On page 84 of this issue begins a story called The Last of the Mountain Men, a fascinating and somehow reassuring account of a man named Sylvan Hart, who for 34 years has lived alone in the wilderness of Idaho. An article of this sort obviously presents some special problems of perception and communication. When the literally out-of-the-way existence of Hart came to our attention last spring, we were fortunate to have available someone well qualified to handle the assignment, a man who may be the last of the last of the mountain-men writers.
Staff Writer Harold Peterson likes to describe himself as "a young curmudgeon," and long before he had ever heard of Sylvan Hart he was convinced that he had been born 80 years too late. "It put me square in line for the fatuous 20th century," says Peterson, with the vigor of a young man whose mind is made up early. "Instead of the Old Frontier, I get The Megalopolis. Also such modern blessings as interstate highways, television, neon lights, rock n' roll, mass-produced houses and people, and the Army Corps of Engineers."
Peterson was born, thus reluctant, into the 20th century in Chicago in 1939. "I regard a city as a fairly poor place to do anything, including getting born," he says critically, but he admits to growing up with a fondness for the people and the scenery of the Midwest and, later, of New England, where he went to college. "My class at Harvard ('61) was the most fractious since prewar times. From the first day of orientation we were continually told we were the brightest class ever," Peterson says, and adds with a sort of antisocial chortle, "we then proceeded to compile the highest dropout rate at Harvard in 20 years."
Peterson did not drop out. He stuck around to graduate, after which the young curmudgeon came directly to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. He does like some group activities—basketball and baseball—and he plays tennis, croquet and badminton. He also follows the misfortunes of the Cubs with anguished attention. But a great deal of his energy goes into serving as a sort of minute-man in defense of our remaining wilderness areas.
He is limited in all of these pursuits by reason of his current uneasy residence in New York, a situation that puts him in a position to observe, "I could write reams on my unremitting hatred for New York and the megalopolis in general." Peterson survives the city principally because of the time he can spend away from it.
Prior to his meeting with Sylvan Hart, his favorite assignment was the article on Bud Basolo's Wyoming buffalo ranch (SI, Oct. 19, 1964), "with all those antelope and eagles and old trails and all." He also enjoyed a piece which enabled him to go catfishing with his bare hands in Holly Springs, Miss. (SI, June 15, 1964). He looks forward, in fact, to any assignment that will take him out West, a region he defines as "beginning where people in general begin to be delightful."
Sylvan Hart resides on the right side of his line of demarcation, and clearly Harold Peterson was the man to send to write about him. We took a chance, letting him go. He might not have come back.