Back to a simpler time
April 17, 2004
The first time, they probably show up in a T-shirt and sneakers and buy their first piece from a vendor at a mountain man rendezvous. Maybe they buy a gun — a black-powder, muzzle-loading rifle designed to replicate a pre-1840s early American firearm. Maybe they buy a pair of moccasins or a pair of beaded leather leggings.
That first purchase is the first step through a doorway into a growing sub-culture in the United States.
Gary Hertzog came to the rendezvous lifestyle from a different direction. He was drawn by history books about the fur trade. He read the journals of Lewis and Clark and novels such as “The Big Sky” by Alfred Bertram Jr. Guthrie.
The fur trade hit its peak in the early 1800s when top hats, fashionable in Europe, were made of beaver pelts.
In 1822, William Ashley placed an advertisement in the Missouri Gazette and Public Adviser where he called for 100 men to cross the St. Louis River and explore for fur trapping.
Many of the most famous mountain men were on that trip.
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But by 1840, hats were being made of silk and the fur trapping lifestyle disappeared as quickly as it had begun. It’s through that brief window of history that so many people are looking.
Hertzog describes that time in the history of the American West so vividly that you might imagine he has been there. In many ways, he has.
“I’ve read a lot about re-enactors, but I don’t think of it that way,” he said. “To me, it’s as real as anything.”
Hertzog attended his first rendezvous in Browns Park in 1974. The rules of the rendezvous are simple. Everything you wear and everything in your camp looks like something from pre-1840s America. If you have a cooler, cover it with canvas or hide. If you have a watch, take it off. Forget the cell phone.
“It’s fun,” Hertzog said. “It’s a way of getting back to a simpler way of life.”
The rendezvous are a culture, a family, a “nationwide brotherhood,” Hertzog said. “We went to a national rendezvous where there were 900 camps and you could walk away from your stuff and know it would be there when you got back.
“There’s a real feeling of togetherness.”
There’s a rule at the rendezvous, Hawkin Ludlum said: “No one leaves your camp hungry.”
And much of the time is spent visiting, drinking coffee, playing music and sharing food.
“The rest of the world does not exist,” Beth Hertzog, Gary’s wife, said. “It’s just day-to-day living. You never ask someone what they do for a living or how much money they make or what kind of truck they drive. Life is simple, and it’s a real renewing of the spirit.”
The lifestyle that comes with collecting period clothing and knowledge is about more than attending rendezvous, Gary Hertzog said. It lasts year round as members learn crafts from the era and teach them to others.
They compete in primitive archery and shooting events and conduct business with one another in the bartering/trading tradition of the early American mountain men.
“There are four guys who come in here and we never show money,” said Ludlum, who runs the Bear Valley Trading Post in the Lincoln Avenue alley between Seventh and Eighth streets. “That’s at the core of the rendezvous.”
In the early 1800s, the Hudson’s Bay Company would bring a wagon train into the mountains in the spring and all the mountain men would trade their winter pelts for supplies such as gun powder, salt and sugar, Ludlum said. That was their annual gathering, the first mountain man rendezvous.
Most participants are avid historians who read and re-read books about men such as Jim Bridger and John Colter.
“It’s funny. The original guys couldn’t read, but at the camps, you get in these incredibly technical historical arguments,” Hertzog said.
The kind of people who get into the mountain man lifestyle are those who love the outdoors. Many have adopted a Native American form of spirituality and way of looking at the earth.
A lot has changed in the world since the 1840s.
“With population growth and discoveries in science, we have been forced into a faster pace of life,” Ludlum said. “Everyone is running. They are all in a hurry to get somewhere. We are losing the basics and the basics are what keep us alive.”
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