Rendezvouz: When the Present is an Anachronism

I love history. Here is an article I had published in a Dallas magazine some years ago.

Rendezvous:  When the Present is an Anachronism

Historic Fort Washita, located just outside of Durant, Oklahoma, on the first weekend of April, is the yearly host to what is known as a “Fur Trade Rendezvous.”  An estimated 15,000 visitors, including bussed in high school students, viewed and sampled the wares of the 30-35 vendors and observed the 150 plus campers of the rendezvous.  Vendors (who like to call themselves traders) and campers all had one thing in common: everything they wore, used, sold or traded, ate was made, done, or prepared exactly as it would have been before 1840.

I felt like an anachronism, walking about in my modern dress, listening to their conversations and interviewing them about the rendezvous experience.  Except for the cars I could see in the background at the Fort’s entrance, I felt I had been transported into an 1840 frontier village.  I have always been a lover and student of history, but I learned much more than I expected and intended.  What I observed in the people of this rendezvous was not a quaint infatuation with the past, like one might have when he or she dresses up like General Grant or a Southern belle for a costume party.  I felt like my body and face had been slammed into history.  Those who participated in the rendezvous have an intensity that is both charismatic and jarring.  They not only know and love history—they live it.

Roy Kelly Jr. of Norman, Oklahoma, expressed one aspect of the rendezvous philosophy eloquently.  He said,  “The code we live by of is of a time that has passed, but it was a good code. Things were dealt with properly. For example, the way you treat people.”  And from what I observed, they treat visitors and participants alike with politeness, dignity, and respect.

Just as it was in the early 19th Century for the trappers and explorers, the rendezvous is a primary (and in some case, the only) source of income a source of entertainment, a source of information.   I found that many are part of a rendezvous every week of the year.  It is their life.  The rendezvous follows a strict code of ethics, and camp rules, from what I heard, are strictly enforced.  A rendezvous may range from ultra primitive (where they literally have to walk or ride a horse or mule in) to what is considered very comfortable camping such as they enjoyed at Fort Washita.  The rendezvous may be regional or national, and they are held all over the nation, with the ones in the West being the largest, some with over 1,000 campers.

Those who are really into the rendezvous experience have a distinctive lifestyle.  Even when away from the rendezvous, many grow all their own food, and live without most of the technology and comforts  (electricity, running water, etc.) of our modern society.  And they seem quite happy to be living so.  History is the bond of this unique brotherhood, and history is the teacher.   They have values and a passion which is unique to our present age with its deepening apathy, ignorance, and dependence upon creature comforts. The cumulative knowledge of this growing group of people is a massive storehouse of practical knowledge ranging from craftsmanship to survival skills.  And as all who take on this lifestyle seem to be passionate learners, readers, and researchers, these men, women, and children are able to keep history alive.  I talked to some who had grown up in this lifestyle and never known anything else.

A rendezvous is a sensory experience.  I was overwhelmed by the rich aroma of the foods. The small campfires spread the smell of woodsmoke throughout the grounds of the fort. Girls and ladies in buckskin and calico dresses, all handmade, glided about in moccasins or bare feet.   A plains Indian in war bonnet and buckskin leggings and shirt carried a curved lance and rode about on an Appaloosa.  The canvass tents of the traders were mixed with teepees for families with horses and mules tethered nearby. The competitions with axe, rifle, pistol, bow and arrow, and knife, were spirited and entertaining.  (The bows, by the way, were handmade by the carriers. One contestant told me he had spent months shaping his Osage Orange bow.)

I learned also how vital some of the knowledge and skills these people have are to us. For example, Lloyd Teeter of Foss, Oklahoma is a trapper—badgers, coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, possums, muskrats, beavers, and skunks. Recently an Oklahoma school had a severe skunk problem.  (Need I describe how odious and traumatic an experience this could have been to the educational process there?) He trapped 10 skunks from beneath the schoolhouse without the first spraying incident.  If you ever have a “varmint” problem, he would be a good man to contact.

I also met Ron Ashbury, a pencil artist, and a wonderul storyteller.  We chatted as he was sketching Ft. Washita and some of the scenes of the rendezvous. He told me of the ghosts of Fort Washita, his ancestors, and his thoughts of the rendezvouz experience.  He made the point, that sometimes, if we understand the past, we can understand the present and understand our own world.

To illustrate, he told me of some gypsum hills near Fort Washita known as the Indian stomping grounds.  He told me how his grandfather had taken him to these hills as a boy and told him the various Indian legends, and how if you stomped the ground you could hear the old dance steps of Indians ghosts trapped below.   Of course, he knew that the hollow sound was only due to the unique construction of those hills.  But I started thinking that this was a good analogy to understand the rendezvous crowd. There they are, in their ridiculous pioneer attire, able to live in self-sufficiency in a way most can never imagine. And why do they live that way?  Because when they leave the rendezvous experience and return to us, and they stomp on the hollow ground of modern American culture, all they hear is a hollow sound, and they turn back to the hills, to their flint and steel, to families raised with books instead of television.  And you know what? They really do quite fine.

Obviously, the rendezvous experience is not for everyone.   One man in modern dress passed me and said something about how stupid these people looked.  I was amused because by modern standards he could have easily qualified as “stupid looking.”  His girlfriend did not appear pleased with his attitude and she distanced herself from him by a couple of feet and went by herself into one of trader’s tents.  By the frustrated look on his face and the hurt look on hers, I think the emotional distance between them also increased.  However, if you love history, if you want to see history as it was (at least as close as we can reproduce it), if you want to meet people who have minds sharper and a lifestyle tougher and leaner than most today have, a rendezvous can be an enriching experience. And who knows, if you go next year and pass a longhaired, buckskin-clad man cleaning his muzzleloader or munching down the sourbread, he just might be me.   Just look for the camera and the writing pad. 1840’s rules or not, I don’t think I’m ready to give them up.