END OF AN ERA
HE WAS QUITE FOND of telling yarns," missionary William H. Gray remarked of Jim Bridger at the 1836 rendezvous.1 In fact, Jim Bridger enjoyed high stature as a purveyor of tall tales—a talent greatly admired by mountain men. He took special delight in regaling greenhorns with the wonders of the West. Recounted so seriously and authoritatively, even the most outrageous duped many listeners.
In one of his favorites, Bridger told of discovering high in the Rockies a creek that flowed down the Continental Divide and parted, sending one branch east and the other west. A trout, he averred, could cross the spine of the continent from Pacific waters to Atlantic waters. Even the most gullible had a hard time swallowing this yarn.2
Bridger told other whoppers as well, of glass mountains, of "peetrified" trees with "peetrified" birds singing "petrified" songs, and of his memory of a time when Pikes Peak was a hole in the ground. Yet in the tangle of mountains on the southern edge of Yellowstone National Park a stream does in fact divide, sending Atlantic Creek to the east and Pacific Creek to the west. At Two Ocean Pass a trout can swim from one watershed to the other.
Bridger knew his geography. His mental map ranked with the best. "Bridger was a wonderful guide and a born topographer," declared one who had traveled with him. "The whole West and all the passes and labyrinths of the Rocky Mountains were mapped out in his mind. He had such a sense of locality and direction that he used to say he could 'smell his way where he could not see it.'"3