Illustrations by Doug Schermer
After long summers in Montana, I like to escape winter and do a little surfing. For the past few years I’ve been going to northern California. One day last winter I came out of the place I was renting on the west side of Santa Cruz to find that my old Toyota SUV had been stolen. A strange feeling. A moment or two of incomprehension. Did I get drunk and walk home from the bar? Did I forget lending it to a friend? Slowly my brain cycled through the options, and settled upon the inevitable conclusion. Sure as shit, stolen.
The police officer who took my statement was matter of fact. “Sometimes we find them,” she said. “Mostly we don’t.” She shrugged. “Don’t call us. We’ll get ahold of you if anything comes up.” I told her that last winter my bike had been stolen, now this. “Does rampant thievery just go unchecked in this town, or what?” I asked.
“Move to Carmel if you don’t like it,” she said, and got in her cruiser and drove off.
Before long, the sticky gears of the great insurance machine started to turn, and I had a rental and then, not long after, a respectably sized check with which I went shopping for another old Toyota SUV. Replacing the vehicle was fairly easy, and I was due for an upgrade anyway. However, I’ll never be able to replace some of the items that disappeared with my old car. I had just come back from a trip to Big Sur, and the back of the car was full of camping gear — tent and sleeping bag, camp stove and hammock. Losing these things was painful, of course, but didn’t sting as badly as two specific items.
The first was a No. 8 Wagner cast iron skillet that I’d used to fry bacon and eggs and trout and elk in campfires across the Rocky Mountain West for 15 years. I bought that pan already well-used at thrift store in Missoula, Montana, the summer I turned 20. Until that point, I’d never been anywhere, or done anything, but somehow I’d finally gotten up the momentum to break through the surface tension of my crappy Michigan hometown.
It was early May, and I had lined up a job guiding anglers at a dude ranch on the Blackfoot River. I’d driven straight through from Michigan in one 24-hour shot. I was riding high on some mix of panic, elation and guilt, if I’m being honest. Freedom has different components for different people, and maybe it’s just part of my makeup as a Midwesterner, but for me, guilt will always be a part of it.
The previous summer, my mother — a healthy woman, a runner, a non-drinker, a non-smoker in her early 50s — suffered a stroke. She essentially died on the operating table, where she was, for better or worse, resuscitated. I was working construction with my dad at that point, and at 4 o’clock every day we’d leave the jobsite and go to the ICU. Her face was yellow and bloated, and my father would hold her hand and speak to her, although there was no way of knowing if she could hear or understand.
I’d walk the halls or doze in a chair in the waiting room, still in my stinking work clothes, trying not to make eye contact with other people similarly blasted out of their realities. I was quickly coming to the conclusion that life is short, and within your allotted span there are things that can happen to you that are worse than death. My mother lived another 10 years, severely mentally and physically handicapped, my father her only caregiver.
That day in May I rolled into Missoula, haggard and red-eyed. Even in town I could smell the snow still hanging deep in the mountains. I bought that Wagner, a pound of Daily’s peppered bacon, an avocado and a loaf of Wheat Montana white bread. I drove way up Rock Creek, and right before dark I caught two nice brown trout, both bigger than 90 percent of my best Michigan fish. I made a fire, fried that mess of bacon, built a BLT about 3 inches thick and ate it in the firelight, my whole summer spread out in front of me, my old life a thousand miles back there in some indistinct place on the other side of the Mississippi.
Here’s the thing about guilt: When it’s dogging you, there’s no head start in the world long enough to outrun it. A 24-hour drive amounts to damn near nothing on a constantly recalibrating ruler of self-reproach. I finished the sandwich, burned the paper plate and stared at the fire until I ran out of wood. I thought about my mom, brain-scrambled, wheelchair-bound; my dad, arrested now by some combination of love and duty that to this day I don’t fully understand or find myself capable of
My work schedule that summer was 10 days on, three days off, and on my off days I’d pack up the car and explore Montana.This was the pre-GPS era, and soon after my arrival I’d bought a Delorme Montana Atlas and Gazetteer. This big red book of maps lived in the slot between my car seat and center console, and with it I navigated backroads from one side of the state to the other. I’d scribble notes on the pages, circle bridges and access points where I’d had good fishing.
Over the past several years, with my reluctant conversion to modern modes of navigation, I’d used the old Delorme less and less, but it was always there and still occasionally referenced, if for nothing more than a trip down memory lane or a reminder of places I used to know. Not long before my car was stolen, I was flipping through the Delorme and stumbled across my notes about a river in the north-central part of the state. Next to the little tipi graphic that indicates a campground I’d written: 22” brown on a hopper! Best campsite ever!
Until reading that, I’d completely forgotten about that trout, that campground, that trip. I can’t recall the last time I’ve written a sentence ending in an exclamation mark that wasn’t at least 50 percent ironic. This fact seems indicative of something, a passing.
After my car was stolen, I got a new Delorme, of course, and scoured thrift stores for a new/old cast iron skillet, too. But these things are inauthentic, unworthy replacements for irreplaceable things. My mother has been dead for years, and I only go back to Michigan once a year to see my dad for Christmas. I live a seminomadic life, and I sometimes wonder if, in my early 20s, I used to be a better person.
I occasionally find myself thinking about the guy who stole my car. I have an image of him, maybe not accurate, but if you’ve spent any time in the San Francisco Bay Area you’ll understand. I see him twitchy, gaunt and hollow-eyed, with dirty-blond dreadlocks, brown fingernails and grungy backpack. He has taken possession of my car, and he’s driving. He’s rolling, high no doubt, trying to get a head start of his own, but then he starts to come down. He pulls over and finds the camping gear in the back. He’s at a truck stop somewhere near Reno, and he’s suddenly ravenous. He goes in, steals a pack of Hormel franks and a 22-ounce can of Budweiser. He fires up my camp stove on the tailgate. While he boils the hotdogs in my Wagner, he finds the Delorme Gazetteer and opens it to the first dog-eared page. Best campsite ever! he reads. What the fuck, he thinks. Montana. And so he goes for it.