Mountain Man Stand

Lance Grabowski walks the nineteenth-century walk.

One hundred seventy-five years after he should have died, Lance Grabowski is still here and looking as resplendent as ever. For this crisp fall day, he has selected a bear-claw-and-mink-fur necklace. He also sports a nineteenth-century do-rag, emblazoned with dozens of pins and medallions, as well as tanned, coffee-colored buckskin from shoulder to sole.

Outside his canvas tent, he has arranged a fetching selection of handmade fringed buckskin shirts with intricate bead and quill work, modest farmer-lady frocks and gentlemen's tailcoats. (He does all his own sewing.) The furnishings inside the tent, however, are spartan, even by canvas-tent standards: a bedroll and a single pot.

In fact, the only thing modern about Grabowski is his current location: Bond Park, in the center of Estes Park, during a peak fall leaf-viewing weekend.

Lance Grabowski in his element.
Lance Grabowski in his element.

"The guys," he says, nodding at the rest of the mountain-man encampment, "complain about the traffic at the park. But I've spent so many years sleeping on the side of an interstate, it doesn't bother me at all."

If you really want to be authentic, there's another matter to consider. In the early 1800s, mountain men of Grabowski's age would either be long since retired or plain dead. So the irony is that, at age 53, after a lifetime of trying to be a frontiersman in a time of interstates and Internets, Grabowski is finally getting a chance to explore some new territory.

"How does a mountain man age gracefully?" he wonders. "I don't know. I'm working on it, but I haven't figured it out lately. I've got guys who'll bring their kids to a rendezvous to meet me, and they tell them, 'This is the guy who started me as a mountain man.' And I'm thinking, 'Holy shit! How old am I?'"

Alas, too old, probably, for some important work that remains undone. "I've been wanting to walk across Pennsylvania, canoe down the Ohio to the Mississippi and go to St. Louis and pick up horses to ride to the Rockies -- a trip just like some real mountain men had to make," he says.

"But," he admits, "I'm having a hard time finding partners. People are married; they got families and children, mortgages. It's hard to find someone who wants to take off for eight months -- and I'm talking about the winter, too."

Grabowski pauses, reflects, sighs. "Well," he concludes. "To tell the truth, it's getting harder for me, too."

This journey begins, naturally, in the early 1800s, when rugged fur trappers roamed the West, living off the land, coming and going as they pleased, stopping by the occasional rendezvous for a little swapping and drinking. With today's pressures, it's not hard to see the romance of that life. But how does a man looking for wilderness adventure go about fitting into the Wild West two hundred years later?

The answer is, variously. There are people who do it, and people who really do it. On one side of the scale are the occasional re-enactors. For the most part, these men (rarely women) have found a connection to the relatively brief period of time, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when mountain men defined what it was to be a frontiersman. Also, they like to dress up in period costume.

Although serious-minded and impeccably authentic in appearance, re-enactors are nevertheless seens as dandies, fops and weekend dabblers -- at least by those who consider themselves the real deal. The members of this second group regard themselves in the unlucky position of being stranded a few centuries past the time they were meant to live.

"We're not particular about perfect authenticity," explains Bill Cunningham, a member of the American Mountain Men, an organization of about 700 "pretty serious people." "Re-enactors are extremely concerned with counting threads and critiquing buttons. They're like kids playing cowboys and Indians.

"I'm really bothered by re-enactors," he adds. "It's so shallow. What are you doing if you're re-enacting? Picking nits about someone else's equipment and clothes. We do make a stab at some kind of authenticity. But don't come and tell me that my coffeepot is not period-accurate. I don't give a damn."

Jason Gatliff, the editor of On the Trail, a magazine dedicated to those dedicated to the mountain-man era, agrees there are differing levels of seriousness among today's mountain fraternity. "I know one guy who went on a parched-corn diet for a month just to see what it was like to be a long hunter," he says. "He lost a lot of weight. You could say that he's pretty dedicated."

On the other hand, counters Cunningham, "I wouldn't do that, 'cause I'm not that dumb. For starters, long hunters didn't eat parched corn."

Members of AMM, Cunningham explains, "are survivalists. We learn which plants can be eaten, take our game with primitive methods. In order to advance in our organization, a person must demonstrate proficiency in various skills: brain-panning and cutting and sewing his own leather cloth, learning to track game, communicating in sign language, going without food in the wild for three days in various seasons."

Cunningham admits that such intensity discourages dilettantes. "To some people, it's a hobby," he says. "Many people only go to rendezvous. To the members of AMM, though, it becomes a core part of one's life."

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help