I’m sitting at the Hitchin’ Post in Melrose, Montana, drinking vodka with Jim Harrison, who between sips steals a scant glance at his beloved barmaid Nicole’s rear, puffs from his American Spirit and says: “Do you want to know how you can believe in God?”
Smoke purls thickly from his cigarette, and in the window- parried shaft of evening light his face looks quite conjured, with his bad eye wandering opposite his working eye, one of them — I’m not sure which — attracted to some bird or small god darting just beyond my mortal perception.
“Absolutely,” I say, swirling two soon-to-be-delicious cubes of vodka-and-lemon-soaked ice around my tumbler, “I totally want to know.”
Beside us at the bar, ranchers and fishing guides — their horses and boats put away for the day — lean in to order beers or fries or shots from Nicole, whose brown hair fairly gleams against a white tank top as she leans down to reach for bottles, revealing ample cleavage, that space on a woman’s body, essentially nothing, that so enamors the male heterosexual.
“It’s a vacancy,” Jim says, casually shifting our conversation from the theological to the sexual, “the absence of something that makes men incorrigible. A nada.”
With his singular own, Jim catches Nicole’s dark eyes and asks to buy a drink (he pronounces her name Knee-cole) for his friend Craig, who just has arrived at the bar’s bright door in his wheelchair. Disabled from the waist down last winter in a car accident, Craig is Nicole’s ex-boyfriend, two boyfriends removed, and would likely receive a free drink, anyway. But Nicole obliges and laces ice, vodka and a splash of soda into a short glass and then, as if by instinct, fills our glasses, as well.
Jim lifts his glass to mine. “Peacock” — Jim’s friend, the author and grizzly bear expert Doug Peacock — “tells me that new indisputable” — he puffs vigorously on his cigarette — “archaeological evidence points to the fact bears have been feeding on migrating cutworm moths in precisely the same drainage in the Front Range near Glacier Park for over thousands of years, and recently Peacock determined the bears now arrive before the moths — they wait out the moths’ arrival, whereupon they gorge themselves into a food coma! I’ll order us two steaks — Knee-cole, two steak sandwiches rare, please, another vodka for Craig. They say there are more nutrients per part in a cutworm moth than in a cutthroat trout.”
By now I have finished my vodka and am staring straight at Jim, his tanned face gullied with wrinkles and crow’s feet. He clears his throat — a momentarily worrisome racket that recalls a yard dog snarling at a paperboy — and fixes my gaze.
“And that, son, is how you can believe in God.”
How I got to know Jim Harrison — outdoorsman, roving gourmand and man of letters, “untrammeled renegade genius” and beloved author of more than 30 books, including Dalva and Legends of the Fall — is another story, the short version of which goes: I was born in his old hometown and grew up on Harrison Road, and he takes kindly to coincidence and fishing guide/poets with a penchant for good cheese and cold vodka.
For now, we’re going fishing on the Big Hole, where Jim spends 50 or 60 days each summer, and Carhartted from head to toe but for the Muck boots, he’s knocking at the screen door to my cabin.
“Are you ready for some sausage patty?” he asks.
“I don’t know if I can handle sausage,” I say. “I’m still a tad jangled from last night. You?”
“A little bit hung over, but that’s to be expected of a Marine of fly-fishing. I’m famished from forging the smithy of my soul. I wrote a poem this morning! Come, we must find sustenance,” Jim says, aiming his substantial frame toward the Hitchin’ Post’s café, which sits a mere 50 yards from the cabin.
He doubles back and picks up his fly rod, a newer-model Orvis 7-weight coupled with an early-1990s Daiwa reel (perhaps the only such combo in all of southwest Montana), which is separated into its two pieces and held together with two heavy-duty rubber bands.
Inside the café, we find our friend and fishing partner, novelist David James Duncan, chatting up the guides who are picking up their sack lunches from Sherri, Nicole’s aunt, queen of the morning shift. We sit down to hot drinks, and David tells us what he’s learned from the locals: The river rose with an overnight rain, and although it’s crested, it won’t likely fish well till the afternoon, the Big Hole’s trout feeding mostly after the water’s warmed away their lethargy.
“How about the bugs?” Jim asks, referring to the fabled pteronarcys californica, the salmon fly hatch that the angling masses covet.
“Mostly in the canyon or up above, with the bulk around Silver Bridge,” David says. David is one of the best anglers I’ve ever fished with, dangerously good, but he has disguised himself this morning as a faux rancher — old green Carhartt jacket over two mismatched flannels, collars up — and thus the normally tight-lipped guides have been generous with their intel.
“Good,” Jim says. “We should go downstream, then, and cover a big chunk of water. Stay away from the loons.”
The loons will arrive momentarily from Bozeman and Butte and Spokane and Salt Lake to chase the upstream “migration” of the 3-inch-long stonefly’s mating flights and the toilet-bowl-flush rises these aquatic rib steaks induce from the trout. Only immensely well-cultured anglers such as ourselves would prefer to fish downstream of the hatch; we prefer the solitude and good company, we tell each other, but we also know the downstream brown trout have already bulked up on stoneflies, and if we can put a streamer deep enough under the right cutbank, we stand to catch the fish of the season, a 2-foot, 6-pound brown.
“How about Glen to the Notch, then?” I suggest. “I know a perfect lunch spot, and I have some morels and chicken to heat up on the stove.”
“I rolled a whopper down there last week,” Jim says. Jim has been fishing out of Melrose at least two days a week so far this season, exhibiting what David calls a “liturgical dedication” to the Big Hole’s dynamic character. The river — which heads meanderingly in the high meadows near Chief Joseph Pass (a setting in Jim’s second novel, A Good Day to Die) before charging bullishly through Dewey and Maiden Rock canyons and slowing somewhat through cottonwood-lined bottomlands near Glen, with sandstone cliffs for a frame and the snowcapped Pinters for a backdrop — suits Jim’s temperament and his ability, so exhibited in his diverse body of written work, to “contain multitudes.”
“The brown inhaled the fly three times, but I missed it ’cause I was watching two garish tanagers fight over a mayfly,” Jim says. “The birds insisted their beauty was more important than my lifetime brown trout, and who am I to disagree with such creatures?”
Jim’s response recalls something I read in a recent interview he gave to a publication in France, where he is a veritable folk hero.
“Do you believe in the supernatural?” the interviewer asked.
“Of course I do,” Jim said, “because I receive special instructions from the gods. In America I have a book called In Search of Small Gods. Do you really expect one God to create 19 billion galaxies? And did you know that one teaspoon of cosmic black hole weighs 3 billion tons? Think how strong this teaspoon has to be. So if there are 19 billion galaxies, why can’t I have a soul, even if it is extremely small? As small as a photon or, better yet, as one of my neurons. It never occurred to me not to believe in the resurrection.”
“Where’s your flask?” Jim asks me.
The drift boat is anchored a few miles downstream from the Glen Bridge, and we’re snacking on a wedge of Manchego while David plies a side channel on foot. The grass along the bank of the rivulet grows thick and high, the seed heads already heavy, and from our vantage David’s hat and moving fly rod are the only human intrusions visible against the landscape, the graphite glinting with each cast or when it bows under the weight of a fish or bucks with a fish’s run; when David kneels to unhook and release a fish, he disappears altogether.
“You mean my vodka flask?”
“Last year I was flying to Paris with Dustin Hoffman, and we were lamenting the spate of interviews we had lined up upon arrivals. ‘Dustin,’ I said, ‘how do you put up with it all?’ And he said, ‘Jim, it’s easy. I just fill up a water bottle with vodka and sip off it all through the day.’ And I told him, ‘Ha! I know a poet and a fishing guide in Montana who does the exact same thing!’ ”
“I quit bringing it during high water,” I say. “It did protect against inane clients, but it’s too easy to make a mistake sober, let alone buzzed.”
I don’t need to expound for Jim. Two years ago, he and I floated Rock Creek at flood stage the day before a veteran oarsman flipped his boat and lost a passenger to the cold, swift water and, ultimately, a sweeper. From his home in Livingston, Montana, Jim read the news and called me. He must have sensed I might feel some guilt for having taken him down such a treacherous stretch of river.
“Dommer,” he said, “don’t feel bad about it. The world is a cruel place. This much we know.”
“Let me see that rod of yours,” I say. Jim has had a few tugs on his streamer — one violent slash from a big fish that sent him into a near-orgasmic state of excitement — but the last hour of fishing has been exceedingly uneventful. “I just saw David hook another fish. I’m going to trail something off of your Yuk-Bug.”
“Not a worm!” Jim says, referring to the dreaded San Juan worm, an imitation of an aquatic worm whose flyness is often disputed in angling circles. “But I know what you’re thinking. Trust me, I worked in Hollywood for two decades. Nymphing is like bare skin to the film industry. Whenever things get slow …”
“Show ’em some tit?” I ask.
“Precisely, son! Now, no nymphs for me. I’ll take my lumps. Let’s try a Little Olive,” he says, alluding to a No. 10 woolly bugger tied with ragged grizzly hackle and wrapped with significant lead by Jim’s friend and longtime guide Dan Lahren, a legendary Montana outdoorsman.
And take lumps Jim does. With David back in the boat sharing Ikkyu quotes (Clouds very high look, the Zen poet wrote eight centuries ago, not one word helped them get up there) we drift downstream. Jim covers the water as thoroughly as a flock of swallows covers the air above the river at dusk — there isn’t an inch of holding water that he doesn’t fail to twitch the fly seductively through — but no grabs from the big browns who have shied away from the high sun. I’m rowing hard against the snow-fed currents, trying my two-armed best to hold the drift boat adjacent to the prime lies, so I see only Jim’s tan fly line at the edge of my periphery, zinging back and out against the banks. Every now and then he stops casting to marvel at a warbler or a tanager, to feel, as he says in one of his poems, “the grace of their intentions,” and then returns his attention to the water and his casts.
He’s practicing what I’ve long thought of as “Jim Yoga,” focusing his attention alternately skyward (mountains, birds, clouds) and at ground level (dogs, trout, plants). It’s a ritualistic way of moving through the world that’s revivified him, of seeing through eyes other than his own — and those of us who’ve read his books have been revivified as well.
“If you spend a fair amount of time studying the world of ravens,” he’s said elsewhere, “it is logical, indeed, to accept the fact that reality is an aggregate of the perceptions of all creatures, not just ourselves.”
Save for the squeaking oarlocks and the water lapping at the hull, the boat is wonderfully quiet. Flicker calls, warbler note cascades, wind, around us the scent of budding cottonwoods on which we base our faith. Then Jim says, “Come on, trout! You don’t want to see little Jimmy throw a tantrum, do you? You know, Davey, I once caught a 3-pound brown on this left bank coming up. Right … ” he pauses and waits for his Little Olive to slap against the bank, “here!”
And before he can strip the line, a chunky brown trout cartwheels out of its element for the fly, latches on to the hook, and Jim lets out a whoop. We are all three more than a little dumbfounded. David and I exchange glances of substantial bafflement as I slip the net under the fish.
“Mystery,” poet James Galvin wrote, “moves in God-like ways.”
We lunch on my favorite island in the world, a cottonwood dry wash that divvies a slow side channel from the hard-rushing main river, which passes the land, then slams hard into a tall sandstone cliff, pivots sharply to the east and hurtles downstream. The two currents meet and form a lazy back eddy, above which swallows are usually on the hunt, and above the water, adjacent the cliff, sloping steadily to the north, a deep swale hosts tall grasses and sage.
I say “we lunch,” but I have forgotten the propane for my portable grill. (I could build a fire and cook over coals, but we expect the fishing to turn on within the hour.) In the cooler I have chicken thighs marinating in olive oil, Tabasco, salt, pepper and thyme, some fresh asparagus and, as an appetizer, some morels I gathered a few days ago from a mountain burn near Missoula, Montana — but no gas and, thus, no fire for the Roving Gourmand and The Guru, the latter of whom doubtless sees the disappointment in my eyes.
“I have some Washington Coho that I grilled last night,” David says. “And a bottle of wine.”
“I don’t drink before 4 in the afternoon,” Jim says, “but of course wine at lunch on the river is not drinking. Here, son, cut yourself some salami — did I show you this wine key and knife a peasant woman gave to me in France? We’ll have a tidy snack, and then how about a nap in the warm sand?”
We eat the cold, smoky wild salmon, wash it down with gouts of Côtes du Rhône and chew on thick slices of salami, and soon we’re lounging in the shade of some young cottonwoods with our hands behind our heads like old cowhands. We’ve all three had long years — health issues, legal issues, money issues — but like good migratory creatures we’re back along a familiar shore, contemplating the currents. Dangerous as the river is, Jim wrote recently in a poem, “only the water is safe.”
I’m not so much startled awake because I wasn’t really sleeping, but Jim’s nasally voice surprises me. “You found yourself a nice island here, Dommer.”
With a noticeable smile on his face, David is still sleeping, so I tell Jim in a whisper about how several years ago I camped here with my wife, Mary, and our infant son, and how after nursing all night, our son still wouldn’t sleep, so I held him in the camp chair before dawn so Mary could nod off. The river rushed around the island and ran smack into the cliff, then caromed through an audible riffle that charged through a short box canyon.
The stars wheeled, the earth turned, but momentarily I felt that we — my son and I — sat outside time. It grinds the mind down, the sound of shallow water, and as the old goateed poet next to me once said, the mind ground is being as it is.
“That’s a wonderful story,” Jim says. “We must honor it with a 4-pound brown this afternoon. Davey, wake up, the fish await with open mouths!”
What I love most about fishing with Jim is that he’s constantly altering your perception of him, which allows you to alter your perception of yourself, to be malleable like the current. Without a soft mind, someone said, you cannot be very strong. Jim is ox-big these days, and I wouldn’t ask him to outrun a mule, but his mind moves like a jackrabbit. At 70-something years old, he seems to be certain of only a few things: good wine, garlic and the necessity of time on the water. Fishing a few moments later, though, he is certain that a red-bellied Yuk Bug — a white-legged, grizzly-hackled, squirrel-tailed, 3-inch-long beast — is precisely the fly he needs. “I had a fish strike this so hard last year,” he says, “it yanked the rod out of my hands.”
We find no such denizens downstream, but the bite is on. Solid fish swirl on our streamers on the dump (as they land), on the swing (as they hook downstream with the current) and on the strip (as they dance at the hands of the anglers turned puppeteers). David has a secret retrieve — he strips line vigorously and darts the rod tip back and forth at the surface of the water — that makes his streamer, an articulated creation that we call the Fly-Fisherman’s Rapala, look precisely like a flagging minnow, but makes him look as if he’s playing air guitar.
Tugged upstream beside a riprap bank, the fly zigzags across the surface and is engulfed by a violent buttery swirl. Big brown. David’s rod shakes with animal energy, then straightens as the fish comes unglued. Jim hollers — he’s latched on to a 20-inch rainbow that river-dances across the riffle on its tail. I net Jim’s broad-shouldered fish, and we pledge to toast its surface-skimming leap tonight, its lengthy exit from its watery world.
Driving home on the Burma Road, we pass an old dilapidated house — doorless, windowless, roof caved in by a windfall cottonwood — home, if you ask the locals, to one of the largest, most seething dens of rattlesnakes in the valley.
“Son, do you see that old house?” Jim says.
“Sure I do.”
“Good. Do you know what it says?”
“No, what does it say?”
“It says, don’t let your life become the sloppy leftovers of your work.”
It’s evening, and the light across the green-for-a-few-more-weeks hills makes the sage look like suede. I want what Jim said to sink in, to eddy in my brain and take root, but the moment vanishes like a cloud shadow on the snowfields of the distant Pioneers because we pass a roadside pond, a ditch really.
“Chris, slow down! Back up! Phalaropes in the pond!” David says.
I back the truck and boat trailer carefully up the road and see them: four small birds spin around and around, dervish-like, on the dusk-lit water, dislodging food from the weeds below them that they dip down occasionally to eat. They turn and turn like oblong tops. They are doing something we humans couldn’t do. We are silent for a long moment. Then Jim says: “My God. Four phalaropes. We are blessed!”
An afterword of sorts
Jim and I floated the lower Yellowstone last September, along with my friend Jeffrey Foucault, a nonpareil songwriter from Wisconsin exiled to New England, whose musical acumen is nearly trumped by his taste in wine. Dinner the previous night had been a big affair, with most of the Harrisons’ Livingston-based family tableside enjoying baked ham, beans, slaw — all prepped exquisitely by Jim’s wife, Linda, and their novelist daughter Jamie — under a snappy homemade horseradish that made one’s nose run and one’s eyes water pleasantly.
We were nearly two dozen, and we ate and talked and drank red wine, opening bottles that ascended gradually in body and nuance while conversing intently with the horseradish. I thought I was holding a high face card in a 2008 Barolo, which was met with much appreciation. But when Jeff pulled a dusty ’63 Coltibuono from his kit bag, the table — full of very well-versed wine drinkers — went quiet. We relished Jeff’s gift in jam-jar glasses, tickled that it was possible to step from the high-elevation Barolo to the stratospheric chianti, which, as Jim reminded us, “could easily have sucked,” had it been corked or turned.
Good fortune seemed with us on the river, too. A big trout rolled on Jeff’s stonefly dry on the tail end of a cliff across from the boat launch, just where Jim had told him to cast. The Yellowstone below Springdale is, next to the Big Hole, Jim’s home river, which means he’s caught at least a fish or two on every serviceable bank for 30-some miles and is happy to remind the exploratory oarsman: “Wrong bank, son,” from his seat in the stern when necessary.
During the initial salvo a few small fish came to hand, but our attention gradually veered toward a discussion of lunch and the fried chicken Jim had brought — specifically, would the ratio of thighs to breasts be appropriate?
After the previous night’s supper, Jeff had played a show at Livingston’s Murray Bar to a surprisingly raucous crowd, and post-show there’d been a round and then another bought for the singer and his poet roadie by a plucky 60-something brunette wearing horn-rimmed glasses and looking vaguely familiar. After a while she vanished, and the bartender, sweeping up tips with a coaster, said, “Well, boys, you just missed your chance to buy Lois Lane a drink.” We stared back.
Margot Kidder? Superman? “Son of a bitch,” one of us said. “Goddamn,” said the other.
Another Livingston Sunday night.
All of which is to say, when — nearing noon, after flicking a 40-foot cast deftly toward a grassy undercut — Jim asked, “Dommer, what did you bring to drink,” I’m pretty sure I heard a parched Jeff mumble, “mind reader.”
“Just a modest Gringnolino,” I said.
Jim groaned — “I thought a poet of your considerable talent would have had the good sense to bring some shooters” — then pulled a Smirnoff airplane bottle from his Carhartt vest pocket and grinned mischievously. “Let’s pull into the next shady bank and eat. It’s too sunny for a big fish to move on my streamer and not windy enough for hoppers.”
Thus, in the grand manner of the New West, we ate supermarket fried chicken and drank Italian wine. In my shirt pocket, wrapped in foil, I had a square of the most exquisite apple cake I’d ever tasted, leftover dessert cooked by Jim’s daughter Anna. Oarsman needing more strength than angler, I hoarded it justifiably while to our south the September sun crested the Absarokas and cast a light too hot to feel autumnal; climbing, it teased out the stark granitic veins in the high country of the Crazy Mountains across the river to the north, the sharp peaks still waiting for fall’s first dusting of snow.
With the boat anchored below a heavy riffle, we were quiet, but then again we were fishing, and the big river, formed by water that had come a long way to get where it was, had our ears, especially Jim’s — the distance seemed to call to him, an old dog listening to a music the rest of us can’t quite hear.
After lunch we went begging for a long spell and then — following a 15-minute blow from the south and Jim’s tale of how he and his family survived for eight years on 10 grand per until he sold Legends of the Fall for high six-figures — we were flush. Fish were on Jeff’s hopper and on Jim’s streamer as it landed, perhaps taking the latter for a struggling terrestrial. On the fly-patch of the borrowed drift boat, I found a well-used No. 12 flying ant pattern and handed it to Jeff, whose fly had begun to unravel. “Just a hunch.”
For a few bends, Jeff couldn’t miss. In the back, Jim landed a solid Yellowstone cutthroat and reeled up — “I’m good” — so that he could point out the shady bank’s finer lies to Jeff, many of them farther offshore than I would have parsed, his mind barb-sharp despite his body’s frailty, his casts reined in due to tiring eyesight. We had a real nice run for half an hour, punctuated by a long cutthroat’s five-second inspection of the ant pattern — the fish looked like a sommelier with a glass of wine turned up to his discerning nose. Then Jeff broke the fly off in the cotton-white maw of a brown trout shaped like a two-by-four, the wind clocked around to the north, and we were panhandling again.
Jim was wearing his shirt, which I took to mean that his shingles, so debilitating over the past few years, weren’t bothering him badly. Fishing-wise, had we set any records? Certainly not. But we’d stood out in the metaphorical rain long enough to be struck by lightning, what a poet must do, or so one poet said.
Driving home toward Livingston, we passed the mouth of the drainage of a small river, up which, while wade-fishing the previous afternoon, Jeff and I had seen a pair of black wolves ford the shallows not 50 yards downstream. We shared the story with Jim — the sound of the water rushing around their muscular haunches, light shimmering on their wet fur — and with ample awe he offered some thoughts as to what such a potent encounter might mean cosmologically to those who witnessed it, but his words seemed best left in the wind, returned to eternity, if you will.
Helping Jim out of the truck with the aid of his walking stick, I thought of how the river rounds its rocks, softening their edges over time. He ran through a 10-item checklist, making sure Jeff had transferred the gear to his car. “Good boys,” he said. “There’s two chicken thighs in the cooler for you.”
I understood we might not have the chance to float together again, but despite the masses who clamor for some illusion of “closure,” I sided with the river, eschewing the notion altogether. We went fishing. I hope we’ll go again. A loss of faith, after all, begins with a loss of ritual.
Editor's note: Jim Harrison passed away on March 26, 2016 at the age of 78.