You can find a new poem of mine, "Frozen Antlers," in the Fly Fishing Edition of Gray's Sporting Journal.
My poem, "You Laughed when I didn't know what 'Jaded' Meant", is published in the new issue of the San Pedro River Review - "Music", Spring 2018 Volume 10 Number 1. You can purchase a copy here.
Yesterday was raw*. The rain started when I woke up and was still falling when I fell asleep. The cold wind cut through all the layers and sliced into bones. It was the first day of the year that felt like winter. It felt good. It felt like Pittsburgh.
Back then I’d keep myself warm riding bike to class through shit-stained slush with a pair of headphones and a beanie. I’d escape the brutal cold not with layers, but with music. Layers kept the chill out; music kept me warm and away from the congestion and concrete of the city. My roommates and I were also really cheap, so we kept the heat only as high as needed in order for the pipes not to freeze. I had the largest room in the house, up on the second story, with a set of three windows that looked out onto Juliet Street, two streetlamps shining their signs onto the beige carpet all night, no curtains and a mattress on the floor. I’d burn a few sticks of Nag Champa every night and throw on a record to fall asleep to and keep warm under my comforter. In 2005, during my senior year, there was one particular album that I would listen to nightly as I waited for the incense to fill the room - Will Oldham and Matt Sweeney’s masterpiece Superwolf. It took me 44 minutes to fall asleep on those nights.
“I know nothing and I’m overjoyed…” is sung, repeated as an incantation, throughout “My Home is the Sea” as Sweeney’s guitar sends reverberations, ripples of riffs throughout the industrial landscape of cold, winter Pittsburgh night. Silence outside for once. The snow has a habit of doing that, shutting everything down, sending a big “shhhh” quiet enough and long enough that everyone gets the point. Those were the nights that I loved that city the most. When Sweeney’s guitar and Oldham’s voice created an urban meditation in a sea of concrete and rough edges, I could see the city as a habitable place, a home of sorts. An ocean.
That record played me through Pittsburgh, loneliness, heartbreak, hangovers, delirious canoe rides down the Allegheny. It kept me from capsizing when the barges came to close, or when I just couldn’t paddle fast enough. Sweeny’s rumbling chants would protect my ears from wind as I pounded those bike pedals up and down riverine hills and across yellow bridges.
The thing is, that record didn’t stop playing when I left Pittsburgh and headed up deep into the north Maine woods. I couldn’t bring my LPs with me, but I had it, at the time, on cd and then eventually on my Zune. For three years that record would put me home as I lived out of a backpack and traversed the country from Maine, up and down the Pacific Crest Trail in California, and then Colorado. One night I sat on the beach and listened to Oldham sing about running as elk bugled behind me and otters wrestled in the water. There was a thick mist the next morning. I could hear the waves, but couldn't see where sand stopped and water began.
I kept repeating those lines to myself, a mantra for me - “I know nothing and I’m overjoyed, I know nothing and I’m overjoyed”. Because I didn’t. I still don’t. I was living not knowing where I was going to sleep the next night. All I needed was a sleeping bag and a little stove to heat water with. A chaw of beef jerky and my lunch was done. I had so little, knew nothing, and was happy.
I still am. I still barely know anything and yet, I get excited just driving to work. Today, a field of sunflowers. Yesterday, some rain that darkened the creek. Tomorrow I’ll drink a cup of coffee and mow the grass. I know nothing and I’m overjoyed. My copy of the record is now 12 or so years old. It’s one of my most played records and I can't tell if it's dust or Sweeney's guitar fuzz that I hear as I wash the dishes. It's beautiful either way. I still have the tickets to the Superwolf show I saw at the Rex Theater back in 2005 in the sleeve. After the show, I saw them outside the theater smoking cigarettes in the back alley; I was too nervous to say hey and tell them how much their record meant to me.
“I sing evil, I sing good, I sing as a seagull should, and if you melted, then I would, melt myself all into you” - Will Oldham
Buy it here - Superwolf - Superwolf
*I wrote that line last November. It's actually really nice, fall like weather right now. The record still plays perfectly as cicadas and locusts get their last choruses in.
Washington felt like home.
Maybe it was the two days of driving through 100 degree Idaho and eastern Oregon dry landscapes. Maybe it was insanely good burrito we got at the food truck in Olympia.
Maybe it was finally reaching the end of the swing, sliding into the last stretch of the boomerang arc, heading north along the coast, slowly making steps towards the east, our house.
Mostly I think it was the trees, the blues, the grays, the ocean and its driftwood.
Our first night was spent on the Pacific Ocean. We walked along fields of driftwood laying like fallen totems between the sand and the thick interior forest. There was a ceaseless breeze that kept the ocean in our camper and burned our fire quickly. After dinner sat and watched the sun set on the ocean. The sand skittered towards me and I would close my eyes but not for too long. I didn't want to miss the last bit of sun. I wanted to see the lightness of the dry wood begin to meld into the dark spruce as day left.
I'm still processing this place. It's fingerprints have been tattooed on me. There are only a few places I've been in my life that have completely altered my perspective. Northern Maine in late October. The saddle between the Upper and Lower Devil Peaks in the Siskyous Mountains. Predawn late August on the Susquehanna River. The Hoh Rainforest. It's primordial colors of blue and gray serve as a thick backdrop to the large Sitka Spruce and fields of fern that cover the soft forest floor. I want to go back with my fly rod, a backpack, some food and hike deep into it until I'm lost. 15 elk crossed the river right below our campsite as the sun set.
Our last few days were spent in the Cascades. I found some water full of Westslope Cutthroat trout eager to take a hopper on top. We stayed away from the crowds and camped in forest service land surrounding the National Park. We were reluctant to go, but knew we had to eventually start making it home or else we'd never leave.
"freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams
Summer is here.
Nettles are in full throttle.
I walk through them when I'm looking up, paying no mind to my steps,
tramping towards the next fence or bend in the stream, trying to avoid another groundhog hole.
It's never intentional. Sometimes necessary.
Cold water soothes the sting, but long after my legs are still mottled with the red scratches of their thin hairs.
Though, just the other day, I thought I was in the middle of a field of nettles,
mixed in with high grass, but soon realized it was mint. The breeze filled with the cracked leaves
and I rubbed some on my fingertips and on the fly I was casting.
Another day, last week, I found myself walking
the banks of Penns, watching for the air
to fill with bugs.
It was morning, which I tend to enjoy fishing
more than the evening. There's an anticipation
that can last an entire day in the morning.
The evening offers a quick spike
in the denouement of the day. It's subtle and reassuring
but there's always a solemnity in it for me.
Looking up, I realize my shoulder just passed through a cobweb full of Green Drakes.
They got caught as they were leaving their branches to drop eggs into the water late last night.
Some of their wings still twitched.
I promised Whitman a long walk today.
We explored a couple of ponds
set back from the trail
between a copse of trees and a cornfield.
There, he could bark at the ducks
and I could throw a popper for bass.
Check out the latest issue of Susquehanna Life Magazine for my essay on the Susquehanna River, "Bringing a River into Focus".
It's been a slow fall of fishing for me. Points just didn't seem to connect throughout the last two months. I ended the summer of fantastic bass fishing and big Maine brook trout and landlocked salmon by falling quickly back into a deluge of work. I lost all my headspace that allowed me to explore in a pile of papers and lesson plans. So it goes. No complaining here. Sometimes it's just hard to not let your life become, as Jim Harrison mused, "the sloppy leftovers of your work." This is just to say that it's easy for me to trace my life over the lines of fishing and come up with a pretty dynamic and accurate portrait of how I've been living. The past few months have held very few points and the lines that were connected seemed short and didn't draw much more than a few incoherent shapes that look like they were traced left handed by a right handed person. Pretty symbolic of how I've been feeling.
It's easy for us to measure our life by one or two points: relationships, work, hobbies, money, politics, things, whatever our focus goes to, and not take into account the whole landscape of what we've been living. Now that the leaves are mostly down and the sun is gone by 6, I'm left with some space for reflection. It's easier to see further when the trees are naked, but you have less time for it. Anyway, a few points have bolded themselves and have marked the last few months. One has been Jack Gilbert. Life seems to always go back to his words. There is one poem that I keep coming back to, rereading every other day - "I Imagine the Gods" . Two lines in particular.
"Teach me mortality, frighten me
into the present, Help me to find
the heft of these days."
If ever there was a prayer that I should say every day, this is it.
On a purely stylistic note, I absolutely love his choice of "heft" instead of "weight". Completely different connotations in this context. Weight holds us down, requires strength to maneuver. Whereas Heft has the duality of functioning as both a noun and verb, thereby not immediately attaching itself to its root meaning of weight, but also of action and active engagement in the moment.
My record player broke a few weeks ago. It just stopped turning on. I never liked it much anyway, so it was awesome when I went onto Craigslist and found a beautifully kept German-made Dual 1246 for sale locally. I met the guy in a Turkey Hill parking lot the next day, during which he gave me a thorough walk-thru of the mechanics of the LP player. I took it home, plugged it in, and rediscovered my love for vinyl.
I stopped buying records a year or two ago when it was looking very likely that Jess & I were going to be packing up, downsizing, and moving into a small place somewhere with mountains. When we realized we won't be having kids, we felt a strong urge to get rid of all the things that rooted us to a home, a place that wouldn't be filled with the sounds we had imagined. We were ready to go somewhere new we could fill with new sounds, dreams, ideas.
Anyway, this year brought us both new jobs, which has put off the moving for at least another couple of years, and here I am with a sweet old record player that sounds awesome, free space on my record shelf, and space to fill with new sounds. I went crate digging for the first time in a long while yesterday after work and found some sweet records. The best find for me was in the last bin I looked through. It's a record by Michael Chapman called Michael Chapman Lived Here. It's a collection of songs from 1969, 1970, and 1971. I discovered Chapman through Steve Gunn's "Ancient Jules" video and his brilliant cover of Dylan's "Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat" on Mojo's Blonde on Blonde Revisited record (really worth picking up...). He's not very well known nor given a lot of notoriety, yet he's one of those musicians that a lot of other musicians know about, respect, and dig into.
I played through this record three times. When Jess got home from teaching girls how to code, I made her listen to one particular song - "You Say". Every once in awhile a song just sticks. It speaks to you from the past, in the present, about the future. Or it just has a great hook that tags you somewhere nothing else has before. As I listen to this song over and over again, I can't help but feel like it should be played as the credits roll at the end of an amazing film. It's a song that I'll be putting on every mix c.d. I make for the next few years. It's a song that I'll always come back to throughout my life and it'll sound slightly different each time I hear it. Another line will stick out, phrasing will take on new images. It's up there with certain Jack Gilbert poems, Dylan's Time Out of Mind, Han Shan's Cold Mountain Poems, Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Steinbeck's East of Eden, and a few other pieces of art that thread their way throughout cups of coffee, hikes up ravines, and early morning drives to work.
"You Say" Michael Chapman
And so I'm saying goodbye
Although God knows I don't want to
And so I'm saying goodbye
I just don't know when it will be that I see you
Oh it might be when the spring time does come
Then we can walk on the seashore.
And it might be when the winds they blow cold,
And I can lay in your warmth once more.
And it might be when the rain starts to fall,
We'll ride on trains through the mountains.
And it might be when there is no rain at all,
And we can lay all the day in the sunshine.
You say you know where I'll be bound all alone,
You say you know why I'm leaving
You say that nothing ever touches me at all,
And I don't know what it is to be broken.
And so I'm saying goodbye
Although God knows I don't want to
And so I'm saying goodbye
I just don't know when it will be that I see you
The sultry September summer air drifted in through the open doors of the theater mixing the smell of decaying plaster and patchouli; reminiscent of the mixed generations of people who showed up for a beautifully intimate performance by Steve Gunn in the lobby of the historic Lansdowne Theater. Industrial fans, set up like sentries at both sides of the lobby where the bathrooms once were, blew through the heavy humidity. Light, occasionally flickering in, found its way onto the ancient scrolls of flaking paint on the walls and ornate carvings marking steps across the ceiling. Faded paintings of ships sailed above the cracked concrete where fountains used to stand and greet visitors.
With, at most, 100 seats, the lobby was completely full of people as an old friend of Mr. Gunn's took the stage to introduce him. His preamble was an amazing, rambling homage to the community that he and Steve created in Lansdowne as kids. It marked the occasion perfectly; this was a homecoming and a celebration of community, of saving a special part of the past for the future while performing in the present. As an outsider who never stepped foot in Lansdowne and, honestly, only came because I am in love with Gunn's music, I was moved by the connections to place, home, and family that were celebrated at last night's show that was set up to raise money to restore the Lansdowne Theater.
The meandering introduction to "Water Wheel", relaxed and cyclical, like a a small stream low after a long drought gently pushing the wheel for another spin, set the rhythm for the night. Each song was full of Gunn's sweat and sweet improvisation. "Night Wanderer", about a cat prowling around Lansdowne at night, was next and the first track played off of his latest record, Eyes on the Lines. The song, stripped down like it was, connected eloquently back to the introduction and the powerful connection to this austere place the audience and musician have.
I was giddy when Gunn took a few minutes to tune his guitar and mention that, because of the heat, he was going to take the next song slow and that "it'll be kind of long". I knew it was going to be "Old Strange", a personal favorite of mine. Gunn played the intro for a few minutes and abruptly stopped to let us know that it was borrowed from an old Greek folk tune and that the song was in honor of a local Greek Pizzeria, which drew a loud applause from the hometown crowd. There's this lick inside of that track that, even when the music goes far beyond where it started, is still lifting the tune on its back and taking it through the dark woods and a "path through the fields/to find out what was real....". That riff shows up throughout my days, playing a subtle rhythm while I'm teaching the kids about the rhetorical situation or mowing my grass or walking Whitman down to the river. It's beautiful and I never want it to end. I could have sat there on that hard plastic folding chair with my eyes closed and listened to him play that song for hours, days, forever, just to watch that melody come back and leave, come back, leave, diminish, then expand, endlessly going back and forth and reaching itself out like a patch of mint that grows and dies and with each death comes back even taller and further out from where it sprouted.
Gunn then went into a set of newer numbers from the last two records - "Ancient Jules", "Milly's Garden", "Way Out Weather" and "Ark" with winsome stories about his championship youth soccer team (which, I think, Kurt Vile also played on), skateboarding in the parking lot out back, and his short run with the Boy Scouts scattered throughout. "Milly's Garden" was more of an improvisational track. He sang the first stanza a few times until eventually making his way to the chorus. We were left to fill in the rest of the lyrics as he kept coming back to remind us that "...your faith is savage, your mind is damaged, you're more than halfway there..." while taking the song into all the corners and cracks of the lobby. "Ancient Jules" has been the soundtrack to my summer since it came out earlier this year with the lines "take your time, ease up, look around, and waste the day". It was my mantra for my summer vacation and it took me to some beautiful places. Thank you, Steve.
The show ended with "Wildwood", which Gunn mentioned was his father's, who recently passed, favorite song. He dedicated it to his mother and sister who were in the audience and mentioned how much it meant for him to play it that night; a perfect ending to this great homecoming and celebration of place, family, friends, and great music.
Way Out Weather
I was last here two years ago. We came up to the Catskills mainly to christen our new-to-us pop-up camper and to take our dog, Whitman, on his first camping trip. Fishing was definitely at the top of my list of reasons to check this area out, but it wasn't the only one, therefore, I only got to check out a few of the hundreds of miles of great fishing up that way. This time around, we were just taking a couple of days to get out of the lazy summer routine we find ourselves falling into once school is out. We were also showing the ropes to a friend who recently decided to get back into camping. This is just to say that there is still a ton of stream I want to explore.
The water temperatures got too hot to fish come 8 a.m. each morning, so I only had a couple of hours of fishing each day. Luckily, our campsite was right along the river, which let me wake up, make a quick cup of coffee, let it cool while I put on my boots and rigged up, slam it down, and head out on the stream. The last time I was here, I wasn't tying any flies and was just getting into fly fishing. I went home with a few fish landed and a good memory, happy that I caught trout in the Catskills. This time around, I wanted to fish some of the holes I remembered from last time and see how I could do. Have I progressed at all? What have I learned? How is my approach different? What did I miss last time?
This is where the idea of revisiting water became so important to me. Like a notch on your walking stick that you carve after climbing a peak or venturing into a place that you've always wanted to, catching trout on a stream that you've already fished can act as a mark in time to show your progress as an angler. It's not always about the numbers or the size, seriously. I know that's said a lot, but it really isn't, only when it is. Having already fished this water, I wanted to see if I could catch more trout and hopefully some bigger ones on flies I tied. If I did that, then it would show me that I have grown in my craft of angling and in the art of stream approach.
So, did I? Yeah, I did, and it felt really damn good. I only got to fish a few hours each of the two mornings I was there, but that was enough time to land some really nice looking fish on flies I tied. The dry-dropper rig worked best, with a fat orange stimulator as my dry and a hare's ear or hot spot pheasant tail as my nymph. The brookies tended to really dig the stimulator while the browns scarfed up the nymph.
I was especially stoked when I landed this dude on a hare's ear nymph that I've been tying a lot lately (and catching a ton of fish on). He was sitting in a short, deep pool behind a large boulder sipping bugs as they flew by in the express lane seams created by a series of rocks laid out in the stream like three thumbs up. This brown trout is definitely one of the largest I've landed on a fly I've tied. Based on my net, he's between 17 and 18 inches. He took me up stream hard when I set the hook and I slowly worked him back down towards me and over to shallow water where I could net and quickly release him. This is one of those trout that will be a mark of a moment for me. One that I will go back to and replay in my head when it's cold and rainy outside. I'll venture back to that spot and work through my approach, how I added just a bit of weight to my line right before casting, where I let the fly drop so it would follow the inside of the seam and drop quickly into the pool right behind the boulder, how his take was subtle, but fierce at the same time, and how we played each other until we were released from that moment.
It wasn't just a fly fishing trip, which is a nice change of pace for me. The last few camping trips I've gone on have been focused on the water (something that will never get old for me). This trip took us on a beautiful hike to a mountain pond and meandering around back roads, exploring the mountains. The Catskills are beautiful. Life is good when you can just get in the car and explore with good people.
I spur my horse through the wrecked town,
The wrecked town sinks my spirit.
High, low, old parapet-walls
Big, small, the aging tombs.
I waggle my shadow, all alone;
Not even the crack of a shrinking coffin is heard.
I pity all these ordinary bones,
In the books of the Immortals they are nameless.
- Han Shan
#4, Cold Mountain Poems.
Head for the mountains; my first inclination and instinct when my summer vacation starts. I packed some books, fly rods, good food and brew, and headed up to Potter County to get away from the constant murmur of traffic and work that seems to have taken a strong, subtle hold of life here in Lancaster County.
The winds shot up Route 44, tracing along dark early spring clouds and short bursts of showers as I weaved my way down into the valley. Within a half hour of pulling into my campsite, I was set up and back in the car to pick up some flies from the Kettle Creek Tackle Shop, one of my favorite fly shops. The owner is always eager to share some stories and knowledge and he has over 300 of his own, hand made fly rods for sale. One of these days I'm going to pick up one of his bamboo rods. One of these days. I was on the water soon thereafter and quickly hooked into a mess of rainbows and native brook trout.
I got up early the next day and hiked up into a beautiful wild area. I only scratched the surface of one of the more remote places in Pennsylvania, and am looking forward to taking a full day to fully explore the stream.
The afternoon brought more rainbows. So many that I started trying new flies and different techniques, just to see what would happen. I was hoping for more wild fish, but I'll still take a 30-40 fish day over getting skunked every time. Every time a few bugs started coming off the water, a burst of wind would tumble down the mountains and put them back down. A hare's ear variation that I tied up before the trip landed most of my fish. In fact, most of the fish I landed the entire trip were on flies I tied. A big improvement over the last time I was up here a year ago where I didn't even know how to dub a hook.
That evening, after a killer supper of rotisserie chicken soft tacos, I ventured upstream and soon found myself in a thick haze of bugs - mayflies, some sulphurs, and even some slate drakes. This part of the stream held a lot more wild fish and browns. They were keyed in on Light Cahills and the evening quickly became one I'll remember for a long time, a memory that I'll go back to and re-fish when I'm lost in a daze of work and habit. One after the other, these trout would swoop up from their deep lies and hit my fly. Eventually, I realized that I didn't need to count fish anymore and instead fell into the upstream moment, looking for the next seam to throw my dry. I fished until dark and took a nice long stroll back to camp under a beautiful summer night sky.
I settled at Cold Mountain long ago,
Already it seems like years and years.
Freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams
And linger watching things themselves.
Men don't get this far into the mountains,
White clouds gather and billow.
Thin grass does for a mattress,
The blue sky makes a good quilt.
Happy with a stone underhead
Let heaven and earth go about their changes.
- Han Shan
#7, Cold Mountain Poems
My buddy Scot came up to meet me early the next morning. We had a quick chat about the state of the world over some coffee and oatmeal, then headed out to a nice size trib teaming with wild browns and native brookies. Within the first run I fished, I hooked a double on a GW emerger and hare's ear. My first time ever catching two fish on both flies I was fishing. This was definitely one of my favorite streams I fished the entire trip. It's a classic mountain freestone with deep pools, fertile riffles, and plenty of room to make a back cast. When I head back up there later in the summer, I'm already planning on spending more time fishing it.
To get over to Scot's camp, we weaved our way through the mountains bordering a Wild Area and down into the next valley over. I love these long dirt roads that traverse the mountains. It reminds me of being out west and driving through National Forest lands. You could spend a day just getting lost on them, stopping where it seems right, fishing for native brook trout. There's a freedom you only get where there are no stop signs or pavement and if you break down, your walking miles to get to a camp with a phone.
That last few days of my trip were spent at Scot's camp with Kurt and Andy, helping them christen their new-to-them old-school-trailer that they rented (appropriately named Wild Boy Hops & Trout Camp). I am blessed to have good people in my life willing to share their places, their knowledge, their jokes (Kurt is the best joke teller I have ever met, a master of the lost oral tradition of making people laugh with great timing and a good pun), and cured meats (not a euphemism). We explored the valley, caught a ton of fish, sat by the fire while an old white skunk skulked around us, and ate great charcuterie. It was an awesome trip and just what I was looking for to start my summer. I explored a bunch of new water, landed over 100 fish (most on flies I tied), embraced some magnificent solitude, hung out with good friends, and had beautifully deep sleep each night. I can't wait to head back up there.
I was recently asked to describe who had an impact on my life as a "naturalist" and lover of the outdoors and chose Gary Snyder. An excerpt of this piece ran in this article in the local paper. Below is the full piece.
Having grown up in a family that didn’t really venture into the outdoors and only ever being a very part-time Boy Scout, I was left without much of an environmental ethic until high school when I came across Gary Snyder. I first heard of him as Japhy Ryder in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums which led me to his book of poetry Turtle Island and eventually The Gary Snyder Reader, an anthology that has followed me to college, up to Maine, across to the California coast, up into the rockies, and still sits on my bedstand here in Marietta. His poetry about being in the mountains and wildness spoke to me as a teenager living out his adolescent flailings in suburbia. I latched onto his sparse, beautiful aesthetic and quickly took on his views of the importance of place. This ethic that place and how we interact with it has the ability to define us has shaped who I am today.
His poems like “For the Children”, “Riprap”, and “I Went Into the Maverick Bar” have all acted as a soundtrack to my life at different points. His writing taught me not only to protect and care for our resources, but also to find beauty and connection with them. Thanks to Snyder, I was put both on a literary path through the likes of Ed Abbey, Jim Harrison, Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Han Shan, Li Po, and Rick Bass and a lifelong path of writing, trail work and environmental education, and now as a catch and release fly fisherman and steward of our coldwater resources. Thanks to him I was given the chance to create my own set of environmental ethics and was able to create my own path through place and wildness.
Merle Haggard just died. He was responsible for my first and only time getting kicked out of a bar, back in 2006. Our trail crew just finished a couple month stint up in the Siskiyou Mountains just south of the Oregon border. It was late October and the snow had finally pushed us south.
We were headed to the desert, Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms, where it’s always warm and sunny. On our way down the long state of California, we stopped for a night in San Francisco. One of our crew members had gone to Stanford, so we rolled up in our van and spilled out into a swanky co-living space stories high. Haggard, hairy, and hungry for civilization, we set down our sleeping bags in a heap in their entry way and took the train into San Francisco.
After a day of sightseeing, we ended up at a joint on Haight-Ashbury. Reveling in the sounds of other people and hypnotized by the bright TVs broadcasting some football game, we embellished deep into the night. Eventually we found the jukebox. Willie & I packed it full of country tunes. Classic ones that we knew all the words to and had been singing in our heads for months out on the trail, keeping us company far from home. Finally, “Okie from Muskogee” came on and by the third verse, we were pushed out the street, our lungs still filled with those classic lines about hippies, into the gloriously blurry darkness of San Francisco in the deep morning.
Thank you Merle. You will be missed.
“No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength” - Kerouac
The saddle between the Lower Devil and Upper Devil peak is a narrow lull filled with old-growth douglas fir that survived the last fire and whirly, hardy Manzanita spread over the scarred landscape in the Siskiyou Mountains of Northern California. At 23 years old, I had finally grown a thick, unwieldy beard that protected me from the cold lashes of the wind as I set my tent up under an ancient fir. It seems I had grown so introspective that I began to forget to shave, or at least didn’t care so much how I looked or smelled anymore deep in the backcountry. Thousands of miles from home, I thought I had become as isolated as possible. Then, the snow began.
It was the fourth morning of our 10 day hitch when I gently woke up to the softness of snow gathering on the blue nylon of my tent. The first three days consisted of wind, cold rain, more wind, and half baked bread for lunch, dinner and breakfast. During the first three months of our trail crew, we had traveled up the spine of the Pacific Crest Trail from the San Jacintos up into the Siskiyous clearing brush, building waterbars, chewing beef jerky, and cutting out fallen trees. Our last hitch of the northern section of the state before heading back to the desert, we knew the weather risks involved in being up this high this late in the season. We were fighting our misery with a Halloween party, 8,000 feet up in the mountains and miles away from the nearest town. Late October is unpredictable, so we held onto the traditions we knew best; Halloween, fires, morning wake-up songs, hot tea. Anything to keep us feeling connected to the valley.
The night before the snow, like a tattered postcard from some old friend making its way to a post office box on some random route numbered road, an asteroid streaked above our fire, so close that we thought it was a flare. We quickly gathered and hiked to the tip of the saddle to look over the valley to make sure there weren’t any forest fires started. All we saw were the intermittent lights of cars lolling down the back roads whenever they came through a break in the trees – a small reminder of what was still down there. It seemed like we all took a collective deep breath rimmed with gladness for no fire and a yearning for the lost contact with the ball of flame, and slowly made our way back to our tents, in for the night.
I woke up to find a landscape of blinding white where there had been dry browns, deep blood reds, and coniferous greens. Snow fell into my tent when I opened the fly, wetting my already frozen boots. I was mesmerized. Slowly, the rest of my crew started to wake. Most would simply pop their heads out of their tents, take a quick look, and go back into their tents. A few came out to join me: Matt, Tom, Willie, and Prana. We gathered under a douglas fir acting as an umbrella, keeping us out of the snowfall, and quickly came to a consensus.
We decided that if we were to survive this snow, we needed to get back to the basics, back to what we all knew comforted us; we needed heat. We went to work tying a big tarp to four trees. This gave us the cover we were going to need for the fire. It was still snowing as we scattered to try and find any sort of dried wood. Next, we scavenged gasoline out of our chainsaws, slowly pouring it into tin cans as if we were homesteaders pouring bacon grease out of a cast iron skillet, keeping it for next season. We built up all the dried wood we could find around the can and threw a match in. We came to life just as the fire did, whooping and hollering like we had just reached salvation – Hallelujah! We clinked our mugs full of hot tea and did a little dance in the snow, trampling down the few bits of Manzanita left around us.
The four of us stood around the fire all day while the snow blew in from the west, crisscrossing the mountains and covering our saddle. Every once in awhile, we’d make it out to the edge of our camp to have a look across the valley, but we couldn’t tell what was snow and what were clouds. We were socked in.
Having gone through a whole pound of powdered cocoa and two boxes of tea, we resorted to simply sipping hot water. We huddled around each other, shoulder to shoulder, lifting one leg, then another, rubbing our hands together, anything to keep warm. Later in the day, we finally got a call from Bill Roberts, the Forest Service packer that was our only connection to the outside world. He was coming up with a team of mules to start packing us out and to bring up some hot food. Our isolation, unlike the snow, was beginning to melt.
After he arrived and we all had a nice dinner of hot beans and rice, we packed up the gear we didn’t need and I took up with Bill back down the mountain. We’d be up the next morning to get the rest of the crew and the rest of our gear. I rode down from the Devil’s on the back of good old Patsy Cline. As she lumbered from one step to the next and we descended through the snow and the three or four lambent lights that made up Seiad Valley came into view, I felt a warmness seep in through the four cold layers I had on. Maybe it was riding on the back of an old mule, or the thousands of feet of change in elevation, but mostly I think it was a sense of coming into a place where I knew I could get a hot breakfast and make a call or send out a postcard if I wanted – and for the first time in a few months, I decided to trim back some of my beard.
Note: a lot of these photos were taken by my fellow PCT crew members. Apologies for not knowing who specifically since it was so long ago. If you see one of your photos, I'll gladly add credit. Thanks!
I came across this wonderful article on Angler's Journal this weekend entitled "The Gospel According to Jim". It's an interview of sorts with Jim Harrison, the great writer. When I say interview, I guess I mean it's a recollection of taking the dude fishing in Montana, along with David James Duncan. The article is beautifully written, filled with perceptive descriptions of the fishing and landscape peppered with great insight from Jim. I encourage you to read it.
There is one line in particular that stuck out to me. Jim mentions to the author as they drive by a ramshackle shack that it's saying to us, "...don't let your life become the sloppy leftovers of your work." This is a declaration to all of us, something that we will all need to face at, more than likely, many points during our life. So what's the solution to this? How do we not let our lives become the remains of our work? How do we not let ourselves become handicapped or torn down by our work instead of lifted up and freed by it?
"...don't let your life become the sloppy leftovers of your work." - Jim Harrison
The answer is different for everyone. For me, it's more of a process than an answer - a continuous questioning and reflecting of life, contentment, passions. I like work, I thrive off having a job to do and doing that job well. However, I've found that I need fulfilling work, work that doesn't tear down the cross beams holding me up or rip off the roof that's keeping me sane, work that in some way gives back to me on some level. Good work. I've had plenty of shitty jobs, and in the end, they left me feeling shitty. At the end of those days, my life was simply the sloppy leftovers of whatever motion I was going through. Life became part of the work that I was living.
On the other hand, I've had jobs that, while may be very demanding on some levels, are "good" in my eyes (and that definition of "good" differs with each person). By doing work that is good in my eyes, I find that my life embraces the work instead of becoming the bystander of it. Good work becomes a part of the life that I am living and pushes me to live a fuller life.
The "solution", if there really is one, is an individual finding whereas the problem is a universal one that we all have to face at some point. This is what a great writer does, presents us with a universal problem tied to an image that we all can relate to (a house in disrepair, slowly falling back into the earth), and lets us figure out the "answer" in our own way. A series of koans for us to mull over while engaged in our story.
Every once in a lucky while, a poet, writer, musician, or artist of some kind will come along and speak specifically to you. Thankfully, Jack Gilbert came to me through podcast whispers and secondhand comments and now I can't put his work down.
I haven’t read a poet that has resounded with me so much since Gary Snyder back in late teens and early twenties when I was living out of a backpack doing trail work.
I think what I love most is how Jack speaks about life without making it any more than just life.
"we must unlearn the constellations to see the stars..."
I have found myself lately, much like the protagonist in The Talking Heads’ song “Once in a Lifetime”, in a large automobile, letting the days go by, and the water holding me down. Then Jack came along and spoke clearly about this adult malaise that seems to afflict us at some point.
One day you may wake up old thinking you know it all, seen it all, and exist simply to just put in another day. The eggs are burnt to the pan and the coffee needs some sugar; minor adjustments just to make sure the routine goes smoothly. Maybe that’s what life eventually becomes and maybe that’s what life is, but we don’t have to suffer the knowledge of knowing it all before it happens. Sometimes we need to let our eyes wander over to the trees on the horizon as the sun bakes its last leaves for the day.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
As we grow older, as another day passes, it’s easy for us (maybe it’s a human nature) to begin finding patterns in life, routines. We slowly begin to live these patterns, expecting certain things to happen at certain times, expecting certain people to be nice, others to offhandedly shake us off. Through these expectations and their inevitable disappointment, we end up missing out what is actually there - life. We become blinded by the constellations we project onto our daily existence and lose sight of real moments right in front of us. I think that’s what Jack is trying to tell us here: tear down your preconceived notions and pre-judgements of people and experiences and find the heart of it all.
I highly recommend Jack Gilbert's Collected Poems. It's a collection of pretty much all his work. Often times I'll find myself sitting down after the day is done and flipping through this collection, reading which poems stand out at that time. A poet (or artist of any sort) that speaks to you is worth more than most other things in life, that's for sure. It is imperative that we find those voices that speak to us. Seek them out, listen to them, and then use your own.
“Tear it Down” - Jack Gilbert
We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
The village is not better than Pittsburgh.
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound
of raccoon tongues licking the inside walls
of the garbage tub is more than the stir
of them in the muck of the garbage. Love is not
enough. We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time. We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within that body.
Oftentimes in the middle of the winter, when I'm feeling cooped up from the cold and drained from constant interaction with my students, I begin daydreaming and plotting where I'll go over my summer vacation. A lot of those ideas and plans fall through or get pushed aside for others. This one stuck and turned out to be a great time for reflection, rejuvenation, and landing beautiful fish.
My grand plan was to spend a week camping and fly fishing in and around Potter County. The Wilds of PA, God's Country. There were quite a few streams I wanted to check out so I chose two camping spots as my home base - Little Pine State Park and Ole Bull State Park. These would put me in the Pine Creek and Kettle Creek Watersheds respectively.
I spent the most of the week at Little Pine State Park. I fished Pine Creek proper and landed some beautiful browns and some beat up rainbows (all on really small prince nymphs). I spent another few days exploring some of Pine's great tribs (Slate, Cedar, etc) and some other watersheds that run parallel to Pine through Sproul State Forest. Slate Run is a crazy stream. I drove way back Slate Run Rd. to access the stream and successfully freaked myself out after a few hours of slipping on the slate-like rocks and convincing myself I was hearing Rattlers around every bend and branch. It's streamside is covered with high grass and ferns. Beautiful to look at, but creepy to walk through when your by yourself in the middle of rattler country and far from anyone or anything. It's good to be humbled by nature on a regular basis. The only downside to fishing alone is that there is always a small voice in the back of your head reminding you that if you were to fall, get bitten, etc, no one would likely find you for a few days. Eh, it's worth it though.
After a few days in the Pine Creek valley, I packed up and moved on over to Ole Bull - up and over the next set of mountains and into the Kettle Creek Watershed. Unfortunately, due to a few days of downpour, I only got to fish Kettle Creek and missed a few gems that I really wanted to get to. I landed quite a few beautiful browns in the FFO section of Kettle Creek and even got a few to take a wicked small grifffith's gnat. I'm hoping to make this an annual thing and to make it back up to Ole Bull sooner rather than later. Having explored new water the entire trip, I quickly realized how much I had to realize on my instinct to find fish. This, in turn, showed me that I actually have learned quite a bit over the past year or two since fly fishing has become something I do quite frequently.
A few random non-fishing thoughts - it was really great to get away by myself for a few days and to let things settle. I end up spending a lot of time alone anyway simply because of what I enjoy doing - fly fishing, biking, etc - but this was different. Most days I barely interacted with more than two people and probably only said a total of a few sentences. It was nice to get away from the ego a bit, to wake up and have nothing to do but explore remote streams and try new water, to get of routines and to get back into just being. It's all pretty simple, really - just be.
My soundtrack for the week of solitude and fly fishing including a lot of Steve Gunn. Love this guy's music. His album Time Off is actually what got me into the Dead a couple of years ago.
"There was the kind of wind burned happiness that comes from accomplishing not much but a few fish out of good water; no real point to the day just spent beyond the simple fact of its new existence." - Allen Jones, "Big Water, Big Fish" from the Big Sky Reader
The past year or so has been an interesting one for my wife & I. We were set on something that would determine a lot about the next phase of our life. That something isn't so certain anymore (our mistake for thinking that it ever was), which has led us to re-examine what we want out of our lives together and what the future holds.
A few years ago, when we decided to settle in, we were anxious to homestead, to let our roots take hold and to become a part of a place. Our family was close by, our good jobs were within a short commuting distance, and we felt like we could live here for quite some time.
Now, we find ourselves possibly looking at packing up our things, hitching what we can onto our backs, and doing a bit of exploring. This exploring could start within a year, 3 years, or ten. We just don't know anymore, and we are getting OK with that. However, I want to be prepared to leave when/if we decide to.
I was lucky enough to spend my twenties pretty much living out of a pack, working for the Park Service and The SCA, traveling and camping, eating burritos for three meals a day, and changing jobs and locations every six months. It was awesome and probably the best education I've ever received. However, I always have a slight pang of regret when I think back on all the places I lived and worked and, here it is, how much fishing I missed out on. I just wasn't a fly fisherman back then. I had a fly rod, but the only fly I knew how to even slightly use was a wooly bugger. Colorado, California, Maine, brook trout, cutties, big rainbows and wild browns - I missed out on all of them because I was too busy with other things. I don't blame anyone or anything, fly fishing just wasn't in my blood like it is now.
Which brings me to why I've been fishing so much. If/when we decide to pack it up and move on, I want to be able to leave this place knowing I explored every blue squiggly line I found on a map. I want to be able to KNOW this place. By knowing a place, I mean understanding its contours, its folds and schisms, smells and taste, its winter breath and summer sweat.
Looking back over this past year, I can assuredly say that I'm well on my way to truly understanding this small section of Pennsylvania. I've found some beautiful stretches of water, some with well worn paths along them, others still brushed in with thick rhododendrons and deep plunge pools. I'm beginning to become a blue line junky, constantly pouring over maps and tracing the curves of each blue line I see, day dreaming about the trout that may hide below it's surface.
...& some final numbers for 2014.
"...Numbers add up to nothing..." - Neil Young
Estimated # of trout caught & released - 155 - a mixture of Rainbows, Browns, Brookies, Native, Wild, & Stocked.
Streams fished - 24 different streams, 3 different states (Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia)
Days fished - Approximately 50.
Months of the year fished/caught trout - 12
Headspace created - infinite
Here's a nice little ditty that took me fishing the other morning. "Walking' Down the Line" by Sean Hayes.
Sketches & scatterings. Rooted in Pennsylvania along the Susquehanna River.