ROCKY MOUNTAIN PASTEL


LEFT FORK DIARY

BY

Robert Robinson

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.

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

PRIORITIZE


PRIORITIZE, PRIORITIZE, PRIORITIZE

BY

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1,243

Of the many skills that must be mastered in fly-fishing, the most important and useful is the skill of prioritization, an attribute that, once honed, can be used in every aspect of life to ensure proper balance when allocating time and finances to the pursuit of the sport.

Correct prioritization, achieved through the application of logic after a review of the facts, is quite useful in the acquisition of the best in sporting equipment, without which fly-fishing cannot properly be pursued.

Let’s say you find yourself in need of a new fly rod (cost: $1,500.00), but it has been brought to your attention that your house is in need of new shingles (cost: $1,500.00). Using the fundamentals of prioritization, the proper priority can quickly be determined. First, review the known facts surrounding the case in question: (a) The roof is not currently leaking, and rain is not forecasted for the immediate future. (b) You will need the new fly rod for fishing long before the roof actually starts to leak. (c) The new fly rod will greatly enhance your ability to catch fish, which can then be eaten, increasing your capacity to provide for your family (a circumstance that can be pointed out once the roof does start to leak). Logical, right-minded thinking should now justify the purchase of the fly rod and place it at the top of your list of priorities.

Similarly, let’s say your wife’s car is leaking oil, and the cost of the engine repair would impact your bank account in such a way as to make the purchase of a new fly-tying vise prohibitive. The application of logic after a quick review of the facts should put things in perspective: (a) The engine repair can be moved lower down your list of priorities by simply instructing her to add a quart of oil to the engine when the level gets low. (b) At some point, she will be adding oil frequently enough to make periodic oil changes unnecessary. (c) This cost savings can then be applied to a new tying desk, as well. This method of prioritization can be used in acquiring most all angling accoutrements. In fact, this method can be used to place just about anything into proper prospective.

Say you’ve been asked to pick up a gallon of milk on your way home from work, but when you get to the store you realize that you only have enough money for that six-pack you’ve been thinking about since noon. Again, review the facts: (a) You know you will need the beer long before you get hungry and need a bowl of cereal. (b) You know that you can go longer without food than you can water. (c) You know that beer is 90% water. The priority of your purchase should now be clear.

The other thing you need to pursue the sport of fly-fishing is time, and prioritization is even more useful in securing that valuable commodity.

Work is often the most formidable obstacle to having the proper amount of time available for fishing. Having no control over the perceived notions of importance others may have, you may find yourself working for a guy who expects you to cancel a fishing trip just because things get a little hectic at work, a guy who puts profits above the happiness of his employees, a guy who is—and not for lack of a better word—a jerk. Quickly review the facts: (a) You were looking for a job when you found that one, so nothing from nothing leaves nothing. (b) Nobody lies around on their deathbed wishing they could spend one more day at work. (c) The extra time you will have on your hands after you’re fired can be devoted to fishing. By applying this line of reasoning, the correct course of action can now be taken with a clear conscience.

Social gatherings are another big drain on fishing time. Many of these will be in-law events that are obviously low-priority in nature (such as reunions, anniversaries, birthdays, and holiday dinners). Quite often these events can be avoided by feigning illness or simply lying your way out, which can be justified by, again, a review of the facts. (a) They never liked you anyway. Remember how your mother-in-law shook when she kissed you at your wedding? And how it reminded you of the Corleone kiss of death? (b) People like that don’t die, so you’ll unfortunately have many more opportunities to attend in-law events in the future. (c) Your absence will be looked upon favorably by most everybody concerned; however, there may be those whose judgement will be clouded due to their close association with these people. Note: When prioritizing in-law events, positive outcomes have a much greater probability of success once all hope of domestic tranquility has been abandoned. Prioritizing social events involving your immediate family can be a bit trickier, requiring more in-depth analysis of the facts.

For example, your daughter is getting married and has unwisely chosen a date for the wedding that conflicts with opening day of trout season. A review of the facts will quickly put things into proper prospective: (a) You know the divorce rate is currently at 75% (give or take), and from personal observation, you suspect it’s likely to go higher. (b) This is probably just one of your daughter’s many weddings, so you can go ahead with your fishing plans with the understanding that you will attend one of her future weddings. (c) She never liked you anyway.

There’s a cosmic order, or balance if you will, to the life events that present themselves for our attention that can often be maintained by simply doing nothing. I call this self-prioritization, a process in which situations are simply ignored until the natural selection process allows one to rise to the top of the priority list before action is taken. This method works well with domestic situations, which, if ignored long enough, very often resolve themselves (a process called self-resolution). A case in point would be the time I was preparing for a three-day float-trip.

I was packing my gear when I detected an atmosphere of crop-failure permeating the room and turned to find my girlfriend standing there with her arms crossed tightly over her breasts and her foot tapping like a jackhammer. Note: This particular body language is indicative of a situation that cannot possibly get worse. Your best course of action at this time is to move forward with your plans in the hope that the situation will resolve itself during your absence.

I said, “I thought you were at work.”

“We need to talk,” she replied.

“What about?”

“US!” she said, thrusting her index finger in my direction.

“I’m good. . . . Hey, did you see what I did with that spare 4-weight line?”

Just before dropping into the canyon and losing cell-service, I texted her, telling her I was looking forward to having our talk when I got back and reminding her the next day was garbage day and she needed to haul the can down to the road. I returned home three days later to find she had moved out and the situation (whatever it was) had resolved itself.

Warning: While the methods of prioritization discussed here are indeed useful, they should not be employed by anglers with moderate- to low-levels of testosterone.

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

THE BEND


THE BEND

By

Robert Robinson

word count: 1,386

In the spooky purple shade of late afternoon, when I was tired from the hike in and a day of wading and fishing, when it had that abandon-all-hope-ye-who-enter-here look to it, the bend had always seemed like a good place to call it a day. But the unexplored has magnetism—like that abandoned house on the block when you were a kid—and the bend, cut by water and time, pulled at me.

No doubt it had been fished, but probably not by many. I checked the upper end several times over the years, but it hadn’t looked any more inviting than the lower end, so it went unexplored. At least by me. But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing something. It looked like a tough place, though, and the BLM map confirmed it.

I checked the map several times, looking for an easy way in; there wasn’t one. The map showed stretches where the canyon narrowed, along with flats that were probably choked with willows. The map also showed several cricks dumping into the main branch from side canyons; on paper the place just looked fishy. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and determined to sack up and see how far in I could make it.

By taking the left fork at each confluence, I’d circle the mountain and come out on the dirt road a couple of miles above the trailhead. No way to get lost—at least in theory.

It wasn’t fear of the unknown that made me stop and turn around all those years; it was not knowing if I still had what it takes to get in and out of places like that. The other thing was, I didn’t know if the fishing would be worth the effort. Oh, I could’ve asked around, but I didn’t want to draw attention to a potential honey hole.

The bend didn’t look spooky in the morning light. On the right side, the slope was covered in Alpine and Douglas fir down to where the mountain scrunched its toes into a cliff. The steep left side was crowded with aspen and crags that jutted through the canopy like the broken teeth of a rock monster. A lone pine stood where the slope turned scree and dived toward the thick willows that lined both sides of the creek every chance they got. The creek bounced off the face of the cliff and boiled out through the willows, angry at the sudden change in direction, so wading up the creek had never been an option.  It looked like the best way in would be picking my way through the broken teeth on the left, so that’s what I did the morning I headed in.

Every year I hear about people falling off trails, having to be rescued or recovered by helicopter. I always wondered how the hell that could happen; as I looked down at the creek from the hillside, thinking I’d gotten myself ledged up, I knew how it could happen. People fall from cliffs all the time around here. It’s unforgiving country—unforgiving of stupidity, miscalculation, unpreparedness, and hubris. I should confess, though, there’s been several times it must have been looking the other way in my case.

I’d foolishly worn hip waders that day, which caused every foot placement to be accompanied by a corresponding pucker. What kept me moving forward was, once I got high enough, I could see an easy way down—if I could just get to it. I squatted and studied the hillside. I still couldn’t see around the bend, so I didn’t know how much creek I could fish once I got down. The thought of how to get back out hadn’t crossed my mind yet. It never does when you’re in that got-to-get-in-there mode. You’ll get out—you don’t have a choice.

I made it to the creek, found a fishable pool, and played with a riser until it took an Elk Hair Caddis. Catching that little cutthroat took the pressure off and justified the hike in. I couldn’t spend much time at any one spot; I’d calculated that it would take me at least eight hours to circle the mountain, but I’d have to hump it.

I hit three beaver ponds in quick succession once I got clear of the fast water at the head of the bend, making the obligatory casts at each before heading up the slope to get above the willows so I could see what lay ahead.

I’d suspected the banks would be lined with thick cover. And I was right. From my vantage point, I could see game trails crossed the creek at several spots, and it looked like I’d be able to make a few casts at each crossing. It’s ok to follow game trails on the flats; it makes getting through thick cover a little easier. But you never want to follow game trails up the slope; elk, deer, and moose have four legs and can go where you can’t—and game trails never lead back to the truck.

I traveled and fished like that for about three hours until I spotted a bench above where two creeks merged to form the one I was following. Getting above the willows so I could make better time, I headed for the point of land above the confluence.

The right fork looked better for fishing, but I needed to go left to keep heading in the direction I needed to. . . . So I took the right fork and wound up catching a couple of nice cutts. I pool-hopped along until the creek took a hard right into a side canyon.

The sound of whitewater rumbled from the canyon, and through a gap in the willows all I could see was churning foam and a series of falls and plunge pools. I headed up the slope so I could glass the canyon with my binoculars.

The steep slope on the right was covered in a thicket of willow, scrub oak, and young aspen.  A meadow lie farther up on the right, sprinkled with wildflowers—yellow Heart Leaf, white Yarrow, blue Lark Spur, and bright red Indian Paintbrush—and dappled in those grassy greens that give the illusion the sun is shining on a cloudy day. I’d be able to move easily through it, but I’d have to cross the creek to get there, and there was no crossing this little fast mover from what I could see. Above the rapids on the left was a fifteen foot cliff. A row of aspen lined the rim, and if I kept the aspens between me and the cliff, if I could find a way down on the other side, I’d probably be OK—too many ifs. Even if I made it I didn’t think I could come back out the same way. And with the creek too high and fast to cross, the only way out would be a tough pull straight over the ridge. I was too tired for all that; so I turned back, found a good sittin’ rock, and thought about stripping down and soaking in one of the plunge pools. I’d come back later in the summer, when the flow would be down and I could make the crossing.

I found a stout beaver cut and used it to spike my way to the top of the ridge, stabbing, leaning, pulling forward, stopping to get my breath, topping out in a stand of aspen. The dirt road lay below, and I watched diesel trucks belch black smoke as they struggled up the valley with their camp trailers, taking the Homo oblivious to their weekend wilderness adventures, complete with flat-screens, cold beer, hot showers, and gray water; some people never peck through their climate-controlled aluminum shells, never see what’s around the bend. Somewhere off to the right I could hear the distant, irritating sound of an OHV and remembered what an old elk hunter once told me—“Them four-wheeler riders ain’t so bad . . . once you gut ‘em.”

Snow dazzled on the far ridges—there’s never enough nowadays. I shaded up awhile, wondering at the detours, sidetracks, and restarts that put me under those aspens, looking at snow in July, with another canyon to explore.

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

THE IZZAK WALTON ANGLING SOCIETY


THE IZAAK WALTON ANGLING SOCIETY

for the ABOLITION of DOMESTIC CHORES

By

Robert Robinson

word count: 1,399

The domestic chore is a tool of enslavement—an ancient evil first used by Mesopotamian women to keep their men from going fly fishing—which is, sadly, still much in use today. Of the many nefarious forms domestic chores take—painting, cleaning gutters, and roof repairs, to name a few—the most egregious by far is yard work. With its gardening, weeding, trimming, raking, watering, and mowing, yard work alone can keep the unwary angler off the stream for years at a time.

I first became aware of the potential danger of domestic chores one morning as I was resting on the couch, sipping beer, listening to the comforting sounds of my wife getting ready for work. She came into the room and stood over me with fists on hips and the look of a hard drought on her face, telling me in no uncertain terms that there would be no more fishing until my chores were done. With that, she handed me an unreasonably long list of chores and stormed out. I checked the calendar to make sure it wasn’t April Fool’s Day, grabbed another beer, and began planning my day. While looking over the list, it occurred to me that there was a good chance for a caddis hatch on the river that day. I figured the best thing to do was go check on that hatch before getting sidetracked by chores.

After the divorce, I realized just how much fishing time had been wasted on domestic chores and threw that yoke off entirely. In no time at all I had healthy stands of sage, thistle, dandelion, morning glory, and tumbleweed—hardy perennials that require virtually no maintenance. The only problem I ran into was with the tumbleweeds. They tumbled . . . on to my neighbor’s well-manicured lawns . . . spreading seeds, hate, and discontent. But the benefit of having more time to devote to the life-enhancing pursuit of fly fishing far outweighed those concerns. My married neighbors, however, remained shackled to their garden tools and lawn mowers; it was heartbreaking to see their sad faces as they toiled away when I laughed and waved to them on my way to the river. I spent many a sleepless night contemplating their plight.

I had long been aware of the spiritual nature of fly fishing and how the rhythm of the rod put you in tune with the rhythms of God and nature. With my liberation from domestic chores and more time devoted to fly fishing, my spiritual growth had been remarkable. I felt divinely inspired to spread this “good news.”

I formed the Izaak Walton Angling Society for the Abolition of Domestic Chores (I.W.A.S.A.D.C.) and began holding meetings in my garage to plan my neighbor’s emancipation. My success in gathering converts to the cause was met with much wailing and gnashing of teeth from their wives—further proof that my message was divinely inspired. I took it as a sign.

Finding myself liberated from gardening duties but still in need of fresh produce, I began going to the farmers market. I found it much cheaper than gardening, and the time saved by not having to plant, weed, water, and harvest was much better spent working on my spiritual progress through fly fishing. I would go every Saturday morning, load up on a week’s worth of fruits and vegetables, and be on the river by noon. The only problem was the cost to my Saturday morning fishing time; however, once I began preaching my gospel of liberation, that problem quickly resolved itself. The neighbor’s wives began greeting me in their driveways by throwing tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and summer squash. Thus making my trips to the farmers market unnecessary, freeing up my Saturday mornings for fly fishing. Which I took as a sign.

My relationships with my neighbor’s wives followed parallel downward trajectories, starting with the first time I took their husbands fly fishing. The wives noticed a correlation between their husband’s enthusiasm for fly fishing and their dwindling bank accounts, and although I had done my best to minimize the financial impact by selling some moderately used, outdated equipment to their husbands only slightly marked up from cost, I was blamed.

As fly fishing became more and more central to their spiritual growth, my neighbors began sneaking off with me at every opportunity to go fishing, missing at times what their wives termed “life events,” such as, anniversaries, graduations, birthdays, and on one occasion, a mother-in-law-funeral—though to be fair, we did swing by the cemetery that day to pay our respects and show off that 24” cutthroat to Castretti’s brother-in-law. Indeed, their dedication to their spiritual growth had been commendable. I was eventually banned from holiday dinners, barbecues, and all family functions when one of the wives overheard me giving some much needed marriage counseling.

When Liddelberry told me his wife had insisted they go vegan, I listened in horror to his tale of life without cheeseburgers, bacon sandwiches, and three-meat pizza. I could tell by his sunken eyes, hollow cheeks, and shallow complexion that he was already in a weakened state and in immediate need of my expert intervention.

I told him to get 6 cases of beer and four cartons of cigarettes and go home and put them by his favorite chair. Then I told him to strip down to his skivvies, sit in the chair, drink beer and smoke cigarettes, throw the empties on the floor, and crush the cigarette butts out on the carpet. “Don’t shave, bathe, or go to work,” I advised. “After about three days, she’ll leave. Then you can clean the place up, take a bath, and eat all the meat you want.”

So it came as no surprised when my message of liberation from domestic chores was met with robust, organized resistance.

One night at the garage, I was passing the collection plate when one of the congregation spoke up, “I thought this money was for beer and chips.” To which I replied, “Yea verily.”

“This ain’t beer, it’s Old Cincinnati,” said Wheedlemire. “How’s come we’re drinkin’ Old Cincinnati and you’re drinkin’ Guinness? . . . What’s that noise?”

“Sounds like somebody’s got a loose fan belt,” I said.

I looked out the window and reported, “It’s just a bunch of women carrying torches and garden tools.”

Peeking out the window, Henman shouted, “IT’S OUR OL’ LADIES!”

“Fear not, brethren,” I said. “We have nothing to fear from these women if we stand united in our convictions. Somebody hit the lights . . . brethren?” When I turned around, the brethren had vanished, having fled out the side door.

The women marched in single-file and informed me that their husbands would no longer be allowed to “come out and play,” as they put it; there would be no more garage meetings, no more consuming alcoholic beverages without adult supervision, and no more fly fishing when there was work to be done. Furthermore, I was to stop filling their husband’s heads with nonsense about freedom from domestic chores, which they called “duties.” In short, I was to cease and desist. I was horrified and filled with righteous indignation at such heresy. I pointed out that fishing, especially fly fishing, was a holy pursuit essential for spiritual growth, and that their husbands were following in the footsteps of the Apostils. I told them to “let my people go fishing.” . . . But I think it was when I said something about fly fishing for Jesus that things got ugly.

They threatened legal action, property damage, and bodily harm: they said they would report me to the authorities (apparently there was some outdated law still on the books concerning property upkeep and bringing down surrounding property values); burn down my garage (a particular focus of their anger for some reason); and stomp a mud hole in my butt. Their bulging eyes, rage-flared nostrils, and crazed grins danced hideously in the flickering torchlight, and I longed for the good old days—when heretics were burned at the stake.

All great spiritual leaders and thinkers have, at some point, been persecuted and had their movements driven underground. I was to be no exception. . . . I took it as a sign.

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

NOWHERE IN PARTICULAR


Author’s note: I’d like to thank everybody for their support. Your likes and comments are a source of inspiration.

NOWHERE IN PARTICULAR

By

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1,383

I leaned against the tailgate, watching the Sun expose the flatlands below, wondering if I’d miss any of it. I’d breezed through Denver in the wee hours, instinctively not wanting to add to the feted and festering flotsam that collects along the Front Range. I was heading into the mountains; away from humidity and sweat; away from those who lean on the brass bull and are defined by profits and stuff; away from those who would happily sell their mother’s soul for a quart of beer and a twenty-rock—they are “the others,” and I wouldn’t miss them. I wouldn’t miss home either. I’d never had one.

I’d attended fifteen different schools in five states before quitting high school to go into the service, so when people asked me where I was from, I’d answer, “Nowhere in particular.” I’d owned property and lived out of my truck, been married and gotten divorced, played the game and dropped out. The only thing that had been a constant for me through it all had been fly fishing.

It was fly fishing for wild trout as much as a desire to put distance between me and the flatlands that drew me to the Inner Mountain West; the final destination of Hemmingway, and the refuge of Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, and Harry Middleton—interminable drifters and seekers who’d found something out here in this bigness that reminds you to be small.

Hemmingway found a shotgun—perhaps his ego wouldn’t compress. Middleton found people living on the fringe of society who cared for him, a beautiful woman, and a blind trout. Stegner and Abbey found purpose in a love of land that sucked them into causes and battles. Stegner fought the damn dam builders and retreated to Vermont to die; Abbey stayed and continued the fight until his death; and Middleton took his memories back to Alabama, county garbage truck no. 2, depression, and a brain hemorrhage. The common denominator then was death, and I wondered if that’s what I would find among these wind scoured peeks. I’d come to catch wild trout in stream gouged canyons and hold God in my hand. I found a land in trouble.

I met people able to strip mountains of their beauty for profit and leave with their hubris intact. I met people who’d lived here all their lives, looking up at the mountains every day, never bothering to go up there. Those that did go left a trail of beer cans, worm containers, and dirty diapers, striding through the land with a total disregard for anything but self. I couldn’t go deep enough into the high country to escape corporate America, illegal gillnet operations, and the glint of empty beer cans. The federal government claimed some of the high ground, creating national forests, parks, and monuments in an effort to preserve as much of the land as they could. But the flatland politicians don’t like that, and they’re making moves to declare that land state land; their corporate buddies will pay big money to develop, drill, dig, and cut their way to greater wealth. The scars of scraping, digging, and over-grazing mark their trails, and blue exhaust hangs in the high-country canyons like fat on a bishop. They are embryonic gods, put here to “prosper on the land,” destined to rule over their own planets and galaxies.

It took a while for my obsession with fly fishing to become more about the places it took me than about catching fish, and it wasn’t until frantic bumbling turned to quiet competence, until manic passion gave way to quiet reflection that I started looking around. The passage of time etched into the khaki sandstone cliffs highlighted my puny life span, leaving me with a profound sense of my nothingness. The power that formed these mountains was hard to comprehend. These sweeping valleys surrounded by snow covered peaks outlined against a hard-blue sky made it impossible for me to think that I mattered, and I doubted if any of society’s petty doings mattered.

I’d come west from the east, where impressive things are built, brick by brick, by people. But no earthmover, no economically enslaved civilization could build these mountains. The cliff faces told of their violent birth, the boulders in the valleys, of their constant change. No, people could not build mountains, but they could destroy them.

The mountains are under assault from corporations, environmentalists, outdoor enthusiasts, and ranchers—Corporations want to mine, log, and use the water for their cooling towers; environmentalists want to restrict access; outdoor enthusiasts want more access; and ranchers need to graze and water crops. And people need jobs.

All sides are convinced of the moral superiority of their respective positions, believing the other side to be either moon bats, incapable of reasonable discourse, or robber barons, bent on the destruction of nature in the name of godless capitalism. There’s some truth to both viewpoints, but neither side will own those inconvenient truths—half-truth is more easily embraced, as whole truth is always messy. There are no all-satisfying solutions to any of this. It’s a cluster.

The biggest fights in the West are over water. There’s a saying out here: “Whiskey’s for drinkin’, water’s for fightin’ over.” It’s possible to be beaten or even murdered over water—it is the Wild West, after all—and everybody has a dog in the fight; old recluse fly fishermen included. The steely-eyed, quietly-moral westerner is a myth; a man’s word means the same thing here as it does anywhere else—absolutely nothing. So instead of honorably tradin’ lead, these battles are mostly fought with money and lawyers; the lawyers being the big winners. The losers?—wildlife, forests, and people. I realized the hopelessness of it all when I attended a function put on by a local conservation group.

I looked around the room and it was obvious these well intentioned geriatric hippies didn’t have the money to fight protracted legal battles, and short of going to the state capitol and setting their ponytails and beards on fire, they were unlikely to garner much attention to their cause. The guy we’d come to hear speak wasn’t Edward Abbey, and as far as ground forces, well, there were no Haydukes in the crowd. The big money concerns are consolidated, the environmentalists divided, and ranchers in the West have never been able to agree on the color of scat. But they aren’t the mountain’s only enemies; natural enemies can be just as destructive, and the forest service’s trial-and-error methods of management—mostly errors—leave the mountains ripe for devastation that takes a generation to recover from.

There’s nothing sadder than hillsides covered in the dead brown and quiet gray of beetle-killed pines. Add drought and you have a forest of powdery tinder primed for storms that bring little rain but plenty of lightning. Fires rage for weeks, leaving burn-scared canyons, ash covered streams and bristling forests of blackened sticks. After a fire, the runoff sends walls of rocks, mud, and debris into the valleys, blowing out roads, choking off creeks, killing fish. They bring in heavy equipment to repair roads and open up streams, creating more problems. Seeing a D-9 Catt sitting in the middle of what was once a blue-ribbon trout fishery, leaking hydraulic fluid and oil is—well.

I’d come to the mountains to fish for wild trout and found refuge and a sense of purpose. I found quixotic battles, passed down by fallen legends, waiting to be fought. And I found indescribable beauty. For the first time in my life I noticed the wonderment around me. I caught myself looking up a lot, watching the wind whip ribbons of ice crystals from snow covered peaks, and when that arctic air washed into the high valleys, I felt a cleansing—down deep. I understood why ancient people held mountains sacred. I would never have figured that out on the hot, muggy flatlands, and I knew I’d done good by coming here. I also knew I could no longer stand on a mountain, looking down, feeling smug. I now had an answer for the question, “Where ya from?” I wasn’t from “nowhere in particular” anymore. And it no longer mattered why I’d come.

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

IT’S GOOD TO BE THE GUIDE


IT’S GOOD TO BE THE GUIDE

BY

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1422

The economic collapse of ’08 forced people all across the country to launch cottage industries. My neighbors were no exception. They went from peddling eggs and honey to selling chickens and bees, giving riding lessons to selling horses, raising alpacas to selling real estate. My first entrepreneurial venture was in herbal medicine.

While walking in the back pasture one day, I noticed an abundance of rabbit pellets. I figured I could sell them to my aging friends as an herbal remedy for dementia, or as a dietary supplement for raising IQ. They looked nutritious; were definitely organic; and the rabbits were wild, so manufacturing costs would be zero. With the right marketing strategy, I’d be in the chips in no time. I test-marketed the “smart pills” on my ol’ buddy, Appleton.

I gave Appleton an ample supply of smart pills with instructions to take 12 pills three times a day, cautioning him not to exceed the recommended dosage: “You don’t want to get too smart too quick. Being a genius is a huge responsibility.”

When I called to see if he needed more smart pills, he said, “I don’t think these pills work. I’m not feeling any smarter. As a matter of fact—”

“Yours is a tough case. We may have to up the dosage.”

“They taste like crap.”

“I think they’re starting to work. Besides, you can’t come off them cold turkey. You have to reduce the dosage slowly over several years,” I explained.

My career as a river guide started about a month later, when the FDA took the short sighted position that rabbit pellets had no nutritional or medicinal value, abruptly ending my career as an herbalist.

I was casting about for my next entrepreneurial venture when I remembered the half-finished plywood johnboat in the barn. I figured with the judicial application of some caulk, nails, and duct-tape I could have the boat shipshape in no time and hire out as a river guide. It sounded easy enough; the river would do most of the heavy lifting, and I already had plenty of excuses as to why fish aren’t biting.

I talked it over with my friend Spider, of Spider John’s Bait Shop, who sells beer, bait, gas, bootleg Sunday-liquor, and uncertain hotdogs that fossilize shortly after purchase and double as crawdad bait. He said I could use the bait shop as a base of operations as long as I kept his name out of it.

We decided I should make a trial run to get a feel for the river and test the durability of the boat and equipment. “You’ll need ballast,” Spider told me.

“Ballast?”

“Yeah, something to represent the weight of the sports in the boat, so you can see how the boat handles the rap . . . uh . . . faster water.”

“Oh . . . ballast . . .  dead weight, I gotchya, I’ll use Appleton. But you know the river, Spider, maybe you should go with me,” I suggested.

“It’ll be better if you use Appleton. You have life vests right?”

“Life vests? Oh, I figured I could make some out of duct tape and old Styrofoam coolers.”

“Yeah, it’ll be better if you use Appleton. Put in at Big Hole and I’ll pick you boys up at Last Chance. If you make it that far, just look for my old red truck. Don’t go past Last Chance or you’ll wind up in Dead Man’s Canyon, and it can be a little rough. There’s no way out of Dead Man’s except through Red Canyon, and it’s even rougher.”

“De—De—Dead Man’s Canyon?”

“Yeah, it’s right after Dead Man’s Rock and Dead Man’s Chute. Don’t worry. Just look for my truck and pull in there.”

 

“It’ll be a breeze,” I told Appleton over the phone the next day. “All you gotta do is sit back, enjoy the scenery, and fish.”

“You’ve scouted it, right?” he asked.

I figured it would be a waste of time scouting the river, seeing as how we were going to go down it anyway, so I said, “You bet. We’re good to go. Spider told me where to put in.”

“Spider? What’s he got to do with this? That SOB still owes me five bucks for some flies I tied for him.”

“Well, there you go,” I said. “You can hit him up when he picks us up at the end of our run. You’ll get a nice, relaxing float trip and five bucks to boot. Come to think of it, that SOB owes me five bucks. I’ll tell him to bring our money when he comes to pick us up. I’ll pick you up in the morning.”

 

I got Appleton seated in the front of the boat and handed him one of the homemade life vests.

“What the hell is that?” he asked.

“Life vest.”

“That ain’t no life vest. I ain’t wearin’ that.”

“Suit yourself,” I said as we shoved off.

We drifted along lazy-like for the first couple of miles. Appleton fished, while I worked the boat. But watching somebody else fish is like going to a topless bar when you’re horny. I soon had a rod strung up and we were both catching some nice cutts. We were so busy catching fish that we never did see Last Chance, the red truck, or Spider come to think of it.

By the time I saw the water boiling around Dead Man’s Rock it was too late; the river had us in its clutches and we were headed straight for the rock at a pretty good clip.

Appleton turned, grinned, and said, “I told you them pills ain’t workin’! Gimme one of them vests!” It was a disturbing grin—his lips were peeled back from his clinched teeth like a mule eating thistles—a grin normally associated with psychotic monkeys. I handed him a vest and grinned back as we spun into the chute bisected by Dead Man’s Rock.

We kissed Dead Man’s Rock passionately as we went by, and I lost track of Appleton until he popped to the surface like a cork when we entered the flat water below the rapids. I was surprised at how well the life vest was holding up and made a mental note to check with Spider about selling them out of the bait shop. “Hang on, buddy! I’ll save you!” I shouted. To which he turned, grinned, and struck out for the bank. Appleton is a surprisingly strong swimmer when properly motivated—he almost made it.

He was obviously disorientated, swimming away from the boat like that. It took everything I had to grab him and haul him halfway back into the boat before we were sucked into lower Dead Man’s Chute. I chalked his cursing, scratching, and biting up to drowning-man’s panic and was finally able to pin him down against the gunwale with my knee just as we dropped into the plunge pool below Dead Man’s Fall.

By then we could hear the roar emanating from Red Canyon, and Appleton’s on-board antics had become an element for concern; his mental stability had begun to deteriorate—the monkey grin now seemed permanent—he became delusional, claiming that I was somehow responsible for our predicament, and his frantic attempts to exit the boat were causing us to take on water. While I’m widely known to be long suffering, caring, and compassionate, my patience had worn thin, so I beached the boat so he could regain his composure.

Appleton took off across the sandbar like a striped-ass ape. Realizing his escape was blocked by the sheer cliffs of Red Canyon he began hopping up and down in frustration. I’d had just about enough, so I informed him that if he didn’t calm down he would have to be restrained for the remainder of the trip. That’s when he—still grinning—picked up a piece of driftwood and advanced on me with what can best be described as a bughouse shuffle.

Now I enjoy hate-and-discontent as much as the next man—as long as it’s not focused on me. It was my success in channeling his anger by pointing out that it was Spider who’d failed to meet us at the takeout, Spider who’d endorsed using him as ballast, and Spider who’d suggested the trip in the first place that encouraged me to give up river guiding in favor of my latest venture—psychiatry.

 

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Provo Girl


PROVO GIRL

By

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1,392

Most mornings on the Provo are foggy—at least that’s how I remember them. It was the kind of fog that feels wet and cold on your cheeks, a dense, snug fog. I fished the river many times when fly fishing was new to me, but there are ghosts in the fog now, at the edge of sight.

I was in the middle of a ninety-nine day fishing trip—I don’t remember now why I didn’t make it an even hundred—fishing eight- to twelve-hours a day, staying in the river until it seemed like the banks were moving instead of the water. Thirty-years ago, I fished with more urgency than I do now that I live in the Intermountain West and good trout water is only a thirty-minute drive in any direction. I fished hard, couldn’t get enough of it. I was so focused on trying new techniques and catching fish that I sometimes failed to see the beauty around me.

It was a Spartan expedition. I slept on a small mattress in the bed of my truck under a camper-shell. I had a propane heater, camp-stove, and lantern; a cooler that I restocked once a week with black bread, black forest ham, and black Irish beer; my books, journals, fly-tying kit, and fishing gear; and a couple of changes of clothes.

I made friends with Mike, the owner of a convenience store in the canyon where, when I got reesty, he let me use the shower and bathroom in the back of the store. As a way of thanking him I took his twelve-year-old son fishing every Saturday.

The road through the canyon was a tortuous two-lane then. One of the businesses that thrived in the canyon was a quaint restaurant called The Chateau. I would have breakfast there a couple of times a week, and when the cold and sleet drove me from the river, I’d retreat there and sit at the counter shivering until the hot coffee and clam chowder warmed me back from the edge of hypothermia. The waitress was from back East. She had bounded around the country until finally landing there. When I asked her why she ended up on that river, in that canyon, she said that God had told her to come there. And I believed her.

Each morning I drove to a vantage point above the river where I would build a pot of coffee and watch the Sun slowly reveal the river below. Sometimes the river would be hidden, and I couldn’t tell if I was seeing fog or looking down on clouds. I felt suspended, reluctant to move and break that spell. On those days, I would sit silently sipping coffee until the Sun burned off the mist before I strung up my rod and headed down the slope. Yes, God would tell people to come there, to that place. It was a place that people would need, a place that could heal.

One cold, wet afternoon, I stood in stinging sleet marveling at the way the banks seemed to flow by as the current tugged at my thighs and washed gravel from under my boots. I was contemplating the delicate balance of chemicals that separate the sane from the rest of us as I took a pull from my, then, ever-present flask. (This was before the pain in my side forced me to rethink the hard-drinking lifestyle of my outdoor heroes, before I concluded that the outcome could well be shoving a shotgun in my mouth and going atomic, a la Hemingway.) I was beginning to get the shivers, so I started busting through the willows, headed for my truck and some of the Chateau’s hot chowder and coffee.

When I popped out onto the trail, I was surprised to see a small car parked there. The windows were fogged up and I figured it was a couple looking for privacy, but as I got closer I could hear sobbing coming from inside.

It was sobbing that, whether you’re the one doing the sobbing or the one hearing the sobbing, shakes your soul. The sobs were punctuated by exclamations of “Oh God!” and “Please!” They were the sobs of a young woman and they had their usual effect on me—I stood frozen to the ground, helpless and confused, wanting it to stop.

I was a young man then, still operating on the grammar-school rhetoric that little girls were made of sugar and spice and everything nice. I still thought it my duty to rescue damsels in distress. This was before that kind of thinking had me leaning into a few left hooks, before holding a door open or calling a woman a lady would get you branded a chauvinist, before I embraced the loss of feminine mystique and began preferring the company of a good Retriever.

I noticed a pile of cigarette butts under the driver’s side window as I approached. I knocked on the window and asked if everything was ok and if she needed help. The window rolled down to reveal a pretty young lady. Her short black hair—not today’s short, where gender is called into question, but more of a 1920’s bob—was pasted to her lightly freckled cheeks and forehead. Bitter tears rinsed mascara from her hard blue eyes.

“Are you ok? Do you need help?” I repeated.

She asked me if I had a cigarette, so I dug a fresh pack from my coat pocket and handed it to her, telling her to keep it.

Her backseat was stacked with clothes and household items and it was obvious that she was living out of her car. “This isn’t a good place for you. It gets cold up here at night,” I told her.

“I have blankets. I’ll be fine,” she replied.

“No, I’m talkin’ blue-ass cold,” I said. She smiled at that, and I would have done anything to keep that smile on her face.

An empty potato-chip bag and Coke bottle lay on the seat next to her, so I asked if I could get her anything from the store. She thanked me but said she would be ok. “Look,” I said, “I know the people who run the store up the road. If you need anything, go there and get it and I’ll take care of it.” I pulled a twenty from my pocket, handed it to her, told her to get something to eat, and headed for my truck.

I stopped at the store and told Mike about the girl and asked him to run a tab for her in my name.

I checked on her the next day and saw that she had organized her things and her clothes were now neatly folded in the backseat. Every time I checked on her, I could see her making progress. Later that month, I noticed a newspaper on her dash and could see she had circled places for rent, too, I noticed some brochures from the local college. She had a plan.

She often joined me for morning coffee and we’d sit on the tailgate of my truck, smoke cigarettes, and watch the valley unveil from the fog’s blank canvas.

The last time I seen her, the car was empty and she was taking care of herself, fixing her hair, wearing makeup. We talked for a long time that day. She told me she had found a job at a high-dollar restaurant and was going back to school and that she had rented an apartment. When I went by the store that night, Mike handed me a twenty that the girl had left for me, and I knew then she’d come that day to say goodbye.

They widened the road into a four-lane a few years later; the Chateau, the little store, and the place where we talked and laughed went away. A sadness comes over me when I pass through there now and think of that dusky-haired, blue-eyed girl.

Our last conversation was one that I look back on with regret, punctuated by long pauses that left me feeling like something more needed to be said, a conversation that stays on replay when I sit alone on the banks of a high country river, wrapped in a cold, cozy fog.

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.