The man who calls himself Earthworm never wears clothes at his small cabin in the Oregon wilderness. But on the occasion of the Fourteenth Annual Mountain Man Rendezvous in Fort Bridger, Wyo., Earthworm has made a compromise for the sake of civilization: He wears a loincloth. Otherwise, for Earthworm, 40ish, and his 7-year-old son, Tree Spirit, life goes on as usual. As Earthworm sits stitching buckskins that he tanned with oil from a deer’s brain, he calls toward their tepee, “You’re pretty quiet in there, Tree Spirit. You must be busy.” “Papa, I’m going out to sell my medicine sticks,” replies Tree Spirit, also in a loincloth, as he emerges with a fistful of wooden carvings.
To those rooted in the world of microchips, yupward mobility and Woody Allen movies, this scene may seem slightly less real than a rerun of F Troop. To the mountain folks who participated in the event, one of the largest of many held out West each summer, the weekend get-together was as natural as mountain air. Earthworm, who has lived off the land for 25 years since leaving the Army, used to travel to the Rendezvous in a covered wagon, picking wild herbs and mushrooms for weeks along the way. To make things easier for Tree Spirit, he broke down and bought a Toyota truck for this year’s trek, but that’s as far as he means to go. “People ask me how my son will adjust to society,” he says. “I hope Tree Spirit will not adjust to modern society. The old ways are best.”
Granted, only about 20 of the 2,000 Rendezvous participants take mountain living as seriously as Earthworm—trapping, starting fires by rubbing sticks and making candles out of animal fat. But with their Reeboks left behind in their suburban homes and their four-wheel-drive pickups parked out of sight, even weekend mountain men bring the old ways back while camping at the 1843 trading post. Living in tepees and lean-tos and swathed in leather and fur, they conduct a greased-pole climb, Indian dances and tall-tale sessions. “I live like a mountain man with one exception,” says Burt “Big Medicine” Marchman of Basin, Mont., who traps and trades from Mexico to Montana during the winter. “I drink Bud instead of moonshine.”
The fiercely independent mountain men of the 19th century held yearly rendezvous (the first was in 1825) to get drunk, gamble and trade news—but mainly to trade furs. Today the main purpose is still commerce, but with a dash of honky-tonk. Craftsmen sell beads, moccasins, calico dresses, coonskin caps and pelts. Earthworm and others charge several hundred dollars for buckskin clothes that can take months to make. Profits from a few gatherings can pay a diehard mountain man’s expenses for a year; Earthworm earned $18,000 last year. “They can sweet-talk you into buying just about anything,” says Jeanette McDonald (no relation), one of 40,000 shoppers who showed up this year. “It has to do with the way these guys look with their long beards and pelts hanging everywhere. You’re afraid to say, ‘Sorry, I’m just browsing.’ ”
The Rendezvous’s most exotic offerings are edible, after a fashion. One mountain man serves potent, strawberry-colored, homemade whiskey (without revealing the ingredients). Others offer squirrel soup, crabapple pie or buffalo burgers. “In the sticks, you learn to eat all kinds of things,” says trapper John McPherson. “If you’re real hungry all you have to do is light a match beneath a grasshopper.” During a contest in which marksmen try to hit an egg with a musket ball from 50 yards, losers must down raw eggs.
Festive as it all is, some mountain men seem eager to head for the hills again. Cooking himself a nice pot of antelope stew, Jerry “Grizzly Man” Larsen growls as the sound of tom-toms comes from a passel of Indian neighbors performing a rain dance. Overhead, there is suddenly a crack of thunder, followed by a downpour. “Damned powwow,” Grizzly Man mutters, pushing his kettle into his tepee. “If a mountain man can’t cook his supper in peace in the mountains, then where the hell can he eat?” Over at the powwow, Charlie Stewart, a great-great-grandson of Sitting Bull, looks up proudly. “Well,” Charlie says, “it appears the rain dance is working better than expected.”