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The Glass Mountain: A Fable

Posted on: January 27, 2017


This Full Value first appeared in Alpinist 54—Summer 2016.

[Photo] Alberto Cafferata/Wikipedia Commons

NEW SANTA FE, MISSOURI, 1875

The old mountaineer sat on the porch facing West. Not yet fully blind, he savored a strange blizzard of light: it had a pleasant, high noon heat, as white as angels flocking, say, or musket wads fluttering in a desperate fight.

"I wish I was back there among the mountains again," he told the little neighbor girl Agnes. "You can see so much farther in that country."

The cicadas were sawing away. People disliked the noise, but he heard in it a vast chant to the Creator. Plus properly fried, they tasted like almonds.

"Not the mountain," said the child. "You can't see that. Nobody can." She pulled a strand of cottonwood fluff from his beard. Another drifted into his lemonade.

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The Glass Mountain, she meant.

WHEREVER THE MIDDLE of nowhere lies, Jim Bridger's horse came to a halt, and he found himself face to face with a gigantic presence he could not see. It was a mountain, beyond all doubt. Every mountain has a tide, drawing life up to it and then spreading it out in great concentric circles. This was an odd one, though.

A deer was watching him not twenty feet ahead, so close he could taste the venison roasting.

Sometimes he spiced the story with a detail about aiming his Hawken and nearly killing himself when the ball ricocheted back. Or there would be dead birds, thousands of them, lying heaped in the willows with broken wings, and higher still, bones and feathers resting on niches in the blue sky.

Long or short, however he told it, there was always that deer looking at him. It was always—almost—within reach, and yet always—almost—impossibly faraway...perfectly magnified through the glass of an invisible mountain.

THE TERM mountain man eventually replaced what eighteenth- and nineteenth-century accounts simply called a mountaineer. Though modern climbers might recognize their sense of upward progress, it was the Main Chance—commerce salted with hunger—that drew these men to ranges that seemed as mysterious to them as the moon's craters. It was an age of filling in holes on maps, penetrating wilderness and generally reimagining Nature; an age of explorations that were in fact merely awakenings to long-inhabited places.

Columbus's New World was, of course, a very old world to its tens of millions of indigenous occupants. Discovery of "virgin" lands was mostly just European ignorance exposed. That may sound like a harmless conceit. But discovery implies acquisition, something sought and gained and possessed, physically, legally or spiritually.

Unlike Europe, formally drawn with paper maps and written histories, the American West appeared profoundly vulnerable to outside interpretation. The ever-shifting Story was the reality; alter the story and you altered the reality. In the decades after the Louisiana Purchase, the mountain men served as half-feral naifs in a new creation myth that concluded with the axe, the plow, steel rails and reservations.

Born in 1804, the year Lewis and Clark's epic journey launched, Bridger was orphaned and a blacksmith's apprentice by age fourteen. Westward migration in the northern US flowed through St. Louis, and the blacksmith shop near the Mississippi River fed it wagon parts, beaver traps, guns and more—including a teenager eager to test himself in the wilderness. Bridger suffered a bloody initiation on the 1823-24 Ashley-Henry fur expedition, narrowly escaping death and mutilation, along with the grizzly-mauled Hugh Glass. Between deaths, injuries and desertion, the attrition rate among mountain men hovered at about 50%. Bridger decided to stay. He would not eat bread for seventeen years.

[Photo] Alberto Cafferata/Wikipedia Commons

In legends that mountaineers, settlers and soldiers told, Bridger became a protean figure, fit for a landscape metamorphic with shifting lines and meanings, his mountain adventures evolving to match the dreams and nightmares of his era. He appeared tailor-made for a universe of animal strength. Over six feet tall, he was muscular "without an ounce of superfluous flesh," according to one frontier journal. High cheekbones, steel-blue eyes and an aquiline nose: "He might have served as a model for a sculptor or painter...[except for] his neck, which rivaled his head in size and thickness."

Riding, packing, trapping, combat and other frontier skills came to him automatically. He learned the business—not just the craft—of the fur trade, and soon established his own company, and then a trading post, and then a fort.

The nebulous West was just getting mapped. For a while, there were no borders to straddle, and with enough courage, luck and spirit, one could traverse the cultures. He practically inhaled a half-dozen European and Native languages. Summers he spent with the trappers; winters with the Crow, Shoshone and Flathead tribes. He earned the rank of major without ever becoming a soldier in the US Army. The Crow made him a chieftain. With dozens of mountaineers watching, an American physician removed a three-inch arrow point that had been lodged in Bridger's shoulder for three years. Usually, he preferred the tribal medicine men who traveled back and forth to the spirit world.

His three successive wives were Native American, each bearing beloved children. One daughter he sent to a missionary school in Walla Walla, Oregon Country, only to lose her to a Cayuse raiding party that killed the teacher and disappeared with her. Two of his other children were educated at a parochial school in St. Charles, Missouri. His son Felix served as an officer in the Civil War and later under Custer; his daughter Virginia married a cavalry captain and lived on the Missouri farm where Bridger eventually retired.

From early on, Bridger was chosen to lead brigades of veteran trappers and hunters into uncharted mountains. The men readily followed him, and for good reason. He seemed able to see right through the world.

"[Bridger] is never lost, wherever he may be," wrote B. Gratz Brown, editor of the Missouri Republican. "He would throw his gun carelessly over his shoulder, survey the country awhile with his eye, and then strike out on a course, and never fail to reach the place, although he had several hundred miles to traverse over a country which he never traveled, and to a place he had never seen."

Bridger "had the whole West...mapped out in his mind," as one general put it. Professionals marveled at the accuracy of maps he drew in the dirt or with a charcoal stick on a buffalo hide. He forgot nothing.

The land was endlessly animate to him. On September 11, 1836, he led his men to a rumored wild plum orchard. Ripe, dropping, soon to be swallowed by the seasons, the sweet fruit became a landmark every bit as permanent as the Grand Teton. On the night of February 22, 1837, a large party of Blackfeet gathered to attack him, but the Aurora Borealis flared so brightly the warriors fled. The brief display remained as indelible for Bridger as a surveyor's latitude and longitude.

Time was topography. Everything mattered, right down to the insects and shadows. His advice to immigrants would specify the deadline for fording a river three hundred miles away based on the severity of the past winter, or when to not cross a prairie according to the height of tall grass and the phase of the moon favored by certain tribes. Decade by decade, as Bridger's legend grew, so did his interior atlas of oddities and wonders. Ranging over a vast amount of territory, he saw things that Anglos had never imagined, from geysers, petrified forests and dinosaur bones to canyons striped like zebras and hoodoos shaped like souls in hell. In present-day Capitol Reef, a distant sparkling led Bridger to a fifteen-foot-high volcanic stub encrusted with translucent crystals. In Yellowstone he came upon a cliff of black obsidian smoother than glass.

But when he described such marvels, the other trappers would squint, then laugh. "Why, Stubbins," Bridger told his New Santa Fe neighbor shortly before his death in 1881, "they said I was the damndest liar [that] ever lived!"

It mystified him. He was an oracle one minute, a clown the next. Trappers, hunters, surveyors, missionaries, soldiers, Mormons, every species of pilgrim sought him out for his knowledge of the land. Government officials drew maps with him at their elbow, guiding their pen. Cavalry officers timed their operations by his inner clock. Wagon trains poured along the trails and passes he'd puzzled out before many of them were born. The pilgrims hung their destinies upon his word, and a heartbeat later laughed his word down.

Like voters, they elected what would be fact and what fiction. The laughter bothered him less than their skepticism. Like the frontier painters and writers who ventured into the hills, he had a body of work, and it was the frontier. How could you call that a lie without the very land disintegrating under your feet? At such times, he felt as if he were climbing a mile above the ground with nothing underneath except the things that grew down there. It made him dizzy. Maybe Shakespeare had it right. Maybe life was but a dream.

He could have shut his mouth, but he felt the need to bear witness to the wonders. That left him with no other choice, really, than to become a fantabulist.

HE TURNED HIS PETRIFIED FOREST into a petrified world. Amid petrified sagebrush and flowers, petrified bees made petrified honey and petrified birds sang petrified songs. He told of a river that started out cold, but flowed so fast the friction made the bottom half of the water hot. The geysers became doorways to hell. He brought the dinosaur bones to life with myths about an apocalyptic war between giant birds and sea creatures. (Years earlier, Thomas Jefferson, fascinated by giant bones in local bogs, had instructed Lewis and Clark to look for herds of living mastodons.)

The best way to keep his "discoveries" alive was to bury them in absurdity until they might resurrect. What did it matter if he altered a bit of reality? The entire West was an alternate reality.

Like a magician, Bridger erased and invented summits. He flipped Pikes Peak upside down and inside out, leaving a giant hole in the ground. He transformed the crystals and black obsidian into a glass mountain.

As time passed, little by little, the fictions became fact again. There really were condors large enough to pluck a child from a wagon, and a forked stream where trout could pick between a Pacific swim or an Atlantic one. When Yellowstone became more accessible, other Anglos saw for themselves that the geysers did exist, and you could indeed cook meat in the hot pools. The petrified forests were real, too, subtracting the stone birds and bees.

On September 19, 1870, a visitor recorded, "Taking off [my] boots and stockings...I reached the middle of the stream...[and] discovered from the sensation of warmth under my feet I was standing upon an incrustation formed over a hot spring.... I exclaimed to Hodges: 'Here is the River which Bridger said was hot at the bottom!'"

As for the Glass Mountain, frontier tourists decided Old Bridger must have meant Yellowstone's Obsidian Cliffs. He let them have their presumption. He encouraged it. His other fictions and facts had long served as a public commons. The Glass Mountain was different. That belonged to him, at least until he completed its first ascent.

IN THE HUMID MISSOURI afternoons, a farmhand saddled Bridger's ancient horse, and the old mountaineer set off among the wheat and grasshoppers to ford the ghosts. They were a sizable bunch, and hungry. They clamored to see the sunshine through his eyes, and taste his apple crop and breathe the rich air. He did not begrudge their presence, but neither did he pity them. They belonged in the Rockies, inhabiting the streams, rocks, aspens and animals. Plainly, he thought, they had not paid attention, or had forgotten the trails and passes, and could not cross over into the spirit world.

He would sit there on his horse, facing the mystery. A glass mountain: an imaginary mountain: one you couldn't see, but couldn't ignore. Once it blocked you, the only way around it was over it. Like a massive New World sphinx, it required an answer.

What was the question, though? And which was the sphinx, that deer or this invisible monstrosity between them? And where did the valley lead on the other side?

FOR THE LONGEST TIME Bridger was unable to find a first foothold on the mountain, not even a made-up one. He had created a labyrinth clogged with dead birds that flew into its glass flanks, a hole where clouds orbited the summit, a panther in a cave in the sky, and more. Stripping away the details took years, but still left him grounded. He tried painting it with snow, which only turned into invisible avalanches. Dirt blew away. He could not see through his own imagination.

It is easy to misread Bridger by that bumpkin "X" of a signature. He spoke a nearly impenetrable backwoods idiom, squatted on his heels instead of sitting in a chair, and wore blood- and grease-stained buckskins best cleaned by laying them on ant piles. We picture the annual rendezvous of frontiersmen like him as raucous intersections of a few dozen rawhide-tough hermits grunting "wah" at each other.

But the mountaineers dubbed their reunions the Rocky Mountain College. In summer, up to 600 trappers descended from the hills, along with six times that many Native Americans. Most of the Anglos worked on big harvesting crews for American monopolies. Company caravans imported goods worth a quarter-million dollars, and returned with over a million dollars in pelts. Besides food, liquor, powder, blankets, beads, thread, guns and clothing, they brought mail, books, magazines and newspapers. Those who were literate would read to the others, connecting the frontiersmen to national and international events.

America was just becoming American, geographically, culturally, politically. History turned upon the narrative. Some people understood this intuitively. Standing on a tree stump, freely sharing a jug of liquid corn and a twist of tobacco, a good storyteller like Davy Crockett could become a king or at least a congressman. "Be sure you are right, then Go Ahead," was his resonant mantra. Word arrived at the 1836 rendezvous of Crockett's death at the Alamo. Soon after that the caravans began to import a series of cheap, violent and ultra-racist illustrated issues titled The Nashville Crockett Almanac. Though Manifest Destiny was not yet a term, it fired the soul, especially the Southern one bent on expanding slavery. The tall tale crossed from entertainment into national propaganda.

THE FRONTIER WAS AN ENDLESSLY strange labyrinth. Stories trickling eastward about mountain men mesmerized Europeans. Now and then, eccentric English nobles showed up at the rendezvous with a full entourage, and Bridger quickly became their go-to bodyguard, translator, guide and dinner companion.

In 1854 Sir George Gore of Ireland amassed a retinue of forty servants that included secretaries, stewards, cooks, fly-makers and dog-tenders. He contracted Bridger to guide and outfit his American safari. By the conclusion of his trip, Gore had killed 2,500 buffaloes, 40 grizzly bears, and 1,600 elk, deer, antelope and wolves—enough trophies for a half-dozen museums. His wanton slaughter enraged local tribes who depended on the herds.

After a sumptuous dinner with fine wine, Gore read books aloud to Bridger and invited his opinions. Bridger thought that Shakespeare's Falstaff drank too much lager beer and not enough Bourbon whiskey. He decided that the "Britishers" in Walter Scott's "The Field of Waterloo" must have been a better lot than the ones Old Hickory mowed down at New Orleans. He found Baron Munchausen's tall tales too tall—though on reflection, Bridger felt that his own experiences could make for good drama.

Bridger bumped into Shakespeare elsewhere, too. Cavalry troops at Fort Laramie enjoyed theatrical performances by fellow soldiers. Bridger was so taken that he ordered his own copy of the Bard's collected works, hired a soldier to read it to him, and memorized passages. Some of the forts held libraries with up to 600 books. One can only imagine what Bridger thought of such American thrillers as The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans. Or of Thoreau's Walden (1854), which would come to inspire generations of mountain seekers and future climbers: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to...see if I could not learn what it had to teach.... I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life."

THE MORE AMERICANS DIMINISHED the frontier, the more they celebrated it in literature, high and low, and paintings and finally photographs. As if it were one of Bridger's tall tales, art historians now treat as speculation the legend that Bridger guided the artist Albert Bierstadt, an ambitious, but relatively unknown painter from New York. Bierstadt soon transformed his field sketches into large panoramas that stunned East Coast and European viewers, influencing the creation of Yellowstone Park, and by extension, that of the entire national park system.

During Colonel Lander's 1859 topographical expedition, Bridger and Bierstadt—wilderness man and city man, one wearing buckskins and the other a white artist's smock—could have developed an unspoken collaboration that merged myths of raw Nature and refined civilization. The same mountaineer who had abetted Sir George's extermination romp might have aided the painter who helped found wildlife sanctuaries. Luminism, one name for the spectacular radiance in Bierstadt's landscapes, proved perfect for displaying the unknown—and transcendental—West.

Led deep into the mountains, Bierstadt entered an imagined Eden. The only people in his paintings, if any at all, were tiny prehistoric innocents at one with Nature. Unlike many frontier artists who traveled light, Bierstadt went to the extra trouble of using oils in his field studies. That meant Bridger would have seen previews, in color, of a vision that was about to change how people perceived the Western ranges.

Consciously or not, Bridger was looking through another man's eyes at the Glass Mountain. It was no longer a figment of his imagination alone. Bierstadt had reached the foot of the transparent peak and seen the world on its far side, this same world but magnified and out of proportion and as intensely beautiful as it was untouchable. The mountain had become real. The ascent could begin.

NOW AND THEN, Bridger had business in the cities of the East, as when Mormons burned his fort and sent "avenging angels" to kill him. He traveled to Washington DC at least twice, and he must have explored the city as keenly as the wild. It seems possible that Bierstadt would have entertained a former guide in New York, and perhaps later in Boston, and shown him more of his work. Bridger would have seen them in public, at any rate.

Bierstadt's paintings, some ten-feet wide, were displayed in government buildings, galleries and corporate railway headquarters. Harper's Magazine published his sketches. Early environmental advocates showed his work to Congress to promote the preservation of natural wonders. What Bridger had seen as field sketches were now huge windows onto a new image of wilderness. Other artists, such as Thomas Moran, were returning from the frontier with their own vivid renditions, and Bridger probably visited their work, too, collecting more evidence of his Glass Mountain.

The West was changing, and Bridger knew it. He'd helped trap beaver to rarity by the mid-1800s. By 1890, when the Census Bureau declared the end of the frontier, fewer than 1,000 buffalo remained on the plains. The aging mountain man, safari guide and cavalry scout, "Old Gabe," could testify to the "conquest" of Native Americans and exploitation of Western lands. His own hands had helped shatter the dreams he loved so much, what had amounted, over the course of his lifetime, to a mountaineer's first ascent.

While scouting for the Army's Powder River expedition in 1865, Bridger discovered an Arapahoe camp. The cavalry and foot soldiers ran amok, and Bridger witnessed a massacre. Afterward, the troops headed toward home, surrounded by what one soldier described as "thousands of wolves that made the nights hideous with their infernal howling." One night they heard what Bridger identified as the Medicine Wolf, a supernatural harbinger of disaster. "Being very superstitious, [Bridger and two other scouts] took up their blankets and struck out for a new camp" about a half mile away.

There is no mention of Bridger protesting to the general in charge, nor of him trying to stop the slaughter or ever talking about it again. He'd fought with and against different tribes, and was quick to scalp his own victims, but the bloodbath at the Arapaho camp haunted him. By separating from the destruction he'd enabled, Bridger found himself split in two again, one part watching the other through a window.

The fate of Native Americans was already part of a sharply divided national dialogue. Were they children of Eden or impediments to civilization? In the mid-1830s, at the height of the mountain-man rendezvous era, the artist George Catlin traveled across the Plains, visiting fifty tribes and painting portraits of these first Americans. He toured his Indian Gallery, including articles, artifacts, and books, in major cities from Cincinnati and New York to Paris, London and Brussels. His work was hailed and damned in a growing culture war. Critics panned his portraits of chieftains, nuanced and detailed, as Romantic propaganda. None other than Charles Dickens weighed in, attacking Catlin as a naive apologist for "savages" and recommending they be "civilized off the face of the earth." US cavalry troops and settlers mocked them by calling them Lo, or Mr. Lo, a reference to Alexander Pope's Essay on Man (1734); "Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutored mind / Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind." Both images—that of the "Noble Savage" and the howling fiend—denied Native Americans' perceptions of themselves.

Did Bridger experience a sudden terrible realization of his impact on the land and people? Did he feel remorse? Did he have a conscience that twenty-first century moderns might recognize? Or was his silence a great shrug at the universe?

EVERY MOUNTAIN IS THE West. Every ascent explores. All climbers alter their environment, if not with piton scars or ropes left fixed, then with their stories. And yet, with each finger crimp and smeared toe, climbers want to remember the mountain as unremembered, as personal and not public. They pry at the stone for a glimpse inside at the wild as it is, not as words tell us how to see it. That is the paradox of ascent.

By stripping every ounce of fat from his tale—shedding the dead birds, the musket ball's ricochet, the hole in the clouds, even his escape horse—Bridger met the same paradox. The old man reached for the West that was before his memory of it, but found only the memory. In effect, he became his own sphinx: riddle, answer, risk and all.

A man stands watching a deer watching him. Which is which, though? Might they be the same creature? Or mirrors, perhaps, each reflecting its viewer, the deer as Bridger and Bridger as the deer.

They are separated by a mountain that does not exist, an empty space, like an echo above a hole. Or did the mountain exist, a reality that was full, but unknowable to ordinary sight?

Who, then, was climbing what?

And how could he know when he reached the glass summit that it was not a false one?

There is a Tibetan saying: When you reach the summit, keep climbing.

There is Rene Daumal's Mount Analogue, with its never-ending expedition left stranded, mid-sentence, by his death, on an all-but-invisible mountain known for its "peradam," a crystal so transparent it can only be detected with a pilgrim's desire and a "sudden sparkle, like that of dewdrops."

IT IS A MATTER OF RECORD that the children would guide the old man to the creek and seat him in the cool shade. After splashing and playing, they settled around him. The stories would start, theirs, his, theirs...short, long, meandering, with endings or not...they needed no structure or purpose or rules. One story reminded another. If someone said it was a purple tree, the tree was purple. Fairies and dinosaur bones, everything belonged.

Now and then, bits of color and light drifted through what remained of Bridger's sight: autumn leaves launched to faraway lands. He flung a handful into the water, too. His hand emptied; his heart filled. The pieces of his mosaic would furnish other people's mosaics.

One afternoon an empty sparrow nest fell right into his lap. He gave it to the youngest child to set upon the current, and as it floated away, the children began singing. Row, they sang, row, row your boat.... Off the nest went like the keelboats of his first voyage, dragged, poled and paddled into that wilderness of his dreams.

This Full Value first appeared in Alpinist 54—Summer 2016.

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