins, and provisioned by a squaw who excelled in turning elk into great strips of jerked beef held enormous appeal. If pushed too far by life’s authority figures, I would simply vanish into the mountains with backpack filled with cans of Hormel chili and live out my days like Sam Gribley or Jeremiah Johnson – with a squaw and an insane pioneer lady’s son as my foster child and maybe a wolf as my dog. The fact that I always slept with my radio on, bathroom door cracked for light and a tattered “blankee” did not interfere with my fantasy of fleeing suburban serfdom to become a wilderness alpha male with tangled matted hair and beard.
I joined the Boy Scouts Troop 354 eager to explore the deer trails and less traveled paths of our American wilderness. It was my first exposure to a world of merit badges, bowline hitch knots and organized camping. Initially, I was delighted by the freedom, hiking, emphasis on orienteering and self-contained survival. We were a renegade militia meeting irregularly, choosing to avoid other troops and Jamborees. Our scoutmaster, a henpecked oil and gas archeologist, faithfully dropped us off miles from our destination, giving us maps and instructions, and would drive ahead to our campsite to drink himself silly while waiting for us by a campfire. It was around this swirling, roaring blaze that he would regale us with stories of his world travels divining oil and gas in the Middle East, Mongolia, the Sahara and Alaska. It was The Lord of the Flies meets Lord Baden Powell and we loved it. Eventually, one of the scouts gave a little too much information to his parents after a campout and we suddenly had a new scoutmaster whose obsession with khakis and cleanliness drove me to retire well short of the coveted Eagle Scout.
While, I continued to backpack well into my 30’s, I could feel my sense of reckless adventure ebbing from my bones after each night spent sleeping out on a cold ledge. Upon reading Jon Krakauer’s non fiction account of Chris McCandless in Into The Wild , I further demythologized my dreams of log cabin living. The life of a mountain man did not seem quite so glamorous. I could have ended up starving to death in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wild. For a man who believes gluttony should be an Olympic sport, starvation seemed the worst possible way to go. I also noticed that many of these mountain ronin exercised their right to civil disobedience, and often ended up in shoot-outs with federal marshals and ATF agents. Perhaps all the peace and quiet starts to weigh on you. You hear voices and think that the government is spying on you. With no mailbox or H&R Block, you forget to pay your taxes and then wound a park ranger when she comes too close to your” homestead”. I realized most mountain men never made it past their 35th birthday. In the end, like most free spirits, I domesticated. I lost the path of the mountain man and chose to apply my orienteering, tracking and survival skills in the primordial boardrooms of corporate America.
Yet, these days, the catastrophic climate change in American business leaves me restless and feeling bloated by the obligations of a material world. I hear the whispers of the pine trees to “simplify” and can almost make out that hollow hemlock where I would set out my essentials – candle, compass, mirror, rope and miscellaneous survival gear. A great horned owl hoots off in the distance.. My retirement portfolio is in my pocket in the form of matches and a Victorinox Trailmaster Knife. My newspaper is the peeling bark of an ancient shag hickory, my stereo – a steady, meandering brook and my big screen television a horizon line of a thousand dawns and sunsets. As crickets serenade my slow descent into a deep, satisfied sleep I close my eyes and suddenly realize that I forgot my flashlight.
I wonder if my wife left the backdoor open.