Mountain Man, Jeremiah Johnson. (No Robert Redford.)
I am fond of the word pilgrim. For instance, I used it here just yesterday: “Travel, for a pilgrim on the road to the examined life, can be as important as the books you’ll read.” Recently I closed a correspondence with: “I’m not sure if any of what I’ve said is true or even accurate–I’m just a pilgrim.” The first time I recall hearing the word used not in conjunction with Thanksgiving was in the Sydney Pollack movie, Jeremiah Johnson. That was 1972 and I was seventeen years old. It is meaningful that I remember. The movie had a profound impact on me. In it a grizzled old mountain man named Bear Claw Chris Lapp (played perfectly by Will Geer), upon first meeting Johnson (Robert Redford) says, “You’re the same dumb pilgrim that I been hearin’ for twenty days, and smellin’ for three!” And later, toward the end of the movie: “You’ve come far pilgrim.” To which Johnson replies: “Feels like far.” Bear Claw asks, “Where it worth the trouble?” “What trouble?” Johnson replies. (The movie is based on the life of mountain man, John Garrison Johnston–or, as he was better known, Liver-Eating Johnston.*)
I was so captivated by the landscape portrayed in the movie that I sat through the credits to note where it had been filmed. I had to go there, wherever there was. The Unita Mountains of Utah. The following summer I took my first plane trip, leaving home in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and landing in Salt Lake City, where I made my way into the mountains. Consequently everything changed for this pilgrim. Everything. A life of curiosity pursued was hatched.
As an aside, the word pilgrim is related to the word peregrine, from the Medieval Latin, peregrinus, meaning wanderer, or migratory. It is the word we attach to our fastest falcon and is, in my imagination, a visage of feathered purpose and ability.
George Santayana said, “The mind of the Renaissance was not a pilgrim mind, but a sedentary city mind, like that of the ancients.” This captures the spirit and intent of the word for me. The “sedentary city mind,” it would seem, is a mind that knows it’s place, recognizes the task at hand, and moves toward accomplishment. That is how things get done. The mind of the pilgrim, however, is restless and its profile is one of longing, of motion, perhaps aimless motion, advancing toward a grail of the imagination. To the kid in the theater in Ft. Wayne, the message was clear: You are not a Renaissance man, you are a pilgrim, and it is time to cast off the fetters of suburbia and its expectation of confinement.
My worldwide perambulations have tapered off, but the mind remains unfettered and still roams widely. There is no rest for the pilgrim. Perhaps, I hope, you understand this?
* Johnston as scout led a party through Crow sacred territory. (Some accounts say it was Sioux territory.) Consequently, the Crow Nation declared war on him and sent its best warriors to kill him. Despite repeated attempts, year after year, the Crow braves failed in their mission. Johnston killed them all. The legend holds that he would slit open the dead warrior, remove the liver and take a bite out of it, leaving the organ behind, his intimidating calling card. The movie depicts the transgression, depicts the attacks, but fails in complete veracity by leaving out this business of liver snacking. That’s too bad. I would have liked Redford to show a bit more belly fire in his roll. If this sounds too Hollywood, it well may be. The very nature of mountain-man Johnston’s life is such that pinning down the truth is near impossible–a fitting end to a pilgram’s tale.