The Last of the Mountain Men: The True Story of an Idaho Solitary, Sylvan Hart, by Harold Peterson -- A Book Review
Well-written profile on a modern-day mountain man
Not so very long ago, in the timeline of history, thousands of people lived out a rough, solitary existence in the mountains and wild plains of North America. These were the pioneers, mountain men, and hermits that color our modern imaginations with such outlandish images as to seem like mere fantasy. As the Industrial Age set in and moved inland over the entire continent, these people were slowly assimilated into “civilized” life or simply faded away…that is, all but a very few. In 1969, author Harold Peterson made a couple of treacherous treks into the deep unspoiled wilderness of Idaho to meet a man who reverted to the ways of the solitaries to hear his story and learn, through observation, some of the realities of his life far away from civilization.
Sylvan Hart, known to his friends as Buckskin Bill, describes himself as “young and spry and full of life” at the age of 61, when the “civilized world” would be getting ready to hand him a gold watch and put him on a shelf for the rest of his life. Indeed, from the author’s description, readers can see that Hart possessed far more vigor and zest for life than most men half his age who clung to a more conventional way of life. Unlike many of the old mountain men, though, Hart struck out into the wilderness with a master’s degree in engineering as well as his unflagging energy. Throughout his visits, Hart introduced the author to his life, his work, the amazing array of handcrafted items (including rifles, copper dishes, and tools), and to the multitude of surprisingly true or mostly-true stories about those who preceded him in the wilderness and throughout the days of the gold rushes.
This really can’t be classed as a biographical book, but rather more of an introduction to one of the colorful characters who, until recently, comprised part of the last bits of living history of the “Wild West." Instead of a set story line, the author seems to have been more interested in preserving his impressions at varying points in the book – anything that stands out to him, he puts down. The result is a book full of snapshots: Buckskin Bill’s home, garden, and person, the treacherous trails in and out of his little piece of Salmon River wilderness, and the author’s pursuit of the truth behind some of the more outrageous tales of the area.
To anyone who lives around Idaho, Montana, or Wyoming and is already acquainted with the ways of solitaries and mountain men, none of these snapshots will really seem novel. Anyone who has spent their life in mainstream urban culture may be taken aback that such outlandish people and places still exist. Whichever end of the spectrum you’re reading from, or anywhere in between, this book is still intriguing and easy to read. At just under 200 pages, it’s easy to read in a weekend.
A quick note about semantics – while the title classes Buckskin Bill as a mountain man, the way he lived was very different than that of the mountain men in many ways, and is much better suited to hermits or “solitaries,” thus the distinction is made here. While it is a catchy title, he was certainly not the last of his kind, being that now, 30 years after his death, many such people still live in some wilderness areas throughout the mountain states of the US.
Overall, this book wasn’t really focused much on Sylvan Hart, though it does try its best to portray the way he lived and his outgoing personality. This is more a book for those who are interested in a portrait of the wilderness areas of Idaho (and, in some stories, ranging toward Montana and Wyoming as well) and the people who lived in them between about 1870 and 1970. While it didn’t have as much meat as I would have liked, this book is an excellent introduction for those who have very little background on the subject, or those who want a quick, nostalgic read.
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