Remembering author Jim Harrison and the “improbable mystery of moving water”

Jim Harrison’s death in 2016 still darkens my days. I knew him for two decades. It’s a loss felt not just personally, but also by a worldwide audience that a friend aptly called the “Tribe of Jim.” Even the world-wandering celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain once confessed that he wanted to be Jim Harrison, proof positive, I guess, that Jim was in a category all his own.

Seven months after Jim died, I arrived in Livingston, Montana, for a celebration of his and his wife Linda’s lives. She died Oct. 2, 2015, and he grew physically weak, emotionally bereft, too stubborn to give up chain-smoking and drinking, despite recent attempts at moderation. Five months after Linda passed, Jim died, on March 26, 2016, in the middle of composing a poem at his winter casita in Arizona. (His untitled final poem is available in the 2018 paperback edition of Dead Man’s Float, from Copper Canyon Press.)

Harrison’s 78-year-old heart stopped, and he keeled over. That’s the stuff of legend, like painter and fly-fishing author John Atherton dying in a Canadian river while fighting a salmon. I guess some people “cack,” as Jim inelegantly referred to dying, as though they scripted their own demise.

Harrison (left) fished from an early age with his siblings.

Harrison (left) fished from an early age with his siblings.

Seventy-plus family members, colleagues, compatriots and friends gathered at the landmark Murray Hotel and adjacent Second Street Bistro. Jim’s daughters Jamie and Anna organized a spectacular multicourse memorial dinner that chef Brian Menges orchestrated. For me, the culinary hit of the night was the main entrée: a duck-infused cassoulet in the “style of Toulouse,” according to the event’s keepsake menu. The casserole was a long, patient, simmering time in the making, a dish becoming what it was destined to become without hurrying, in honor of Jim’s way of cooking and writing.

But then the glorious cassoulet was just one of a procession of brilliant culinary offerings that stretched for hours, accompanied by a dazzling array of wines and ending with dramatic flourish, including a dozen desserts and a Calvados brandy finish. To call the event gluttonous is to miss the point. It was our version of Jim’s famous 37-course meal that he shared in France years ago with two of our evening’s celebrants, author Guy de la Valdène and gourmand Peter Lewis, and later memorialized in “A Really Big Lunch,” a 2004 New Yorker essay that became the titular centerpiece of his posthumous collection of food essays that appeared in 2017.

At the banquet, there were publishers, editors, literary agents, poets, novelists, screenwriters, painters, ranchers, restaurateurs, businesspeople, fly-fishing and bird-hunting guides, and scholars and bibliographers, as well as family members down to the youngest grandchild. The independently wealthy and the self-employed, celebrities and workaday stiffs: Jim’s feast brought us all together to eat, drink, talk and reminisce, eat and drink, and tell stories some more. What could pay tribute to his voracious appetite for life and language more fittingly than that?

A Rich Dream Life

It was a time of good cheer, bounteous generosity and well-met fellow feeling, but amid the splendors, there was occasion for private recollections and somber memories. In my case, recollections of two decades of friendship reeled through my head, from my first meeting with Jim at a nature writing conference in Key West in 1996 to our last meal together seven months before he died. From 2002 to 2015, we fished together every summer in Montana. I was with him in May 2009, in an adjacent room at the Sportsman Motel in Melrose, Montana, on the night a waking moment took place that Jim describes in “River I,” a poem that appeared in 2011’s Songs of Unreason. He wrote: “… the moon fell into the window/frame and was trapped there too long.” The next morning over breakfast at the Hitchin’ Post, he talked about his dream vision, the mystery woman he saw astride a “beauteous white horse” and the poem’s concluding line: “I decided we were born to be moving water not ice.”

(From left) Guy de la Valdène, Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane and Russell Chatham in Key West in 1988.

(From left) Guy de la Valdène, Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane and Russell Chatham in Key West in 1988.

A week later, he sent me a copy of the poem. It was almost verbatim from the version he had recited. His dream life was generative and propulsive to his writing. Everything was grist for his writerly imagination.

The moon came in my window that night, too, and lit up my memory. One snapshot moment of our Big Hole road trip appears in Astream: American Writers on Fly Fishing, which I published in 2012 and for which Jim wrote an essay called “Older Fishing,” an uplifting piece that ends with his cheerful admonition: “Just keep fishing and you’ll have a nice life.” In the photo that accompanies Jim’s chapter, he is at the oars; holding a brown I caught is our friend Dan Lahren, Jim’s longtime guide, driver, fixer, sporting companion, aide-de-camp and spiritual son. Dan’s French Brittany, Jacques, had just given the trout a kiss before it was about to go back in the drink.

No Guilt, No Regret

During that junket, we fished hard, drank our share of beer, wine and vodka, yukked it up with the bar patrons and waitresses, hobnobbed with Jim’s old friend George Goody at the Montana Fly Company, told stories and lied like boys about conquests. We indulged to excess in a public pig roast. (I still taste its perfectly crisped, delectable skin scarfed down with our fingers, and hear Jim’s praise: “This is the best part.”) We watched migrating black-and-white and yellow-rumped warblers flitting in the bankside foliage, and we caught brook, brown and rainbow trout from the incomparable, bounteous Big Hole, one of Jim’s most beloved rivers. Fishing, birding, talking, eating and imbibing in ample doses — it was enough to fuel our conversations and emails for months afterward.

For many of us, the gorgeous 20-plus-inch brown trout Jim caught on a monstrosity of a rubber-legged girdle bug (he was not a small-fly adherent) would have been the prize of the trip. But for him, I suspect the greatest pleasures were a single 14-line poem and the sweet smiles and salty byplay of knockout beauty Nicole, his favorite fantasy barmaid at the Hitchin’ Post. Jim had his own priorities, knew the entrancements and enticements of every order of being, and faced them without guilt, dread or regret.

Fast forward six years to our last float on the Yellowstone River, in late August 2015, from Hog Barn down to Springdale, again with Dan Lahren and Jacques. Jim looked about as stricken and physically challenged as I had ever seen him. He could not share the usual rowing duties with Dan. His physical ailments and body betrayals were painful (the dire effects of shingles and spinal surgery), but he never complained despite the 90-degree heat and wildfire smoke, which were weather conditions he hated the most. We had only a few chances to fish together each summer, and he was not inclined to miss those outings.

When we reached the takeout, a local woman recognized Jim, sort of: “Aren’t you a well-known author? Tell me your name.” She asked him to pose for a photograph with her teenage son, and Jim obliged as I had seen him do so many other times.

On the ride home, over ice-cold 16-ounce cans of beer and a vodka shooter, he seemed touched by the woman’s request and hoped her son might become an artist and “forge his soul in the smithy of his consciousness.”

Harrison is best remembered by some ensconced in a wreath of cigarette smoke.

Harrison is best remembered by some ensconced in a wreath of cigarette smoke.

Blue Highways

One of the mainstays in Jim’s “portfolio of enthusiasms,” fishing helped define his life. Following that day on the water, we started a long-talked-about interview on fishing that we planned to finish the following summer, 2016. Keeping him squarely on the subject, however, was always a crapshoot, as I had learned years earlier when I compiled Conversations with Jim Harrison, a 2002 collection of interviews. He had to be allowed his acrobatic digressions, which mirrored the free flow of his mind.

One revelation I had never heard: Film director Bob Rafelson had approached him to play the cuckolded husband opposite Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson in the 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. I knew that Jim had once had a dalliance or entanglement with Lange, but this came out of the blue. He was full of surprises like that. You rarely drove the highways with him; it was nearly always the back roads and scenic byways that offered the most interesting sights.

Regarding fishing, “you get hooked on the mystery rather early, or you don’t,” he wheezed, trying to explain the allure of a sport that had gotten him 70 years earlier on Michigan’s Pine River, where he caught his first brown trout on worms and a Colorado spinner. From there, we covered the waterfront. Catching bluegills by the bushel for dinners at the family lake cabin in Haslett, angling for brook trout on home-tied “bumblebee bi-visibles” in beaver ponds in northern Michigan, and casting for trout in the brush-rimmed Sucker River from the elevated lawn of his beloved Upper Peninsula cabin near Grand Marais. Then it was on to saltwater fly rod exploits: tarpon, his largest around 160 pounds; his first big permit in the Florida Keys with guide Linda Drake; striped marlin with Guy de la Valdène in Ecuador; and roosterfish in Baja. (“If roosters lived in rivers, no one would ever care to fish for trout again.”) And always the excitement of fishing for autumn’s hyperphagic, prespawning browns in the Yellowstone River, often in the company of another of his annual fishing partners, the novelist Peter Matthiessen. “Obsession, that’s what it is,” Jim said. “It keeps you intrigued.”

We completed about 50 minutes of audio taping, with Jim’s good eye tearing up now and then in the wreath of smoke that circled his head, his breathing becoming more and more labored, the silences between speaking becoming a bit more marked except for deep, alarming bouts of coughing. After dinner, his voice kept trailing off, and his coughing ramped up. He looked rumpled, with wild hair and a nearly toothless grin, and his pants slipped down his butt.

It is an indelible view I will take to my grave. Realism outmuscles romanticism every time. Who would have thought it would be the last meal we ever shared? “Death steals everything except our stories,” he wrote in In Search of Small Gods, a truism I have come back to a thousand times.

Moving Waters

That October 2016 night at the Second Street Bistro, the gang ate, drank, smoked and told stories, but some of us needed to fish to complete the circle. The next day, Danny Lahren and I signed up for rods on Nelson’s Spring Creek in Paradise Valley. It was a cool, overcast day and one of those times when the muted light added an extra level of depth and gravity to the entire scene. Everything seemed portentous, bound together by intense anticipation, or maybe it was grief. It’s hard to tell sometimes.

We had a banner day, every brilliant trout caught and released. The cutthroats in particular looked like they had been burnished by an artist’s hand. Their palette of colors, the music of their bodies, was astonishing, breathtaking, arresting. I’d never seen anything like it. The whole day was a testament to Jim’s abiding spirit, his undiminished need for angling and, as he said in his last interview with me, his love of the “improbable mystery of moving water.”

He was with us all that day and beyond, and we have not pretended otherwise.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Anglers Journal magazine.

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