WEST TO WATER
Updated: Jul 9
Midway from Chicago to LA it still hasn’t hit me. Sprawling canyon, salt flat, scrub brown and mountains crawl below. I carried on three fly rods and a book of Jim Harrison’s poetry. Our platinum blond, plump-lipped stewardess calls me Skippy. She won’t take cash for a beer.
** Here, I am slow motion. Layers of break-neck life peeling away. I know it’s the wide-open expanse of frontier plainsong. Forever rolling and howling as the speedometer pushes 85 and The Grateful Dead wander their highway through Althea in Nassau. I am small here.
** Gas station coffee, grain elevators, rail cars, Friday night lights, onions, grapes, magpies, llamas, cottonwood groves, sunflowers, sage, corn, wheat, cattle, chukar, grouse, desert quail, winding roads, canyon, famous potatoes. One lone strip club hiding over the county line.
** Hot copper-white and sage canyon floor. We sit in camp chairs with beers, grilling meat for lunch in the weak shade of a nearby tree. Driftwood and brush flood-woven eight feet up in its branches. On the other side of the willows the desert river pretends to mind its own business.
** 4 a.m. Roadside sage and gravel shoulder chase the curving road, a cold ghost-gray in our headlights. We make the Sawtooth Basin by sunup. Eggs, sausage, homemade white toast and coffee in Stanley. Outside, thin smoke from a small late summer campfire, quiet talk, mountains. It’s 27o.
** To get here, switchbacks had us coming and going. We park on the shoulder outside Lowman, pull on waders and step-skid-step to the water. This seventy yard stretch runs twelve feet deep and gin clear right from the edge. Sun finds us at 10:38. Smoke from last season’s fire a thin film in the air.
** We spot a moose as we haul the jet boat down Highway 26. Big black body in full stride a half-mile out into Swan Valley’s amber waves of grain. Her pine and brush foothills another quarter-mile off. A combine leads a yellow dust cloud across the next immense field. The sky looks like rain.
** Mack truck river hauling the ass-end of mammoth runoff. There’s no thinking at this pace. We drift, I sling. Wail full-on gun-shots into slack eddies, under thick brush, against cliff wall undercuts and grass-sand banks. Swings and short-strikes. Dusk drops on our run back to Conant.
** I know he’s going to take before he does. Everything’s right. Cast, distance, depth, slower- than-river-speed drift, Folsom Prison Blues playing in my head. The fly touches bottom a couple times, tumbles from the riffle into the pale green. I look him in the face, good one he says. Good one.
** An hour-and-a-half drive north. The sun burns off the morning haze and the Tetons get to their feet. Riverside parking and talk of big fish. Forty minutes downstream from the truck, we scramble from a game trail into the river. At thigh deep, I’m the knife at a gunfight.
** From where I stand, frontiersmen once contemplated their purpose in this landscape, the panorama of destiny. Motionless, forty yards into the river, a small whirling eddy in my shadow. Perspective. The wide arc of a distant osprey. Big fish rise carelessly, thinking the coast is clear.
** Mesa Falls, Ashton, Rexburg, Rigby fill our rearview mirror. Windows down, simmering late-afternoon sun, we’re on the other end of the gauntlet and there’s nothing pressing to say. The last eight days packed tight in my tired, calloused hands, ready to throw like a sneaky left in the final round.
** Snake, Payette, Salmon, Henry’s Fork, Owyhee—forever in my blood. These days and miles and fish and landscapes are forever in my blood. Tomorrow is 9/11 and our flight back east. Tonight we drink bucket-beers at the stock car races. I feel like a good fight or some Howlin’ Wolf but I’m hungry and still have to pack.
** 12:20 a.m. Wheels-down in Rochester. Shuttle ride to the car, Army duffel, pack and rods at my feet, two frowning wives cluck about Yellowstone’s rustic amenities. One husband nods, Good fishing? I nod back. Montana? he asks. Idaho. My voice is 10-day gravel and far from being home.
(Originally published in Volume 4, Issue 2 of the Flyfish Journal)