By Julie Pendray
IDYLLWILD, Calif. — How often do you meet someone who says he has caught a trout with his bare hands, lived in the Alaskan woods alone among bears and camped in a teepee for 15 years in the local national forest? Add to that, acting as sheriff in two Western movies, both times being killed.
“The director has promised me next time I won’t get killed,” quipped Mountain Mike in his custom leather store in Idyllwild.
Idyllwild is known for attracting people seeking independent and alternative lifestyles. With a store full of memories of living off the land, wearing buckskin and sharing life with a wolf dog, Mountain Mike offers an iconic Idyllwild experience.
This mile-high town draws visitors from Los Angeles, Palm Springs and San Diego, including Canadian snowbirds in the winter and people escaping the desert heat in the summer.
At Mountain Mike’s, a visitor feels received not only into a unique and earthy gift store but also a craftsman’s lair — one that invites people to reflect on the simple ways of the past and living in touch with nature.
The store is on North Circle, just above the hub-bub of “downtown” (if you can call it that in a village without a traffic light). A small hand-painted sign announces firewood for sale — a premium commodity here in winter — among an assortment of antique equipment and a bright red 1947 GMC 3/4 ton truck that’s up for grabs.
“It’s all original,” Mountain Mike told me. “I drove that thing daily for years. I might do it again.”
Like the truck, Mike is a striking reminder of simple pleasures sometimes lost to modern urban residents.
His store’s huge hand-painted sign declares he is a man who lives a simply stated life, on his own terms, full of personality. Inside, you’ll find Mike’s favorite saddle and pictures of two of his “best friends” — his former horse Shunka Tanka, meaning “big dog” and his one-time wolf dog Shunkamanitu Tanka.
“I’ve always been drawn to the Native American lifestyle,” Mike said. “I’m an old soul. I’ve been here many times and I’ll be back. I believe in the Great Spirit, and I believe animals have souls.”
Mike was initially inspired by Indian Guides. He has always been into primitive weapons and still throws tomahawks.
He has taken part in Idyllwild’s July 4th parade for 29 years — as an unofficial entrant often drafted on the day, he told me — riding Shunka Tanka or another horse.
Mike has lived in Idyllwild for 38 years. His parents first brought him here to go hiking when he was 4.
His leatherware store is one of the oldest businesses in town still owned by the same owner. He’s had it for nearly 20 years. Before that, he owned White Buffalo Trading Post and Truly Fine Custom Leather here.
“I’m one of the few success stories around here,” he said, acknowledging that a lot of businesses don’t last in an economy based on only about 3,870 people. He attributes his accomplishment to 14-hour days, seven days a week and having a diverse stock of products, some of which he exports. He even makes after shave cologne and eau de toilette from essential oils.
Mike said his shaving strops are in “every continent in the world.” Over time, he has developed a specialty following. A Swedish outlet calls him “a legend in American leather art.” One British outlet calls his strops “the best available” and he’s called The God of Leather by a customer on a Facebook review.
Mountain Mike started working in leather at age 8 and is self-taught.
“It’s been my life-long love,” he said.
Among his current wares are moccasins, holsters and sheaths. Mike also does antique restoration, as well as custom shaping and personalizing of palm leaf sombreros.
While I was in his store recently, the phone rang and I heard him consulting a customer about camping like a mountain man. The conversation drifted from pure wool Navajo blankets to sheep fleeces.
“That’s what I found was the most comfortable when I slept in the forest,” he told the man, after explaining to him that a fleece was the skin and wool off a sheep.
He told me he spends a lot of time answering questions about how mountain men used to ride or what they ate or how they cooked.
“People want to take their kids camping and teach them this stuff. Luckily, I’m a historian and I’m kind of a sponge for this information,” he said.
The organizers of Ramona Pageant in Hemet have asked Mike to design authentic moccasins for the cast next year.
Stephen Savage, who was executive creative director for the pageant this year, told me, “Mountain Mike has created costuming for two of my feature films, and for ‘Ramona,’ my stage adaptation of Helen Hunt Jackson’s classic novel. He’s a one-of-a kind historic craftsman and artist. His attention to detail brings an authenticity and knowledge of the old West that is rare and invaluable.”
He also appeared in buckskins in a Saturn Cars commercial on Super Bowl Sunday once, he told me.
He plans to do a series of Mountain Mike videos highlighting his craft. He has done a pilot for it called Western Leatherman. It’s directed by Savage.
Mike grew up in East San Diego but his family is from Albuquerque, NM, where they enjoyed hunting and fishing. He remembers visiting his grandfather who was one of the first people to use a motorized vehicle to go into the pueblos above Taos to trade with the Native Americans, he said.
“He used to take Army surplus supplies to them and buy their crafts to sell to gift stores on Old Route 66 back in the 1940s,” he said.
Mike is from a long line of educators and people endowed with artistic, mechanical and design skills, he said.
“My mother was an outdoorsman. She taught me how to trout fish. She could hunt but she preferred to draw wildlife.”
Mike said he “lives to fish,” mostly in streams and rivers in the Sierras and Washington. He’s planning a trip to Hawaii soon to fish for marlin.
“I need to get back to a simpler life,” he said.
He admits that sometimes when he’s in full mountain man look, he can seem a bit intimidating.
“When I used to ride into town on my horse, with my gun, some women used to grab their children and head in the opposite direction,” he chuckled.
But the 58-year-old is quick to say that he has children and grandchildren of his own.
His mountain man look includes a large “power piece,” featuring the face of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire, which hangs around his neck. Mike believes it has protected him from about a dozen near-death experiences, such as car accidents.
In spite of these experiences, he said he fears nothing.
“I’ve lived among bears,” he said with a big smile. “Two-legged animals are the most dangerous ones in the forest.”
Mike adopted the isolated lifestyle because he enjoyed solitude, he said. He has lived in the woods near the North Fork of American Canyon, near Auburn, and also along the Yuba River and Bear River, where he was given the name Mountain Mike by a friend. They worked together on a hand crew for what is now called the California Conservation Corps.
In the national forest near Idyllwild, he moved his teepee every two or three months, he said, to avoid any confrontation with a ranger. In the northern environs, it was easier to hunt for dinner but locally he had to come into town for supplies.
In an age of modern materials, some people view hunting animals or using leather hides as only a necessity of the past.
But Mountain Mike sees a thread joining the past to the present.
“Our ancestors did it and that’s what got us here,” he said.
© Copyright Julie Pendray and SpecialsNotOnTheMenu.com
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