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.
October 2, 1966
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 Percé 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."
Amid this frontal assault on credulity, Hart interjected a story to the effect that a mountain lion, just before my arrival, had killed and buried a doe outside his garden gate, returning two consecutive nights to finish it off. "There we were, the two of us," Hart said. "I was out there to guard my garden, the cougar was lying just outside to guard his kill." This was no joke. Hart pointed out a fresh, round cougar pawprint in the ground, the remnants of the unfortunate victim, the brush the cat had pawed over it and the depression where the lion had bedded down. "Lots of people live a whole lifetime," Sylvan observed, "without having a mountain lion in their garden."
Fact is hard to separate from fancy on Five Mile Bar, the facts tend to be so fancy. The elk-antler door handles would be a good case in point, except that there are so many others. It is difficult to believe, looking around the compound, that practically every ingenious element of its orderly clutter was fashioned by Hart's hand, and the degree to which everything is made and placed for some specific purpose is something more than ingenious. Even the pastel red of the buildings, achieved by using an iron compound in the homemade plaster, is designed to harmonize with the complementary pastel greens of surrounding apple and apricot trees.
The effect enhances an already esthetic, if rampantly eclectic, architecture. Kitchen house and blacksmith shop, linked in a Tennessee dogtrot pattern, are in turn joined to the two-storied, balconied living quarters, a modified Swiss structure, by an open South Seas roof house. Those living quarters, by the way, demand further mention. The lower room, masoned of native stone, serves as winter quarters. The frame upper floor, Buckskin's summer house, boasts a bay window—a B-18 Plexiglas cockpit canopy he packed in on his back. It also has, in the balcony, a fine place to sleep in fair weather and good protection for firewood in foul. Over it all whips and cracks a picturesquely indomitable 48-star flag, its fabric faded by sun and frayed by wind. "Oh, I'm patriotic," says Buckskin. "Ever' time a bald eagle flies by, I take off my hat."
Of furnishings within the compound, only two are partial ringers: the rocking chair came around Cape Horn in the gold rush, and the table is made from the oak flooring of a building in the ghost town of Dixie. Otherwise, even the pole-picket fence enclosing the 200-by-100-foot plot is totally indigenous. Occasional pickets are much higher than the others, because "deer look up at those tall pickets, think the whole fence is that high and decide they can't jump it." The gates, which swing on marble ball bearings, are mounted with bells, not so much to sound pretty as to prevent bears from raiding the garden. "One time a bear knocked down a gate," explained Hart, "came in, packed out a sheep foot I was pickling in sulfuric acid and ate it."
Buckskin enjoyed imagining the bear's discomfiture. "Hee, hee, hee," he chuckled, wriggling in his chair. This is a characteristic expression of amusement, just as stroking his beard to a point is an expression of reflective thought. The beard, parenthetically, is a beauty, being red at the sides, white at the chin and straw-colored at the tip. Nothing, in fact, is uncolorful about Sylvan Ambrose Hart, this one-sixteenth-Apache who was born in Indian Territory in 1906, one year before it became Oklahoma. (Born in Stone, a town now vanished without a trace.) Not the nasal, reedy accent—smacking strongly of Arkansas, with its conversion of o's into broad a's (sparrah, arrah). Certainly not the vocabulary, ranging from pure dialect to free use of words like "syndrome" (in discussing Soviet Economist Liberman).
Hart soon bounded up again to show off his stock of sporting goods. "This here is my skis," he said, having herded me to a storeroom at the customary trot. "I discovered birch was best for slipperiness and hog hide was best to keep from sliding backward on hills." Buckskin also displayed bows, arrahs, crossbows, pack frames, wicker fishing creels, fly rods and highly crafted snow-shoes, but his interest skipped to his boats: "This is my canoe, and someday I may make a kayak out of that elk hide over there." We then loped out to the beach, where I was to survey his rowboat, whose name, XAPŒ©N, is emblazoned on its prow. Charon, you may or may not recall, was the dread boatman who ferried dead souls across the River Styx. On the River of No Return, the symbolism was not obscure.
Of almost equal antiquity is one of Hart's prize enthusiasms, an ancient cave once inhabited by red men long since vanished into a realm less celebrated than that of Charon's patrons. "See that soot on the cave roof?" he asked after we had scrambled the few hundred feet to prehistory. "It's so old you can't possibly rub it off." You can't.
"There are two feet of kitchen midden here," said Hart, pointing to a deep fire hole. "The first thing we want to know is how old it is. We reach down in here...." Sylvan did so, pulling out a handful of beach sand and charcoal. "I sent this to be carbon-dated, and found out it goes back to 226 B.C. Think of it. The Great Wall of China was being built, Hannibal was a great man."
Hart jarred me back into 1966. "Let's take a look at the bomb shelter," he said cheerfully. "We might be attacked and you wouldn't know where to go." Sure enough, near his house he had blasted, bit by bit, an underground shelter out of solid rock. Sylvan smiled, looking up and down the empty Salmon River, as he said that he, unlike some others, would allow all his neighbors to use his shelter.
The two caves characterize Hart, a man living in several centuries simultaneously, an unassayable amalgam of romanticism, risibility and rank realism. "I'm a pretty fierce man for culture," he said, unsequentially resuming his Hannibal soliloquy. "When I go into someplace outside, like a roadside restaurant, I'm likely to ask the waitress, 'Is there any culture in these here parts?' 'Culture? Why no, I guess there isn't any.' "
"Like some lunch?" Buckskin suddenly asked, apparently deciding that I had had as much edification as any man could stand between meals. "Better take it. Here among the savages you never know when you might get fed." He produced a waxy cheesecloth bag containing what he identified as "a putty of beef tallow." "Put it into hot water and it's ready to eat," he prescribed. "Add some rum, sugar, treacle, anything. Got to have concentrated food."
This was not to be our lunch, it developed. In lieu of rum-laced beef tallow, a prodigiously potent mince pie served as our concentrated nourishment. Principal ingredients were whiskey, plum preserves, raisins, dried apples, treacle and an egregiously gamy meat.
"Like the crust?" beamed Sylvan. "I make it with special pastry flour and bear grease. Bear grease doesn't have the objectionable qualities of any other grease."
After exhibiting the champagne bottle he uses as a rolling pin, Sylvan trotted into the kitchen house to show off his bottled bear grease and bear cracklings, as well as apple butter, eggs-and-beets and canned elk. "I generally get 25 quarts of grease per bear," he said.
Hart usually settles for shooting one bear every two years. Alternate years he takes one elk. "Meat from that one animal lasts me pr' near to June," he says. "Course, I smoke most of it."
In the case of a bear, Sylvan will gut and skin the carcass, laying the hide aside to be tanned. Next he cuts off the fat, renders it in a huge Dutch oven outside and seals it up in jars. Then he rubs smoke salt over the meat—perhaps 200 pounds of it—and after a couple of days hooks it into the smoke hole back of his fireplace.
Hart fishes, too. Using salmon flies, handline and bullets for sinkers, he catches whitefish, steelhead, bull trout, cutthroat and rainbows, which he has fresh or smokes, bakes and eats with goat cheese and tea. If he doesn't catch his first fish within a minute or two, he quits for the day.
"And I buy one or two salt cod a year for iodine," he adds. "The trouble with this water is that it's too clean. No minerals. All the old mountaineers had goiter: the beard concealed that. Same way in Switzerland. One group of Swiss live so far up in the mountains they still speak Latin. There, if you don't speak Latin or have a goiter, you're a barbarian."
To supplement his larder, Hart also has grouse, fool hens and snowshoe rabbits (besides some imported beef). Even a couple of mountain lions have got themselves eaten. "The meat tastes like turkey," Bill claims, "and of course it's light. Animals that eat other animals always have light meat. Animals that eat grass have dark meat." And occasional wildcats or lynxes—"We get them big as deer around here"—bent on raiding the chicken coop find their way, indirectly, into Bill's diet. He shoots them, grinds them up and feeds them to his banties, which have developed a terrible bloodlust for fresh meat.
The area also abounds in rattlesnakes, which Hart shoots but does not eat. The snakes thrive on the warm air seeping up through fissures from deep in the canyon. In compensation, mosquitoes, gnats, flies and vermin of any description are rare or nonexistent. "Only had houseflies the last five years," growls Sylvan. "Someone finally brought us in a few." Even bacteria and viruses languish and die. They certainly find no lodgement in Hart's innards: Sylvan, who drinks little or not at all, gargles daily with 151-proof Hudson's Bay Company rum, the rocket fuel that won the north.
Instead of moquitoes and flies, Buckskin is visited regularly by bighorn sheep, elk, bear and deer. "These animals are the same as most people, or better," says Sylvan undefensively. "Go down Seventh Avenue in New York and you can see people, but you can't talk to them. You'd be better off seeing animals. Except you could talk to the animals without 'bothering' them."
Hart has time to enjoy these creatures because his is a life stripped of all non-purposeful work. "I work three, four hours before it gets hot, then maybe two more after the sun goes down," says Sylvan. "Or I might just stop and watch an otter play. If you lived in a place like this and had to work hard eight hours a day, you'd be a pitiful incompetent."
A number of Hart's working hours go into his home-shot and home-sewn—but not homespun—wardrobe. "Textiles are no good," he said. "A woman could spin and knit all day without keeping her family in socks. But bearskin clothing wouldn't be wearing out just ever' little while. It takes a couple weeks' time to cut and sew a suit of buckskin, but you see this? This is my first buckskin jacket. Thirty years old and it's good as new.
"Now, what is there about buckskin you could get better on Park Avenue or Bond Street?" Sylvan continued, rhetorically, laying out a newer jacket for inspection, bullet holes in the leather neatly mended. "Just this: a cold wind is what kills you in the mountains, but it can't cut through a big stag hide. And buckskin protects you from thorns. Know what those fringes are for? Not for decoration. They let water run off faster, and they make you a poorer target by breaking up the outline.
"One thing about buckskin, though," Hart added. "If you've got a legal skin, you're in trouble. An illegal skin is homogeneous and thick all over. One killed during the hunting season has prominent veins—necessary to support all that hair—and veins are the first place the leather will crack."
Bill turned to the trousers. "The great mistake in making pants," he said, "is putting the seam on the inside of the leg. If it gets wet when you have to walk somewhere, it can take the skin right off." Next came mukluks and moccasins and shoemaking tools. "If you need a moccasin real quick," he advised, "get yourself a fresh elk or moose, cut off its heel and tie the toe."
What Hart actually does when he has a fresh elk or whatever is to scrape off fascia from the inside of the hide with fleshing knives and then marinate the hide in salt and sulfuric acid. "This mixture gets rid of the gelatin in the leather," he explains. When Hart wants to produce colored leather, he uses older methods of tanning. Chopped fine and boiled, sumac makes red leather, alder bark black, mahogany brown. Coffee grounds provide another color, and ashes give white.
Besides the old buckskin jacket, Hart owns an equally magnificent coat. The back is bear and beaver, the front wolf and badger, with calfskin over the shoulders to turn water. One sleeve is skunk, the other bear, and two pheasant hides adorn the whole. When Buckskin volunteered for World War II, the coat went with him.
The military couldn't have been any more surprised by Sylvan than the Idaho state income-tax office, which made the colossal mistake of sending Hart a whole series of letters saying he hadn't paid his taxes. Buckskin finally got dressed in his best stag skins and coonskin cap, took along a rifle and ample supply of provisions and presented himself at the tax office. "I surrender," he told the slack-jawed bureaucrats. They sent him home and promised fervently never to bother him again.
"Now, bedding," Bill announced. "Here's an elk hide I tanned. That's as good for sleeping as anything. It's warm, the hair is hollow so you can stand to have it against you, and it doesn't absorb moisture."
The guns with which Buckskin bags these trophies, trinkets and trousers have aroused considerable avarice. One hand-made flintlock rifle, a particularly enviable product of loving craftsmanship, so excited a wealthy Los Angeles businessman that he practically ordered Bill to sell it. When Bill turned down $1,000 and then a blank check, the man raged: "Damn it, you need the money. You do use money, don't you?"
"No," answered Bill. "Not where I live."
The rifle Hart would not sell has a beautifully hand-bored, hand-rifled barrel, a mechanism with a double cock and double-set trigger and an ornately carved mountain mahogany stock. Bored to .45 caliber, the barrel is made of fine Swedish steel.
Accurately described by Buckskin as "a rotating helix driven by fingers on a headblock nailed to a tabletop," the machine used to make that rifle is not one whit more, and is primitive-looking at that. It scarcely seems sophisticated enough to uncork a popgun, yet the rifle it produced shoots with deadly accuracy. "It's nothing but muscle power," Sylvan says, "but I really lay into it. That cutter comes out of there smoking."
Smoother than rosewood, the stock had been blackened with sulfuric acid and rubbed to its lustrous deep-brown finish with the palm of the hand. Its carvings depict the activities of mountain sheep.
"I just make one as I need it, but I don't like to spend less'n a year making a rifle," Hart said, opening the patch button in the stock to show the orange flicker feathers inside. These are used to flick dust and lint out of the mechanism.
Sylvan demonstrated how neatly the flint-tipped hammer struck the frizzen to create a spark, dropping it white-hot into a grain-of-wheat-sized charge of priming powder, and how the firing pan sloped just right to send the resulting fire into the main charge.
The red-striped ramrod is hickory specially cut in East Texas, and even the bright red and green tassels on the accompanying pouch have a specific, if whimsical, purpose. "They might just be decorations," says Buckskin, in one of his frequent indulgences in melodrama, "or you could tie one to a bush and a pursuer would want to fetch up to study on it."
For somewhat more ordinary purposes, the pouch is well equipped indeed. Priming horn, powder horn, "bosers," borers and cleaners, extra flints, rigs to chip flints, vent pickers and scrapers and even a bullet mold pour out of it in splendid profusion.
Following his regular ritual, Hart showed how he pours powder down the muzzle (30 grains), pushes in a bullet on a patch cut from a World War I bandage, and tamps it down a bit with three different "bosers." After ramrodding the patch down to the powder, he tapped the rod lightly "to seat the bullet" and primed the firing pan. One could still see the shiny spot on the spherical lead bullet where the sprue had been filed off. "Oh, yes, I make my own bullets," Sylvan said. "That's simple, but I make my own bullet molds, too." Accompanying this arsenal is a stock of powder and bullets sufficient to fight an Indian war.
In the event of demand exhausting his supply of ammunition, Buckskin could turn to his knives. Most formidable of these are a matched set of three of the most enormous bowie knives in or out of captivity, their guillotinelike blades suitably inscribed with such inspirational messages as "Liberty or Death," "Kill or Be Killed" and "Nuts." Hart also has classic daggers, Indian crooked knives, Arabic daggers and French knives, but it is the bowies he likes best.
The tools with which Hart creates these masterworks and others are a cornucopia of finely tempered, ingenious instruments—hundreds of them—too specialized and original to have names. There are scrapers, gouges, skewed chisels, awls, auzes and fine-tolerance dies, taps and punches in sizes and shapes beyond counting. Also there are copper-working tools, silverworking tools, woodworking tools and blacksmithing tools. Beaten from such basic material as abandoned moonshine stills and mining machinery (with gold amalgam still sticking to it), even Hart's lowliest copper pot bears the imprint of his original design.
"My idea of art is to make sure you have good utensils—things you use every day—before you go fooling with pictures," Hart declares. "That's the Scandinavian idea, too." No Danish artisan should object to having his work compared with Hart's bowls, ladles, kettles, lanterns, candle holders, samovar, coffeepots, tea balls, griddles and skillets.
To find something to put into one of these pots for dinner, we strolled around Sylvan's garden, seeking what we might devour. Even in earliest summer, the choice was impressive. At various stations in the 10,000-square-foot plot—fertilized by, among other things, one buried deer, two bear heads and one cougar skeleton—Hart had planted asparagus, parsnips, carrots, beets, cabbage, corn, squash, cucumbers, cantaloupes, peppers, garlic, strawberries, horseradish, rhubarb, rutabaga, kohlrabi, kidney beans, purple beans, white potatoes, purple potatoes....
Purple potatoes? "Just like the Incas used to have," Buckskin explained, cutting one for my inspection. It was indeed a shiny purple. "The only thing that makes white potatoes taste good is that there's some good-looking young lady serving them to you."
In addition to domesticated flora and such in-between species as perpetual onion ("If you see those, you know the Hudson's Bay Company has been there. The company used to give, among other things, seed, eight pounds of flour and five of salt as board, and its traders had to grow or shoot the rest"). Hart plucks certain wild groceries for his table. An informal garden of Oregon grapes, squaw cabbage, dandelion, shadbush berries, currants, rose hips, gooseberries, brodiaea roots and oyster plant roots grows adjacent to the vegetables.
For that evening's meal, Hart selected beans, onions, asparagus, carrots, pieces of imported chuck roast, unidentified bones and chopped potatoes, all of which he put in a massive kettle rather similar to, though somewhat scaled down from, the variety generally used to parboil missionaries in comic strips. For those who might be wondering about it, purple potatoes, when boiled, turn a bright blue. Together with the bright green beans and bright orange carrots, the bright blue potatoes deserved immortalization in Better Homes and Gardens.
After eating this gourmet's delight plus some of Bill's preserved pears, we settled down comfortably to talk and to watch a candle wage its unequal struggle against gathering dusk. During a pause in our conversation I looked around the kitchen house. Of all the thousand articles, useful and whimsical, that inhabited its pegs and shelves, the boxes and boxes of tea caught my eye. Besides a native variety that Hart claims the Indians once picked, mint, Keemun, lapsang souchong, South American maté, gunpowder, jasmine, India, Russian, ningchow, Japan pan-fried, Irish, oolong, Darjeeling, Earl Grey's and English Breakfast teas marched in ranks and rows. The prize of the lot, a labeled "Boston Harbour Tea, 'Bawstonaba' Registered, Blended and Packed by Davison Newman & Co., Ltd., 14 Cree-church Lane, London E.C. 3, The firm which supplied Tea 1773-1774 for the historic Boston Tea Parties," preserved on its sides a complete if microscopic copy of "The Petition of Davison & Newman to King George III claiming compensation for Chests of their Tea thrown into the harbour of Boston, Massachusetts, by Persons disguised as Indians."
"Is it true," I asked, "that you used to go to town for nothing but tea, books and powder?"
"When it's 40 miles to town on ropes and snowshoes," said Buckskin dryly, "that's about all you can carry." His total supply of other imported goods, some $50 worth, was brought in on a neighbor's pack string once a year, in the autumn. Flour, sugar, coffee, oatmeal, rice and raisins were almost the sole freight. "One year, when I had been prospecting at Florence [another ghost gold town], I walked clear to Grangeville [96 miles from Five Mile] and brought back all my supplies myself," remembered Buckskin.
Later Sylvan showed me where he had lived when newly come to the Salmon in 1932, sleeping under a tree and doing his baking in a stone oven. The land was a placer mining claim then, and Hart bought 50 acres for one dollar. "You could have bought the whole Salmon River for $10,000," he says.
One of Hart's favorite occupations in those early days was to take frequent long hikes to visit the still-living pioneers of the region, his purpose being to pick their brains for every grain of information about the fast-fading frontier life. Many of the pioneers became the young man's friends, notably Pres Wilson, whose ancestors had traded with Andrew Jackson; John Moore, "an honest moonshiner" who made his likker from apples; and old Henry Smith, who used to deliver mail for the area on snowshoes and left Buckskin his treasured rifle. But in that remote country, as Sylvan says, "even if someone didn't like you very well he was still kind of glad to see you."
Polly Bemis, famed in legend as a bride won in a poker game, lived just 10 miles downriver until 1933. Her real story is perhaps more interesting. Brought to Warren as a Chinese slave girl, she became a dance-hall hostess at the place where Charles Bemis was shot in a gun-fight. Polly nursed Bemis back to health, and in gratitude he married her.
There were plenty of authentically rough characters left over from the times when there were 1,500 men at now silent Campbell's Ferry, and some carried about gold dust from the Thunder Mountain boom in quart jars.
People have always had a way of vanishing without a trace along the River of No Return. Old Campbell himself, owner of Campbell's Ferry, disappeared in a snowstorm one day and was never seen again. "Easiest country in the world to murder anyone," Hart says comfortably. "Suppose you go back East and marry someone and decide you don't want that kind of woman at all. Just bring her out here on a hunting trip and say she got lost. This is too big a country to search all of it."
The grand finale of one of Idaho's otherworldly sunsets now demanded our attention. It took me some time to see what made the sunset strangely beautiful: the air is so pellucidly clear that the sundown is never red, not even purple. There is simply not enough dust to diffract light sufficiently. Instead, tints of green, reflected from the dark forests, vary the turquoise, azure, ultramarine and purest blue of the sky. That latter blue is the poignant blue of Idaho's flowering camas prairies, and in its extraordinary depths one glimpses the very color of a pioneer woman's eyes, the very gingham of her frock.
Then it was full night. The candle flame shifted and flickered in a faint draft, rearranging the shadows. Its light now lit what appeared to be three skulls, resting in a recess over the fireplace, directly under a muzzle-loading rifle, a buffalo powder horn and a bullet mold. The death's heads on left and right were slit-eyed, fanged cougar skulls; that in the center, reposing on an ancient Greek Bible, looked all too human. This, it unfolded, was another "lost" Idahoan. Hart, who found the unholy relic washed up on the river edge, deduced that its previous owner, in life, had been a boy caught stealing provisions from early settlers, shot and thrown into the torrent.
"You see some fearful things in this country," Buckskin said. "We was up on Horse Heaven last June and I looked down in the canyon and saw a bolt of lightning begin and end below us. Some of those lightning bolts are a foot wide. If they hit a tree, the tree explodes. You see that for free. Sometimes ball lightning comes rolling down the hill, rivulets running down from it like molten gold. Saint Elmo's fire is common, and I once had some come down the stovepipe while a visitor was making coffee. I heard this screaming and yelling. 'It came right out of the coffeepot," he said.
"Then there are places down on South Fork where you can find rows of pottery set just as the Indians left them. Lucky McKinnon found a cave with baskets, too. In a good dry cave those baskets could have set there 500 years."
Old Indian signs and art—which, self-taught, he has learned to read—also captivate Hart. His favorite story in that regard is of finding an ancient sign up South Fork just as the Idaho skies were preparing to open up and let loose. "At first I thought it was a trail marker," he recalls, "but it was a 'house' sign—meaning hogan, tepee, hotel. There was nothing there but a straight, sheer cliff, but I spread my bedroll for the night anyway. Well, the drip from that pouring rain missed me by just this much all night. A message from 1,000 to 5,000 years ago had kept me dry.
"Five Mile Bar is the only place on the river with good firewood," he said, changing subjects. "That's because there's never been a woman here. A woman sets around the stove all day burning fuel." Besides, Buckskin implies, he doesn't regard too kindly some of the women he does see. "I was taking a little bath in the river one day when I heard all this hollering and screaming," he relates. "I had just had time to get on my long red underwear and these women came round the bend yelling that their rubber boat was leaking. I hauled them out, prob'ly saved their lives, and all the while those frozen-faced women were sitting there locking disapproving. Well, first, I had less hide showing than they did, and then I don't think they were showing any proper appreciation a'tall.
"I've got six months, from November on, when this place is just like it's always been," Hart said. "Nobody visits, and I get mail twice a month. If I want to go anywhere, I put a pack on my back, get my gun, take off and stay as little or as long as I like. What more could you want?
"For the city man, life is just a jumble, like the facts in a college freshman's notebook. But you can ask me anything about nearly anything and I can answer, because I've had time to think about it."
Every word—and every copper pot—had been a tacit answer to the basic question: Why had he come here in the first place? But now Bill answered it direct.
"It is," said Buckskin slowly but readily, "a custom of my family, going back about 300 years, for the young men to stay in the woods for a year. Edward Hart, father of John Hart, who signed the Declaration of Independence, did it, moving from Connecticut to then-wild Mercer County, New Jersey. The next John Hart was one of the first Kansans, and my father went to the Creek country of Oklahoma. I just liked it so well I never came out."
It was quite possible to believe it was as simple and extraordinary as that—a man living as he was just because he liked that life. "But I wouldn't want to waste any time in complaining about what passes for civilization," Sylvan was demurring. "That's too negative. You should be able to see what's wrong about it with just a side glance, that's all.
"The good things a person needs—stubbornness, thinking for himself—don't make him a 'useful member of society.' What makes him 'useful' is to be half-dead. On weekends they open all the cemeteries and all those dead people march out. All the same sickly shade of hide, all sunken-eyed, not really seeing anything, just walking about because it's a weekend. Like I say, dead people. Then Monday—well, they don't all go back to the cemetery, where they belong. They ought to be honor-bound to go back where they'd be happier, the poor human ciphers lead such pitiful circumscribed lives."
It was late and we prepared for bed. The moon was not yet risen, but starlight poured down into the canyon, turning the granite opposite wall a chalk white etched with black, black pines. Where the stars are not shut out by the visual pollution of mercury vapor lamps—that blue glare fit only to light concentration camps—the eye can see again. At Five Mile Bar it can see a dark, mighty river under a pristine sky.
Such purity is rare in a night now, and, settling into my sleeping bag on one of Sylvan Hart's comfortable improvised beds, I watched the black-green Salmon hurry down to the Snake and saw Sylvan's collection of skulls phosphoresce softly in the half-light.
FIVE MILE CREEK