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
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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