Texas, 1868. We see a woman dressed in faded linens heading towards a doorway through a darkened room. She opens the door and goes through. We go with her as she steps out into the open expanse of the American West. Before her is a great unknowable wilderness. A figure mounted on horseback approaches.
December 26, 2015. Dusk. Somewhere on the Smith River. It grows darker by the minute at the end of a hard day of fishing. It is your maiden day back on the water after the river has made its first significant rise of the winter season and is dropping into perfect shape. You blow a cast. The head wraps around the tip of the rod and fixes itself stubbornly in a tangled mess. Defeated you wade back unto the shore, set the rod down carefully and go about unwrapping the jumbled nest of line and leader. A procession of cars go by on the road across the river and you feel embarrassed to be fucking around with your tackle instead of fishing.
You consider buttoning up the rod and calling it, but reconsider, and resolve to step back into the tail-out determined to make one more decent cast before heading up to camp. The ritual commences. The pull of the river at your knees. The deafening thrum of the rapid below. You pay line out. Focus on your hands. Hold two 5 count loops. Snap T. Wait for it. Pull with your bottom hand. It feels right, and you manage to make one last good cast as the day hurries to its end. The line swings into the soft inside edge. Cars pass on the highway, their lights strobing through the guard rail. You watch as two small eddies circle each other in the slack water hemmed in by the ribbon of line fluttering down stream from where you stand. They cartwheel around each other, draw closer, accelerate, merge into one and disappear. Some strange electricity stirs. The universe condenses, wobbles, and yawns.
The grab is sudden and violent. It wrenches the rod downward and bucks with such force that it becomes immediately clear that this is an especially large fish. You let out a savage, incoherent yell for your friend who has been fishing above you. You try desperately to hold the fish in the tail out, but it is futile. He points his head downstream into the maul of the rapid and leaves the pool. A truck stops along the road and a man jumps from his pickup to watch the ensuing struggle. Your friend is beside you now as you look hopelessly down river. Death water below, line peeling out from the reel, nearly dark. You don't think it's possible to follow him, but just as all hope fades your buddy rallies and says quietly.....
........We can do this.
What ensues is nothing short of death defying. Clasping to willows with one hand, rod bent on the fish of a life time in the other. Clamoring up boulders. Yelling and cussing. Surely the rod will break, surely the fish will get off. Finally a clearing and a platform to stand on to regain control, assess the situation, but it is too late. The fish makes one more run, the drag whines for mercy, and just like that the fish is off. You reel in. The fly remains tied to the leader and for that small victory you are thankful. There is nothing left of the day.
You face your friend, who soldiered on with you, putting himself into water that no sane person would go near. All in the vain hope to see this creature. To hold it for a moment. To know it. Silence and disbelief give way to laughter and cheers. What sport. What insanity. What a fish. You both feel your way back through the dark wood-lined hill into the open meadow where you have made camp. It is time for whiskey, supper and revelry. You chop firewood with a new ax. Its blade sharp as a razors edge. The adrenaline still courses through your blood as you both relive the battle. It is night. December 26, 2015.
1.4 billion light years from Earth two black holes consume each other. The event generates enough energy to send ripples through time and space. The waves stretch on for an eternity. Oceans become mountains. Kingdoms rise and fall. On December 26th 2015 the singularity finally reaches Earth.
February 27th, 2017. Somewhere on the Redwood Coast. Midday. It is an act of faith to continue further ahead from this point. The remnants of an old logging road disappear into the thicket of redwood, fir, and hemlock that populate the steep hillside descending before you. You wager that something will materialize in the dense woods to show you the way, and soon enough you hear the familiar sound of trickling water. A small rivulet gives way to a creek. It cascades in steps down the hill; a beautiful oasis of fern and downed timber carved into the lush rainforest. Little by little you see hints of a translucent glow through the stands of timber. You are getting closer. You reach the bottom. Pushing branches of willow aside, you emerge from the dark woods and step out onto the open expanse of gravel bar. The moss that grows on the stones seems ancient. No one comes here.
You fish the run thoroughly without a touch. It has been this way. So much good water, and no fish to show for it. Sometimes it seems like steelheading becomes an exercise in the abstract. That you are purely casting and not fishing. At other times you feel as if you are some sort of 21st century buffalo hunter. Searching for the last remnants of a once abundant species.
You rest the water. Smoking a cigarette under a canopy of dripping alders you notice the deep crescent scar you wear on your left hand. You think of the night it was put there. The moment your hand wavered ever so slightly to bring that ax blade across the gap of your thumb and forefinger. You think of the fish you had fought merely minutes beforehand. You think of the man who got out of his truck up on the highway to watch you. Did he see it down there? Did he see it flash a streak of silver from the road as it bucked on the line? He must have.
Reno Nevada, March 6th. Evening. Aaron's making fried chicken with mushroom risotto while his daughter Marlow and I play a game where we sculpt objects out of clay and have to guess what they are. It's been a crazy weekend. So much snow has fallen in the Sierras that they've closed the I-80. I'm marooned, and all I can think about is getting back to the coast for the last winter steelheading of the season. My phone lights up from a text and Marlow sees the face of an old cowboy wearing an eyepatch come onto the screen.
That old man on your phone.
You don't know who this man is?
I hold the phone up so she can get a better look but she shakes her head no defiantly. Her father steps over to see and laughs as he looks at the glowing screen.
That's John Wayne baby.