Friday March 16th, 2012 - 6:45 a.m.
I live in two worlds this, and every spring. Three-thousand feet make more of a difference than you’d think...than I thought when I moved up them. A hardy three months of difference on both sides of summer. Wildflowers won’t begin until June, and aspen change in September with harbinger cold nights of snow. Where banks have melted, where the avalanche victim Earth can at last breathe again, she gasps in grasses pressed down in wet soggy shades of brown -- like the bottom of a pond that’s been drained. Alpine meadow grass is covered still, in static swirled lines from almost eight months of winter, gestating spring; which, as any other birth, is highly anticipated.
And so I go down three-thousand feet every weekday morning, to work to live on my side of the mountain; down, to where daffodils are blooming, and leaves are budding in perfect mantis-green rolls; more every day as if someone is slowly turning up the color saturation knob, located in the city & county building, I’d guess.
But up in my canyon, at over 8,600 ft., there is still snow, still ice, still wood fires burning into the night. We’re still in black and white. We still wave at each other as we pass on the roads. And yet -- yet, there are signs of spring -- dripping, shedding, and bird songs before dawn; and the sound of water again, running down the canyon neatly tucked between the pavement’s end and the other side of the canyon’s beginning. It’s the first thing you hear when you get here, although you might not realize it at first (that sort of constancy you don’t truly appreciate until it’s gone), but it never leaves, you do; it’s always there, still mumbling during the winter months under its breath, out of earshot behind closed windows and doors. Old Neighbor Tom told me there are trout in that small stream, when he walked across the road the day I moved in to warn me against cooking bacon with my windows open “bears’ll smell it and come a runnin’,” he’d said. Now for the record, I have cooked bacon countless times with the windows open, and have yet to even see a bear, let alone have one coming running and tearing into the house.
I haven’t found any trout in that small stream yet, but just because you don’t see something, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Jay says that if an old timer - one of those salty, grumpy, wise old ones -- says there’s trout....you believe them. That’s what Jay says. And so I still believe something’s there. Maybe one day I’ll see the flash of a rainbow’s belly.
Or maybe not.
As I drive down the canyon, I think -- there’s no off-switch for that (cell phones, I believe, are truly not as distracting as my thoughts). Months ago now, before I began work on my rod, I talked with Kathy Scott. About writing books, about rod making; about being librarians and fly fishermen. I read all of her work. And through the static phone I heard a smile grow on her face as I talked of the beginnings of my own bamboo rod. She said, “It’s all about the journey...”
It’s all about the journey.
Having read all of the books about bamboo I could get my hands on, I expected that phrase. From what I could tell, there was something nebulous about bamboo, something no one really could quite put their finger on, and yet once and if you try (once you pop the top), you can’t stop. An addiction. Like meth. Or Pringles.
Never for once did I doubt she was right, but you can’t even begin to imagine the journey before you start, and if you do, if you try, you melt underneath the heat of details. I know, because I tried. And I learned that life is not, in fact, about the destination; because for all of us, that’s death; it really is about the journey…and about the trails that will be washed out, the wrong turns, and the times when you’ll be saved from yourself and reaching your destination. Like a cat’s lives. Over and over and over again.
What I had doubted was whether or not I was ready for the journey. I felt ill-prepared and under-packed. And so I didn’t focus on the destination at all (or as I said, I would have melted); instead, I took one step at a time, concentrating hard on that and only that -- like I used to do as a kid, walking through forests and pastures at night, heeding my mother’s instructions of heel-toe...heel toe. Quiet. Careful. And you will see.
When people have asked me what comes next?, I haven’t been able to answer – I didn’t want to be able to answer. Every day when I came into the shop, I waited for Frank’s instruction and explanation…for my charge. And then, I stepped into that comfortable small space in which I could move and think and feel my way through. It was my way of controlling myself, of managing my thoughts and anxiety. I couldn’t worry about what I would be doing tomorrow, or next week -- because I didn’t know….and so I focused on what was before me. These past months are the first time I can honestly say I’ve lived my life in the present -- in the moment. I felt like a toddler most days, seeing something for the first time, and thinking it was absolutely the coolest thing in the world. Amazement and true thanks that such things exist as puppies, ice cream cones, and bamboo rods. This wonderment of an empty young mind fills rapidly, and as we grow our vocabularies and index away word meanings, we lose that wonderment fast, because we know what’s coming. We know that the exuberant mass of fur waiting for us at the door every night is our dog (somehow though, our dogs manage to keep the wonderment of us). I don’t actually remember it, that wonderment. I don’t remember being amazed (in a good way) by the world.
I turn into Frank’s driveway, and ring the doorbell, looking at the elk rubs on the bush next to the walkway.
“Hey! Come on in…”
Moving boxes are stacked like wooden building blocks, toppled over. “I’ve got to re-arrange things….so I can re-arrange them again.” Frank chuckles at himself.
“I know how that goes...trying to get the feel of a room right.” And most often, I don’t. I don’t accessorize myself or my home for this reason. Keeping it simple, everything feels right in my bones.
I glance down, and there is a black marker lying on the kitchen counter. My rod is nearby. Today, I’m going to sign it. Claim it as my own. Tell everyone that I, Erin Block, am its maker. It’s somewhat like the point of surnames, really – declaring who belongs to whom. Today is something of a christening.
“Here’s the marker…and a practice piece of cane….” Frank says, “it can be weird writing on the flats…”
So I write carefully, practicing, making lines and archs into letters, into words, as you do so mindfully in preschool -- penmanship only degrades from there.
And then I switch out for my rod, and write my name very slowly, and thoughtfully on the flat below I pen the length and weight and taper. My hand begins to shake a little bit. Then the month and year -- I’m nervous -- whereupon I have the secret hope that several hundred years from now someone will find this rod in an attic, or woodshed, or closet with a secret door, and will wonder who Erin Block was -- maybe they’ll Google me once or twice, if people are still Googling in 2413 -- and then they’ll marvel at how long ago 2012 was. That is what I hope – that this rod, that these words, will someday prove that I existed. That I lived and loved and lost. And died. And that I was glad to go, but sad to leave.
Out in the garage, Frank shows me how to sand the wraps. Very carefully (remembering Hal’s warning), until they’re frosted like root beer float glasses A&W puts in the deep-freezer. Then I steel wool the blanks, and rub them down with mineral spirits to clear the dust and fingerpritns.
“We’ll do these one at a time” Frank says, grabbing one of the tips. There’s a method to this madness of dunking a rod in a PVC tube-bath of varnish. Timed. With a stopwatch, stopping two minutes at each guide to blow the varnish off and out.
“And make sure you don’t touch the rod...” Frank says.
I nod, although his back is turned towards me….as I always wave goodbye to the person on the phone.
Frank brings up photos of bugs and big browns on his computer at a desk next to the far wall. “Look at this one…this was the day when…wait...don’t….I’m distracting you.” And so from that point at each two minute break, Frank shows me photos. We’re both excited to start fishing again, I can tell….to start fishing the high country again.
Time’s up. Two minutes.
I start the pulley motor back up and re-set my stopwatch. At the next guide, the rod has spun around so that the guide is on the back side. Reaching around to blow the varnish off the guide, intently concentrating on that and only that, the nail of my pinkie finger touches the blank.
Frank turns around. “It’s ok….we’ve got to dip it again anyway…..but don’t do it again.”
And I remember back to what Jay told me this fall when we were cutting and stacking fire wood – keep your eye on the chopping block, don’t focus on the piece of wood….if you do, you’ll miss completely. You’ll chip it. Keep your eye in the moment -- in all of the moment -- not on the destination; on the means, not the end. Keep your eye on the journey.
A few hours of timing and waiting and looking at browns later, all three pieces of my rod are out of the varnish, hanging by string and masking tape to dry. And as I get ready to leave for the day, I glance back up and look at my name, printed by my hand, and smile...yeah, I’ll claim that as my own.
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