In Search of Jeremiah Johnson, Mountain Man (Part I)

Note: When I was in my 20s I truly believed that I would spend my life living more or less self-sufficiently in the woods.  Alas, physical disability cut short that dream (perhaps for my own good).  So I wrote this piece looking back in time – with research, nostalgia, and humor.

What’s your image a mountain man? Mine was Jeremiah Johnson. Jeremiah Johnson was the mountain man played by Robert Redford in the 1972 film of the same title. I first saw the film as a 19 year-old while going to college. Except for having to fight Indians one at a time, Redford, as Johnson, seemed to have discovered the perfect lifestyle. I became fairly convinced that living the life of a solitary mountain man was the ideal existence, although I was willing to compromise, as had Redford, and include in the formula a tough, beautiful, and sexy woman who knew how to say yes. The recipe went something like this: walk away from civilization — from TV, telephones, toxins, taxes, taxidermy, trapezoids — and find a nice piece of wilderness free for the squatting near a mountain and stream (waterfall optional).  Build a kit-cabin for two, and live happily ever after on Nature’s bounty far outside the clutches of society and corporate greed.

For those not familiar with the film I offer the following brief synopsis. Jeremiah Johnson walks away from all his problems (which are not made clear), and decides to become a mountain man. He encounters his mentor, an older mountain man named Bear Claw who teaches him everything he needs to know about living in the mountains. Later, he gets married to a Flathead Indian woman, adopts a young boy who never speaks, builds a cabin near a mountain stream, and establishes a film-worthy lifestyle. Unfortunately, his wife and son get slaughtered and he goes to war with the entire Crow nation, fighting them one at a time, until at the end of the film he is a legend and no one wants to fight him any more. The film ends with the line, “And some folks say he’s up there still.”

Shortly after viewing the film for the first time a friend told me, with some authority, that Jeremiah Johnson was an actual historical figure about whom an authentic book was written. Deciding that he might actually still be up there, I decided to go looking for him.

To track him I felt I would need to become a mountain man myself. Since I did not know anyone by the name of Bear Claw, I determined that I would have to learn on my own.  Being an Eagle Scout merely gave me a head start.  I realized I would need to find an environment appropriate to my beginner status, and decided that a lush tropical island would be an excellent virgin experience. After all, beaches are flat and mountains are steep. Many a tenderfoot has fallen off a mountain thinking they were prematurely prepared for the vertical. I was hoping National Geographic would pay for the training and wrote them with a serious proposal (1973). I requested they sponsor me as I attempted to survive for one month, on a deserted South Pacific island to be named later, given only transportation to and from the island and a radio for emergencies. I didn’t let Geographic know this, but I did plan to bring in a few other items, such as a Swiss army knife, flint (and/or matches), pen and paper for a journal, and an inflatable woman who could double as a life raft in case of emergency. Of course, Geographic would have exclusive rights to the story. I was politely turned down. If I wanted to feast on bananas, coconuts, breadfruit, tropical fish, and fresh lobster, I realized I would have to do it on my own time. I decided further research was required.

I read Euell Gibbons, the back to nature guru of the 1970’s who had lived on wild beaches in Hawaii eating wild hickory nuts and Grape Nuts cereal. But Gibbons was no Robert Redford. On talk shows, such as Johnny Carson, he seemed rather like a wilted asparagus. I needed a better role model, and discovered him in Thor Heyerdahl.

For starters, I liked the name the name Thor. Heyerdahl was an adventurer who had become famous for his Kon-Tiki expedition. He entertained that the Polynesian islands throughout the Pacific Ocean were populated, not by persons of Chinese origin as was believed, but by California surfers. He had correctly observed that both Hawaiians and Californians liked to surf. But there were other striking similarities between the two cultures that could not be ignored or explained away. Both groups wore flower necklaces as a form of beautification. Both groups went bare foot, and to Heyerdahl’s delight, bare chested. Both California surfers and Hawaiians liked to put shells in their hair and hold all night clambakes. Heyerdahl theorized that the Californians would not have needed to bring sand with them, as sand already existed in abundance in Hawaii. Since California and Hawaii had a major ocean in common, the Pacific, the Californians could have surfed to Hawaii in search of the big wave. Heyerdahl rigged his surfboard, Kon-Tiki (after a sea otter he named Tiki Tavi Tiderider), with a small sail and a net for catching flying fish. The major problem with his plan was that the waves went in the wrong direction, and he washed back up on the beach after only one day. But just the fact that he dared to believe in the impossible gave surfers everywhere hope for the eternal wave.

OK, I made up the part about Thor Heyerdahl attempting to surf from California to Hawaii. Heyerdahl was the famous Scandinavian explorer who was the first person to set foot on the South Pole, beating the American Timothy Leary by many years. Kon-Tiki was the name of his lead sled dog, who goes down in history as the first lead sled dog in a south polar expedition that was not eaten by starving adventurers.

OK, I made up the part about Heyerdahl being the first person not to eat his lead sled dog. Thor Heyerdahl is actually, (really actually – Scouts honor!) famous for attempting to prove that the Polynesian islands were populated by people from Peru. In 1947 he sailed on a balsam wood craft based on a design seen off the coast of Peru in ancient times. After 97 days he arrived at an unknown Polynesian Island.  Kon-Tiki was actually the name of his raft, and later the title of his book.

It was Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki fame that led me to read about his actual (Scout’s honor) true life honeymoon on a lush island in the south Pacific with his beautiful young bride Liv.  Perhaps Heyerdahl could have named his book THE HONEYMOON FROM HELL, but instead he named it FATU HIVA: BACK TO NATURE (1974). This is an actual book, and everything I am about to share about Heyerdahl’s honeymoon in the South Pacific is true. You have to wonder why he did it. He states he had hoped to avoid participation in World War II by living permanently outside European culture. Unfortunately, the war was just warming up when he returned to Norway.

The potential parallels between Heyerdahl and my rejected Geographic honeymoon with an inflatable woman were compelling. In 1936, after much searching for the perfect South Pacific Island, Thor and Liv landed on the remote island of Fatu Hiva. While their initial intentions were to live there for the rest of their lives, they only stayed about a year. After some initial survival training from Polynesian locals, none of whom were named Bear Claw, they built themselves a hut in the interior jungle. When the monsoon rains arrived, the ground became a sea of mud into which they sunk up to their knees. They were bitten by spiders and centipedes. Beetles began eating away at their soft wood cabin creating clouds of sawdust that made it difficult to breathe. Everything became damp and moldy. But the worst plague of all was the never-ending clouds of mosquitoes that attacked them day and night. Literally every inch of their bodies was bitten. There was no escaping the little tormentors, even after they were eventually able to purchase mosquito netting. Liv developed boils and a tropical infection. Thor had sores on his legs that wouldn’t heal. They had to leave the island to seek medical attention. Even this proved to be a life threatening adventure. If they had delayed a week longer, Liv would have lost her leg to infection. When they returned, the jungle had reclaimed their hut and they spent the remainder of their stay in an almost hopeless attempt to relocate. They ended up in a cave overlooking the ocean, hoping to spot a boat to take them off the island. The boat that rescued them was barely sea worthy, and they feared they would drown. The fact that his first marriage failed cannot be totally blamed on this experience, but I’m sure it didn’t help.

While my inflatable woman would not be bothered by swarms of mosquitoes and tropical disease, I knew that I would. From that point on, any thoughts of spending a month surviving on a Pacific Island were ditched like a plane looking for a place to land. I realize that I had been fooled by the artist Gauguin, who painted idyllic portraits of the South Pacific – concealing the misery, heartbreak, and elephantiasis. But Jeremiah Johnson was different. He was an American. I knew I had gotten off the trail and needed to track my course back to native soil.

Next: Part II – An inconvenient historic truth and a question: When “some folks say he’s up there still,” who is “he”?

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3 Responses to In Search of Jeremiah Johnson, Mountain Man (Part I)

  1. Irene Blanck says:

    What a hoot!! Love it!


  2. Hugh Staton says:

    Enjoyed the read – where’s part 2?

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