LEFT FORK DIARY
Word count: 1,299
May 22: spring in the high country. I’m hiking into the headwaters of the left fork of what was once—until the fire—one of Utah’s blue-ribbon trout fisheries. It’s a pilgrimage I make every year in the spring as soon as the trailhead opens, to see if I can; and in the fall just before it closes, to see if I still can. It’s a magical place, where sunlight plays with the aspen’s flickering shadows to suggest perpetual Saturday mornings. It’s a place where layers of bullshit get scraped down to the raw meat of character, and you can find yourself coming up short. It’s a place that dispels vanity by requiring me to look up at ridges I cannot reach. It’s a place where I stop, look around and say, “This, this is where I want my ashes dumped when I buck out.” And they will be.
I’m just upstream from the burn-scarred section that was closed for two years because of flash flooding that followed in wake of the wildfire. When I called the state biologist to see how long it would take for the watershed to recover, he asked me how old I was, and then told me it wouldn’t be in my lifetime.
The fishing sucked after the fire raged through. I hiked in about a month after the fire when the trailhead was closed; I needed to see the damage for myself. A layer of ash covered the bottom of the creek, and it was that ash that sucked oxygen from the water and killed most of the fish.
There are patches of snow on the far ridges today. Grasses are starting to green up, and the high quakies are starting to leaf out, while those closer to the creek remain skeletal. Willow branches are turning maroon, juicing up, coming out of hibernation. It’s the time just before wild flowers bloom, when the dominant colors are yellows of dandelion and purples of blue sage. Blue sage isn’t truly blue—it’s light green and silver mixed with the gray of dead stems, a blend that gives a purple tint from a distance.
I’m the first one in this year. I crossed a snowbank, and the only sumbitch tracks were mine. I’m breathing hard by the time I top the ridge overlooking the main branch of the creek. There’s a flutter in the front of my shirt—I hope it’s a cicada. It’s important that I make it all the way in, unimportant if I make it halfway out. I’d rather do the purple polka up here (if that’s what’s in the cards). It would be better than the alterative—rotting away in hospice, picking at bedsores and bad food, wrestling with bedpans and visiting angels with bad attitudes. Dying well is the best any of us can hope for.
The fire exposed rock formations and boulders I never knew were there; the ridges along the creek are covered with them. From a distance some of the crags look like quarried stone foundations of ancient fortresses. You have to get close to see they’re natural and not manmade.
There’s a rock I always stop to sit on. It has patches of black, reddish brown, and dusty green lichen. Some of it looks fuzzy and soft, but I don’t touch it to find out. I don’t want to damage it. Who knows, it may have been trying to grow here for a thousand years. I worked up a sweat on the way in; the wind is chilly now that I’ve stopped.
I saw bear scat on the trail. I’m not positive, but it looked like the pictures that came up on Google. Anyway, that’s what I choose to think. I saw one in here last year hauling ass over the ridge—nothing runs like that but a bear. I thought a lot about bears when I first came here, not so much now. I no longer bother hollering “bear” when busting through thick cover; I find it intrusive—not to the bears, to me. Ending up bear scat doesn’t sound so bad when you think about it; it would be kinda like having your ashes scattered—only with moisture.
I head above the feeders looking for clear water, but find the creek fogged up, bank-to-bank high, and running fast. There’s no chance of wetting a fly today, so I head back to a familiar spot to eat lunch.
The log is an old friend; I’ve polished it with my ass many times over the years. The tree fell long ago, its bark long gone, its color a long-dead gray. Big black ants crawl on it, and I take note—I’m always evaluating an insect’s worth as trout food. There’s a dead owl tangled in the jagged remnants of the roots and I check it for usable feathers—I’m always evaluating a dead bird’s worth as fly-tying material. Its wings are pulled back, legs thrust forward, frozen in time. It must have impaled itself diving on a mouse that lives in the log. Its death was sudden. It was a lucky bastard.
By the time I saw the creek was running high and muddy from runoff and unfishable, the hike had become a matter of pride. Even though I won’t fish today, I don’t consider it a dry run. I’d have still come. I’d come here a thousand times in my mind on those twilit days of midwinter, when snow pecked at the window above my desk, when the dog didn’t want to go outside, when spring was a fantasy. It’s not about the fishing—not here anyway. Right now you’re thinking, “Yeah, yeah. It’s the places not the fish. We get it.” But if you live long enough to get as good with your fly rod as you think you are, when you break off the hook because the deception is the real victory and laugh out loud at a missed rise, you’ll start to satisfy your thirst for wild with the wild beauty around you. Fly-fishing will become the excuse, and your fly rod will keep you from heading off empty-handed and having to explain to your friends why it’s not about the fishing.
The trail out is tougher than it used to be. Well, it seems tougher. I’ve run into guys up here who didn’t look like they’d make it out, and I wonder if I look like that now. I’ve got a system—I stop at the top of every rise to get my breath and let my heartbeat get back to normal. It gives me a chance to look around.
I stop at the top of one rise to get my breath and spot a hummingbird sitting on a naked aspen branch. He’s here early; he’s been thinking of this place all winter, too. He’s dressed iridescently to the nines—green hat, purple tie, white vest, and blue tails. We’re close; if I reached out I could touch him, but neither of us finds the other threatening. A stiff wind ruffles his feathers, he bobs in the wind, and I speak to him. I thought about that and decided it was a good thing. Thirty years ago I’d have questioned my sanity, but I talk to trout—why not hummingbirds. Maybe I spoke to him to cut through the high lonesome, maybe I’m more aware of them now, maybe I’m just slower on the trail. I feel brighter inside when I see hummingbirds. I wear red bandannas in summer to attract them, and their sudden appearance never fails to clear my arteries. I once had one land on my finger. I wonder if I’ll get any credit for that at the pearly gates.
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