Few have severed themselves from society and lived off the land like the Free Trappers of the fur-trade era that peaked in popularity around 1840. While a genuine fixture of the American West, the fiction surrounding their lives has become inextricably mixed with the campfire stories that arose around them. They were men as wild as the landscape they called home, so it is not surprising that their idiosyncrasies morphed into the stuff of legends. It is that mixture of fact and tall tale that swirls around Vardis Fisher’s Mountain Man (1965), a historical novel rooted in the story of John “Liver-eatin’” Johnson, and one told well enough to have helped inspire the breathtaking Sydney Pollack film, Jeremiah Johnson (1972).
While Pollack’s adaptation begins with a depiction of Johnson, played by Robert Redford, as a greenhorn learning the hard way how to survive in the land traversed by Louis and Clark, Fisher’s novel introduces us to Sam Minard as a seasoned man of the mountains. Sam’s ethos is rooted in what is known of John Johnson, and the violence that earned him the monikers “Liver-eatin’” and “Crow Killer” are on full-display, though not until some one hundred pages into the narrative. At the outset, Minard is instead purely a larger than life renaissance mountain man. Standing at six foot four and weighing two hundred and fifty pounds, he was rightly named Samson for his size, but his delight in and lust for life were more in tune with Solomon.
“His passions were love of life, mortal combat with a worthy foe, good music, good food, and that quality of nature which would compel a poet to say, a hundred years later, that its heartbreaking beauty would remain when there would no longer be a heart to break for it.”
Good coffee and pipe full of tobacco might be added to the list, though for Sam those items could have neatly fit in the category of good food. His love for good music found its expression in songs played on his mouth harp that ranged from love songs to hymns to the arias and symphonies of Beethoven, Hayden, and other masters whom his father had introduced him to. His love for food had its foundation in biscuits and then flowed to all the wild plants and game that filled the land he lived in. Sam did more than simply suck all the marrow out of life – he fried elk steaks in it and let it serve as a worthy substitute for butter.
His loves for music and food both served his overwhelming love for the world the Creator had given. He took delight in the petals of the wildflowers and the violence of the grizzly, and he expressed his gratitude and wonder at all that he beheld by seeking to accompany a mountain range or thunderstorm with the appropriate soundtrack, whether on his harmonica or through belting out songs and sonatas with abandon. His elaborate feasts celebrated every ounce of the berries and buffalo that graced his plate, and he relished all the scents and tastes that accompanied his cooking.
It was not just Sam, but all mountain men lived the way they did in part because of love for the land, usually coupled with an ache to be free. Fisher writes,
“In warm weather no mountain man worth his buckskin ever crawled under a roof, except the spreading branches of a fir, or a juniper arbor, or a buffalo robe draped across a couple of poles. If you loved the world the Creator had made for you, you did not shut out the blue heaven and its lights, or lie in foul air in a stuffy room, when in a bed outside you could smell the morning and watch its mother-of-pearl light softly touch the hills.”
Yet even among the mountain men, Sam was said to be unique. One of his fellow free trappers said of him, “I’ve never known a man who loves life like Sam. Every hour for him is a golden nugget.”
It was this love of the land and zeal for life that drew me to read about these rugged men who learned to not only survive in the wilderness of the west but to drink deep from its rivers and sigh with satisfaction. It would seem that there is a dream in us all as old as the soul of man that yearns to be free enough to rest and rejoice in the world we have been place in. It’s a dream rooted in the gift given to Adam and Eve that is now scarred by the evil that resides within our hearts and the world we inhabit.
In my honest moments I see that my dreams of mountain life are a foolish romanticism that looks to the peaks and blithely considers a life lived in their shadows. I may be able to backpack for a week or so, but the spirit and strength of Sam Minard are not in me. Few of us would really last long in such a way of life, but the allure of the mountain man remains – the call of the wild beckoning us to solitude and contentment where a roof is never missed.
Yet despite his joy in the unhindered life he led, Sam was overwhelmed with a longing for companionship; “under his bluff and reticent surface were emotional channels in which feeling ran heavy and warm.” His heart had been stolen by the daughter of a chief in the Flathead tribe, and he eventually made her his wife. As Fisher describes the days after their marriage, the echoes of Eden overflow as Sam and Lotus, the name he gave to his bride, quietly waltz into love to the tune of Sam’s harmonica set against the backdrop of unadulterated lakes and never ending mountain ranges. The rugged individualist who loved the free life of the mountain men found his greatest joy to be a companion with whom to share it all.
Sadly, Sam’s Eden went the way of the original, and the void that appears is what fuels the remainder of his tale. Yet the tragedy of this shattered union painfully reveals the beautiful truth that while created to rejoice in creation and its Creator, we are called to do so in the context of relationship. What the mountain men understood about love for life was skewed by their suppression of the longing for relationships. And suppression it was. However they loved and longed for loneliness, they longed for companionship as well, and they found it in one another. The fraternity they enjoyed was a small one, but one filled with mutual admiration and respect. Their meetings were brief and often close to silent, but they found solace in one another. The trading post served not only as a place to gather supplies; it was a yearly congregating to collect news of how brothers had faired in the harshness of the wild.
Beyond each other, they cared for Kate Bowden, a woman whose husband, two sons, and daughter had been slaughtered when they first arrived on the edge of the West. It was Sam who first met her; he buried her children on a hillside and built a cabin nearby, knowing that Kate could not leave the bodies of her family. She lived the remainder of her days between this world and the next, devoting herself only to tending the flowers of her children’s graves and waiting for the appearance of their angels in the light of the moon. It was the mountain men, seeing in her devotion the love of a mother they all yearned for, who did all they could to protect her from harm and provide for her needs. She never spoke to anyone but her children, but the free trappers spoke to her in word and deed. They called her crazy, but they cared for her deeply.
I find in my heart alongside the longing for mountain solitude the same ache to know and be known. Certainly the canvas of creation is a place to know our Maker in a deep way. Bernard of Clairvaux has said, “You will discover things in the woods that you never found in books. Stones and trees will teach you things that you never heard from your school teachers.” The psalmist tells us that the heavens are declaring the glory of God, and the sky is shouting about who he is.
And yet there are wonders found in the faces of others that no rock can ever reflect. Agur spoke of things too wonderful for him in Proverbs 31. They included the way of an eagle in the sky and the way of a serpent on a rock, but it would seem that he closed with the most astounding: the way of a man with a maid. Watch all the mating dances of birds you like, nothing will compare to the bleachers at a Friday night football game or the kiss of couple whose lips have just spoken vows of lifelong love and fidelity. Consider a doe’s care for her fawn, but marvel at the mother who tenderly and tirelessly nurses her helpless infant. Trees can be teachers, but there is wisdom that only the beauty and pain of friends and enemies and fellowmen and women can impart. A retreat to the hills from both the gifts and the grit that we find in others is needed at times, but we will almost always return ready to be back in the presence of people.
As we return, we do not need to forsake the pleasures that Sam sought – those of music and food and the wildness of the world. Rather we learn to rejoice in all of those things with others by our sides. What is a feast that is not shared other than a waste of good food? Donuts are bought by the dozen because they are supposed to be put on the break table as fuel for relationship or brought through the front door to the cheers of sprinkle-loving toddlers. Our headphones may provide a pure listening experience, but there is nothing like enjoying our favorite music surrounded by friends and strangers who are equally moved by the melodies and lyrics. We can stand astride a mountain peak with our arms lifted high, but we can also embrace a fellow traveler in the shared wonder of life and love.
As those created in the image of the Triune God, we rejoice in all that He has made, but we also long to rejoice in what he has made alongside those whom he has made. Yet in all of these yearnings we find a deeper hunger still: to know and be known by the Author of it all. This is the passion we were created for. This is true love of life.