After 30 years of technophobia, Rusty A Reed, a.k.a. Three Feathers, proudly shows off his newish cell phone and portable DVD playing soothing American Indian flute music in his dust-riddled hands. With a twinkle in his eye and a crooked grin he shows off his new world luxuries like a kid on Christmas morning, along with the solar panel that charges the devices. Remarkable enough without knowing that every other aspect of Three Feathers' existence revolves around life as it would have been in the 1800s for a western mountain man.
Three Feathers lives in a canvas tent 365 days a year (rain or shine), wears self-tailored buckskin and natural fiber clothes, walks from state to state with his kids-two donkeys named Baby Belle and Trooper-and exists without modern marvels like electricity, a toilet, refrigerator, microwave or other high falootin' conveniences others take for granted.
Upon his discharge from the military in 1975 due to a friendly fire injury, Three Feathers struggled to assimilate back into civilian life after eight years of government service. The self-described "reactivist revolutionist traditionalist" reverted to using his American Indian name given him by his grandmother at birth in 1949, in Lucerne Valley, in the back of a highway patrol car. Reed is from a family with a mixed heritage: French Canadian Sioux and Chippewa Choctaw Scott Irish. "I have a number," he explains, but proudly states he doesn't collect a check. "I don't need it." He doesn't need much of anything.
As Three Feathers talks about various other mountain men he sees at rendezvous-gatherings where mountain men meet to trade stories and goods-his military background becomes more revealing. Seems most mountain men are ex-soldiers. "I was taught survival in the military," he says, explaining his repulsion for city life. "I decided to live this simple life."
Three Feathers shows off the medicine wheel hanging from around his neck from which he learned its medicinal properties from his maternal grandparents. He also learned how to camp without fancy RVs and TVs during childhood summers spent roughing it in Yosemite, Yellowstone, Mesa Verde and throughout Canada with his American Indian kin who helped him make a deep spiritual connection with his surroundings.
As he shows off the medicine wheel that his grandmother placed around his neck when he was born, Three Feathers also displays a necklace made out of donkey teeth from past companions. "We're rare people, us donkey people," Three Feathers says as he feeds his burros what he calls cookies, actually stale pancakes he admits with his back turned to the animals.
"I don't have the stress normal people do," he continues. "My problem is fire." For Three Feathers, fire is friend and foe, life and death. This is something he teaches kids about at Camp Oaks in Lake William where he demonstrates the way he lives and the simplicity of it, along with the spirituality he lives by. He also gathers pancakes from the mess hall for Baby Belle and Trooper.
At the end of each week, the kids scribble out a survey rating their camp experience, consistently naming Three Feathers a major highlight of their adventure. The city kids who come from urban areas visit his campsite as a group, throw tomahawks at a target area he has set up, tell time with a sundial and learn how to light fire the old-fashioned way with steel and flint (under adult supervision, he stresses). Along with the hands-on lessons, he instills in the young campers lessons passed down from his grandparents: "respect, honor, honesty, responsibility and to care," he says.
Three Feathers doesn't hunt for food. He eats mainly oats, grain, some canned meat like fish and chicken, and when he can get a good price on it he stocks up on jerky. Sometimes he acquires these through trades, but occasionally he splurges. How does a mountain man splurge you ask? "With this," he says with a grin as he pulls out a shiny credit union Visa card from his leather sack. Civilization slowly creeped in on Three Feathers, but only recently, and only out of necessity. He's getting older and friends worry about him after 2003's fires and an accident that landed him in the hospital. A truck plowed into him as he walked down a road.
That collision slowed Three Feathers down for awhile, but he is no stranger to injuries. His military career wounds helped make him a survivor and the last set back reinforced the same. Although he rejects the idea of having a day job, he still needs to make a living and does so by just being himself. Like his summer gig at the YMCA camp, he also takes part in Civil War reenactments and had a brief stint as an actor when TNT scouted him for a part in their "Men of Valor" series.
In September, Three Feathers plans to pack up his tent and move to Williamsburg, Ariz., walking the 25-30 day excursion on foot with his donkeys in tow, the same way they always travel. That is if Baby Belle and Trooper get the OK from the vet. It's a long trip and all three of the team are getting on in years. Seems Big Bear is getting too crowded, plus he has a possible job offer at a living history retreat a friend has in the works. Even mountain men need to think about when it's time to "hit the rocking chair," he explains, even if some surmise he fell off that rocker a long time ago. But that would just be city slickers yappin' and he doesn't care much what they have to say.
Three Feathers is considering getting a horse if he can find one for the right price. "I'm looking for a gentle horse that will not bolt or run," he says. "I'm not into speed. Just need a trail horse about 10 years old and 13-14 hands high. Any higher would tire out these guys," he says pointing at his loyal companions. "I could get 15 miles down the road faster and not wear out my feet. Plus it looks better for a mountain man to ride into a rendezvous than walk in." Especially after he calls to let them know he's on his way.