Outside: “Tough Trip Through Paradise”

For a few straight years in the early 1980s my Uncle Bill gave me the gift of time travel.

That’s when he and my aunt packed a slew of my cousins, along with my sister and me, into a beat-up Volkswagen van and drove from our homes outside soggy Seattle to the much dryer eastern side of Washington, specifically to a broad, grassy-green meadow surrounded by pines and aspens, all set beneath the snow-capped central Cascade Range.

Dozens of towering white canvas tipis stood against that brilliant green, wood smoke drifting lazily from their tops, while buckskin-clad men and women and dirty-faced kids wandered between, some washing plates, others spreading out blankets and trade goods. White puffs of smoke rose from black-powder rifles being fired just to the side of camp. A few boys threw hatchets at a wood block, trying to splinter the handles of their competitors.

This was, of course, a mountain man rendezvous, a recreation of a magical time in American history when the West was opening and a certain breed was living independently in the mountains, hunting for their food and trapping beaver for fur, which could be sold at annual gatherings in exchange for enough supplies to carry them through another year.

It was dangerous work because the West was full of grizzly bears, the natives weren’t too happy with land-grabbing settlers, and medical services were distant if available at all. Even a common cold could turn into a life-threatening condition.

Despite those elements, the mountain man’s lifestyle — hard hunting, hard drinking, independent and reckless — met a criteria that appealed to many and hasn’t been seen again to this day. This didn’t fall on deaf ears in Hollywood, which turned out scores of movies on the era, none more popular than Jeremiah Johnson, in which Robert Redford portrays the lifestyle from a bumbling beginner and Indian-fighter, to a savvy trapper.

I thought the movie sensational, but watched it every time I saw it listed in TV Guide, and had become a mountain man crazed kid who stayed awake at night visualizing a free life in the mountains, carving out a little piece of the American Dream. I read a book called Give Your Heart to The Hawks, and anything else I could find on the subject. By the time American history rolled around in high school I was an expert on the subject. I remember a three-day run in class where my hand went up before anyone else’s, that enthusiasm returned by blank stares from classmates looking to the back row where, usually, there was a kid with his face buried in hunting and fishing periodicals rather than digging into the assigned reading or paying attention to the teacher. For those three days I was the stellar student. Unfortunately, the mountain man era lasted just 50 or 60 years and we were onto the stock market collapse and the Great Depression and the space race before we knew it. My C average was safe.

My interest in the period didn’t die with American history. I continued to read every title I could find. But I was unfulfilled; most of these works were fiction, the sights and sounds of the mountain man era being delivered by those who had no personal experience making a life in the rugged mountains. Even A.B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky, which portrays a mountain man’s existence and eventual regret for the taming of wild lands, and is considered Montana’s greatest piece of literature, couldn’t be called entirely accurate.

The problem, of course, was that few of the real mountain men were capable of putting pen to paper and fewer still took the time. An exception was Andrew Garcia, who worked his way north from the Southwest to Montana, where he toiled as a trader during 1878 and 1879. I came across his landmark work, titled Tough Trip Through Paradise, while taking a Montana writers’ course at the University of Montana.

I was fascinated by the writing, which depicted the author’s interactions with mountain men and Indians, and included passages that detailed scenes from the Musselshell country surrounding modern day Harlowton, where I have hunted antelope, off and on, for the past 20 years. Some of the landscape descriptions in Tough Trip are so detailed that I can hunt antelope, look across the prairie and say, “That must be the place Garcia wrote about.”

Tough Trip is a no-holds-barred look at what it was like to live at the end of the mountain man era, an especially revealing description of the state of the Indian tribes at that time as Garcia ended up marrying three Indian women, including In-who-lise, who plays a major role in the book. He describes those romances along with tales of grizzly bears, drunkards, thieves, and the challenges of trading with the Indians and the mountain men at that time.

Equally fascinating is the history of Garcia’s manuscript, reportedly a 2,000-plus-page description that he penned in his later years after a chance meeting with a historian who told him his experiences and words were unique and valuable.

Garcia labored through the project from his ranch at Rivulet, which is located about 40 miles west of Missoula. He finished the work prior to his death in 1943, but never shopped his words because he feared they would be misinterpreted and possibly turned into a sensationalized book or movie.

Garcia’s family held the manuscript at Rivulet for 17 years before editor Bennett Stein purchased it. The manuscript was half hand-written, half typed, wrapped in heavy wax paper and locked in dynamite boxes. It was a source of contention in the Garcia family, due to the language Andrew used and tales of womanizing and killing. Most importantly, the family was reticent to make public the romantic details that came before Garcia’s last wife, Barbara. Garcia was frustrated with his family and wrote to the historian, L.V. McWhorter: “(Barbara), who is so good to me in everything else would rather pick up a rattlesnake than pick up a sheet of this story lying on the floor or anywhere else. Under those sorrowful conditions, I have had to write for more than two years, work hard all day around the ranch, and write till twelve o’clock at night and instead of receiving any encouragement I only receive blank silences about what I write.”

Stein eventually finished the editing process, whittling 2,000 pages into a 446-page book, an almost impossible task as all editors know. But, Stein did it and the book was first published by Houghton Mifflin in 1967.

Tough Trip remains a vivid account of the era and is considered to be the most accurate portrayal of the Nez Perce War, a chapter of the book, in fact, being In-who-lise’s personal accounts of that debacle. Still, the book is surrounded by controversy, some believing that Stein took liberty with the manuscript and created a “love story” instead of a historical account. And equally disturbing are assertions that Garcia’s words are a farce, particularly when describing the death of In-who-lise. The story’s harshest critic may be David Stein, son of the editor Bennett Stein, and a movie producer who is one of few people to have seen Garcia’s original manuscript, which is now located in Helena with the Montana Historical Society.

In a piece written for The Montana Pioneer, Stein begins with this question: “If a roughneck arms peddler rode in telling three different stories how his wife died in the wilderness, a good detective might suspect foul play and start asking questions.” Stein did just that in the rest of the piece, but he also offered this conclusion about his late father’s work: “I think his choice to shape Garcia’s manuscript as a love story was the right one … Tough Trip is a wonderful read and in 1967 it was progressive for its time. It opened a window on the Montana frontier for many thousands of people. But it’s not true that Ben preserved Garcia’s style. He improved it. To Garcia’s chaotic vitality he brought something of grace.”

Completely factual or not, embellished or merely edited for print, Andrew Garcia’s story is unique and, for this author, sums up what I visualize the mountain man era to have been.

As I look back to the rendezvous that my Uncle Bill took me to, which I still consider to be some of my most fascinating childhood experiences, it’s hard not to consider a simpler life, not necessarily less dangerous, but simpler, where a person needn’t worry about much more than finding food to eat, water to drink and a warm place to sleep at night.

When I was a kid at those rendezvous in the Cascades and, later, when I looked across the antelope grounds near Harlowton, I dreamed of disappearing into that landscape. I have family and obligations now, and I don’t think I’m entirely cut out for cold winters in a tipi. Plus, I kind of like warm showers, gourmet cheeses and Malbec. But there’s a little of that self-sufficient, independent dream that survives within — these days it’s a modest cedar-sided writer’s cabin with a wood-burning stove and a big view, where I could steal away for a few days or a few weeks at a time, and clear my head of this modern-day madness, but still get to a grocery store in an hour or so. A place to write. A place to hike, bike, hunt and fish.

Only today do I realize that my little piece of paradise is a picture painted by no fewer than three men: my Uncle Bill, who introduced me to the rendezvous and the mountain man era; Andrew Garcia, who labored to most accurately describe such a unique time and lifestyle; and Bennett Stein, who preserved Garcia’s unpolished work and turned it into something legible, with a storyline. Whether that picture is true to every detail, or many pieces condensed into one, and even if it’s a little rough and too harsh for some, Tough Trip is how I envision the West to have been and it’s the story I’m going with.

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