Outside magazine, March 1997
"You can't spend even a day away from Sun Valley?" Ross Leventhal, titular high priest of the celebration, asked me. "We don't hand out these invitations to just anyone. There are socialites in this town--big-name Hollywood people--who'd jump at the chance to spend four or five hours up in the mountains, sitting in a natural hot spring watching us perform the sacred ceremony."
"That may be," I said. "But I'm perfectly content here. Besides, the lodge already has an outdoor heated pool."
Leventhal, who lives a jet-setter's life but claims to be "between jobs," is known locally as the Big Guy (he weighs almost as much as the massive Harley he sometimes rides). Yet he has the crafty, urbane social skills of someone half his size. "You oaf," he said, "I'm beginning to doubt you have the sensitivity to appreciate a celebration like this. We had a white robe already picked out for you. Now I'm not even certain I want to tell you the Moss Man story."
But Leventhal went ahead and told me anyway. Thirteen years ago, he said, a local man (we'll use the alias Slim Becker) was seized by a profound desire to get back to nature. "It's also possible," Leventhal said, "that Slim was eating amphetamines and had badly overserved himself." Becker hiked ten miles outside Ketchum to the secluded thermal pools at Frenchman's Bend on the Warm Springs River and immersed himself in the 90-plus-degree water. "The details of the story are murky and sometimes conflicting," Leventhal said. "But it's generally agreed that Becker soaked several hours before he realized that he'd gotten in with his clothes on. Who in his right mind would want to hike all the way back to Ketchum in soggy jeans? So Becker did what should have been a reasonable thing: He removed his clothes and hung them up to dry. His instincts were right, but his timing was off. It was February, the coldest month of the year, so instead of drying, his clothes froze."
I told Leventhal, "So you actually expect me to believe this story of yours? Twenty-eight days in a hot spring? In February? Pure fantasy."
"Drive to Hailey and check the sacred records," he replied.
"You mean the newspaper files?"
"Exactly. You'll find out I'm right."
News item from the Wood River Journal, March 15, 1984: "A 20-year-old Hailey man was found soaking in a hot mineral pool at Frenchman's Bend last Saturday after having apparently lived there for several weeks. Slim Becker [alias supplied by me] was discovered by two cross-country skiers, according to a Blaine County Sheriff's Department report. The skiers observed that some of Becker's skin was peeling and that moss was growing on his back. The semi-conscious victim was taken to Moritz Community Hospital, according to the report. His clothes lay frozen on the ground nearby. A Moritz physician estimated that the victim may have lost 60 pounds while living in the pool. [Becker's sister-in-law said that] the man stood six-two and weighed 210 pounds prior to leaving for Frenchman's Bend, and that he took a lot of amphetamines. 'His brains are really scrambled,' she said."
I spent all morning in Hailey, going through the archives, increasingly amazed by the Moss Man saga. I was amazed for a couple of reasons: First, Becker apparently did survive an Idaho February alone in a hot spring. Second, Leventhal had for once told me the truth.
Yet I wasn't satisfied. How, in the space of 12 years, had Becker been transformed in the public perception from a "semi-conscious victim" into an almost mythical spiritual exemplar? I walked down the street to the sheriff's department in the hope of learning more.
It was election day in Blaine County. The sky was autumn-bright, the city hardwoods bare, and there were political posters in leaf-strewn yards. Though it was early afternoon, Sheriff Walt Femling already had a huge lead on his opponent, so he was cheerful and happy to talk.
"I wasn't sheriff at that time," he told me, "but I was on the force and I remember the guy. It was winter and he'd been sleeping in the post office, so I had to kick him out. I felt bad about that. He seemed like a nice enough guy. Several weeks later, we got a report that there was a man living in the water at Frenchman's Bend. When we pulled him out, he looked like a boiled chicken wing. He had moss growing on him. I remember him telling us that the reason he stayed in the spring was that his clothes got wet and he couldn't leave."
Other members of the department remembered the incident and added details. For example, when Moss Man was taken to the hospital, he locked himself in the shower and refused to come out. "The guy really seemed to love water," one of the officers told me.
But I still didn't have a handle on who Moss Man had been, or what had become of him. I spent the day trying to contact him. It wasn't easy. Both Ketchum and Hailey are recreational access towns with fast-growing, transient populations. Many people I met were familiar with the Moss Man saga, but few knew the man's real name, let alone any details about him. As Leventhal had told me, "It's easier to admire people we don't know."
When I finally did speak with Moss Man's friends and relatives, they were understandably reluctant to pass along information to a journalist. "He's moved to the Midwest," I was told. "He's started a new life." Finally, though, I was given his phone number, and on the eve of the Moss Man Commemoration and Pagan Fun Fest, I interviewed this hapless legend of the Sawtooths.
"They've named a celebration after me?" Becker asked. "I don't know how to take that. Maybe it's neat. One thing, though: I don't like the name 'Moss Man'--it's embarrassing. I'll talk about what happened as long as you don't use my real name. I've got a job now. People might get the wrong idea about me if they found out I'd lived in water for a while.
"Truth of the matter is," Becker continued, "I didn't stay in the hot spring just because my pants froze. I think what happened was, my feet froze when I was out walking barefoot in the snow. Like frostbite. So I decided to stay in the spring until they felt better. I guess I was kind of stubborn, but I wanted to walk out of the place under my own power. You know, like a matter of pride." He added, "It's also possible that the drugs had a little bit of influence."
Hunger soon became a problem. "At first I was hungry," he said. "Then I just got weak. The worst thing, though, was being so thirsty. The water in the hot pool wasn't good to drink, and I about froze every time I walked down to the river, so I stayed thirsty just about all the time. A couple of times, people came by on a snowmobile or on snowshoes and asked me if I was OK, did I need any help. But I refused because, like I said, I was stubborn. They didn't give me any food, but one of them gave me a beer. That was really refreshing. Probably the best beer I ever had in my life."
All in all, Becker told me, he considers those 28 days a good experience. "It was hard at first, staying there all by myself. But after a couple weeks, I just started feeling real peaceful. There were some great snowstorms, and I'd just stretch out in the hot water and watch them. It's nice to watch a snowstorm in moonlight. Everything's so quiet. And deer would come up to me and sniff around."
Did he ever have a vision about a white wolf? "I don't think it was a vision. I'm pretty sure I saw a big white dog drag down this deer. It happened right in front of me. At the time, I was so hungry I thought about climbing out and taking some of the meat. But I didn't. It was too cold."
The reason he accepted help from the cross-country skiers, Becker said, was that he knew he had no other choice. "By that time, I was so weak that I knew I'd die if I didn't leave. I had dropped something like 78 pounds. Not that I was scared. I wasn't. Like I said, I felt really at peace. Mostly, I'm glad it happened. I learned a lot about the mountains."
Which could have been the words of a genuinely enlightened being--but then Becker asked, "If they're having this festival and they're basing it on what I did, don't you think I ought to get paid for it? If they're charging money, then I should get something, shouldn't I, for using the Moss Man name?"
As Sheriff Femling had said, Becker seemed like a nice guy. But in asking the question he also demonstrated that Moss Man was human after all.
Yes, the man was human. I now knew that better than most. So why, on the afternoon after election day, did I find myself marching in a column toward the mineral springs of Frenchman's Bend, wearing moss on my head and nothing but a swimsuit beneath a white bedsheet spray-painted with cryptic green symbols and the numeral 28?
"You're not singing," Leventhal said, nudging me. "Everyone else is singing."
More people than I ever thought would endure such madness, all of them similarly dressed, were singing to the tune of "We Love You Beatles!" They chanted, "We call him Moss Man / He was really keen / He stayed at Frenchman's Bend / Till he turned green."
"You take things too seriously," the Big Guy told me. "Relax and have a couple of sacred beverages."
"How can I relax with that cold wind blowing up my robe?" I replied. "I could be at the Sun Valley Lodge right now, where almost everyone wears pants. There's an ice show at the outdoor rink, and I think they're serving chicken wings at the bar."
"Believe me," he said, "you'll accomplish a lot more with us."
That seemed to be one more empty promise, until I realized that a major objective of the Pagan Fun Fest was to march around the riverbank and the hot pools sacking the considerable litter left by previous bathers--an ingenious gambit that, as one Moss Man acolyte put it, "actually makes cleaning the place up a lot of fun. No one makes a cent off this, and everyone has a hell of a good time."
Once I realized that, it was fun. I cheered as loud as anyone else when Leslie Benz, manager of the Baldy Base Camp Restaurant, was crowned queen of the Moss Man Commemoration. I too was moved by the speech of a humbled reveler from Hailey when he was named high priest for the coming year. ("I command you all to continue passing the sacred beverage until someone sees the white wolf!") But the thing I enjoyed most was when we all filed down into the hot pool, the place where Moss Man had spent his extraordinary 28 days. We immersed ourselves in the water and meditated in silence on the fast river and on the Sawtooth peaks beyond."This place is so pretty," I told Leventhal, "and the Moss Man story is so weird, you probably could start your own church."
The Big Guy straightened his billowing robe and took the gallon wine jug from my hands before he answered. "There have been religions," he said, "founded on a lot less."
Illustration by Christian Clayton.