Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Moccasins Felt Familiar

"The Moccasins Felt Familiar: An Outsider Recounts His First AMM Camp Amongst a Brotherhood of Men" 

Published in "The Tomahawk & Long Rifle" (Vol 44, No 1), the official publication of the American Mountain Men.
If Larry Mayes had his way, I’d have run into the AMM camp naked, hollering about a band of angry Shawnee in hot pursuit.

“It’ll help you get your mind into the period,” Larry said as we stood at the rear of his truck. “Here’s the scene. You’ve been held captive. You escape. You run through the woods until you find us.” He gestured up the dirt road toward a ridgeline. “You run into camp bare-assed and that’s where I hand over your clothes.” He seemed satisfied with his scenario.

I pointed into the bed of his pickup. “You mean the clothes in that box? The one that says, ‘Clothes for Joe’? I appreciate your sense of drama, Larry. But I see my pants right there.”

Larry shrugged and slid the box toward me. “Have it your way.” I shed my merino quarter zip, hiking trousers, and Salomon boots and threw them in my back seat. 

I dressed in what Larry had for me: breeches and wool leggings, a walnut-dyed longhunter shirt and fringed wool coat, and a wide-brimmed felt hat. I pulled on a pair of his deerskin moccasins. They fit like they were made for me. They felt strangely familiar.

I followed Larry up the hill. We walked into the camp I’d come to know as the Keeling Trading Post, and left the 21st century behind.

How I got here

I’d become friends with a member of the American Mountain Men. He told me about a 1787 frontier cabin he and his brothers had saved from demolition and were restoring. I offered to lend a hand. Move some scaffolding, carry some sandstone, mix a little cement. It wasn’t much. After a second day of labor, David Wright said, “You’ve got sweat in this thing now. You ought to come to the dedication.” He paused and said, “It’s period dress. We’ll be interpreting the cabin as 1820s or thereabouts.”

“I’m Sons of the American Revolution,” I told David, “but I’ve never dressed. I don’t have anything 1820s to wear.”

David looked me over, sized me up. He turned to Larry. “He’s about your shape. You can outfit him, can’t you?”

I’ve got everything he needs,” Larry said.

Changing time zones

Now dressed in Larry’s kit, we crested the hilltop and entered the clearing. It was late March 2018, with winter only a few days past. The air was chill and rain threatened. Wood smoke
drifted from cook fires in front of canvas tents, oilcloth tarps, and lean-tos.

We made our way to a stand of cedar where David and Larry had set up. As shelter, they’d stretched two tarps drum-tight, with what I could tell was skill in bushcraft. An iron cook pot hung from a tripod over a stone fire ring. David pointed to a bearskin and a couple wool blankets — my spot to bed down later. They left me to my devices and hustled off on their business: they had an auction and a cabin dedication to prepare for.

I took up a walk from camp to camp, looking for familiar faces from my cement-mixing days, maybe Ron or Todd or Jim. I had a feeling of invisibility. I was clad as these men were dressed, which let me move unremarked, to lurk at the edges of conversations. I had no compulsion to wade in with an introduction, no need to be known. I was there to watch and listen. If I was noticed as an unfamiliar face, I found that a “howdy,” my name, and “I’m in David and Larry’s camp” seemed to be all the bona fides I needed.

As I wandered from fire to fire, men continued to arrive, coming over the hill with bedrolls and haversacks slung across shoulders, flintlock rifles in hand. My logic told me they’d just walked up that same hill from trucks in the parking area below. But my minded featured them arriving after a day’s travel afoot or on horse, journeying from Virginia in the east to the Rockies in the west.

I knew that by some measures, this was still the year 2018. But as I surveyed these men, I was unable to envisage any one of them in a checkout line at Menard’s or picking up groceries at Kroger. Their faces had the seasoning that comes with being more out of doors than in. 

Theirs were hands accustomed to holding tools. In their
beaver skin vests and deerskin leggings, which I suspected they’d crafted themselves, 1820 seemed like the year to which these men belonged, not 2018. I heard Dwight say later, “When you come over that hill, you change time zones. By two hundred years.”

That sense of time shift grew stronger as I wandered from knot to cluster of men. I began to notice the absence of things. I saw no wristwatch. If a fellow was wearing eyeglasses, they were oval-rimmed spectacles, nothing you would find at LensCrafters. I saw not a scrap of plastic. Absent was any discussion of politics. Nobody spoke of football scores. No talk of work schedules or that new bass boat.

Instead, they held colloquy on the rifle Frank House had built for one man, or the knife Todd Daggett crafted for another. They conferred about the upcoming auction. One man had his eye on the frontier painting Kyle had donated. Another planned to bid on that clear glass jar, which may or may not be filled with apple pie. They held forth on how finely the cabin restoration had turned out, and their contentment to be among each other here for its dedication.

As I circulated, I joined in a few conversations, but mostly listened and jotted notes as I went. I was grateful that the notebook I’d brought was plain and unadorned leather, which
seemed period appropriate. I was, however, increasingly self-conscious of my writing implement: a Pilot Precise G5 ballpoint pen.

As a piece of plastic and aluminum modernity, it was an anachronism that seemed like a transgression. I found myself covering my hand as I wrote, at times even retreating to a distant stand of trees to scribble a thought. I did my best to keep my pen hidden as an act of respect to these men, and to avoid anything that might cause a ripple in time and bounce someone back into the 21st century against his will.

The rain that threatened in the morning came at midday, and turned the camp into a bog. As night fell and I made ready to bed down, I shed layers and slipped off the deerskin moccasins I’d been wearing all day. The outsides were wet and muddy. I took note of the insides, and of my stockings: all dry as a wadi. I looked at those moccasins with newfound admiration. I rolled myself up like a wool burrito and drifted off to sleep.

Dedication to brotherhood

The original Rocky Mountain rendezvous at Henry’s Fork or Pierre’s Hole or Green River had their purpose: trade and resupply and camaraderie. These AMM brothers had gathered her
e in western Kentucky with some of the same intent: camaraderie, yes, but also to dedicate this land and this frontier-era cabin.

In daylight, they gathered outside the cabin in a persistent drizzle, which felt like God baptizing this place ahead of their christening of it. David asked for a moment of silence in remembrance of departed brothers. Despite the rain, there was not a man who did not remove his hat.

In the days I’d spent among them, one observation stood out. I’d wandered the meadow when I first arrived, looking at the license tags on their trucks. They'd come from as far west as Utah, from Michigan in the north, Texas in the south, and from a dozen states in between.

As they met again in rendezvous, having been separated by distance and time, it was the quality of their greetings that I noticed. These were not the hey-man, one-shoulder, fist-bump greetings one sees today. Instead, they met in full embrace. They bear-hugged and pounded each other’s
backs in the pleasure of being reunited. I was seeing men who didn’t just call each other "brother," but who were brothers.

This confluence of brotherhood and time displacement had been intensified the previous night, inside this frontier cabin they had saved from demolition, around which they now gathered in the rain.

That night before, the cabin interior was illumined only by oil lamps and firelight from the hearth – the name of HW Keeling, dated April 1787, engraved on the lintel above it. For those few hours, the year 2018 had disappeared entire.

With Henry’s bearskin on the wall above the lintel, a rowdy and rambunctious and happy noise filled the cabin. They
were no longer machinists or truck drivers or artists or retired cops. 

In the firelight, within the timber walls of this trading post in the middle of their 37 acres, they were brothers and fur trappers. They were making their way west to the Rockies or returning, and this was indeed the year of our Lord, 1820.

They'd hunted and trapped together, drank together, fought together and sometimes with each other, as brothers will do. But they were here now, together, and nowhere else.

They gathered outside the cabin now in daylight, in that baptizing rain. They said some words of remembrance and gratitude and blessing. The cabin, its life they'd preserved from the bulldozer’s blade, they gave it a name.

“We got lots of suggestions,” David said. “But the name that made the most sense is the man’s whose name is right there on that lintel stone. HW Keeling, April 1787. ‘Keeling Trading Post.’ How’s that sound to you?” The verdict was
met with murmurs of approval, some responding softly: “Keeling Trading Post,” as one might respond in church with an “amen.”

“We might believe that HW Keeling is here with us in spirit,” David said, “this weekend and for all time. We’re looking at his name and he’s looking back out at us.” Then the two AMM Segundos christened the cabin with water from the spring-fed creek that flowed through what they call "Our Kentucky Land." 

Leaving 1820 behind

It came time to leave and I was surprised at the regret I felt. I walked down the hill to Larry’s truck. I shed my longhunter shirt, my breeches and wool leggings. I folded and stacked them. I set the moccasins to one side and the felt hat on top. I dressed in my 21st-century clothing, which now felt strangely forei

As I drove out Bull Joint Road, I felt the 1820s sliding away. Time was disappearing in the rear view, just as it always does. But now it was slipping away at the speed of a light truck on a gravel road.

I acquired a cell signal and my phone lit up. It beeped. It buzzed. Little red dots appeared and demanded attention. You’ve got mail.

I powered my phone off and tossed it to the seat beside me. I turned off the radio and rolled down the windows. I lit a cigar. I wondered how I might get my hands on a pair of those deerskin moccasins.


Anonymous said...

Just wow. Great story.

Unknown said...

You transported me there. But no women?

Joe said...

Glad you enjoyed story. At the dedication of the land and cabin of the American Mountain Men, women were present and welcome, many also in 1820s period dress.