THE DONNER PARTY


Author’s note: In 2015, twenty-one people lost their lives in Utah to flash floods–in one day.

THE DONNER PARTY

By

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1178

 

When I topped out, iron-gray clouds lay heavy and full along the southern horizon—and south was where I wanted to go.

I pulled into a turnout and watched the storm advancing up the valley, shutting off light, shuttering the outside world. Without sun dazzling the fall colors, the mountains turned black, brown, and earthy as the storm moved in and squatted; gossamer clouds hung in the saddles and then rolled down the slopes until the mountains vanished. Rain curtains formed a gray wall that extended across the southern end of the valley; beads of water formed on the windshield, grew fat, slid down, and cut paths through misty film; windows fogged; and I sat in blurred isolation listening to the rain tap, tap, tap the roof of the truck, drumming out any chance that I would get in some fishing that day. I wiped a hole in the window fog and watched a dense, gray sky turn gunmetal blue and slowly expand across the valley. The rain went from hard to steady, a steady that means it’s settled in.  This wasn’t your normal quick-moving, high-country storm; it had a forty-day-forty-night feel to it, so I decided to cut my losses and head for the top of the canyon and home.

Three years before, a wildfire raged through the canyon, and although much of the ground cover had returned, it remained badly burn-scarred and vulnerable to flooding. The gate used by the Forest Service to close the canyon road was open, but dropping into the canyon that day was like driving into a tunnel. Heavy clouds hung low, shrouding the canyon rim, and water cascaded down the canyon walls, forming creeks where there shouldn’t be any. As I got farther into the canyon, rivulets of water became spouts of red, gravely mud, and each time I passed one of these falls, I wondered if I was lucky to make it through or if I should turn around and get the hell out of there. A group of cars passed me heading back up the canyon, and I soon found out why.

About halfway down I came to a washout. Large boulders, logs, and a layer of mud about a foot deep blocked the road. I had four-wheel drive and thought I might be able to move a log or two and a couple of the smaller boulders and pick my way through, but I decided to turn around and follow the group I’d seen heading up the canyon. I rounded a bend and spotted the group of cars circled up like a wagon train. They waved me down, so I pulled over and rolled down my window to see what was up.

One of the guys came over and said, “Hughes canyon’s blown out.”

“North Hughes or South Hughes?”

“North.”

“No way through?”

“No. Mud’s three-foot deep, with lots of logs and boulders. . . . Have you got any food?”

I thought it a bit early in the ordeal to be worried about food, so I asked, “Is there a medical emergency?”

“No. . . . It just looks like we’ll be here a while,” he replied.

I had some power bars and a couple of packs of cheese crackers . . . so I told him no.

Then I noticed the men were all wearing black pants, white shirts, and black ties, and the women were wearing prairie dresses and blue and white ribbons in their hair—fundamentalists, clannish, self-righteous, possibly even dangerous. I was a Gentile; thus, a prime candidate to be sacrificed for the greater good. Images of the Donner party flashed in my head, and I figured my best chance for survival was to get away from these good people, head back down the canyon, and see if I could pick my way through . . . before they started drawing lots.

I got back to the washout, moved a couple of logs and oil-pan-crushing rocks, put the truck in four-wheel drive, and weave my way through. I was thinking I’d tell the state bulls about the Donners once I cleared the canyon and could get cell service when I came to another washout. This one was much bigger; there was no way to get through. In the distance, I could see two more washouts and a guy standing by a truck in the middle of the road at the last one. I waved to him and he waved back. Another truck pulled up, turned around, and headed back—going for help I hoped.

I thought about making my way back to the Donners, but I figured they were probably already barbecuing children, so I stayed put, waiting for help to arrive.

The rain started up again much harder than before, so I backed to the top of a hill to get clear of the washout. At the mouth of the canyon, clouds layered in increasingly darker shades of gray moved in low, hiding the ridges, adding to my feeling of isolation.

Thunder rumbled, and lightning cracked somewhere on the ridge above me. I was looking up the washed-out side canyon when a red wall of water came churning around a bend, smashing and undercutting the outside wall before swinging back to the center of the canyon floor. Unseen boulders rumbled as the wall of muddy water surged through the little canyon picking up everything in its path. Chunks of canyon wall sluffed into the torrent and bushes and logs rode its crest. I’m not sure if I felt the ground shake, or if it was the roaring-locomotive sound that I felt. I watched pine trees fold into the thick, red pudding and car-size boulders roll into the road.

Fear produced by raging nature is different from any fear I’ve known. The terrifyingly unavoidable; relentlessly methodical; unimaginably swift power was paralyzing.

Columns of rain now appeared between me and the mouth of the canyon. Thunder crashed, skeletal fingers of lightning stabbed down in all directions, and the air smelled of burning ozone. Logs, trees, and thundering boulders came brawling out of another side canyon behind me, and I was now trapped on my little high spot in the road.

Finally, I spotted the flashing yellow lights of a front-end loader worming its way through the logs and boulders as it cut a path toward me. I warned the operator about the Donners, and, following the path he’d cut through the washouts, headed for the mouth of the canyon. Just as I popped out of the canyon, the heavy clouds dumped everything they had; the only place I’ve seen rain come down that hard was along the Gulf Coast.

The flooding that day was regional; a trailer park and several homes were destroyed down on the flats—it was a big deal. It took the road crews a week to clear the canyon road. I never learned what happened to the Donner party—I hope they were rescued before hunger drove them to desperate measures.

© 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.

 

 

 

 

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.

SNOW QUEEN


SNOW QUEEN

By

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1,174

The trail is marked by hoof prints and pungent piles left by saddle horses and pack mules, reminders that the Elk hunt is on. Just two weeks ago the mountains were decked out in their fall finery. The aspens were still green on the ridge tops, but lower down they shimmered light green, brisk yellow, and burnt orange. Scrub oaks dotted the slopes with living reds, and the aspen’s canopy was pierced by alpine firs, the forest greens of the living, and the rust browns and silent grays of the dead and long dead beetle killed. But two weeks in the high country can be a whole season, and now the fir’s vivid greens stand out against the stark, white, skeletal outlines of hibernating aspens. The leaden sky, while not yet threatening, feels confining and foreboding. The willows are bare and brown, and the grasses by the creek have turned straw. Frost covers the pine shadowed ground till noon, and there’s a change in the air; it’s not quite nippy yet, but you wouldn’t want to spend the night up here without a fire. When the Sun does break through, if you can get out of the wind, it’s warm and pleasant.

It’s strange to think how much this little valley is about to change. Any day now, penetrating, joint-numbing cold will settle over the range, and these hushed valleys will gently fill with snow. Brooding mountains will stand silent sentinel till spring, the only witnesses to the struggles of winter kill and the splintering crack of frozen pine.

In a month, to be where I am now on foot would mean certain death. I doubt I would put up much of a fight. There would be an event, maybe a broken strap on a snowshoe. I’d pull off my gloves and fumble with the repair. I’d take too long in the biting wind, my fingers would get numb and my sweat dampened underwear would begin to freeze—the shivering would start. I’d circle looking for wood to start a fire, get tired, sit down to rest, and wonder why I left my gloves by the trail. I’d become disinterested, hear people talking, perhaps call out to them—the shivering would stop. The cold would become warm and I’d rip at my clothes (a phenomenon called paradoxical undressing), lie down in the snow, surrounded by the lost, in the eternal embrace of the snow queen.

All of my life she has come to me in dreams, always walking before me, never letting me see her face. She wears a long, flowing, low-cut dress that sparkles like wind-blown snow in moon light. Her long black hair sways with her stride, brushing alabaster skin, and the muscles of her back ripple, forming shadows and dimples that stay just out of reach. I struggle to catch up to her and see her face. I know that if I could just see her face, if she would just turn around, I’d be able to recognize her and find her—I would know. But I awake with the key to her identity unrevealed.

For days after the dream I look for her, and every long haired shapely brunette fills me with hope. She fades for a time; weeks, months, sometimes years go by, then she comes in the night, and the search begins again. But it’s a hopeless quest—her beauty cannot be found in the natural world. I came up here looking for her last winter.

I pushed my way in as far as I could until my lungs stung from the crystalized air and my thighs burned from lurching through three-foot deep snow. My breath came short, sharp, and frosted, and my heart pounded in my ears. I had brought nothing with me, no way to start a fire, no power-bars, no water. I looked back and could no longer see the truck, and blowing snow had already covered my backtracks. I knew if I kept going it would be a one way trip.

I had been there many times in the spring, summer, and fall, but the covering of snow made it unfamiliar, and the canyon looked new and unexplored. I looked up the snowy pass and could make out the trail only because I knew it was there, an unbroken line of snow that snaked up and out of sight. I knew she must be up there, but you can’t see her from the trailhead; she never comes down that far. She stays above the timberline, where snow trails to nothing from wind scoured peaks.

I looked up the trail one last time, hoping to see her on the next rise, afraid that I was too far gone not to see her. I would have followed her, watching her long dark hair swaying over the dimples in her back. We were both young the first time she came to me in that dream, but I have grown old while she has remained young. I thought if I could find her, we would walk until I was young again and no longer felt the cold. But I have never been able to will her presence, so I turned back, hoping she would come to me again in the night.

I’m certain she must come to others in dreams as well, or they would not have followed. I read about them in the paper. They leave a trail of discarded clothing and are found naked in the snow—always naked.

I read about a 13 year old boy who had been taken from his family, school, and friends, brought over the mountain and placed in foster care. He was lonely and missed his girlfriend, so he took off one night in a snow storm trying to get back over the mountain to see her. He left a note detailing his struggle adjusting to his new school, his disconnect with the hardline religious community that he’d been thrust into, and his homesickness and loneliness. Search parties were sent out and volunteers from neighboring counties fanned out with ATVs and horses, but they never picked up his trail. They found him in the spring, curled up under a cedar tree, brittle and bent, shrouded in his pathetic, lightweight jacket—his foster family had thoughtfully provided him with the words of their “prophet,” but not a winter coat.

I think people who say freezing is an easy way to go have never been truly cold; I have, it hurts. I’ve sat shivering, soaked through, unable to feel my hands and feet, unable to think clearly enough to perform the basic tasks necessary for survival. But I got lucky, and the cosmic law of the mountains that demands dumbass come full circle and be fatal was suspended for me that day.

I hope the young man found his snow queen that bitter, snowy night, and that her face was familiar when she turned to embrace him. I hope he did not suffer long.

© 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.