Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Crater Lakes: The Reward of Being Stubborn.

She rose in greeting...only once. The perfect lady, she kept us waiting. Baiting with brook trout we could see -- but please, do not touch. Kept safe behind glass walls. Right there, just beyond reach. The trout were finicky. And deep. Every time we thought we had them figured out, turns out we didn't.  Appetites change, loving in youth what cannot be endured in age. Altered with the minute.

The water was clear, as were the refusals. Over and over and over again. Like a high school boy just not taking the hint, we asked her out again...and again...and again. Accepting a few times, she toyed with us. Letting Jay and I each touch a few trout, here and there, playing along a bit, showing us that there was still hope. But, not much. Even so, I think she enjoyed the attention.

We kept on following the trail, casting the whole way round; and, were given crumbs along the way. Though, just enough to keep us hungry. This, the most desperate state -- just enough. Too much feeds no interest, and semi-starvation breeds adaption. But just enough, is never so. Yet, we had just enough to make it around the lake. Walking the circumference, like foxes stalking a coop...

Snagged and frustrated, Jay said, "I'm fine with leaving, whenever you are."
"Ok, same goes for you." I replied, equally snagged and equally frustrated.

That conversation obviously quickly forgotten, we both unsnagged, re-rigged and kept on casting, not wanting to be the first to quit. Evenglow peaked over the continental divide finding us deep in its cirque, and reaching to rises finally breaking the glass.

Quickly now, tie on a Parachute Adams. Cast along the bank. A pine bough graveyard of leaders and flies -- it's difficult, and awkward...but you'll be rewarded. 

"This is what we get for being stubborn, eh?" Jay said, grinning with another brookie on a dry. And as I waded out  through a log jam to release my last trout of the day, I smiled....this is more than enough...

And yet, I'm still hungry.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Highcountry Lakes Revisited (after I grew up).

I used to be a hiker. A few years ago, I hiked a lot -- the equivalent of a half marathon every weekend. Alone. Those who loved me worried, and once I was back I made the promised call or email to Nebraska, to let them (my mother) know I was safe. I didn't, however, tell them about the lightning, the bear scat, the ankle tweaks, the iffy trails, or the rock scramblings. Like Jay, I always figured that I'd die with my boots on. 

I didn't particularly like the hiking per se, but moving my legs has a way of moving my mind. Walking has a way of working things out. And that, I needed. At highcountry lakes before heading back down, I'd linger. Leaning on my backpack, or wading out to a boulder, I'd plop down, eat an apple, and watch the fishermen. Mine was the gaze of a child looking at the person they wanted to be -- to be like -- when they grew up. If any of those fishermen took note of the amount of time that I -- a young woman -- spent watching, they would either have been creeped out, or their egos would have swollen in size; like under-milked udders.

Every cast and every line silently thrown spoke of things I didn't understand, but desperately wanted to. I couldn't hear the reel's hiss, or the timbre of line through the guides. I also couldn't hear the fisherman's curses at snags and messy casts, or the sigh of satisfaction when every once in awhile, it all went right. There was no pocket hiker/fisherman dictionary for help with translation, but I knew that all those nuances -- the pause in the backcast, the speed of stripping in line, the changing of flies, the place he chose to stand -- they were all talking, telling me something of the persistence of grace. 

But perhaps it was pursuing the trout those days, for I never saw grace given to the fisherman.

Now, I remember a Jim Harrison poem, and a line about the marriage of fisherman and fish, "swimming up and down stream...twisting." The current keeping them together, without rings -- the eddies, the dry years, the runoff, and the reminder that it's always dangerous, stepping in. There is always that possibility that you'll get swept away. Twisted. And sometimes, that's what you want. What you need... let go. 

Explore. It's ok. Haul out line as far as you can, and let it sink deep, anchoring you in this language you're beginning to understand.

For almost six months now, I've wanted to go back to each one of these lakes I once hiked to alone. Only this time, accompanied by a fly rod and Banjo, or Jay, or even better both. And this time, I would be that fisherman I wanted to be when I grew up.

So last Friday, I hiked into the highcountry with a rod tube on my back and Banjo by my side. On Sunday, hiking to another lake, Jay would be there.

I've grown up. I'm a fisherman.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


He showed me where the deer trails are, and how
to hollow a lodgepole, already rotting out
into a place for nests and rest, and watching
the strawberries grow,
get them, he said, before the birds do
watch them, he said, like a hawk watches those birds' nests
waiting, until the time is just right.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Irony Appreciation Day.

I have no childhood memories of catching fish. I ransack my brain, trying to find something in one of  its cupboards, mousing for some leftover morsel. But no. Not even a crumb of a crappie, and I am hungry. Oh, I have no shortage of childhood fishing memories, but they are made of choppy water, a yellow canoe, old tires and snapping turtles. The only two catches of my childhood: a tire and a turtle. I remember reeling in, excited, this was going to be a huge fish, only to find a snapper. And I can still see my dad cutting the line before I got the silly notion in my head out, to ask if we could take it home and keep it as a pet.

I appreciate irony. I appreciate the irony that nowadays, I catch fish. And I'm always thankful to do so -- to just avoid tires and turtles. I guess maybe I was getting cocky. Catching too many fish. Too many un-skunked days. Must have been something like that.

I've learned that I should never doubt Jay -- not his advice, direction, or expectations of me. As we grabbed our rods from the back of the truck, he asked "now, what's been your best day carping?"

"Two I think," I said, spitting out a cherry pit.

"Huh. Well, this is going to be your best day yet."

He had a feeling, he said.

A feeling.

"We'll see, eh?" I said, rubbing my thumb up and down, massaging the cork like a jockey prepping a racehorse for the track -- prepping myself for the flats. Getting the muscles ready. And in the end Jay was right, I had my best day yet, catching eight, and this should be a post about carp fishing. But it's not going to be. Not completely. Mostly, it's going to be about irony.

Tails. Backs out of water. Mud balls. Oh yes, we caught carp. The third one I landed was different though, distinct, "He's missing part of his tail!" I yelled to Jay, what I'm sure he could already see. Why do we still, after toddler-hood feel the need to state the obvious? It still looked a little red, the carp's tail. Healed, but sore. And I wondered, what could have done this. Oh sure, there's aggression during spawning. Bumps, bruises and missing scales. But nothing like this. Half the tail...what in the world could have done this? Jay took a photo and started stalking further down the bank. I followed, and didn't think about that tail again.... least for a little while.

It was getting late now, and we'd been fishing for eight hours straight. "One last cast over in that corner, ok?" Jay asked, knowing my answer would be, "ok!," and knowing full well that with us, there was no way it would be just one more.  

Tailing carp. Cast......cast....we were both next to nice ones. I missed, but kept stripping in. Then thwuump. Everything stopped hard. "Got him?" Jay asked, concentrating on his last cast. "Nah, a snag," and I began pulling in line, heavy with dead weight.

But then -- then I saw a head, and heard Jay yelling "Erin, that's a snapper!!!"

I started laughing in disbelief, while at the same time being utterly petrified. Jay yelled again, "Crap! I've got a carp on!" I think it might be the only time in his life he has ever been disappointed at this.   "You've got to hold that snapper!" Oh please, just cut the line....cut the line! But then I thought -- no, no I need to, for irony's sake. So I bucked up, faced fate, and embraced the irony.

And then he walked away like a Tonka Truck -- back to play in the sandbox...

It's a rite of passage for carp fishermen, Jay tells me. You have to fish for carp and snappers in the same way, and you have to be good to catch either. Not many fly fishermen have caught snappers who've actually eaten the fly, he says. A legit catch. I guess snapping turtles like backstabbers too.

Perhaps yes, this was rite of passage. Perhaps. But it just felt like irony to me -- the fates reminding me not to get too cocky, not too used to fishing and actually catching fish. They can always curse me back to tires and turtles.

"You know," said Jay later that evening, "that one you caught with the chunk out of its tail? I was thinking...." We looked at each other and grinned. It all makes sense now. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Airing Laundry.

I love clotheslines. Exactly why I can't pin down; like the canyon winds, the whys are always changing, directing thoughts elsewhere. Perhaps it's the memories of hiding among eggshell-white Egyptian cotton sheets at my Grandmother's house. She always had matching sheets. When I grow up, I'll have matching sheets too. But now, do I? No, no, no. That would be far too domestic.

Perhaps it's the somewhat fiendish feeling I get remembering how my sister and I would hang our naked baby-dolls on my mother's umbrella clothesline. Round and round they'd go, faster and faster until the dolls vaulted off. We laughed. Sometimes we'd pin them back on, and sometimes we'd call it a day for doll torture and move on to cutting all the hair off our Barbies. 

Perhaps it's the scent of pine I don't have to pay for in detergent. Or the canoe laid up behind -- like an actor behind the curtains, waiting for his next part to play. 

Or perhaps, it's the unknown. The chance factors involved. Like bailing hay, there's always that possibility that it will rain, molding the cutting. There's that possibility that a storm will soak the t-shirts. Or a bird might poop on the pillowcases. Will I later find a grasshopper in bed, tucked into the sheets? To hang out laundry is to take a chance. To gamble if it will work this time, or if it will be drenched in failure. 

Thunder threatened all afternoon, like a father scolding me for even having had the thought of putting it out...

...and yet I did. I disobeyed. Chanced it. And ended up winning the bet. Although, there's still always that possibility I'll end up tucked into bed with a grasshopper. An apt punishment in the end. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

One Year Anniversary.

"Most people last only one winter up here, just so ya know" a neighbor-man looking about six months pregnant said as he walked up my new driveway. New to me, that is. In reality, old with three years of forgotten dirt.

"You livin' up here all alone?"

"My sister will be here for a few months, but otherwise yep, yessir I am."

"Well..." the pregnant man grunted (from a distance, I could hear his labored breathing through nose-hairs which should have begun being trimmed decades ago) "...welcome. But ya know, most people only last one winter..."

'Most people' I thought. But not me. That was one year ago now. I made it through the long winter, and have started hauling wood for the next.

The neighbor-man doubted, and so did the realtor. When I called to set up viewings, the expected and unavoidable question came: "is that time good for your husband too?"

"I don't have one."


Awkward silence.

Friends questioned my abilities and my sanity in buying a house, and a fixer-uper at that "but you have no honey to do," they said. No, I didn't. I'd have to do, helped along by my dad on his visits out to Colorado. I'd never been any good at making lists anyhow and I'd never call anyone honey, even if I was sweet on them. 

Pulling into the driveway the first time, meeting that realtor (and yes, without a husband) -- I fell in love. It was May and there was still a blanket of snow, but that only made me fall harder. The shed; the awning in want for a wood pile; the stone fireplace made out of rocks from the mountainside; the weathered deck; the scalloped eaves; the overgrown wintered grass; the stream lining the property heard as clear as its water. The raspberry canes bulwarking the house. And the windows...dear god, the windows. I'm home. It was the same feeling I would get reading and months later meeting a fisherman and fellow writer at a coffee shop. I'm home. I fell in love with him too.

Strange, my mother always told me it would happen this way. That I'd just know. And now, I just know exactly what she meant. Took me awhile though. Took me a good long while.

It was the scariest thing I've ever done in my life, buying this property alone. Scarier than riding a 15 hand horse bareback for my first riding lesson. Scarier than moving off to college from rural Iowa to San Francisco at age 17. Scarier than getting married. Scarier than being diagnosed with a disease. Scarier than getting divorced.  But this land, it needed me. It needed attention, and that I had. The hole in the bedroom wall crumbled drywall into my hands. But it was my drywall. The paint chipping off was my paint. And the dead ants coating the kitchen floor? Yeah, those were mine too.

Somehow, this was comforting. Dead ants.  

I should have been a pioneer. I romance myself with 'should've been a cowboy,' but I know it's only that: a brief romance....a girlish crush on the Marlboro Man. But as a woman, I needed land. I'm no nomad. I needed roots. I needed space, and most of all, I needed time.

And so I came to the mountains -- gathering my wits and broken pieces, working mule-hard, and saving everything -- to get to my canyon. To my side. I came here because something in my pioneer soul called me up....higher. Further up; further in. It may not always be safe, but it is good. I came here because of my adolescent infatuation with Sam, and his side. Like an injured animal, my soul shot through. Pierced, though not with cupid's arrow -- rather, with the pain of pulling out. I retreated. I nested. Finally, I felt safe. My soul found its sanctuary in painting the cabin, stacking wood, shoveling snow, and having no need for curtains on the windows. There are no Peeping Tom's in my neck of the woods, save turkeys.

People worry that I will become a hermit. And they are right to do so -- I may yet become one. They worry because I refuse to get a phone. They are probably right to worry about that as well. They worry I will develop the eccentricities evident in canyon folk -- "well, she's sure got that crazy mountain woman thing going on, huh?" I've overheard. But really? Really, I have nothing "going on" besides just being me on my side of the mountain.....through many, many more winters....

.....although now, no longer all alone.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Second Date.

"I haven't stopped thinking about this place...and about coming back here a second time." Jay said as we walked down the early morning path,  later than we'd hoped. Morning wagon-wheels separated us with a buffer of grass -- like a chaperone. "Learning her, learning the water...what's the same, and what's like a second date." 

He smiles.

Hearing what she was scared to say, what she was scared to tell you, the first time. Beautiful, she shows you her deep places, where the trout hold. But she doesn't give them up easily. You've got to work for them. Hard. Learning her. Remembering what she's told you before...... begin to write her sentences before she speaks.

She laughs through the wind. She teases. She burps with the bullfrogs -- surprising you -- she isn't all beauty. And this is how she keeps fishermen coming back. The good fishermen, that is. Most give up. She's too nuanced, there's easier, they say as they pack up their spinning rods, ending a whole day with only a few bumps. A coquette in a white tank-top. Almost see-through. And she drives you wild. She holds your interest -- and hand -- giving a little bit at a time. All you can think about is the next date. The next cast into her thoughts.

She flirts, flashing feeding trout as you're rigging. And, re-rigging. For the sixth time....

.....after you think you've got her all figured out.

Jay cups his hand and whispers so that the pond, she can't hear --- callibaetis spinners. The hatch changes; again, she changes her mind. Re-rig. It's a woman's prerogative.  

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Stacking and Piling Words - guest post on AndiLit

Morning seems to rise not from the sky, but from the ground. Light comes up from below, and within. Perhaps it’s the evergreen limbs that canopy my view. Or the hesitance with which in the morning, I look up.

I hear my dog Banjo stir, loll off the couch, lap up some water, and jump into bed next to me. He makes room for himself. Digging his wet nose into my pillow he grunts a good morning, let’s run. In the chill of an August canyon morning, I pull on shorts and a fleece. My legs have goosebumps until we get going – until we face the first mountain road, and head straight up. Then, I sweat. At 5:00 a.m. before I go to work, I make room. I love him.

In the evening I sit, engaged in a staring contest with my computer screen – that eternal blankness. Sometimes I’ll write a sentence – a good sentence — and then a paragraph. Often, I don’t. The screen wins. Annie Dillard says that at its best, writing is “Unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it.” I seek, I knock, and the door is still shut. Locked, I pick the lock slowly; careful for what may be holed up behind. It doesn’t come easy, this art called Writing. No good thing does. Thus I keep on looking for grace unmerited, through words. My body and mind come out of the anesthesia of the workplace and the dullness of the routines of daily life. My mind wakes and runs ahead, and my body doubts it can keep up. I need sleep. But it charges ahead, my mind. Wherefore comes this need to exhaust myself fully? To run out of gas. To not stop while I still have some in the tank….a little something to start tomorrow with would be nice. But it doesn’t let me rest until I’ve spent my whole soul. Drained. Yet, I love it — my writing – and it makes room, weaseling through the chinks in my log-laid mind.

And then comes night — when the light fades from the sky, going back into the ground only to come up again — with hope, like a spring bulb planted in the fall. I look into the dusk, needing to find some meaning, some reason for the day that has just past. Its burial now in the sunset. Its pyre, the ridge of the canyon holding the rest of the world up. Still glowing. The embers will stay for a little while longer yet, keeping warm something that wants to die, and die quickly. Please? And yet the God of my youth shows himself, here in this place…in the death of the day. Like a bull moose, tromping through the willows at twilight…I think I see his antlers rise, warning. Unsure if it is him, I dare not take another step. I dare not move closer. I’ve heard the stories of what moose can do. And, I respect them. I dare not tame such beauty – sinewed with power and peace, yet knowing not which one he’ll chose. I hate that He turns up when and where he does – here in the willows. I would hate the why too, but I can’t make sense of it enough to do that. I want to forget about Him, to embrace my doubt and disbelief, and just keep walking down the trail, ignoring the sounds in the brush. Sometimes I do. But I can’t fully, and I hate Him even more for it. Yet, He makes room for Himself in the willows. And although I don’t know why, I love Him.

These things which I love — I’ve found that I don’t have to make room; they make room for themselves. Wanted or not, I have to let the dog into bed; I have to write; I have to believe in the moose in the willows. And that is one of the dichotomies of love. Sometimes you want it; sometimes you don’t. But always, you need it. And always, it makes time for you…wanted or not.

AndiLit: Stacking and Piling Words: A Guest Post by Erin M. Block

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

1980's Kind of Style.

I'm an old soul of a man, guised inside a young woman's body. A throwback, you might say, living in a cabin in the mountains, with a dog, and a rocking chair, and two Banjos.

And yes, I duel.

Now people say, you have to understand history before you can understand the present. Often, these people are old gents who just want your ear. They just want you to listen. When you're young, you roll your eyes back to their time; guilted by your mother whose look says you don't know how long he'll be around; you listen, to amuse the old man.

But as you age, you learn -- older, is often better. Stories, wine, cigars, and dare I say, men. You start to see that those who came before you made your history, like it or not. And you realize that the point of life is to decide whether you do, like it or not; then to decide whether to stay on trail or start whacking into the bush. To invent, improve, and to push boundaries, you have to know where the boundaries are in the first place. Forging a new trail isn't "new" just because it isn’t on your map.

In any case – in any art, craft, or trade, the masters are classically trained. So too in fly fishing, study the masters...listen to their stories. You need to study the classics to write a modern novel. You need to practice scales and arpeggios for decades until you can play a concerto. You need to tie the Royal Wulffs, Parachute Adams', BWOs, and Wooly Buggers, before you distress a damsel or try to tie a Clown Shoe Caddis on for size. Thus studying the masters, I tie. Right now, I'm practicing my scales.

By habit (one of many not outgrown from childhood), I animate the inanimate. The silent ones, the ones who just observe, they hold the stories. Many, thankfully untold. But I want to be told. Please. Now older, I want to listen. 

And now, I want to listen to my vise. Clamped to my desk, like a man with a firmer grip than he had during his boyhood in the 80's, I want to know its stories. I bought it for $20 -- used at a gear swap, from an equally used man. Listen to the old man's stories, I remember.

This vise has its stories too, they all do -- hooked into limbs of wood and flesh. Every bit of fly fishing radiates from the point of one vise. A solitary soul. A solitary vise illuminated by a lonely light. A solitary fly tied. And where does it go? Every personal best, record set, competition won, childhood dabble, and every fishing trip with your dad, begins here, at the vise. It's the story's history before it's first begun. That one epic catch carried a lifetime as a trophy through a tale, gathering people round to hear and dream and hope for such themselves. That fish will live forever. The fly will be forgotten...left to dry in a box or lost in a tree.

But the vise knows. It knows its part in the story. The womb, the mother who knows that of all her spawned sons, many tens of thousands will be prodigal. Sent out with so much promise, they will fail. They will disappoint. They will be lost. And, they will lose. They won't return home. Yet with stronger hands wrinkled and warped with time, it keeps holding tightly for that one who will.

Now, I reach for my vise and feel the storied stain of an old man’s salt. I tie alone. I thread my own history onto a worn spool, dubbing my words into the tale. Tonight by the light of a solitary bulb, a solitary fly emerges from my inexperienced hands and I know, I'm just a small part of this story.