Yellowstone Park Elk

Anyone who's ever spent a season working in a national park will relate to Fong's heartfelt recollections. And for anyone considering it, this story helps illustrate how hard it can sometimes be to re-enter the real world. From the second issue of The Drake, Fong reminds us that fiction often speaks the greater truth.

I REMEMBER YELLOWSTONE IN 1978 THE WAY THE SNAKE REMEMBERS EDEN: like a good dream shortchanged, heaven in flames, a paradise ruined through my own corruption. So you of all people should understand why I have to go back every year. You knew Laurie then, loved her too, I suppose, though we never spoke of it, never negotiated the right or honest approach to love. You stood beside me on the sun-warmed dock at Grant Village, both of us in our Y.P. Co. uniforms, and watched her dive into Yellowstone Lake to swim with the otters, the water barely 50 degrees in July. And you watched her bite the head off a wriggling 12-inch cutthroat and casually spit the head into a bucket, the way an ordinary person might spit out a watermelon seed. And you watched her climb the last few hundred feet of Avalanche Peak in a lightning storm, then dare us to follow her by flying her shirt from one outstretched arm, like a signal flag.

You might even have married her had I not been desperate enough to quit the best job of my life three weeks early to drive with her to New Jersey for her sister's wedding. After 64 hours in a borrowed Volkswagen, listening to her rave about the splendor of rugby and the sanctity of marriage and tarpon on a fly, I forgot all about friendship. When it was my turn to drive, I spent most of the time stealing sidelong glances at the passenger seat, admiring the play of headlights in her hair, watching her face grow softer with sleep, and making plans to transfer three years of credits to the university in her hometown, Missoula.

And now she's gone to Costa Rica with some Orvis-endorsed guide from Livingston, to stalk permit on the flats and—as she says—to wander her options. Isn't it sad that after 15 years of more-or-less congenial divorce, it still hurts that she didn't ask me first. It's been that kind of summer in Missoula: a late June frost, then an early August one. The tomatoes turned directly from green to black, and the snap beans produced only one meager crop. I couldn't seem to find time for the river, or when I did I was so frantic to catch trout that I pulled the fly from their mouths.

Laurie's phone call raised a welt like one of those interstate bees that crashes into your bare forearm at highway speed, bumbles weakly inside the cab for a few seconds, then recovers just enough to sting you under the chin before escaping into the slipstream.

She was cheerful as always, as sure of her good intentions as on that April morning when she announced that she'd bought a house in Livingston and would be moving there with Marina the following week, and that it would probably be easier on me if didn't help them pack. I put down the phone and walked to the Clark Fork to catch my breath. At the confluence with the Bitterroot, two sandhill cranes lumbered over the bare-limbed cottonwoods—necks up, legs down, struggling like swimmers past their depth. I haven't recovered. For 15 years, I've been trying not to prepare for the death of hope. Every few months we have a family dinner at Chico Hot Springs or Sir Scott's Oasis. Every August we fish together on a favorite stretch of the Madison just inside the park boundary, and on those river days I can almost forget that we share only a family history—no present, no future, no geography. But her recent cheerfulness had a new lilt, an unnerving musicality that reminded me of our honeymoon in Alaska, the note of triumph as she'd set the hook in a steelhead bright from Prince William Sound. I was already facing the prospect of winter without my stock of beans canned with dill weed and jalapenos, without trout in the freezer, without tomatoes dried on the picnic table and bottled in olive oil. If Laurie was in love again, and not with me, then where was I to go? So I called Marina, the daughter we named after the old boatyard at Grant Village, a sophomore now at Montana State and seasonal waitress at Roosevelt Lodge, where you and I used to sit in the big rockers with our feet on the porch rail, sipping drinks and looking out over the sagebrush until the smell of barbecued ribs and baked beans almost overcame us. I asked her to meet me at Chico on Friday night so we could drive into the park together. She agreed with all of the cheerfulness inherited from her mother, and then I closed my eyes and saw two 20-year-old shadows close together under the lodgepole pines: the shadow that might have been you, and the shadow that almost certainly was Laurie, her face lifted for a kiss.

Yellowstone Park sign

I arrived in Chico at midnight Friday, bearing 200 miles of hunger and a hectic month's worth of exhaustion. The kitchen had closed promptly at 10, and the dining-room staff had just finished eating the last of the night's unordered desserts. They looked pleased with their work—and only mildly apologetic. Lucky for me, Marina and her friends had saved a few morsels from their plates, wrapped in aluminum foil fashioned into the shape of swans. A medallion of beef, a sliver of venison, four miniature spears of asparagus, the wing and breast of a quail.

That held me till morning. After breakfast we turned south underneath Emigrant Peak and headed for the park, Marina beside me in the pickup and a present from her affixed to the inside of the windshield—an employee's entrance pass: silhouette of a white pelican beneath the word "Yellowstone." As we hit the curves for Yankee Jim Canyon, I felt that familiar dizzy feeling—a sort of vertigo almost—when the truck seems to be rolling downhill while the road is most definitely moving uphill, against the falling river. I only feel that way in two places: on Highway 191 from the Gallatin Gateway to West Yellowstone, and on US 89 from Livingston to Gardiner. Perhaps it's because I know that I'll soon be in the park, a sort of pre-meditated giddiness that goes along with any return to a beloved place or person.

On that day the Yellowstone was running dirt-brown from a thunderstorm in the Lamar Valley and the sky was filled with pelicans, wheeling like oversize gulls in a great flock above the road. We craned our necks to see them as they passed over the windshield, their enormous wings flashing silver against the blue. They seemed drunk with flight, with the power to float unhindered on thin air. When we reached the stone arch outside the north entrance, a pronghorn skipped across the pavement as if possessed with that same power, each long lap more like a prelude to flight than an earthbound gait, the whole meadow like a runway.

I was sorry that you weren't there, really I was. Sorry that you couldn't feel the insane satisfaction it gave me to pass through the gate with an employee's sticker on my windshield. To shift into second gear for the twisting climb to Mammoth that we made so many times with Laurie between us. Each switchback in that road was like a pleasant surprise—a surprise because I had memories for each one, and a pleasure because I remembered. We fished Slough Creek that afternoon, taking turns with the one rod that I brought from Missoula, an old 5-weight with a willowy mid-section that's just right for day­dreaming your way through a reach of pools and riffles. I dropped Marina at Roosevelt in time for her evening shift, then headed south toward Lake Hotel, brimful with the good fortune that is my daughter.

On the way up Dunraven I got caught behind a motor yacht trolling for scenery at a leisurely 15 knots. Instead of trying to pass, I backed off the accelerator and rolled down the windows. The hillsides below the summit of Mount Washburn were already tinged with the red of autumn. At 8,000 feet the air smelled of fall, crisp and cool and faintly dusty, without the scent of growing things. To the east: the hulks of Druid Peak and Thunder Mountain glowering in the smoke of a late-season fire. To the south: forests of pine and fir like a ragged pelt on the flanks of the foothills, meadow grass gone golden with August, the Yellowstone River meandering through the Hayden Valley and, creeping alongside the river, the glint of aluminum travel trailers in the setting sun.

Their sheepish procession reminded me of another day of fishing with Marina, on a stretch of the Madison that runs alongside the highway to West Yellowstone, when she was still in diapers and her mother still kissed me awake in the mornings. It was a warm, breezy afternoon and I was wading wet, flipping a big caddis nymph into the deep runs while Marina watched over my shoulder from the safety of the baby pack. As we worked our way downstream, a cow elk walked out into the water below us, her neck and ears twitching with flies. She dipped her muzzle in the water, tossed her head at the shimmering surface, scratched at her neck with one sharp hoof. In minutes the road was lined shoulder to shoulder with license places from Illinois and Washington and California. Camera shutters shirred like locusts. The cow took a couple of prancing seeps toward the far bank and shook with annoyance. Marina and I turned our backs to the crowd and kept fishing. I heard a splash nearby and to the right, like the swirl of a trout, and pivoted on the mossy rocks. "Did you hear that?" I asked her. "Was that a fish?" "No," she said, and then fell silent. I cast, letting the fly drift under a bathtub-size patch of riverweed and into a dark hole of water.

I was picking up the fly to cast again when Marina whimpered: "My sandal." I repeated the word dumbly to myself—sandal, sandal—before remembering the nearby splash. I reached behind me and tickled her right foot. It was bare. When I finally looked downstream, her sandal was bobbing 20 yards away and gaining speed, on a collision course with a fully-grown and fully aggravated cow elk. I tried a couple of quick shuffling steps in that direction then sent the fly out after it. But the beloved sandal was a small, rapidly dwindling target that changed course with each little finger of current. I threw a couple of big mends into the line and still missed by a foot.

Marina's whimpering was more insistent now: "Get sandal, get sandal." I took another look at the elk and decided she wouldn't much appreciate two humans churning downstream into her bath. So I made for shore and the camera-wielding tourists, charged up the bank, then shouldered my way onto the path that parallels the river. The wind was blowing up and across the current, slowing the sandal's progress enough for us to pull ahead, but also angling it into the deeper water midstream. Fifty yards behind the elk, I picked a gravely spot and splashed in.

The river was belt high. Frightened trout fled for cover as we thrashed through ribbons of weed. My feet had just reached the lip of a dark trough when the sandal floated into arm's reach. I leaned over and gathered it in like a catcher pulling an outside pitch back toward the strike zone. Marina thrust her hands into the air and cheered loud enough to turn a few cameras from the elk. I cheered too. The nearest onlookers gave us those benign and disconnected smiles that most folks reserve for fools and crazy people. But what did we care. We were flush with success, proud conspirators in a small but significant victory.

I remember wishing that Laurie could have been there to share it, but she had decided to work upstream with a brace of dry flies, toward the junction of the Gibbon and the Firehole, and later only rubbed Marina's head in a distracted sort of way when we tried to describe the scene. Then she asked about you, wondered aloud why you never wrote, and said that she could never come to the park without thinking of that summer we all met.

Hard to believe that we came here in 1978 with nothing but our fly rods and a jar of tartar sauce, two college roommates from Philadelphia, babes in the woods. Is it guilt that makes me scan the faces at every fishing hole and geyser basin, looking for the wisps of blond hair feathered shyly over those raptor's eyes, your shoulders hunched slightly, as if preparing for flight? I looked for you in the fall of 1982, when a September snow blanketed our favorite camp at Heart Lake; in the smoke of 1988, when that tangle of lodgepoles upstream from Tower Falls burned right to the bank; and in the drought of 1994, when the river showed its bone-smooth black rock and water-polished deadfalls left gleaming three feet above the ordinary water line.

If you had been here you would've noticed the changes. The marina at Grant Village is long gone, only the two breakwaters to remind you of otters swimming sleekly from dock to dock. The tackle store where Laurie played cashier is now a waterfront steakhouse, and the meadow above the lake has been replaced with a hotel and restaurant complex, where you can order herbed chicken breasts and chilled Chardonnay. Our favorite stretch of the Yellowstone, above Tower Falls, has become a certified hot spot, recommended at fly shops and touted in guidebooks. On a typical summer day the parking lot overflows with rental cars and motor homes for at least 100 yards uphill of the Hamilton store, forcing traffic to a crawl. The trail to the base of the falls has been redone with post­and-pole fences to keep over-enthusiastic sightseers from cutting switchbacks. What you might remember as a claustrophobic stand of lodgepoles criss­crossed with downed timber is now mostly open, with tremendous views of sulfur-ringed canyon walls and blue-green water.

There are no longer enough shadows to hide the bears that we imagined lurked in wait for college students, and no longer enough privacy to entice those students to roast trout on a stick over a small, smoky fire. There are still a few trees left, of course, as well as some charred snags and tangles of wild roses, but a two-foot-wide path now parallels the bank for miles upstream. At every obvious pool, other paths split off the main trail and head for the river's edge. The last time I walked it, the water seemed as blank and lifeless as a mirror. I would cast, the fly would drift aimlessly with the current, no trout would move to break the surface, then I would cast again. I let that pattern of failure repeat itself for several hours, thinking of Laurie gone and the trout too, thumbing through my book of failings like a sorry preacher with his Testament, snatching the fly from the water lest a fish hook itself and break the spell. As had become my habit in the months after Laurie took Marina with her to Livingston, I told myself that I deserved every blow that bad luck could deliver, that I had no right to expect something good to come from the way I'd acted, although of course something had.

Did you know that I was in love with her—not afterward, I'm sure that you guessed afterward—but before? On that night of her farewell party, that night when I saw the two of you underneath the lodgepoles, just beyond the reach of the firelight, when I announced that I suddenly needed to go back to Philadelphia and would catch a ride with Laurie if she didn't mind! What matters, I suppose, is that I knew—or thought I knew—that you loved her, too, and that I waded in anyway, and now that river has washed me here, a thin stick of dead wood drifting in the current.

I continued to flog myself with those thoughts all that long afternoon, and to flail pointlessly at the water, until at last a little gray caddis flew up underneath my sunglasses and I had to stop to wipe my eyes. After that, I could no longer ignore the hordes of caddis on the bankside willows and thickets of wild rose. I tied on a caddis emerger and turned back downstream, this time paying attention to all the little pockets and eddies that others might overlook. I lingered a while in each one, steering the fly through the deeper cuts and then slowly raising it to the surface, like a swimmer nonchalantly looking for air. More often than not, the shadow of a trout rose after it, looming into view like a ribbon of gold in the green water. No monsters came to the fly; but the action was steady and the fish beautiful, with sleek flanks and a firm, limber strength that trout raised in warmer, slower water can't pretend to own.

Back at the confluence of Tower Creek and the Yellowstone, I looked longingly at the sharp, steep bend in the canyon wall, no trail visible in the soft earth. Since the river was low, I figured I could sneak along the ankle-deep ledge and get downstream to the more lightly fished water. But the afternoon sun was wearing on into evening, and the back of my throat was dust-dry, and the image of a double dip ice cream cone suddenly appeared in my head and remained there, perfectly frozen. I snipped off the tattered emerger, stowed my reel in a vest pocket, and started up the hill.

On the canyon rim two mighty tour buses had just pulled into the parking lot and disgorged their charges. The trail was flooded with mothers, fathers, children, and grandmothers. Judging from the conversation, they were mostly Americans, though I also caught snatches of accented English that reminded me how little I know of the world. Inside the Hamilton store, the line for ice cream wound up and down the aisles like a New Year's parade. I swallowed hard and bought a six­pack instead. Drank dinner last night in the high ceilinged lobby at Lake Hotel, gazing out the picture window while a string quartet sawed away at the evening. Do you remember the time some Park Service employees dug a charcoal pit in the gravel beach near Fishing Bridge, buried a whole pig in the hot coals, then got too drunk to eat and just left the carcass roasting in the sand? By the time we stumbled onto the scene, only a half-dozen stout souls were still awake, lounging against two unopened cases of barbecue sauce while the stars spun in their orbits. I can still see you and Laurie pulling the succulent meat from the bones, as soft and sweet as cotton candy, while white-winged pelicans ghosted across the full moon like pterodactyls.

Yellowstone Park fly fishing

For some reason, that memory made it impossible for me to eat or sleep. I lay awake all night remembering how happy we felt, how impossibly lucky to roam the beach of Yellowstone Lake under a full moon in July and catch the scent of keg beer and slow-cooked meat. At that time it had everything to do with the three of us together, but now I recall that Laurie had rousted us from our beds after midnight, just to share the moon, and neither of us could resist her.

In the morning, I checked out before breakfast and drove southwest along the lakeshore, then turned west along the Grand Loop Road to cross and re-cross the Continental Divide. A cold front had blown the smoke out of the park and the western horizon looked sharp and blue. I fought the urge to turn in at Old Faithful for a Bloody Mary at the Bear Pit, stopping instead at the Lower Geyser Basin, taking the bridge over the Firehole and making my way through the crowds to the end of the boardwalk. As I peered into the crater of Fountain Geyser, an old man in a soft canvas hat, a disposable camera dangling from his leathery neck, croaked, "It's gonna blow." Sure enough, several standing waves appeared in the turquoise pool, then a tidal surge, and then the sky filled with steam and water, great blasts that frothed 30 feet into the air, splashed onto a floodplain of white sinter, then ran downslope to pool about the hooves of grazing bison. Above the slosh and grumble of the geyser, I could hear the shouts of children, cheering with each burst of water as if they were riding in the front seat of a roller coaster. For a moment I wished that Marina were small again, riding in the baby pack with her warm arms around my neck. Until I remembered the deft motion with which she unhooked a 16-inch rainbow without lifting it from the water, then stood straight-backed again and smiling, a loop of line already rising into the air. Maybe next year, I thought, we'll take our own trip south—to Belize maybe, or the southern Yucatan.

We'd even invite Laurie, if she wanted to go, and I could watch the two of them stalk bonefish, marveling at both the one who used to love me and the one that always will. By the time the geyser roared itself dry again, I was hungry. I drove straight into West Yellowstone and bought a bag of cocktail shrimp, a hunk of blue cheese, a loaf of sourdough bread, and a flask of bourbon. I spent the rest of the afternoon prospecting the Madison, fishing offhandedly upstream until I encroached on another angler or strayed too far from the bourbon and the shrimp chilling in the cooler. By sunset I had worked my way to within a mile of the junction, where the river meanders through a broad meadow of sedge and thistles. As soon as I parked the truck, two cow elk and their calves crossed the river above me and bent their necks to graze. I had an hour of twilight left and knotted to the leader a black marabou fly as long as my thumb. Big fish or no fish. I dropped the fly alongside the shadowed banks and inched it leechlike toward the main current; flipped it behind boulders and under deadfalls; cast it into the current and pulsed it back toward the bank. No sign of trout. As I splashed through a backwater to the next bend, a 10-inch rainbow fled before me, pushing a small wake that creased the fading light.

Twenty yards farther downstream, a frightened minnow skittered into the air and fell back again. I watched for the telltale swirl of a big brown but saw nothing, gave the pool a couple dozen careful casts just in case. Still nothing. I stood in the middle of what seemed like a lifeless pool while the water broke behind my knees and rejoined below them, a soft sound that I suddenly wished would drown out the endless thrum of cars on the road to West Yellowstone, travelers turned away from the park's chock-full hotels or employees out for a night on the town.

I fished hard for a while, casting steadily, moving two steps downstream with each cast. The dark crept into the water first, so that slick moss and shallow gravel and shoulder-deep holes all began to look dimly alike. The rush of engines grew louder and the glare of headlights brighter. I snipped the fly from my tippet and wound the leader onto the reel. When I shuffled at last to shore, the elk had worked in behind me. If you will forgive me, I thought, I will abstain from fishing tomorrow, and from catching and killing fish, and forgo the satisfaction of watching that delicate orange meat of a Yellowstone cutthroat flake from the bones.

The nearer cow picked up her head and turned her big ears toward my sigh. It wasn't the worried, ready-to-bolt look of elk in hunting season, but a gesture of interest. Her calf took two bouncing steps then melted in behind her, aligning legs with her mother's so that they seemed to become a single alert and yet unconcerned animal. I spoke to them, quiet reassurances and words of small praise. They were beautiful. A half-mile upstream, I could see the bleached shell of my pickup glowing in the pale light of the moon.