Rendezvous Stories: Crossing Dead Indian Pass
Humans can learn to like anything, that’s why we are such a successful species. . . . You can drop humans anywhere and they’ll thrive– only the rat does as well.
–– Jeannette Desor, Smithsonian, 1986.
The gravel road over Dead Indian Pass, northwest of Cody, Wyoming, hadn’t improved in the year since we’d driven the route. As usual, we were stuck in a cloud of dust behind a slow-moving vehicle. Ahead of us, an attractive blonde woman driving a pickup truck with a bumper sticker that read, “You haven’t lived until you’ve loved a sheepherder.”
And as usual, we stopped on the top of the pass to collect a few geodes, just for the metaphor; we never tired of splitting them to see the crystals inside. We drummed into Mike’s head that life is like that: a boring old rock on the outside, full of glory. On the bare summit, wind-whipped, we peered ahead to see the Sunlight Basin Bridge and the plateau where we always camped. Joked that we couldn’t see the grizzlies, though. Then we climbed back in the van for the last leg of the trip.
Mike spotted the first crude red tipi drawn on particle board, tied to a tree where the trail left the gravel. The meadow where we’d rendezvoused for several years lay empty, but we spotted the canvas walls of several hand-dug privies among the trees. We set up our tipi as far as we could get from the parking lot. Though we were the only ones there, we hustled anyway. The rules said vehicles had to be moved out of camp within fifteen minutes, and we wanted to stay in practice. We were organized enough so that when other club members started pulling in, we were already set up. We helped pile camping gear on selected camp sites, making sure everyone observed the custom.
For several years, we’d belonged to this Wyoming muzzle-loading club, mostly so we could attend the annual rendezvous. The muzzle-loaders brought together widely divergent people who enjoyed pretending they were living in 1840.
We were early, but the Forest Service was ready for us. Next to the parking area was a stack of bottoms from blue fifty-gallon drums. The whole plateau is a potential archaeological site, so the boys in green don’t want us digging there; we build our fires on the metal shields on top of the ground. The rangers would visit us in a day or two to be sure we were obeying the rules, and to remind us that the grizzlies in the area might be more aggressive than usual, because this is where rogue bears that rip up property or tourists in Yellowstone Park are released.
By the time the rangers dropped by, we’d have the ugly blue tin camouflaged by piles of rocks made into elaborate fire pits. And they knew from experience we’d leave the camp site cleaner than we found it, removing every trace of our camps, even scattering rocks and leftover firewood among the surrounding trees.
When buckskinners–- the preferred term for those of us who shoot the old front-stuffer rifles and enjoy sleeping in tipis–- began asking for permits to camp in wilderness, forest officials were uncooperative. After all, they’d just civilized the wilderness, kicked out all the Indians, the backwoods trappers and squatters who actually dared to cut down trees and kill wildlife. Why should they admit a bunch of modern folks who think it’s fun to create an imitation of the old days by camping as far as possible from highways and towns? Several generations of mountain men, and some hefty damage deposits, convinced them that we were among the best of the “multiple users” of the woods.
The original rendezvous occurred during the autumn days of the 1840s and 1850s in the West, when mountain men, who had spent the winter trapping beaver, mink, and other animals with valuable pelts, brought their hides to a meeting with merchants, somewhere in the Western mountains. The trappers rarely saw cash, but they could sell or trade their winter’s catch for supplies for the coming year. Many of the rules and customs of rendezvous come directly from the culture of the mountain man, and the cultures preceding it, that of the American Indians. However, the originals, after months alone in deep snow, drank and partied and probably left their camps a mess. We modern folks behave better– usually.In camp, we set up canvas tipis, moving in our bedrolls, wooden chests containing (and concealing) our food and clothing, and our muzzle-loading weapons, knives, and tomahawks. We cook in iron pots over open fires, dressing and living as much as possible as we would have in the mountains in the last century. Every tipi is furnished with various comforts, depending on the inclination and budget of the family who owns it. We generally use our storage chests to sit on, padding them with old blankets or animal hides.
The first rule of buckskinning is to prohibit anything that couldn’t have existed in an original mountain man camp, including vehicles, back-packing tents, ice chests and cold beer, tennis shoes, denim clothing and electronic gadgets. The second rule of buckskinning is to resist authority and disobey rules.
A few fanatics–- and George and I were often among them– actually adhere to this rule, designating their rendezvous as “primitive” to make their intentions clear. Still, even the primitive buckskinners cheat on the rules. White women, for example, were not part of the original buckskinning experience, but most modern practitioners are married. And most enjoy beer. So a primitive camp almost guarantees a challenging camping experience along with a few good arguments.
Meanwhile, most people who call themselves buckskinners observe more practical customs. Gadgets that didn’t exist in 1840, or wouldn’t have gotten to the Western prairie rendezvous, are kept covered in camp. So most of us have a flashlight for midnight trips to the privy, keep it hidden in a sleeping bag until it’s needed, and then carry it inconspicuously. Cameras, are usually covered with a piece of leather or carried in a cloth bag. People who want beer hide a cooler under a blanket, and pour the beer into a large tin cup to carry it around camp.
Residence in buckskinning camps is usually limited to members of a particular club, or is by invitation only. That way the group can enforce rules that make the camp more comfortable and safer, or rules that apply to a specific region or group of people.
Still, the general public is often fascinated by the idea of fur-trapping and rendezvous, and because the camps are so authentic and photogenic, people want to see us. Some rendezvous organizers allow properly-dressed visitors to gawk on specific days during the gathering. This club had never permitted such tourists, because so many folks who wanted to see what we were doing had no idea how to behave politely in camp.
Since tipis have canvas doors, for example, one can’t knock for admittance. Polite behavior requires that a visitor scratch on the canvas, and wait for an invitation to come in. Folks who walk through an open door risk being shot, disemboweled, or tossed clear over the campfire by large and irate buckskinners who may be doing something for which he prefers seclusion in what is, after all, the privacy of their own home–- even if it is canvas. We especially enjoyed our rendezvous with this group because we never had to worry about people walking into our tipi as if it were a public place or coming home to find someone inside snooping through our trunks and supplies–- events we recalled from more open camps.
Because we are a long way from medical help and law enforcement, modern buckskinners have devised methods for dealing with emergencies. Doctors and nurses discreetly identify themselves to camp leaders, so they can be summoned in an emergency. But self-sufficiency is encouraged; if you haven’t sliced an artery, you’re expected to bandage the wound yourself.Each camp has a “booshway,” buckskinner slang for the original French word for the guy in charge, the bourgeois. He is as much of a leader as these independent cusses will allow; he’s usually forceful and organized, but smart enough to lead by example and discussion. He appoints dog soldiers, residents who act as an informal police force, and whose job is to keep order, as we understand and interpret it, for the length of the rendezvous.
One general rule is that what you do in the privacy of your own lodge is no one else’s business, even if it’s against the law of the communities outside ours. Conversely, if your actions will harm the temporary community, it becomes the business of all of us. Action is taken by consensus, and the dog soldiers act as a police force. This standard allows for more liberty in behavior than one finds in the outer society, but because most buckskinners bring their families, the temporary village is still a lot quieter and safer than the average city street.
Though the people who come together in camp for a few days or weeks may know little of each other, we share a love of this serious game of dressing-up. Late at night, as the central fire dims to coals, while a whiskey jug slowly moves from hand to hand, we talk about what we would do if the rest of civilization vanished while we were here. Most of us declare that we would remain in the woods, because we’re considerably better prepared to do so than the majority of people who visit any wilderness area. And we already are a community.
I vividly remember my first experience in a buckskinning camp, when we camped with the Yellowstone Mountain Men for the first time.
Near dusk, George drove his old blue van into a circle of tipis near Cody, Wyoming. As he backed up to a level spot where we could erect our lodge, we realized the entire camp population– men, women and children– were sitting in a half-circle by a campfire. They’d been visiting until we drove up. Now they were watching us.
Even before George and I were married, I’d entered enthusiastically into his idea of a vacation. After burning down his first lodge on a winter trapping expedition with his friend Jerry, George had just bought a new tipi. He had never set it up, and we had never set up a tipi together. We’d camped together a couple of times in a leanto, but this was a new experience.
George set up the central tripod of pine poles and started pulling the rest of the thirty-foot lodge poles off the van’s carrier while I unloaded sleeping bags and clothing trunks.
When we bumped into each other behind the van, he whispered, “Where’s the book? Can’t remember which pole comes next.”
He meant the buckskinner’s bible, The Indian Tipi: Its History, Construction, and Use, published in 1971 by Reginald and Gladys Laubin, still the primary source for anyone who wants to live correctly in a Plains Indian lodge. I scrambled inside to look for it as a voice boomed from the campfire, “Hey pilgrim! Next pole is number four. Page 45.”
“Oh God,” George whispered, “Don’t embarrass me.”
“Watch your language, dear; we’re still on our honeymoon. I haven’t embarrassed you yet.”
I was exaggerating; in that September of 1979 we’d been married seven months, after five years of loving, splitting up, and getting together again. I was enthusiastically learning how to be a real buckskinner, a person who sincerely longs to have been an adult when the most elite profession in the West was trapping beaver to be made into hats for Englishmen. Since we can’t travel back in time, “skinners” gather in camps where we pretend it’s 1840. George often wondered if, transported to the past with all his gear, he’d have survived. Maybe, but most modern buckskinners wouldn’t.
Laughing and talking, the group called out advice while we raised the poles and leaned them into the central tripod. When George picked up the eighteen-foot canvas lodge and carried it to the lift pole, I heard someone mutter, “That pilgrim’s a big boy, bigger than Snort.” Unrolling the lodge, George whispered, “I think I hurt myself.”
“Shall we tell them now?” a child yelled.
“Not yet,” a man yelled back.
“Tell us what?” I yelled.
“Stand on the bottom,” George snapped, “while I lift it.”
A man yelled, “Hey pilgrim! Don’t forget to tie those poles first!” while several people tried to shush him.
Another called, “Way the wind blows down this cut you’d be back in South Dakota before morning.”
“Sumbitch,” George mumbled, “I’ve never forgot that before.” He grabbed the rope dangling from the tripod and began to walk around the outside of the leaning poles.
“Run, pilgrim!” everybody bellowed. “Bad medicine to walk!” Somebody banged a drum and the group clapped in rhythm as George lumbered in a circle, breathing hard. His trachea narrowed by radiation treatments for Hodgkins’ disease, he had trouble sucking enough thin mountain air to move very fast.
A tall man with a black beard took the rope and tied it off, saying, “I’m Snort,” as he helped George hoist the lift pole. By the time I located the bag of lacing pins, strangers swarmed around us, carrying gear inside. Men pounded stakes, while women showed me how to fasten the liner inside.
A hawk-nosed man with brown eyes said, “I’m Fred. We do that to everybody the first time they come to camp. If they can’t take a little hoorawin’, they shouldn’t stay here. You shoulda heard my wife, Mimi. ‘Fred! Where’s the god-damn book?’ A nice Catholic girl like her!” He shook my hand. “I used to be a cop in Philadelphia.”
An imposing woman with a friendly grin hugged him, “Fred broke me of being nice long before I met this crew.”
That night, we sat by the campfire for hours, singing and passing everyone’s personal jug. I accidentally passed my bottle of good Scotch and it came back empty. After that, I took peach brandy to rendezvous; no one else would drink the stuff. Teenagers giggled as they sampled jugs, but I noticed that after they’d had one or two illicit sips, all the jugs began to detour around their group. That may have been the first time I witnessed unspoken cooperation among buckskinners.
The moon had gone down and I was thinking of my warm sleeping bag by the time I heard brush crackle just outside the fire’s light. A heavy man with a bushy beard towered at the edge of the woods like a tired grizzly. A broad-brimmed hat shadowed his face. His buckskin shirt was grimy, and his knees showed through holes in his leather pants; his belt suspended a huge skinning knife.
“Charley’s here!” someone yelled, handing him a gallon jug of whiskey. Several voices called, “Ashley’s Men!”
“Can’t a man at least wet his whistle?” he boomed, raising the crock to his lips and swallowing twice. He wiped his mustache on the back of his hand and grinned, showing a black gap two teeth wide. “That’s better.”
He sipped once more and his back straightened. In a clear tenor voice, brandishing the jug in rhythm with the trembling of the fringe on his shirt, he began to sing. Song after song pealed like clear flame into the trees. He took a swig from the jug at every pause. In the middle of a line, he folded and rolled into the center of the circle. One leg landed across a smoldering log.
“George,” I whispered. “Do something.”
“That’s Charley; they won’t let him burn.” When his leather pants started to smoke, Fred and Snort rolled him out of the fire and arranged him face down under a tree. They were playing cards on his back, broader than the average card table, when George and I stood up to leave.
Fred walked us to our lodge. “Don’t worry about Charley,” he said. “Sober, he’s fine and he sings like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. When he’s drunk, he’s a gentleman.” He tilted his head, thinking. “But don’t mention hippies or ask him to sing peace songs.”
This was my introduction to rendezvous, and our first camp with the Yellowstone Mountain Men, a muzzle-loading rifle club whose membership was by invitation only. George hadn’t told me much about what to expect, but he had mentioned the unique fellowships which develop in a week-long rendezvous. Crazy Dog and Iron Woman, for example, may have camped near one another for years, sharing fires and passing a whiskey jug back and forth as they told stories in the shelter of darkness. They overhear family feuds through the tipi walls. Yet they may never know each other’s full name, or the job each holds in the outside world, or see each other anywhere but at rendezvous.
“None of that outside stuff matters.” George said. “I only care what people do in camp. I don’t want to sleep next to people who dump gasoline on a slow fire.”
Having lived through the era of free love and seen several pitiable attempts at communal living, I was skeptical of everything involved in buckskinning, starting with the macho attitude of most of the men involved. But I enjoyed the quiet so much, the freedom from telephones, television and other noisy interruptions, that I swore to adapt.
During those years, club members often drove over Dead Indian Pass to camp in a level meadow in Sunlight Basin on the shoulder of a mountain in the Shoshone National Forest northwest of Cody, Wyoming. Scattered boulders furnished materials for seats and fire pits, but newcomers were warned about the steep cliff that circled half the camp. On many nights, someone who had hunted these mountains would tell tales at the campfire about hunters who blundered over the precipice, insisting the corpses were found the next spring gnawed by grizzlies.In camp, I began each morning by walking through sunflowers to the cliff’s edge. Eyes closed, I’d inhale the scents soaring up from the valley bottom, feeling the abyss vibrate sound and color. My skin felt the texture of the wind pushing me back even while the void before me beckoned. A little shaky, I’d sit down to consider that seduction. After finding me there several times, Michael began calling me Sunflower, and I adopted it as my camp name. I like to think I recall each moment of the time we spent in that place, not only because of its serene beauty but because those camps reinforced what I’d learned about the way an ideal community functions.
We went alone the first year, but after that, usually took George’s son Mike with us. As soon as we arrived in camp, we’d unload the gear, and send him to collect firewood while George took the van back to the parking lot. An unwritten rule required getting vehicles out of camp in a half hour and he obeyed it even if no one else was present.
While George staked the tipi cover, I turned our pile of supplies into a temporary home. I hid our modern sleeping bags under the buffalo robe so our feet pointed to the door, and placed food and clothing trunks around the edges of the circle for seats. I always left space by the door for dry kindling, and placed Mike’s tall trunk as a divider between his bed and ours. The lodge’s medicine bag hung on the rope at the lodge’s center, and I hummed as I hung the liner.A traditionalist, George decorated our lodge according to his vision, painting the bottom third deep blue for the sky, interrupted by a line of yellow circles representing the sun, moon and stars. The conical top was plain yellow. When we married, I added red dragonflies copied from petroglyphs near my grandmother’s ranch.
On our first evening in camp, we were sometimes too tired to dig a firepit and build a fire, so we ate sandwiches and went to bed early, sleeping past dawn the next day. Then George would dig the firepit outside, build a fire, and set coffee to boil. Then he’d come inside, and I’d wake to see him digging a smaller pit in the center of the lodge, so we could cook even during the usual afternoon thunderstorm.
By the time the coffee had boiled and we’d filled our cups, the camp was buzzing with kids playing and adults cooking breakfast. I kept making fresh coffee, knowing folks would be strolling past with empty cups, an established rite among ‘skinners who know each other, or want to.
About sixty of us usually settled around the central fire at night for the annual meeting to pay camp fees, explain the rules to newcomers, and catch up on the year’s news. Since most of us were seasoned buckskinners, the business meeting was short.Then someone would snatch a blanket off a case of cheap fruit wine. “We soaked the labels off, so it’s potluck,” someone always announced, tossing the caps in the fire and passing the bottles into the circle. Jugs sloshing and winking in firelight, conversations surged and ebbed around children dozing in the shadows.
Despite the presence of the cheap wine, despite the fox hats and leaping firelight, the knives and tomahawks at every belt, the scene always reminded me of the way my neighbors visited around the long tables at annual community dinners during the county fair. They were armed too, but that fact only made the fellowship stronger; we knew we could count on one another.
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Copyright 2008 Linda M. Hasselstrom
Rendezvous Stories: Afterword
Note that many of these rendezvous essays have quotations at the beginning, indicating that at one time I had the essay slated for inclusion in a particular collection of essays. I’d decided that a unifying factor for the essays would be succinct quotations at the beginning of each one, an epigraph directing the reader’s attention to some element of the story they might have missed. I had great fun finding terrific quotations from intelligent folks.
I still consider epigraphs a great way to introduce an essay, and they give the writer a chance to look at the broader implications of her work and try to match it with a pithy quote.
An explanation of Rendezvous Re-enactment from Land Circle
Rendezvous was the annual trappers’ meeting during the fur trade days [1824 – 1840]; a few days in summer when trappers brought in their pelts, were paid, and bought their year’s supplies. . . . The muzzle-loading weapons of that age, either cap and ball or flintlock, are still intriguing . . . In modern times, people interested in the weapons have extended that interest to the way of life of the mountain man, and instituted dozens of such rendezvous in the United States, Canada, Germany, and other countries. . . . Everyone’s objective is to reproduce, as nearly as possible, the look and feeling of a rendezvous camp of the period. A place is set aside for the primitive camp, with running water and firewood. Those who have authentic clothing but modern camping gear must camp in a spot reserved for modern tents and tin tipis: campers. “Pilgrims,” inexperienced participants or visitors, are sometimes allowed in camp if they make a serious attempt at dressing in period style.
The insistence on authentic attire and accouterments is not mere whim; the camp’s primitive look enhances photographs, paintings, and research, and adds to the enjoyment of people who truly live the period. The mood would be ruined by seeing someone in blue jeans, scorned by modern mountain men because Levi Strauss didn’t start making them until 1851. The rule keeps away folks who aren’t seriously interested; those who are will be treated with friendliness, and almost any buckskinner will take time to help a newcomer learn how to participate. When you put on buckskins or a long dress, you put on a different mood; . . . The whole tempo of the world changes.
— from Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land
(Fulcrum Publishing, Golden CO; 1991; Anniversary Edition 2008)
excerpts taken from the chapter called “Rendezvous!”
pages 35 through 37 (Anniversary Edition)
For more information:
see the rendezvous page on www.windbreakhouse.com
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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