Mountain Man Stand
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.
"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."
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."
So core that when it comes time to make a choice between, say, being a mountain man or staying married to a woman who just can't see the importance of the lifestyle, one's path is perfectly clear. "I'm divorced," Cunningham says. "Sitting around in the evening working a rawhide-covered stirrup -- or building a gun, or tanning a hide -- doesn't fit into every wife's idea of a good life. I have a friend who's on his fourth wife, and he's starting to curtail his mountain-man activities. Personally, I think it's a bad idea, but I guess he wants to keep her."
Yet, even among the hard-core members of American Mountain Man, Cunningham says, one man stands out.
"Lance Grabowski," he says, "knows so much. He's actually done all these things. He's researched 'em, gone for horseback rides for weeks and weeks, living off the land and damn near dying at times.
"Don't piss him off," he adds. "He might shoot you."
You think being a mountain man in the 21st century sounds romantic? Adventurous? Go tell your mother first.
"Lance," says Marjorie Grabowski, who still lives on the farm in upstate New York where she raised her only son, "demonstrated...signs early on. He was always camping out, and he played cowboys and Indians all the time.
"Like all mothers, I saw him as eventually doing something else. In the beginning, we talked about surveying -- it's something he could do and still be in the outdoors all the time. But he wasn't very good in math, so that didn't work out.
"And now he's been doing this for years," she concludes wistfully. "He's making his own way, and he's not going to change."
"She's disappointed with me," Lance agrees cheerfully. "It's nothing she can understand. She keeps telling me I should get a job. But," he points out, "this is my job. I've been doing it for 35 years. Being a mountain man is my life."
He started out modern enough. Grabowski grew up on the family fruit farm. In 1959, while spending some time in Texas, he won a small piece of land in a drawing at the Texas State Fair. The property was in New Mexico, a few miles northwest of Taos, and a few years later, he moved there. It was there, at the Kit Carson Museum, that he happened upon a pile of books about mountain men that was to change his life.
But not quite at that moment. First he moved to Kansas City, where he studied painting. It was clear where he really wanted to be, though, and eventually, Grabowski says, his painting teacher asked him to take his work out of the studio and do it at home. "I was stretching canvas to look like hides and painting Indian art," he says. "It was just not the painting my department wanted to see."
After graduating, he was drawn west again. He'd kept up his voracious reading on the mountain-man period, and in 1972, he landed his first job as a frontiersman, at the Fort Laramie National Historic Site. "I was their first mountain man -- and cultural demonstrator -- ever," he says. "I talked the park superintendent into it. For two years, I tanned hides, built dugouts, shot a muzzle loader. Basically, people thought I was a blond Indian with a beard. I spent my days answering the same questions over and over: 'Aren't you hot?' 'Where's the bathroom?' 'How far to Yellowstone?'"
A couple of years later, after following a girlfriend to Denver, Grabowski found himself at loose ends. The economy was down, and there wasn't a lot of demand for self-educated experts on the American frontier circa 1820, no matter how authentically they were dressed. So he compromised: He went into the modern retail business -- but selling buffalo parts. He bought 1,500 dried skulls and hides from a friend and began vending them out of the back of his car.
He also stumbled across the other main source of income for a guy in buckskins those days: male mountain-man model. While living in Denver, Grabowski met artists who were just starting to paint Western-themed works -- Ned Jacob and Hollis Williford, to name a couple -- and they were desperate for subjects. Grabowski had the time and the wardrobe.
Later he posed for a who's who of Western artists: John Clymer, Tom Lovell, Frank McCarthy and others. It was a heady time to look like a fur trapper. "I would go to their openings," he recalls. "This was the very beginning of the Santa Fe style. I was a celebrity! Galleries knew who I was when I came around. After all, they could see me hanging on the wall."
Still, while he'd traded buffalo parts like a mountain man and definitely looked like a mountain man, there was one thing that Grabowski hadn't really done yet: actually be a mountain man. "So in 1975, I moved to Santa Fe and bought a horse," he recalls. "I traded a saddle for it to the bartender at a hotel. I'd been talking about going on a horse trip, living off the land like a mountain man, for years. I thought it was about time to shut up or do it."
A year later, he started out from Utah and headed to California, following the trail blazed by Jedediah Smith. It took two months, including one brutal stretch through the Mojave Desert in mid-summer. He rode across public and private land -- and the occasional interstate -- living off what he could gather and shoot with a muzzle loader, just like a real mountain man.
"Actually," he says, "I ate a lot of horse oats. They get stuck in your teeth, stuck in your throat. I thought, this sucks. I want some meat." (On subsequent trips he relied mostly on fowl: "Lots of birds. Lots of birds. Got real tired of birds.") National Geographic wrote about the trip.
Since then, there have been other epic trips in the style of mountain men -- another long horse adventure, several canoe explorations. The last big trip nearly killed him.
It was 1983, and Grabowski was trying to retrace the steps of Bill Sublette and Moses Black Harris, a nearly 1,000-mile slog from Wyoming to St. Louis. "The problem," he now recalls, "was that I'd met the love of my life. So I decided I was going to run across Wyoming so I could get back as quick as possible. Love, you know..."
It wasn't long before his legs gave out. Eventually, he couldn't use them at all. He ended up pulling himself by his arms out of the wilderness to a road, where he was picked up by a driver, despite his uncharacteristic appearance. "It was a real tribute to the American motorist," he says.
Not long after, the girlfriend broke off the relationship. "She decided we were too different," Grabowski says. "I went kind of crazy," he admits. "I tried to give up mountain-manning." He stayed away from rendezvous, lived out of his car. He provided a few props for a couple of B-grade Hollywood Westerns. It was all so...modern.
Of course, he was drawn back. "I couldn't ever stop doing this," he says. "It's all I know how to do." Since then, it's been more of the mountain man's life, or at least the best a frontiersman can hope for these days: organizing and attending various rendezvous across the country ("I'm going to a canoe war on Lake George next week," he says), and selling authentic-appearing mountain-man paraphernalia -- which, Grabowski says, really makes the Santa Fe look.
"You can have all this furniture, but if you don't have this other stuff to go with it, it just doesn't click," he insists.
Back in Estes Park, a woman stops by Grabowski's camp. "How much is this shirt?" she wonders. She begins edging away after being informed of the startlingly high price. "We do trade for hair," Grabowski tells her as she wanders off to another mountain man's tent.
It's a busy life. This year, Grabowski will be away from his Santa Fe house for about seven months -- "which helps my outlook tremendously," he admits. "I hate Santa Fe."
And there are certain advantages to civilization that even a mountain man can appreciate. "Like that woman clerk in the store over there," Grabowski says, nodding toward a place across the street from Bond Park. The two exchanged a look the day before. "But the place closed up before I got a chance to chat her up." Now he's going to have to leave town before the store reopens on Monday.
That, of course, is the disadvantage to living the life of a historic loner. "My lifestyle has had a price," Grabowski says. "I've never had things many people have had. Like a family, a continuous relationship. There is no retirement from the mountain-man business. There is no insurance. The Western art market is changing. All the artists are retiring or dying. I miss that. It's boring."
He also has his day-to-day challenges. The previous weekend, at a rendezvous at the Fort Restaurant, in Morrison, a microburst ripped his canvas tent in several places, necessitating on-the-fly repairs. The wind also blew away some personal papers.
The nights seem colder, too. "I need more blankets," Grabowski says. "I used to go out with one blanket. Now I get cold at night."
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