On the River of No Return, in the country named Light on the Mountains, there lives a gray-bearded man who has turned back time. At Five Mile Bar, beyond which no human soul dwells, Jedediah Smith and Christopher Carson have but recently passed by, and the year is 1844 forever.
As a young man, dismayed by fragmentation of the final frontiers, the old one had rejected civilization and marched off into this farthest fastness armed with a few staples, one ax, one rifle and one degree from the University of Oklahoma. There, in the last wilderness, where one winter's snows might fall into another's before a visitor came, he became the last of the mountain men. Soon to be known as Buckskin Bill, he fashioned his own clothes of deernskin. He constructed adobe-covered buildings with hand-hewn timbers. He mined copper, smelted it, refined it and made utensils. He even made his own flintlock rifles, boring them on an ingenious handmade machine, to "save the bother of store-bought ammunition." To pay for infrequent trips to Burgdorf (pop. summer 6, winter 0), where he purchased only powder, books and Darjeeling tea, he panned gold.
Told in past years, this story would have had the most satisfactory and surprising of endings. That man, the teller could have said, lives still at the confluence of Big Five Mile Creek and the savage Salmon River. But more recently, as befits any legend whose substance has survived to the last third of the 20th century, it was threatened with an ironic sequel. Sylvan Hart—for that is really and truly his name—seemed in danger of being evicted from his chosen wilderness for the very reason that it was choice wilderness and the Federal Government had recognized it should be preserved. As a Primitive Area, it would not be open to habitation—not even by a real mountain man.
Does this mean, then, that the majority of Americans, who have occasionally fantasied—often for as long as 30 or 40 minutes after rereading Walden—living as Hart lives, are to be denied any underlying reality whatsoever to their imaginings? That would be a wretched admission indeed for a nation whose character depends in no small part on the myth that a man may live thus if he chooses. The Forest Service ultimately agreed that one individual living as an authentic frontiersman deserved to continue as a kind of museum piece in himself.
To see what had been saved, I traveled the great river to Five Mile Bar last June, hoping to find the myth of total self-sufficience not yet entirely obsolete. The trip led into remote territory. Idaho has at least one county—bigger than six states—where the largest town is a ghost town. Boise, the state's biggest city at 34,393, is 145 miles from the Salmon but is the nearest reasonably complete outfitting point. McCall (pop. 1,440), jumping-off point for the wilderness areas, is some 60 miles by bad road and trail from Hart's dwelling. Getting there means a two-and-a-half-hour drive to the ghostly gold-mining town of Warren, then a rugged 14-hour hike over 20 miles of trail.
That route might have been simpler, but the river was guaranteed high enough to render the south-side path dangerous and to prevent Hart from paddling across to ferry me from the better north-bank trail. By river it had to be, but there was still time in plenty to speculate about what might be waiting. Somehow I kept thinking of Johnny-Behind-the-Rocks, an early Idaho recluse noted for having never bathed or removed an article of clothing; his infrequent new garments were put on over the old ones. Named for standing off a whole troop of Indians at his cave door in the Nez Perc� War of '77, Johnny died in a hospital in 1915 from the shock of receiving his first bath.
The boat jolted over the last rapid and rounded the last bend in the river chasm, whereupon a strangely tropical-looking compound swung into view. As the boat drifted around in the swift current, a long-bearded, helmeted and bespectacled figure appeared on the white sand beach. It laughed the uproarious, raucous laughter of the mountaineer, doubling over in its mirth and slapping its knees. "Ha! Aha!" snorted Sylvan Hart, and his voice sounded rusty, as if from disuse.
The boat had not been beached 20 seconds before Hart had begun firing up a huge, ornate samovar with a two-foot-high chimney, had explained that samovar meant "self boiler" in Russian (as opposed to Samoyed, "which denotes either 'dog' or 'Russian savage' and means 'self eater'—these savages supposedly ate humans, that's why they're self eaters"), and had launched from that into a dissertation on the civilizing influence of the fur trade in Russia.
The samovar was so remarkably crafted it was not clear until much later that Hart had made it. I did, however, comment on the copper squirrels scurrying over its top. Hart seized upon the opportunity to observe that they were gray squirrels, which can dodge flintlock rifle fire, and that their eyes were beads made in India by some 11th-century process: "The design was later copied by a Frenchman who got an Indian dagger in the kidney for his trouble."
As soon as the juniper-wood fuel had started boiling the tea water, Hart leapt up again. "I must show you my football uniform," he said, bounding into his kitchen house. Hart emerged, dressed in bearskin shorts, bearskin jerkin, horned copper helmet, brass boar medallion on shiny brass chain and brandishing a fearsome brass-handled sword. "I'll be captain," he said. "We'll beat the varsity, and I'd like you to take some pictures to send to my little relations. They've never seen me."