Last spring when I visited the Bitterroot area in Montana, I had a couple of items on my agenda not related to the search per se, but interesting and related to the white settlement of the west.
Some of you may be familiar with the term “inholders”. Inholders are folks who own property inside federal lands. Their properties are called “inholdings” and can be found inside National Forests, National Parks, Wild and Scenic Areas and even Wilderness Areas throughout this country.
Typically these privately owned parcels were purchased, homesteaded or deeded to an individual before the government decided to make the area into a national forest or park or wilderness area. The owners didn’t want to sell or trade their property to the government so they became surrounded by federal land.
The largest clan of inholders are the railroads. In order to sweeten the deal for the railroads who faced some tough and expensive line building in the rugged, mountainous west, the government gave them alternating, one mile squares of property to do with as they pleased. (Long before the government bailed out banks and automobile manufacturers they were giving away our public lands to railroads)
It was a huge bonus for the railroads who could sell off this property immediately, if there were any buyers, or hold onto it until it was more valuable, or try to do something else with it. Buyers were scarce. In the west, where populations of humans were less dense and land was less valuable, the railroads claimed that the thick forest’s were crying to be turned into timber for millions of new homes and townsites on the east and west coasts. The coveted timber forests of the south and north were nearly depleted. The timber barons were looking westward for new resources.
In some regions the railroads received as much as a forty mile wide swath of land on either side of their railroad in alternating mile square sections. One to the railroad, the next stayed with the government. From the air this arrangement of land ownership resembled a large checkerboard. All this standing timber only required loggers and a route to market and the railroads were supremely poised to take advantage of this give-away.
Over the next one hundred fifty years the already existing timber companies along with the railroad formed timber companies, logged-off much of their parcels. Big lumber outfits like Weyerhouser, Boise Cascade, Plum Creek and others in the northwest ended up with huge tracts of land which they still log today. Similar incentives were offered to other railroad companies in the east, south and north parts of the country. So the railroads and their timber company descendants are unquestionably the largest inholders. They make up some 95% of all inholdings in the USA. Most of the remaining inholders are private citizens like you and me who happen to own a few acres of land that our descendants claimed or settled in the years before the surrounding land became a National Park.
Imagine what a five acre parcel inside Grand Teton National Park would be worth today, as recreational property, on a lake or stream, surrounded by magnificent mountains teeming with wildlife and away from the brouhaha of middle class family camping vacationers. A government maintained road right to your property line and perhaps a meadow turned into a landing field.
Over the years I have done a few stories about inholders and the government. Property rights of private owners vs public property for the common good. Inholders are often organized and represented by an inholder’s alliance. It is rarely average Joe against the government. It is more often a battle of well fattened attorneys on both sides presenting drama filled stories of persecution and neglect, an unbalance of wild and tamed boiled down to access, mineral rights, water rights and 5th amendment interpretation. The concerns and values twist and turn, bump and grind and finally boil down into who has the most intimidating army of least compassionate yet theatrically loud attorneys.
But very little of this has anything to do with my inholder story. It’s just background.
I was looking for an interview with a trapper. A real trapper. A fellow who made his living by trapping and snaring animals then skinning, curing and selling furs. Not a seasonal trapper who lived in town and drove out to the wood a few times a year to set traps, mend his line and harvest his animals. Instead I wanted to find someone who lived the lifestyle of a trapper all year long and who, for what ever reason, shunned as much of society and its accutraments, as was possible.
I have always been interested in the stories of those who choose to embrace self sufficiency, inconvenience and discomfort over the power grid, central heating and the supermarket. For those of us who relish the aroma of crafted coffee or micro-brewed beer or fine, artisanal pizza on a daily basis, the lure of irregular bathing in lukewarm water and spending below zero winters splitting wood and using an outhouse is not that strong. I didn’t want yet another answer to the question, Why are you here?, but rather I wanted to know what the payout was, for the rest of us. Was there some degree of social good that could be rationed out to society in general by the way these few, serious, “small footprint” types were choosing and even battling to live. What I finally learned surprised even the jaundiced me.
I had heard about Carl from multiple sources over the previous three or so years. He lives back in the Bridger-Teton National Forrest. He is an inholder. His “place” consists of a hand-built cabin, a couple of out buildings and a mule or two. He has a small hayfield a smaller vegetable garden and he traps and fishes. He is completely self-sufficient and does not come into town at all. In fact, he doesn’t drive, doesn’t have a license or a vehicle that anyone has ever seen and much to the chagrin of the government he does not have a license to fish or hunt or trap. He is in his early 50s and has lived back there his whole life. He lives alone except for his mules and whatever wildlife comes around. He has no mail service and no post office box in town. His place has no electric and rarely gets visitors. The Forest Service road goes to within a mile of his place but you have to take a trail from the road back to his cabin.
About ten years ago Carl was in town for about a month. He was staying over at the county jail and he was locked up and awaiting trial for hunting, fishing and trapping without any license. That’s the last time anyone saw him in town.
Somehow he managed to walk away without a fine or charges or even a requirement to get a license to hunt. I wondered how he did that. Needless to say, Carl interested me. I wanted to see if he would talk to me, if he could answer my burning question. I longed to know if he was some sort of backwoods troglodyte living as best he could without being a danger to society or, was Carl a renaissance man of many skills, fed up to his armpits with corporate America and had a cabin full of Popular Mechanics and Mother Earth magazines and a roof full of home made solar panels? I didn’t leave room for any in-betweens.
At a bar in Jackson I was told that there was a fellow over in Wilson who brought things out to Carl and probably knew him better than anyone. I hunted around for a couple days and finally found out that this guy, Jason, worked as a seasonal for the park in summer and for the ski resort in winter. He would be between jobs now and I might find him at home. His number was in the local phone book so I called and introduced myself. Jason said he could meet me at a bar in Wilson in about a half hour.
A couple of things were burning up my brain cells about Carl and I hoped Jason could set me straight and also provide useful first hand advice about about meeting up with Carl.
There was next to no one in the bar when I arrived. I took a worn, red leather booth about half way down the dark wall and sat where I could watch the door. Before my seat was even warmed up a slender waitress wearing smooth black yoga pants and a white, long tailed, dress shirt made me forget how cold it was inside. She was also wearing a pair of brown over-furry boots that were probably needed to keep her toes frostbite-free in the frigid bar, and a big fuzzy hat with earflaps that suggested the boss might have mandated the yoga pants but footwear and hats were up to the wait staff. Her hat was embroidered with large red letters that spelled “Crazy Russian” in the fur.
She asked me what I wanted to drink. When she spoke I could see her breath and her ear flaps bounced up and down. I told her I needed something to warm me up. She suggested a hot toddy. I said a hot chocolate would suit me better. She asked if I wanted a shot of peppermint schnapps in my chocolate. As good as it sounded I declined. Then she wanted to know if I wanted whipped cream on my drink.
“Of Course”, I said.
“Do you want a cherry on top” she asked.
“Sure” I said.
“Red or green” she inquired.
“ummmm, I don’t know. What do you suggest?, I asked.
“Red”, she said.
“Sounds good”, I said.
As she sped away to the bar I watched to make sure her shirt was covering her Yoga pants properly. The shirt seemed a bit short but maybe not. I didn’t have a yard stick with me so I couldn’t be certain. What would Sister Linus think? I decided to watch closer next time she walked away before I made a judgement. It might take three looks before I could be certain. It’s important not to jump to conclusions.
When Jason came in I was a couple sips into my chocolate and trying to look cool while keeping the whipped cream out of my mustache. He glanced around briefly then landed on me and waved. I motioned him over. He was wearing a brown and beige Pendleton wool shirt with razor sharp creases in the sleeves and a blue REI down vest. His pants were fashionably faded beige chinos with creases that matched his shirt. His suede pigskin boots made no noise against the floor as he walked toward me.
I stood to greet him and we shook hands. I am guessing Jason was about 35, six feet tall and athletic looking, He was not wearing any rings and would certainly be very popular with the women of Wilson.
When the waitress came over we sat and Jason asked me what I was drinking. I told him it was a hot chocolate. He looked at the waitress and smiled and told her that he really liked her hat.
“Thanks,” she smiled. “And what will you have?”
“I’ll take a hot chocolate too, with a shot of schnapps, whipped cream and a green cherry and do you have any of those chocolate sprinkles?” he asked.
“I’ll find some.” she said. “Do you want some chopped nuts on top?
“Great” he said.
She gave Jason a lovely smile and turned away to head to the bar.
We both watched her walk away.
“She didn’t offer me the nuts”, I said.
“Probably just forgot”, Jason replied.
“What do you think?” I asked, “Is that shirt a little too short?”
“I think her legs are just about perfect.” Jason said as he continued to watch.
“Yeah, thats what I was thinking too.” I said, as I continued to watch.
We talked a little about the weather and got down to business. Jason told me that he had been Carl’s runner for about ten years now. That he worked for the Park in the summer and the road that went by Carl’s place was on his circuit and he drove that stretch about once a week in summer. When Carl had something he wanted, he’d hang a metal sign on a tree near his trail. Carl left a message or whatever he had in a varmit proof box under the tree and Jason would take care of it. Mostly he left freshly tanned rabbit and coyote pelts that Carl took into town and sold. In the past there were other pelts too, Bobcat, Cougar, Lynx, Elk, Fox and more, but not anymore. Along with the pelts would be a list of things Carl wanted. Things like honing oil, grease, a book, lamp oil, 20ft of hemp rope, door hinges, a blanket, boots he wanted resoled, a pound of nails, sugar or salt or flour. Jason took the beautiful pelts into town and sold them to artists or souvenir shops. They were always easy to sell. Jason took the cash and got the items Carl wanted. Next time he went by Carl’s he’d leave them in the box for him. It was a simple trade deal and no cash ever crossed Carl’s hands. Therefore no IRS involvement. In ten years of providing this service he actually met up with Carl twice. They exchanged pleasantries and went their own ways.
Jason figured that over ten years he actually spent less than 10 minutes talking to Carl. “He seemed quite nice and very open. I felt like if I wanted too, I could invite myself up to Carls place and visit with him and I did that once but Carl wasn’t around when I got there. Haven’t tried since. I know Carl likes his solace so I wouldn’t bother him unless it’s important.”
After about a half hour of explaining what he knew of Carl’s customs I asked Jason if he thought Carl would talk to me about his lifestyle. Jason considered the question for a few seconds and said, “I think he would, but you’ll have to be very careful and very precise in how you approach him. A few folks have wandered back there from time to time and apparently Carl has been quite welcoming to some and not so welcoming to others. I don’t think it’s a matter of luck. I believe Carl has expectations and I believe I know how you can get him to welcome you. But we should not give him advance notice nor ask his permission to come back. I’ve watched that fail every time. Carl just says No!”.
“Mystery upon mystery”, I thought.
To Be Continued…