To escape, just step out of the last two centuries

Coda • GREG BEAN

Iguess nearly everyone has a side of their life that they tend to keep private because they think nobody would understand. I know I do, and for more than 30 years of writing columns, I’ve never written about it. I guess it’s time.

Fact is, I’m a historical re-enactor, and so are my boys. I know that revelation is nowhere close to psychic John Edwards territory, but it’s often as difficult to explain.

Chances are, most of you have seen historical re-enactors in the flesh. They’re the folks who re-enact the Battle of Monmouth every summer. They’re the men and women who re-enact the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania and dozens of other Civil Warera sites every year.

We don’t re-enact any of those. Ours is a bit more esoteric, at least in the eastern part of the United States. We re-enact the fur trade rendezvous that took place in the Rocky Mountains between 1822 and 1840.

The re-enactors take these gatherings seriously. You must wear clothing that would have been common in the mountains between 1822 and 1840. All your cooking utensils have to be consistent with the period. If you have a camera, it can’t be visible. No radios. No cell phones. Your camp also has to be period-correct. Lots of folks erect tepees, the kind used by the Plains Indians. Others use the simple wedge tents and leantos popular with the fur trade trappers.

We cook over open fires and shop on Traders’ Row, where all the merchandise must be from the appropriate period. Come evening, we gather around someone’s campfire and tell tall tales well into the night. Maybe someone will break out a guitar, or a flute, or an accordion, and we sing all the favorites. The highlight of our entertainment is the Highland Games, based on the traditional Scottish games.

I first became interested in this when I lived in Wyoming and attended some rendezvous on the sites of the actual events. But when we moved east, we were delighted to find an active community of fur trade re-enactors in New England, and we’ve since joined them once or twice a year at beautiful sites in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. Our big gathering of the year begins four or five days before Memorial Day, and runs for the following week. That’s where we’ll be (except for my wife, whose idea of roughing it is a motel with a shower but no bathtub).

The rendezvous and the camping are fun, but two things keep you coming back. Over the years, you develop a second family of friends you meet at ‘vous. These people flat don’t care what you do for a living or how successful you are. I’ve never had a single discussion about newspapers sitting around a campfire at ‘vous, and I’ve never discussed what some of the other folks do for a living in the “real world.” I know some of them are truck drivers, some are doctors and lawyers and accountants and computer programmers and successful businesswomen and housewives. But at ‘vous, none of that matters. What matters is that you’re a good person, can tell a good story and run a hospitable camp.

It is, in other words, the ultimate escape from reality, the very definition of a vacation, in that at ‘vous, you have darned sure vacated from the life you live every other week of the year.

But the friendships you make are real, and long-lasting. A lot of the kids I’ve watched grow up at ‘vous over the years are as close to me as family. A lot of the friends I’ve made there are the closest friends I’ve made in life. We support each other’s successes; we worry about each other’s health. I know for a fact that their support and love is rock-solid in times of personal loss, as well.

As a re-enactor, you’re also expected, but not required, to develop some esoteric skills beyond cooking in a Dutch oven.

For more than two decades, before my eyes started playing tricks on me, I was a competition black-powder marksman, using a period-correct .50-caliber buffalo rifle based on the historic Hawken, and I was pretty good. I could sometimes cut a rifle ball in half on the blade of a tomahawk 20 paces away and break clay pigeons on either side of the hawk. At night, I could sometimes extinguish the flame of a candle at the same distance without damaging the candle. The competition was always friendly, and although I won my share of prizes, losing was — almost — as much fun as winning.

My boys grew up learning those skills, and some of the others, which delight the crowds. Tomahawk and knife throwing are the biggest crowd pleasers.

Throwing a knife or ‘hawk in competition takes a lot of practice, and when the boys were little, we set up a wooden butt in the back yard so they could get better. You won’t be surprised when I tell you that in New Jersey, this caused some concern. One day, a neighbor came over to ask me about it, and whether I thought that sort of stuff was appropriate for kids. The neighbor was mollified when I explained that I was training my boys to be circus performers.

The second thing that keeps you coming back is the delight in the eyes of the buses full of school students and parents and visitorswho come to camp to learn about the history. Several days during the week, we have hundreds of visitors, who go from camp to camp, taking pictures, sampling the cuisine, watching the weapons and camp-life demonstrations, asking questions.

The questions are always interesting, and often amusing. Last year, a young boy of about 8 with a local school group sat around the fire at our camp for more than two hours.

“Well, son,” my camping partner, known as Hair of the Bear, asked him. “Is there anything else you’d like to know?”

“Yes, sir,” the boy said shyly. “Are you real people?

“We try to be,” my friend said, still in his gruff mountain man character, “We try real hard.”

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.