At the 2016 Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, Jeff Long received the Mountaineering Article award for his essay “Searching for Superman,” published by Ascent magazine in May 2016.
In Alpinist 54, we published a work of historical fiction by Jeff Long. “The Glass Mountain” weaves the life story of fur trapper and trader Jim Bridger with one of his more notorious tall tales. Some say that Bridger’s mythical mountain resides in the Yellowstone area; no one has yet claimed a first ascent.
In the following interview with Alpinist, the climber, photographer and New York Times bestselling-author Long describes his inspiration for spinning his own yarn about Bridger and the elusive mountain; and suggests a few books for climbers looking to explore the vast, sometimes hidden, landscapes of mountain ranges both real and imaginary. To read Long’s short story, “The Glass Mountain,” pick up a copy of Issue 54 here.
Alpinist: “The Glass Mountain” not only familiarizes readers with the life and work of mountain man Jim Bridger (for whom the Bridger Wilderness outside the Tetons is named), but also brings some of his tall tales backs to life. When did you first hear about Bridger or the Glass Mountain?
Jeff Long: I was an oil-patch brat, the son of a geologist bounced around from Cajun to Alamo country before finally landing northward in mountain states. Around that same time, in the “I Like Ike” era, Fess Parker was starring in the western television series about Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett that my brother and I watched sitting on our rocking horses. But for me, the true king of the wild frontier was Jim Bridger.
This was odd because Bridger didn’t have a TV show, a catchy theme song, a comic-book series, a T-shirt, plastic guns, or the hat. Maybe it was because of that lack of exposure that he resonated so powerfully. He existed on a completely different, archaic level, one transmitted through oral tradition by hardmen like the roughnecks on rigs out in the middle of nowhere.
Some of these guys carried handguns to shoot prairie dogs and beer bottles, some had lost parts of fingers to the machinery. Green Skoal cans and peeled-open sardine tins lay wherever the wind blew them. I remember lucky rabbit’s feet, snakeskin belts, scorpions in jars, rattler tails, and coyote hides wired to the deck railing like rags in the sun. The roughnecks seemed about one step down from the mountain men whom they felt so compelled to educate me about.
I was probably five, and mostly they just wanted me to stay the hell off their deck and away from the chains and pipe stand. But now and then–during a sandwich break or a storm or between drags on his Pall Mall–somebody would pause long enough to share one or another of Bridger’s tall tales.
As random and magical as these moments seemed to me then, they had a very simple common denominator: Walt Disney. It was he and his creative team who had infected the nation with Crockett fever via the new phenomenon called television, and with my fringed buckskin jacket, my cap, and other regalia I looked like an advertisement. Why exactly the roughnecks felt so compelled to usurp Crockett and his tall tales with Bridger and his fables remains a mystery to me. Maybe they resented the childish fad, or saw the TV show as a gross twisting of historical fact. Or as oilmen, they saw Texans threatening their job security, or they disliked Mickey Mouse, or had a beef with Fess Parker, or…who knows?
But the upshot was that I learned how the Story can become more paramount than the person who lived or created it in the first place. I didn’t realize that at age five, of course, but with time it grew very evident to me as writers we are defined by our narratives. Whether it’s a Crockett staring down a bear, Bridger facing a glass mountain, or a Han Shan haunting Cold Mountain, every new generation depends on its storytellers to connect it to the land.
Alpinist: There’s certainly a dark side to frontier mythology that continues to affect Indigenous people and the land. In December 2016, the US Army Corps of Engineers announced that they had rejected a permit for construction of a portion of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Standing Rock Sioux had vocally opposed the pipeline over concerns that a potential spill would contaminate their drinking water.
In the “Glass Mountain,” you write about the dark side of frontier mythology. Are there ways in which the oilmen you describe have been impacted by the dark side to the mythology as well?
Long: Great question. The parallels are certainly there, at least superficially. On the one hand you have these small crews on remote rigs that function very much like the trappers who worked in teams (vs. the solo trappers in movies like Jeremiah Johnson.) The labor is hard, physical and dangerous, and the settings are outdoors, faraway, and often very “frontier.” Like beaver and buffalo skins, oil is a high-value natural resource that gets shipped to distant points, and like the pelt industries the petroleum trade is vulnerable to boom-bust cycles.
In my father’s case, he left the oil and gas business and with my mother started the Pre-Columbian Society at the Denver Art Museum, which supported scholars and presented lectures about Native culture. More immediately, mountain men like Jim Bridger became some of the oral repositories of a lost past.
Years ago I wrote a book about a self-styled mountain man named Claude Dallas who killed two Fish and Wildlife game wardens. What was most interesting about it was not his ability to use the West to turn back his personal clock, but the heroic stature he gained among the so-called Sagebrush Rebels, an earlier iteration of the anti-government sentiment in places like Nevada, Idaho and Oregon. Here was the equivalent of a cop-killer being lionized because he reminded people of legends like Jim Bridger. It’s a perennial tension out here, the issue of the New vs. Old West. What it boils down to, as Bridger discovers in my story, is the eternal issue of who controls the narrative.
Alpinist: Your piece weaves between historical fact and fiction with descriptive and evocative details worked in among dates and figures. In the story, we encounter tales of Bridger finding dinosaur bones and cleaning his buckskins by placing them on an ant pile. Where or how did you draw the line between factual or fabulist elements?
Long: You’ve homed in on the border between fiction and fact, which I’m doing my damndest to keep an open question. Having written both, I now find myself looking for that middle ground of daily life, in which we weave objective, scientific truths into our habitual storytelling. I love Errol Morris’s detective work with historical events or claims, but also love Borges’s elegant fictions. With “The Glass Mountain,” I wanted to explore the in-between territory, teasing out a speculative, inner tale from Bridger’s real-life experiences. Credibility is everything, of course, particularly with a tall-tale teller like Bridger. He was trapped in this same in-between territory, as evidenced by his confounded reaction to be called a liar when he was describing actual places like Yellowstone.
And so, I’m assigning some of the above to my speculations about likely events. One is the dinosaur bones. Adrienne Mayor’s Fossil Legends of the First Americans describes “the folklore of paleontology” region by region and by the oral tradition of different tribes and nations. I am deducing that Bridger was exposed to dinosaur bones, which were known to Western tribes and described in creation myths involving a battle of giant sea and air beasts. Bridger crisscrossed a vast portion of the West, from the dinosaur-rich Badlands (where miners turned up bones) to the Gila River and both sides of the Rockies. He had an insatiable curiosity, and I think it’s credible to say he would have gone out of his way to visit unusual sights like exposed fossils.
Alpinist: Bridger, “like the painters and writers who ventured into the hills,” you write, “had a body of work, and it was the frontier.” I love how, in your story, the Glass Mountain comes to symbolize something more, always out of reach, never quite named. What might your own Glass Mountain look like?
Long: A cigar store. Specifically the cigar store that we hear about, once, but never see in the movie My Dinner with Andre. The plot is simple. Two guys meet for dinner. By today’s action standards, the movie is inert verging on comatose. One guy is an urban wallflower who may never have set foot from a New York City sidewalk in his entire life. The other is Andre, a tall, overblown self-styled adventurer with a slew of stories about his incredibly important spiritual and physical quests. I can’t remember if they actually eat, only that they talk. That’s the whole movie.
Partway through Andre’s extravagant recitations of some moment in the forests of Poland, and another in Ladakh and being buried alive at a performance art colony in New York, the wallflower very politely inserts a question. Is it possible, he asks, for a person to have an adventure by just going to the corner cigar store? Andre’s overall attitude is contempt, likening such notions to a dream versus living real life. (Like dying a fake death at the performance art camp?) The wallflower doesn’t press his question. Nothing gets resolved.
But what a question. Is there any sort of parity between climbing K2, for example, and exploring a cigar store? Is adventure reserved for muscular elites taking giant risks? Or is it something Everyman (and woman and person) can experience, too?
The answer, for me, lies in the Mountain we each carry inside our hearts. Ascent is a universal event, one that may manifest as an actual climb on rock and ice, but just as validly one that engages your imagination. We all climb our daily climbs, which is not to say all climbs are equal. Of course there’s a difference between K2 and the cigar store. But in the middle of the night, as in the middle of Dante’s dark forest, stands a mountain all your own, an invisible mountain you return to over and over to face uniquely personal challenges. It’s a Sphinx of sorts that can’t be dodged or snuck past that asks you a life-and-death question only you can answer. Like Rene Daumal’s Mount Analog, it is a mountain you will never summit. Or maybe, like Mallory on Everest, one that you may finish but out of sight in clouds of mystery or smoke.
Alpinist: What’s one of your favorite mountain ranges, and the three books that you would recommend someone read when setting off for or while exploring the area?
Long: Different times, different ranges. Once upon a time my favorite was the Himalayan range. There was a superhuman element to the 8000-meter explorations featuring people like Doug Scott, Dougal Haston, Mallory, Messner, Herzog, Unsoeld, Hornbein, and Tenzing Norgay. Three books for that range: Mustang, a Lost Tibetan Kingdom by Michel Peissel; Annapurna by Herzog; and Bonington’s Annapurna South Face. The Bonington book was especially useful for its appendices on oxygen, food, medicine, gear, photography and local culture, an extraordinary gift to aspiring Himalayan climbers.
At other times my favorite range was the congregation of imaginary mountains in climbing and general literature, including works by Jules Verne, H.P. Lovecraft and Rene Daumal. Of late my favorite range has been what I call the Night Mountain, a sort of mons mundi composed of familiar but alien mountains at night. I’ve been exploring this range with my camera for the past six years, discovering colors, animals and mysteries in a world hidden in almost plain sight. Its midnight ecosystem, shifting gravity and solitariness abound with surprises and unexpected rewards. But the real treasure, I’ve learned with my camera, is hope. No matter how dark the journey may get, there is always light. I’m having trouble thinking of three books that might help prepare people for the Night Mountain. Only one comes to mind: Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. In it he describes the sense of your body being absorbed into the night sky. Sooner or later that’s exactly what happens. Climbers understand.
Alpinist: Of the books that you’ve taken with you on an expedition or trip, are there any that stand out for influencing your perspective on the place or the experience you had when you were there?
Long: An empty notebook. Make that at least six empty notebooks. And plenty of pens.
[Ed.– For glimpses of Night Mountain, visit Jeff Long’s photography site: longrangephotography.com]