Illustrations by Doug Schermer
Fifteen Junes ago, I guided a wealthy gentleman who was itching to employ a bamboo fly rod he had recently purchased at an even wealthier late-gentleman’s estate sale. He threw persistent tailing loops even with a standard 9-foot, 5-weight graphite rig, a mechanical casting flaw that would only be exaggerated by the shorter, slower vintage piece.
Citing the lower Clark Fork’s heavy braided currents, and the large golden stoneflies we were imitating, I urged him against the swap. He said it wasn’t about the fish, and at lunch, he swapped out the graphite for the $10,000 bamboo Payne. On his first cast with the ’boo, he hooked a sizeable rainbow trout that leapt once and then, upon returning to the water, went board-stiff, open-mouthed, apparently brained by the hook point of a No. 6 dry. Nerves twitching, the fish came to the boat belly-up, like someone had lopped it over the skull with a priest.
“So, uh, John,” I said, removing the hook with a pair of hemostats to avoid coming in direct contact with the dead fish’s inarguably strong medicine. “The gentleman whose rod this used to be — how’d you say he died?”
John mumbled in his seat before admitting that the former owner had drowned, while fishing. Though I didn’t use words, my glare succinctly said: You can either disassemble that rod, or I can turn it into kindling.
I began by describing events that transpired “15 Junes ago,” a phrase I once dreamed of saying. That is, I wanted to last in this place long enough to become the kind of person who could authenticate a statement with just such an introductory clause. But now that I can viably say that 20-plus years ago I began my work as a guide in Montana, I feel the cumulative oar-strokes, the joint-and-disk-pain reality, as much as I do any pined-for luster. I’ve netted and released tens of thousands of trout in that period of time, watched several clients grow into the dearest of friends and shared creature encounters with elk, wolves and bear, to name just a few.
Which is not to imply that these riches have become quotidian, only to say that the experiences I return to most in memory are the uncanny, inexplicable ones, those wherein the river, with its singular liquid tongue, seems to speak directly to the two-legged creatures that traffic its currents. I admit this is minstrel speak, the kind of mystical bum-mutter that causes my rational friends to duck me at parties, my own family to groan here-we-go-agains at the dinner table. A river converses with the earth it shapes and is shaped by, and more subtly with the creatures it houses and helps flourish. Nonetheless, I’ve witnessed several more coincidences that rival the aforementioned, and I have kept a journal of sorts, a chronicle of what I call river kismet, examples of a connectivity that is likely constant but which evades a man like me, too often attuned to his inner landscape.
I’ve written of them elsewhere: the worn, thumb-sized Hotei statuette I found in the Blackfoot the summer after I’d scattered my grandmother’s ashes 200 yards downstream, the pot-bellied figurine an exact replica of the wooden one she kept on her windowsill in Detroit decades prior. The 21-inch brown trout dropped by a circling bald eagle at my feet while I mourned a cancer-stricken friend. The list carves deeper into me each year.
Blackfoot River, early autumn 2001. I’m guiding two Vietnam veterans, day clients from Indiana or Ohio, one of those states famous for outlet malls and coveted Big Ten recruits. We’re talking politics during a lull in the fall sedge action, a punishable act per boat rules, but as the banter is bipartisan, the young captain allows it.
“The thing about your generation,” the man said to me from his seat near the bow, “is that you haven’t had a centralizing event.” The angler — let’s call him Roger — wore blue jeans and a sweatshirt, and he fished a rod he’d borrowed from me that morning. He flicked his fly, a large orange sedge imitation, into the riffle’s glare, where it bobbed for a few seconds before his current-bowed line dragged it under. A small trout chased the fly as it swung, gauged it fake and turned away.
“I mean, not you personally, but your whole — generation-whatever-you-are,” he continued. “You guys are all over the place. You haven’t had a defining event to help you define what you stand for.”
Grandiose as it may sound, this kind of talk occurs more than occasionally on the Blackfoot, where the transparent water curates an openness of expression, an ecumenicalism that, if bottled, might solve a few of the most persistent tiffs in Washington, D.C. (Aside: Once while fishing on the river Norman Maclean made famous, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was pitched overboard when his guide’s raft flipped in a wave-train; ensuing murmurings at Charlie’s Bar had it that judge and guide argued earlier about a particular hot-button court issue, but witness testimony failed to confirm.)
I thought to tell Roger that my own family had been somewhat scattershot on the war he’d served in — my father a conscientious objector, his younger brother enlisting and receiving a napalm candle for his eighteenth birthday — but Roger’s assertion was a fly worthy of inspecting.
“And you’re saying that a war or something would somehow unify us, my generation?” I asked.
“Not that I’m a psychiatrist or anything, but yeah, for better or worse,” Roger answered.
This conversation occurred Sept. 9, 2001, although we wouldn’t hear the news of the terrorist attacks until the day after they occurred.
On Sept. 10, I drove two longtime clients west down the watershed to the lower Clark Fork of the Columbia River, a tamer, glassier, bottom-of-the-floodplain descendent of the Blackfoot. I launched the drift boat near the town of Superior, an old mining and logging community that tolerates its share of anglers with relative good cheer. I’ve always half-hoped to find a nugget of rare ore in the river, trickled down from the Cedar Creek mine, and so when my client Joyce approached the boat after lunch, knelt in the sand and held what appeared to be a stout flake of silver to the light, I thought, At long last! There was a chain, however, attached to what was actually a medallion, a St. Christopher pendant as we soon determined.
“Your namesake,” Joyce said, rinsing it in the water. “You should wear it for good luck.”
I had no idea what St. Christopher had done to win his sainthood, but I’d grown up playing baseball, dancing over chalk lines and tapping my bat religiously three times against home plate, and I had allowed such obsessive superstition to infiltrate my fishing practices. I slipped the wet chain over my head, pulled up the anchor and kicked the stern into the current.
It was a bright, languid afternoon, too gorgeous for good fishing. The likely lies, where we’d caught scads of fish on prior trips, were vacant of all but a smattering of fall mayflies, entomological crumbs not enough to tease the river’s big rainbow and cutthroat up from the cooler, safer depths. Wearing river-wet hotel hand towels around our necks, we sweated out the doldrums, squeezing a fish or two out of runs that normally yielded several.
By late afternoon, we neared the mouth of the St. Regis, floating into a band of shade that had unrolled itself from the high bank, and let out a collective ahhh. Evening’s reprieve urged the bugs to hatch and brought the day-dormant fish to the surface, which we weren’t too spent to target. At the boat ramp with dripping pant cuffs, I winched the boat up and made sure the trailer lights were working.
Once in the cab, Arlo cracked two celebratory cans of Coors Light and offered me one. In Montana, as Maclean famously said, drinking beer doesn’t count as drinking, but I declined out of sheer fatigue. “I’m good for both, then,” he said, and sipped from one as the truck charged up the on-ramp. Soon we were eastbound on I-90, talking about the rumored changes to the state’s then quite liberal open-container law, which allowed the driver a “roadie,” the front seat passenger anything under the legal limit and all other passengers their fill. (The law has since been significantly tightened.)
“This lawless state is going to lose its favorite pastime,” Joyce said as a pothole rattled the truck. “Federally funded highways don’t come without a price.”
I laughed accommodatingly but didn’t engage the conversation. Below the highway, in the shaded river corridor, the fish would be podded up in a large back eddy and feeding on frail isonychia spinners, and it was all I could do to keep my eyes tuned to the road, keep myself from rubbernecking us into the gravel shoulder. When I first moved west, my mother, a semineurotic protector of her only child, provided me with complete instructions on how to escape a vehicle if or when said vehicle finds itself suddenly off the road and underwater. I remember something about letting the water in slowly, as opposed to allowing it all to rush in at once, then cracking the front window with, what, a tire iron? I couldn’t quite recall but bowed in brief gratitude nonetheless to my mother’s fretting.
Always the longest part of the day, I thought as we passed an 18-wheeler, the road home. A moment later, the rig’s driver flashed me with his lights: on-off, on-off, full brights. What was he was trying to tell me? Had my trailer lights malfunctioned? I turned on my headlights anyway and remained in the passing lane to overtake a sedan. As we crested the next hill, the truck flashed me again, but before I could raise a fist out the window, I saw the subject of the trucker’s warning: a white pickup, speeding westbound, oncoming, in our eastbound lane.
I jerked the wheel, and we swerved into the right lane, avoiding the speeding pickup by a few car lengths, the trailer skidding, fishtailing wildly before truing itself. On the other side of the median, on the proper westbound highway, a string of police cruisers, sirens wailing, sped in unified pursuit past a shoulder-hugging chain of travelers.
We passed the next several miles in a state of shock, someone shaking her head, someone shrugging a What-the?, someone stuttering as words failed. By the time we pulled into the hotel parking lot, we were wired as a paperboy who’s just run 10 straight blocks from a snarling stray and jumped his home fence to safety. Arlo, who loved fast cars and had driven a red Corvette here from Seattle, had run the numbers — he was a numbers man, he reminded me, having started a successful hamburger chain in the Northwest — and calculated that two cars traveling 70 mph toward one another are approaching collision at roughly 200 feet per second.
“Now I saw 300 feet of road, tops, when we first looked up, so our margin for error was next to zilch,” Arlo said.
We agreed to take the following day off. I apologized to Arlo and Joyce for putting them in danger — safety first, second and third is the guide’s motto — the latter of whom patted me on the shoulder with a hand heavy with gold rings and assured me the event was no fault of mine. I promised to call the police department and investigate the chase but woke to news of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and didn’t leave the couch all day.
Several years passed before I learned that St. Christopher, amid the controversy of his potential decanonization, is known as the patron saint of travelers.
Far up in the headwaters, we were fishing, and Galvin’s old dog was lost.
Dante, he kept calling.
Or we were lost from Dante.
August, the river drawn to its cobbles. Galvin backtracked — Dante! — while I cut upstream thinking the cowhound was just nosing through an endless book of scents, reading where we’d been, and would be sitting at the pickup, his long tongue pleading for a drink. Swarms of mayflies gathered above the riffles, countless scintillate wings ready to fall spent. They’d hatched at first light, mated and would soon join the flotsam’s progress, spent corpses carried a long way or perhaps into the maw of a trout we hoped to catch, whose lie would be revealed by a push of water that rippled the cress.
One such fish fed audibly in the shade of draped grass. I knelt, made myself small against the sky. The river thinks in fish, and I wanted it paying me little mind as I threaded the tiniest of hackled flies between blades. Repositioning, I began to sink almost imperceptibly into the alluvium, a sulfur-scented loam sucking me down by the inch as I stretched to reach a nearby deadfall two arms’ lengths away. By the time the fish fed again, I was thigh-deep and soon waist-deep, wondering what my friends would say about me if my final act were to hook the trout and stay so leashed until the ravens’ shadows began to circle, or to sketch some lines with the rod handle in the gray mud, cliché or not, a few last words that would disappear with the first hard rain.
“You know, I’ve shot cows far better situated than you are now,” came Galvin’s voice from downstream, Dante at his heels. “Just sayin’.”
We shared a fine Barbera with roast chicken that night, and talk turned to Italy, where he still spent Christmas; to a woman he’d loved; to the wells of stairs under the city of Umbria, the subterranean halls through which one could walk, with spelunking lantern on, if one knew the right guide.
Was it April when we finally spoke again? I was driving, no more than half a mile from where he’d rescued me, when the cellphone rang. I answered exuberantly, explaining that although I hadn’t been upcountry for months, I wasn’t, true as dog is god spelled backward, three casts away from the dratted sinkhole he’d yanked me from.
“Well,” he said, pausing so I could reach out for his words the way I’d reached for his hand, “I don’t believe in coincidences.”