At The Rendezvous

By Gwen Hoffnagle

            Take yourself back to 1833. You’re a trapper. Your supplies are all but gone. Your mule is more obstinate than usual, weighed down by a load of beaver pelts. You top the ridge, and there’s the sight you’ve been thirsting for – canvas tents bright against the surrounding mountain greenery. It’s the rendezvous! You can sell your “plews,” down a jug of whiskey, and forget your cares for a couple of weeks!

            Based on those held in the 1830s, today’s “rondies” are celebrations of the mountain men and women – and their history. There’s often a decided emphasis on the celebration part, but everybody gets decked out like buckskinners, Indians, traders, floosies, drunks…uh, you get the idea. And they act like, well, who they’re decked out as.

            I hadn’t attended a rendezvous until I had been a Rocky Mountain person for many years, but when I walked over the hill from the parking area and saw the teepees and canvas tents spread out in a little transient community, just the way I imagined they looked in the days of the trappers, I felt the cares of my life float away behind me, and my pace quickened to the excitement that lay ahead. This was the kind of scenery I moved to the Rockies for!

* * *

            I can hear fiddle music and drumming, and there are several twists of smoke tattooing the air above camp. Then I hear gunfire and raucous yelling, laughing, and squealing kids. The kids are running around in adorable little outfits, playing at being little buckskinners.

            Of course, I have to check out the guys first. Leather-clad and beaded, from a distance they look like hippies, but as I get closer they become trappers – part Charlton Hesston, part Robert Redford (great mountain men from the movies The Mountain Men and Jeremiah Johnson), and part Grizzly Adams. This is what I like men to look like! I can tell they’re enjoying themselves, and this is how I like men to act! Men having fun with each other are so much fun to be with. They’re not worried about work, the latest noise plaguing their vehicle, or outdoing their climbing buddy. They’re just relaxed and having a good time. What a pleasant change from the bar scene!

            The women look great, too. Whether they’re in a leather dress, stained and soft from years of use, a Native American ribbon dress, or a pioneer blouse with a skirt or men’s pants, they look radiant – even the ones stuck preparing victuals over a hot fire. A woman in leathers greets me and offers me a draw of hooch so I can get in the right mood. She introduces herself as Beaver Woman, and I swallow a laugh at the suggestiveness of it. “Don’t worry,” she says, “someday you’ll have a camp name, and it might not be one you approve of!” 

            I don’t have a “rendezvous-legal” camp, so I’ll be sleeping in my van, which is parked out of sight and sound with the other vehicles. I have a friend who thinks we should bring all our gear in by mule in order to have a real rendezvous experience. But it’s permissible to drive your vehicle to your camp site, unload, and then take it out to the parking area where it can’t be seen from camp. There are the ubiquitous porta-potties, too, but they’ve been disguised with canvas so there is nothing modern-made around to spoil the ambience. 

            I meander around, getting attuned to the sights and sounds, breathing in the fresh mountain air and the smells of gunpowder and simmering stews. I feel utterly calmed by the atmosphere and slowly unwind. I look for opportunities to meet some of those rangey-looking guys, and before long I see a gathering spot. I’m welcomed under a canvas tarp to sit around the fire on a cross-section of a tree. Now this is a watering hole! The Vic back in Salida can’t quite compare with the open-air Ass-in-Line Saloon, as it’s called – the friendliest folks in the friendliest place in the mountains, and I’m one of ‘em!

            As a mountain man approaches and finds himself a seat, I catch a fleeting glimpse of naked buttock. I pull off a sly double-take, but alas, it’s gone. I’m damned curious about it, but soon lose track of my wonderings and join in the conversation. Someone named Flycatcher is spinning a yarn about his travails on the road to the rendezvous.  His teepee poles tumbled off his truck onto a major highway, nearly causing catastrophe. Dodging traffic, he managed to retrieve the poles, but had a doozey of a time getting them back on board at the edge of the road.

            I catch pieces of conversation about things I have no knowledge of, and then someone begins grilling me about me. When he finds out this is my first rendezvous, he can hardly contain himself. He’d have to show me a good time, and how’d I find out about it, and would I come to his camp tonight and listen to him sing and play his guitar? Would I? You bet! Cute, and musical, too? Everybody knows what a babe-magnet a guitar is, including him. Then I see a peek of male upper thigh again across the way. How is it this guy’s backside is showing when he has pants on? I plan on finding out as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

            After spending more than I planned to on trade goods (just too many great bargains to pass up!), I’m invited to dinner right there at the saloon. It’s a “camp stew,” with a little something from everyone in it. Delicious. After dinner, an elderly woman called Dutch Oven tells a long, rambling story about a girl stranded at a rendezvous, and how she outsmarted everyone who was trying to outsmart her. The kids are crowded around, but there’s plenty in the story to amuse the adults. Another storyteller takes over after most of the kids head off for bed. His stories are definitely not for children, and he has us falling off our tree stumps, rolling on the ground.

            Later, I look around for Guitar Player, but I’m pretty sure he’s had too much hooch to remember the plan, so I start to have too much myself, and eventually weave my way back to my van and sleep the sleep of the wicked.

            Cannon fire jolts me out of my dreams too early the next morning, earlier than the sun, sounding as if it were right there in the parking lot. I can’t imagine how loud it must be in camp! But I soon find out, and I soon learn to plug my ears and high-tail it out a’ there whenever I hear the “Fire in the hole” warning. Damn! Each cannoneer tries to outdo the others for the rest of the weekend! Actually, it’s great fun, but you sure have to be on your toes. 

            My friend who had told me about the rondy arrives the next day. The attraction for him is the shooting contests, so I follow him around to the various black powder events. He shows me how to shoot his muzzleloader and lets me fire a few shots. The banter among the marksmen is full of terminology that is over my head. I find myself just staring at the primitive mountain setting and imagining myself back in the 1830s. I close my eyes and hear nothing that reminds me of my own time. It’s idyllic. It’s like manifest destiny never happened, and we had moved peacefully and harmoniously among the Indians and had been welcomed. How this weekend makes me wish it were so!

            Flycatcher (so named because he nodded into a drunken, gape-mouthed nap around the fire one afternoon and entertained a little visitor while everyone watched and waited for it to wake him up – he never did, but after a while started snoring, and half-consciously closed his mouth on the rascal!) knew someone who had a canvas sheepherder’s tent for sale, and when the next local rendezvous came around I was outfitted and “legal” to camp with the mountain people. 

* * *

            I’ve been rendezvous-ing for several years now, and it’s still my favorite thing to do in the summer. I’ve been flooded out in torrential rains and so hot I couldn’t think straight. I’ve driven hundreds of miles to huge, regional rendezvous with hundreds of camps, and to tiny ones where you can really get to know a few choice folks. I’ve learned to shoot muzzleloaders and sometimes I even hit a few targets. I can throw a tomahawk and a knife, sing a song at the council fire, and make my own leather accouterments. Best of all, I’ve met some of the friendliest and funniest people I know. They like the Rockies the way they were a couple hundred years ago, and they try to bring a taste of that into their lives. Many are of the red-necked persuasion, but their love for mountain ways as they were back then almost makes them tree-huggers. (But don’t tell them I said so!)

            These are family events. Sure, there’s a lot of drinking going on. Heck, winning the “Best Homemade Hooch” competition is the very highest honor. But there’s no finer place for you to have fun with your kids. They love to dress up, and they are incredibly endearing in their miniature buckskins and prairie dresses. Parents let them run free and wild, and everyone looks out for them. They learn the crafts and skills, and also learn to be responsible around weapons like knives, guns, and tomahawks. They’ll throw hawks at a block for hours on end and not get cantankerous. They run around in little packs, and there are always events especially for kids, like cannons that shoot wrapped candy for them to chase. I know people who learned the rendezvous life as little ones, went every summer through their teenage years, and are now bringing their own kids. You’re part of a big family at the rendezvous, and that’s a very rare thing indeed these days.

            There are vendors who spend the summer trekking around to rondies, selling period-correct crafts and clothing. There’s plenty of trading going on, whether there is a formal vendor structure or folks just spreading out their trade blankets with this and that. You can easily outfit yourself for primitive camping in an afternoon. Larger rendezvous also have food vendors so you won’t get caught hungry when you decide to stay.

            Most mountain man gatherings I’m familiar with are held by permit on national forest land. Some have private land donated for the occasion. You can saunter by for the day or camp for the whole happening. Some have leash rules, but others allow dogs to run loose and have the time of their lives, as long as they play nice. There’s even a rondy in February in Fort Lupton, Colorado, called “Frozen Toes.”

            There are trapper-era and eighteenth-century gatherings all over the country. One of my most interesting rendezvous experiences was listening to a family from Germany dog my more-experienced rendezvousing friends for hours with questions about mountain man lore and history (I learned as much as they did). They were so engaged and fascinated that my eyes watered a little when they finally moseyed along.

            The best mountain people can be found at a rendezvous, even today. Oh, and about the flash of butt that really hooked me – it’s due to the wearing of a breechclout, and you’ll have to find out for yourself how it works.  The finding out is the best part!

            Here are some of the rendezvous in my part of the Rockies. (You can Google “rendezvous,” but some of the great ones don’t have the funds for a website.) Dates change from year to year, but the weekend around which they’re scheduled does not.


Memorial Day weekend (five days beginning the Thursday prior):

Happy Canyon Primitive Rendezvous, brought to you by the Uncompahgre Freetrappers,

A nice, relaxed rendezvous to kick off the season, about a half hour west of Montrose, Colorado. Great muzzleloading events including a smoothbore shoot, talent contests, and a ladies’ tea. Take some extra blankets – it has snowed on every one I’ve been to!


2nd week in June (seven days):

Santa Fe Trail Rendezvous, the Santa Fe Trail Rendezvous Association, Inc.

Haven’t been to this one in Raton, New Mexico, yet, but it sports lots of events from archery to a dessert cooking contest (in a Dutch oven, of course).


4th week in June (six days):

Pelton Creek Mountain Man Rendezvous, from The Laramie River Black Powder  Brigade, Derek “Casino” or Kelly “Running Dough” Johnson, 307 742-5611,   

I’ve been told this one is great fun, but I haven’t been to it either, so I’ll see you there this year! On the Wyoming/Colorado border north of Walden, Colorado.


Nine days beginning the 2nd Saturday in July:

Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous, by the Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous Assoc.,

The site changes each year, alternating between Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Eastern Utah, and New Mexico, making it a regional event. There are hundreds of camps and there’s no end to the activities and fun. A big rendezvous means more rules: dogs must be leashed and your camp must be authentic. When it’s in my neighborhood in Colorado,  it’s at a private ranch near Creede with breathtaking views.


1st weekend in August:

The Crested Butte Mountain Man Rendezvous, brought to you by the East River Free Trappers

A rowdy little group of degenerates that know how to have a good time. This is arguably the most beautiful site I have ever been to, nestled below Gothic Mountain northwest of Crested Butte, Colorado. Their motto is “Rule #1: There are no rules. Rule #2: see Rule #1.” Check the Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce or newspaper. It’s always the same weekend as the Crested Butte Arts Festival, one of the best around.


2nd week of August:

Upper Rio Grande Rendezvous, or

A new rondy begun in 2011, with lots of events and seminars. It’s held at the same incredible site near Creede, Colorado, where the Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous is held when it’s in Colorado.


Seven days beginning the 4th Monday in August:

Como Mountain Man Rendezvous

Another rowdy group, they like to eat together – camp stew for all on Friday night and potluck Saturday night. Held at a private ranch near Como, Colorado