Word count: 1,087
I awoke to the sound of fat rain drumming on the roof of the camper shell. The heavy taps became a wall of sound that wrapped around me and I burrowed deeper into my warm sleeping bag and drifted back to sleep.
It’s the sudden silence of the storm’s passing that next wakes me. I crawl out onto the tailgate and look down the canyon at the thick column of rain about a mile away. Farther down, the disturbance squats on the mountains like a blank canvas and spiring Alpine firs punch through here and there—unfinished sketches. The upper end of the canyon is bright, green, and fresh. Ghost-clouds hang draped against the vivid green mountains like fat on a mother-in-law. The fishing will be good now. As I begin stringing my rod, I strain to smell the perfume of the pines and hear the canyon’s silence, but years of welding dulled my sense of smell, and silence now is the echo of nine-pound double-jacks pounding stubborn steel. It’s enough for me to know that the scent and the stillness are there. I remember.
I remember the first time a trout stream stole my soul one cold, rainy day in North Georgia, and the ten-inch Brown that took my fly when I had fallen down in the creek and was being baptized into a new life. I was cold, wet, and happy. I had found something, something that I wanted to be a part of, something that would come to define me; so, I keep coming back to be re-defined, re-baptized. There’s a beginning and an end to everything, though. There will be a last hike in, a last fish caught, and a last cast. I was with Ed when he made his last cast.
Neither of us knew it was his last cast, but the signs were there. He needed my help getting into his waders that morning, and I watched, helpless, as he fumbled with his tippet and fly with stiff, swollen joints until he finally asked for my help. He leaned on me as we moved up the river, his weight frail, light, and we made frequent stops so he could catch his breath. I had to net and release that last Brown for him. I thought Ed was too good to die. I think he was too good not to. Two weeks later he was gone.
They say you shouldn’t dwell on the past, but you think about the things you know, and now there’s much more past than there is future. So I think about Ed, and the others who are gone. Like the young man I took fishing because he needed help and taking him fishing was all I could think to do. I’d hoped fishing would help him as it had helped me. I stood behind him and held his hand as I showed him the roll cast. A few months later, he rolled his car.
I think about my old friend who called me one night lonely and depressed. He needed to go fishing. We talked about wild country and clear water. We talked about special places folded deep into the backcountry and made our plans. He decided to go to sleep and never wake up instead.
The hike in is tougher than it used to be. As I top the hill, I hear somebody chopping wood in the distance, or is it the sound of distant drums? I listen closer and realize it’s the sound of my heart thumping in my chest. Below me, a meadow filled with wildflowers of every description and color stretches all the way to the creek.
I try to imprint the scene on my mind and go for the pack of anti-acid tablets in my pocket, remembering that a nurse once told me that everybody who came into her emergency room with a heart attack had a pack of them in their pocket. I chew on the tablets and wonder if the scalding in my chest is my retirement plan, or the two jalapeño-laced gas-station corn-dogs I had for supper last night. It doesn’t matter. I’m too far into the backcountry now and whatever is going to happen will happen without any more help from me. Besides, doing the purple polka on a tapestry of wildflowers doesn’t seem like a bad way to go. I can think of a lot worse—Visiting Angels spoon feeding me as I cast to the rising cutthroats in my mind and tapioca dribbles onto my chin. I decide to push on across the creek and up the next hill to give the arteries a good flush.
I think about a life lived giving up no hostages to the pursuit of fortune, choosing only to work just enough to keep a roof over my head and take care of my dog. Radio talk show hosts point accusing fingers at me. I dropped out, didn’t row hard enough when the Pharaoh wanted to waterski. I wanted to stay in bright mountains and explore Thoreau’s premise that one’s surroundings reflect the depth of one’s character. I doubt they do; the empty beer cans I see laying around suggest that character is not reflected by surroundings. Perhaps character isn’t something you bring to these wild places. Maybe it’s something you find here.
I can see the wooden footbridge, first built by the CCC, now maintained by the forest service, and that last steep hill above it that I use as a benchmark to let me know how I’m doing from year to year. There’s a stand of Aspens just beyond and a waterfall where I want my ashes scattered after I tip over.
I pause and strain to see through cloudy eyes and prescription glasses the distant ridge tops. I know the breeze that cools my brow through my sweat stained boonie is pine scented, and the sounds of the creek sculpting the narrows and diving over the falls drown out the double-jacks in my head. I think I hear voices and turn expecting to see somebody but see only the rings of a rising trout below. Something about the shadows under the firs takes me back to my great-grandmother’s kitchen on some long ago Saturday morning. I stand on a hill overlooking the creek, silhouetted against the cadet gray sky, poised between past and present. Lost friends will fish with me again today, here, where place in time do not exist.
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