Rendezvous Stories: Buckskinner Birthdays

Marrying George when I was thirty-five, I knowingly espoused a fantasy life as well. Buckskinners sincerely wish they’d been adults in 1840, when the most elite profession in the West was trapping beaver to be turned into top hats for Englishmen. We participated in the rites of rendezvous every July, when my birthday fell, so all my birthdays were unique.

RDV tipi smoke flaps dragonfliesOn my thirty-ninth birthday, we obtained a permit to cut tipi poles in the Uinta Mountains of northern Utah. An eighteen-foot tipi needs eighteen to twenty poles. Since we’d promised a set to a friend, we wanted to cut at least forty trees. While George and his friend Jim searched for perfectly straight lodge pole pine trees to cut, Jim’s wife Mavis and I were in charge of transport. We followed the men as they tramped miles through the deep woods. As soon as they’d cut two slender pine, our job was to haul them back to the van, while Jim and George strolled off in search of more.

The trees weren’t heavy, at first. But we soon discovered an unusual botanical fact: straight trees grow only on top of the highest mountains. A lodge pole pine that reaches thirty-five feet of height in this arid country always stands in a crowd. Mavis and I would each grab a tree butt and lunge in the direction of the van. Approximately thirty feet into the woods, I’d veer around a cluster of trees so closely packed I couldn’t slide between them. Turning while dragging a long, straight object isn’t easy; ask a long-haul trucker, if you happen to have one handy. Each detour hooked my tree’s branches on some protrusion, yanking me to a stop. I’d pull my log hard, and stumble on.

At first, Mavis and I kept track of one another by hollered curses. As our stamina waned, we were too short of breath to swear. Resting, we counted closely-packed rings– a sign of the climate– to determine the tree’s age. At two hundred, we gave up, and realized these slender saplings were mature when the real mountain men camped in these mountains.

Several times I reached the truck with a tree to find the men chatting comfortably, seated on a rock.

“Just drop it,” George would say. “Not enough straight trees here; we’re going to look somewhere else.”

RDVpole82“Don’t you want to load this one?” I’d pant.

“No. We’ll wait till we have enough for a whole set.”

We changed locations twice, abandoning five trees we women had hauled a couple of miles through the underbrush, before I managed to get back to the van before the men. I shoved my tree crosswise through the two front windows, and sat behind a bush to catch my breath.

“Hmmm,” said George. “I think the women are getting testy.”

“I expected it,” Jim declared. “We better make do with the trees here.”

RDV tipi poles on vanAs the van lumbered back to camp that night with forty tree tops sweeping its tracks from the road behind, I mentioned my weariness with this strenuous birthday.

Most women my age, George replied without missing a breath, were not in my superb physical shape because their husbands didn’t love them enough to provide such exercise. The day’s workout, he added, put roses in my cheeks. His deft combination of compliment with rationalization left me speechless until a neighbor singing birthday greetings came to our camp fire carrying a single cupcake lighted by one fat candle.

* * *

The summer of my fortieth birthday, George arranged to go fishing in Canada with friends, as a change from rendezvous and a surprise. I’ve written and revised many times the story of that birthday celebration, but it’s still unpublished. Even in this permissive age, some episodes– involving fly-fishing, northern mosquitoes, and mayonnaise– are apparently too revolting for most markets.

* * *

I turned forty-one the month we set up our lodge at nine thousand feet on a Colorado mountain with several thousand other buckskinners. Each morning, George dropped a handful of fresh grounds into the coffee pot, softly waking me to the scent of brawny campfire coffee. Each afternoon, gentle rain tapping on the canvas lulled me into a nap, cooling the air. Each evening, we wandered among glowing tipis until we found music to suit our moods, whether it was bagpipes, fiddles, or mouth harps.

On my birthday, we went out to lunch– to a leanto where two sweaty women sold Indian tacos. Unfortunately, right after lunch, George reported that the latrine closest to our camp was overflowing, an unnecessary announcement since he was holding at arms-length a four-year-old boy who’d fallen into it head first. The child’s mother shrieked, snatched the child and headed for the creek.

“If he was mine,” said George, “I’d have pushed him on down. Easier to have another kid than clean that one up.”

RDV children

Both George and I were dog soldiers– camp police– so providing a new latrine was part of our job. “I can’t ask you to help me,” George said, “since it’s your birthday. But digging is healthy outdoor exercise.”

First we removed the canvas privacy shield, along with the toilet seat and the open-ended fifty-gallon drum supporting it. We shoveled dirt over the remaining human wastes, and found a site for the new facility in a grove of aspen, where three trees served as a framework for the canvas wall.

Then we dug a deep hole in the Rocky Mountain soil. That name isn’t just a metaphor. We dug awhile, borrowed a pick to shatter bedrock, and shoveled some more. Operating a spade while wearing moccasins is painfully authentic to the mountain man era.

When the toilet was finished, we reflected on the thousands of people excreting in the vicinity, and considered the dog soldiers who were neglecting latrine duty. We swore an oath to tell no one the location of the new toilet. “Let ’em scout for it,” said one dog soldier, “like real mountain men.” Turning to me, he added, “You did a damn good job of diggin’, fer a girl in a dress!” I thanked him modestly, resisting the urge to curtsy. His was a compliment compared to other remarks I endured as one of the first female dog soldiers. Still, women who wear belt knives every day and beat their husbands at tomahawk throwing get considerable respect.

RDV LMH dressThen we closed the tipi door, knowing our gear would be safe in camp, and headed for Linda’s Birthday Revenge, a reunion of my mother’s family, a group of sober, law-abiding folks who drive recreational vehicles, shave, never drink liquor, and probably iron their camping clothes. My theory was that George, wearing a beard and shoulder-length locks that almost hid his earrings, might be nearly as uncomfortable for a day as I was for a week on his fishing trip. For maximum effect, and because we couldn’t find our civilian clothes, we wore our rendezvous garb– my long leather dress and his fringed leather suit. I didn’t think to remove the businesslike Green River skinning knife I used in camp.

As soon as we entered civilization and stopped for gas and cold drinks, I encountered a modicum of trouble. Relishing the chance to use a flush toilet and wash my face with hot running water for the first time in nine days, scrubbing at hands blackened by cooking over an open fire, I may have taken a wee bit too long. When the door handle rattled, I called politely, “Just one minute.”

I dried my hands and was grasping the doorknob when the door began to shake with violent pounding, in counterpoint to a woman’s voice yelling abusive curses of a distinctly vulgar nature.

Startled, I pulled the door open, snatching a short, red-faced woman into the small bathroom. Crashing into me, she lurched sideways, swearing. Then she jumped back and tripped over the toilet, perhaps startled by my attire. She grabbed at me, probably an instinct to keep from falling. Convinced she was attacking, I shoved with one hand, and grabbed at my knife with the other. She fell behind the toilet, jammed against the wall with her arms over her head. Her eyes bulged when I commented on her indiscreet language, and she breathed deep and tried to stand. I stepped out the door as she slammed and locked it.

Catching my breath, I heard a murmur in the darkness near my knees. A small boy trembled there, his eyes on my knife. I reached to pat his head, but he shrank away howling something about being scalped. More oaths gushed from the door, but it stayed closed. The kid was on his own. I slipped down one aisle as the manager rushed down another. George was peering over shelves, unruffled. Another man trotted a few steps toward the bathroom, and glanced nervously at us, but retreated from the wailing child. We departed in armed peace.

Once we got to the reunion, we found that the only family members attending were members of a single religious faction notorious for its sobriety. Not only was the camp free of beer, they hadn’t even brought coffee.

Various unidentified relatives of mine gathered around the van as we opened the doors, asking us merrily what we thought about “what the Democrats did this morning,” I explained that radios aren’t allowed in rendezvous camp, so we had no idea what the country was doing.

The benefits of missing two weeks of national news outweigh the flaws, in my opinion. However, once when we checked into a motel after a rendezvous, George headed for the shower while I snapped on the TV. When Richard Nixon’s face filled the screen, I yowled, “My God, it’s the revolution! He’s back!” Roaring, George thundered out of the bathroom, ready to defend me against a mugger.

Now, at the reunion, one of my cousins yelled, “The Democrats nominated a WOMAN for vice president!” The crowd whooped with laughter.

“Right on!” I cheered, waving my knife in case anyone disagreed.

RDV Knife in beaded sheath

Following a moment of horrified silence, they all laughed at my hilarious joke, and the survivalist in-laws gathered to look at our knives. The men pressed close, testing the balance of each blade and asking George how he polished the bone hilts. They shaved heaps of hair from their bulky forearms, and allowed as how George knew how to get an edge, so maybe he was an acceptable relative.

Whipping out their own concealed and semi-concealed weapons, they muttered about food caches, and the best places to be when The Big One drops. After awhile we opened the van door to show them the weapons and buffalo hide we’d put in the van in case buckskinners weren’t as honest as we thought they were. Long into the night, we all compared fire power and sharpening stones, and debated ballistics.

We were sober and clearheaded the next morning for breakfast, and the pancakes were delicious. But on the way back to camp, we stopped seven times for coffee, and proclaimed it one of my most unusual birthdays.

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Copyright 2008 Linda M. Hasselstrom

 

Rendezvous Stories: Afterword

This story is a slightly different version than what appears in my book Between Grass and Sky, in the chapter called “The Second Half of Life” (pages 145 through 150).

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

RDV big white camp

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

 

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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