Mountain Man

He stands on the middle of a red dirt road surrounded by junipers and piñons. The setting New Mexican sun paints crimson the nearby butte. Thirty yards away stands the house he built room by room over the last seventeen years. It is a solitary existence and he likes it that way.

Lance Grabowski was born and raised in Hudson, NY. His family had a farm and operated a fruit stand on Route 23. “I was born with a cowboy hat and a gun, it was a difficult birth,” a smile appears beneath his enormous mustache. “I was a Davy Crockett kid, always drawing cowboys, Indians, Vikings and mountain men. Everybody said you can’t do that, you can’t make a living as a cowboy, so I gave it up.”

His aspiration was forestry, “wanted to sit in a fire tower in a National Forest,” but you needed a math background and he wasn’t good at that. After graduation he went to the Kansas City Art Institute. On a break he journeyed to Taos, New Mexico. He visited the Kit Carson Museum and bought a huge stack of books that changed his life. He decided to become a mountain man.

Back at school in Kansas City he painted, copying Remington and Russell and creating his own western art as well. He voraciously read anything on mountain men or Indians. He also began tanning hides.

In South Dakota he bought four raw buffalo hides, tied them on the roof of his Volkswagen and headed home. He began tanning the hides on his apartment balcony, to keep them away from dogs. He had no idea how to tan hides; he just knew that to be a mountain man he needed to do it. It was trial and error, but he learned. He collected tools and gear, what he couldn’t afford, he made. Soon he was making shirts and leggings and hats out of deer and elk hides and selling them. He pauses and grins, “Moose hide and saddles are my downfall. Moose is the Rolls Royce of leather.” His eyes brighten, the passion for his work evident, “The hide can be a half inch thick, but you can pierce it with a beading needle like a pair of wool socks.”

After college, the notion of trapping and living off the land, the Jeremiah Johnson mountain man existence, the self-reliant solitude of being completely alone with nature, the discovery and history of that life lured him.

He went to Fort Laramie, Wyoming to scour their library. He volunteered one day to be a mountain man for a big tour. The next day he told the superintendent, “I think you should hire me,” and the superintendent did. Lance became the first mountain man ever hired by the U. S. Park Service. He spent two years in a teepee, living and demonstrating the ways of the mountain man to tourists.

Leaving Fort Laramie he got a call from a fella named ‘Bison Pete’, wanting to know if he could use 1000 buffalo skulls. Lance said yes, picked them up and zigzagged across the country to San Diego selling skulls and hides along the way. One fellow he sold a skull to, covered it with turquoise and it appeared on the cover of Arizona Highways magazine. When Lance got home from the trip, his phone was ringing off the hook; a new career was born.

Lance had been reading for years, preparing for a challenge he set for himself; to ride from Santa Fe to Cash Valley, Utah on horseback. Finally he decided to stop thinking about it and do it. “The hardest thing was putting my foot in the stirrup and my butt in the saddle that first morning. Doing it was easy.”

Jed Smith was one of America’s great explorers, the first American to travel overland to California. Lance decided to duplicate Smith’s 1826 ride from Bear Lake Utah to San Bernardino, California, across the Mohave Desert in August.

He did it in 57 days. Lance’s research and common sense prompted him to choose a route different from that attributed to Smith. After the ride, previously unpublished journals of Smith’s surfaced. The National Geographic lauded Lance’s route as the true and precise route taken by Smith.

“Between 1804 and 1840 there were fewer than 1000 white men between the Mississippi River and the Pacific,” Lance explains. “These mountain men were kings of their own world, living outside civilization. The were all trappers, primarily seeking beaver, ‘Hairy Bank Notes’ as they called ‘em.” Lance is one of very few people who can hand make any sort of gear or garment, mountain man or from virtually any Indian tribe from that period, and it is purely authentic.

He’s costumed or sold items to a long list of movies, because of that authenticity.
“I kept moving all those years otherwise I got bored,” Lance adds, “I’ve been a mountain man, lived it full time. Everybody told me I couldn’t make a living as a mountain man and here I’ve been doing it for 35 years.”

“Why a mountain man?” I ask.

“Freedom,” he nods as if confirming the notion, “yeah, freedom in its purest form.”

We’ll talk next time From The Road.

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