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By stillsteamin
Dust swirls upward in columns of sunlight before settling on ferns along the edge of an easy bend in a rutted dirt road. The old truck, with its mismatched driver-side door and dented front quarter panel, is the first to pass by here in three days. A high oak canopy closes overhead, marking the dry sand and cobble with illusionary, shifting flecks of midday sunlight. The road carves its way north through a swath of rolling hardwood forest, one of the few scars across an expanse of national forest land that runs clear north to the abrupt, battered edges of the Straits of Mackinac. To the west the hardwoods race upwards, checkered with old clear cuts now choked with stands of poplar and birch that hide century-old white pine stumps - broad, crosscut-scarred erratics. East, the upland falls away into a cedar and hemlock swamp bogged with black mud and moss, divided by a twisting current of spring water that slides over powder-fine yellow sand. In a few months men would come down the road to hunt grouse and deer in the old clear cuts, but soft afternoons in June normally brought only the static of cicadas or an abstract rush of wind through the tree tops. The man in the truck with the mismatched door wears a faded blue cotton shirt, sleeves loosely pushed up to his elbows. His left arm tips out of a rolled down window, the other hanging slack from a loose grip on top of the steering wheel. Long grey hair, still streaked in places with its former sandy brown color, strays out from beneath an old red ballcap, its brim frayed and stained with engine oil and dirt. He lets the truck roll between ruts down the center of the road, figuring nobody else had been down this way in a while, nor would they anytime soon. He’d never enjoyed sharing, and figured it might partly explain the comfort he found in solitude. A white mutt dog with a brown eye patch and a bobbed tail stands in the passenger seat, front paws planted on a window sill, head as far out as it can reach. The dog turns and grins at the man, its tongue lagging from the corner of its mouth, short tail working furiously. The man smiles back. The fern-laced curves certainly look familiar, though the county must have widened the road at some point. He watches the dog’s nose work. The mutt has a reliable nose for game birds, half-eaten sandwiches, and old places. They were close now, and it must smell the same, which was good. How anybody could smell the tang of a cedar swamp or the earthy depth of an oak forest and want to change anything, was foremost amid volumes of other things he’d given up on understanding.

With the truck idling in a space in front of the corner store in town, he’d fished a cigarette from the new pack broken open on the dash, and hung it from his mouth, unlit. Flakes of white paint curled away from the mottled dark of dry rot on the plank siding, an Anheuser Busch sign with a jumping bass welcoming fisherman had been taped up, its upper left corner had fallen down and the same sign from the previous fall with a whitetail buck welcoming hunters showed underneath. The mutt dog laid in the seat next to him, its water dish on the sandy floor mat. It napped, not worried over the pause. Wind through the window was nice, but so was the spot of sun on its back and the smooth drumming of an old diesel truck. The man concentrated on the oiled, worn place in the leather wrapped steering wheel where he hung his hand on long drives, then remembered he had pulled in to the lot thinking he might head inside the store for a cold six pack and directions. Or maybe just the beer and a Rand McNally. He traced a crack across the truck’s windshield with his eyes and decided against the map, with its insistence on everything having a name. If the road had a name now he wouldn’t like to know it. Its berth onto the two lane blacktop used to be unmarked except for the swirl of dirty tire tracks across the pavement and a scattering of gravel. Summer tourists, their expedition-grade coolers stuffed with beer and sandwiches for a day on the lake ripped right by, windows rolled up against the dust and heat. Through the windshield he watched a pair of cowboy boots climb down from a lifted Chevy, followed by tan legs, jean shorts, white tank top, and the face of a young woman. He watched her breeze across the parking lot, a long braid of dark hair trailing down her back. She was followed by an equally young guy with barstool muscles and a tattoo of an eagle diving for something unseen on his bicep. An unsuspecting prey was the idea, the man guessed. The young woman pushed through the store’s door and the young guy jogged the last couple steps, catching up in time to grab her butt underneath the bottom of her shorts. She squealed and laughed, wheeling around to hit his arm, her braid flipping over her shoulder. They were gone inside the store.

A six pack with five cold beers in it lays sweating on the floor mat by his feet as the man pushes in the clutch and pulls the shifter back into second gear, engine braking the truck as it crests a rise in the dirt road and coasts down a steep curve. The last few maple and birch trees hold back at the hilltop, watching the truck’s tailgate slip into the thick cedars below. He almost misses the overgrown two-track where it peels off the road to the right, should’ve missed it, if not for a last second flash of familiarity brought on by the left turn of the main road at the bottom of the hill and the sudden darkness of the cedar swamp. Without thinking about it he pulls in far enough to hide from the easy view of a passerby. The mutt dog is out the open window in a flash as the truck’s engine shutters to a stop. The man loops a finger through the empty ring in the six pack, shoves open the door, makes his way around to the back, and drops the tailgate. The dog abandons his patrol around the truck and is up into the bed in an instant, pushing its face close to the man’s, staring at him at eye-level with a wide, tonguey grin, entire back half wagging, bobbed tail a blur.

“Step aside, you goof” The man says grinning, swiping the old puppy aside with one arm and reaching for a stained canvas bag with the other. From the bag he pulls hip waders, a short, three piece graphite fly rod in its sock, a small reel with floating line, and a dented cinnamon Altoids tin. The tin in his front pocket, a beer open on the tailgate, and the mutt dog back to jogging in dutiful circles around the truck, the man lets the heavy silence of the swamp settle in on his shoulders. Here, now, with the fading two-track stretching out beyond the hood of his truck, he relaxes, knowing for sure there is at least one more walk to the stream between him and the rest of his life.
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By stillsteamin

College Try

I don’t remember if I was hungover – part of me thinks I didn’t get hungover back then. The other half thinks maybe I’m far enough removed from it now that the bad bits have washed away through a gold pan, the years turning and sifting my memories with a roll of the wrist, the headaches, fights, and mistakes falling through, swept away down a river, fine grains of inconsequence suspended like glacial till. Now, maybe in my brain pan all I have are bits of gold flake, flecks of sunny days, pieces scooped up from here and there in passing. The feeling of a slow summer sunset over an alfalfa field, a gradient of terrific blood orange and lustrous gold exploding out from the horizon, the memories of a hard morning thunderstorm replaced by the gentle slope of evening and the suspicion that walking with nowhere to go is all I’d ever really need.

But I was hungover, probably. I’d bet good money on that. Watching late September in northern Michigan pass behind a crack in the windshield glass, I shift my feet, stirring a wind chime of crumpled beer cans, empty pop bottles, and dip tins at my feet. Bear hangs a hand from the steering wheel of his Ford Ranger, changing to a grip that includes his Coke bottle spitter when he needs the other hand to coax the shifter toward the next gear. We cross the big river, what I’d defend as the southwestern reach of what people around here call “Up North.” Along the coast, once you cross this point, in general terms, you’ve passed from agriculture to national forest, hardwoods to mixed coniferous timber, bass to trout, work to play. A rebirth from beige, carpet, and fluorescence, to dirt, fern, and wood smoke.

We never left town having told anyone we were going trout fishing. Trout fishing is what we imagined you might be planning with a box full of different flies and your nice things packed away in their proper places. When you had a job, money, a house, wife, kids, and all the other things I figured someday someone would sit me down and explain how to get, you went trout fishing. It implied some sort of attainment, like before you stepped into a stream in hopes of a midday trico hatch, a vaguely Scottish gentleman would emerge from the brambles, asking to see some sort of card that we wouldn’t have in our wallets. We were not of the “fine and far off” pedigree. We were bait fisherman with cheap fly rods strung up and bouncing around in the back of a dirty truck, one of us had forgotten his boots, the other, his waders.

Today, we crossed over the big river having told anyone who cared that we were going to fish with egg flies for brown trout because the salmon were in. If we happened to come across a fish that didn’t want one of the handful of egg flies we had, there wasn’t any digging in other boxes, no strategic thinking, there was the next fish maybe, the next bend. I had burrito sauce on my jeans, Bear had dip spit on his white t-shirt. The radio is tuned to 94.1, and Danny Joe Brown is dragging a heavy load down a lonesome road. We aren’t trout fishing, we are pounding bent nails into knotty oak.

We drag kayaks down a boat ramp and float with rods on our laps, coasting over yellow sand and cobble gravel bottom. The flat, even current is hemmed in by cedar swamp and alders. Initial motion might be mistaken for the beginning, and the existence of chance and action, but we hadn’t really started. Starting is a melding with the place, it’s an achievement of proper distance, physically and mentally, from pavement and neon Coors Light signs, the feeling of depth and speed without thought. It’s the noticing of how a damselfly’s colors ride an entire spectrum of luminescence as it spins in and out of sunlight; it’s the registration of distinct filaments that shift just out of sync enough with the current to suggest the existence of a trout. At first it’s a maybe thing, a pin drop of thought in a deep dark silent room. After that it’s a trout. Then, once we’re sitting in the bank grass, and our tunnels of thought and vision have consumed the trout in a concentric and homogenous alter of desire, as a twenty year old mind is apt to do, it’s the only thing in the world.

The trout is lying on the bottom behind a single hen salmon digging a redd in the tailout of a pool. An eager fish. It hasn’t seen us, or at least hasn’t shifted enough to suggest it has. Bear wades to a place, coordinates of a feeling, an answer to a subconscious calculation involving current speed, depth, and weight. He pins his rod under his arm and bites on another split shot. The trout takes the pinch of yarn on the first drift, a twitch in the line resonating up to a snap of the wrist and a bent rod tip, wakes across soft current, lapping against the sand at my feet. Not a giant but with enough length and weight that its head and tail lift out of the water a moment later than its midsection. Its sides are dotted with bright red dots encircled in white halos, and there’s a small blush of blue just behind the eye on each gill plate.

“That’s one of the ones you want to catch.”

Bear nods, working the hook out of the corner of its mouth. Then it’s gone, melding with the river bottom as it re-enters the pool. Our desires rise and fall again and again with wanting and having, satiation attainable only in brief still frames, the moment the needle enters the vein. Then it’s down again, a hopeless search for sanity in compulsive repetition.

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By stillsteamin
Been a minute since I bumped this. Life, or some shit.

Duck Pond

The beam of Travis’ headlamp swivels around in the dark like an erratic lighthouse, cutting the fog hanging over the pond. It pauses, and I hear the hollow, juggy clank of a duck decoy bouncing off the insides of his kayak as he works to separate its anchor line from the others. The light sweeps upward as he throws the decoy, capturing the mallard drake in full color as it spins, before disappearing again into the dark and splashing down onto the water. I buckle my waders over my shoulders and push the nose of my kayak through a head high tangle of tag alder on the shore. Paddling with my legs over the front rather than inside, I aim for a narrow spit of land that separates the pond from a marsh. The air is near freezing but it’s been a sudden turn after a mild fall and the water feels warm dripping down the paddle onto my bare hands. It steams off my skin, rising into the air in curls. I was seven when my grandpa killed a doe in December, on Christmas Eve. He said they’d been digging up my grandma’s ivy and carried a shotgun when we walked to the barn for morning chores. I helped him gut her where she’d fallen in the pasture. It was cold enough to bite bare skin and steam lifted off my wet, red hands.

Travis is still setting decoys as I reach land again on the far side. He’s particular about it, something he gets from his dad. They’ve both tried to teach me a lot about duck hunting, though it’s a bit like pouring water over a rock. I wedge one end of the paddle into the soft bottom and push the kayak through a thick rim of cattails and up onto dry ground as far as I can get it, a habit that persists despite wearing waders. After stashing the kayak under some brush I stand in ankle deep mud and settle into the darkness. I’ve turned the water up into a stew of old leaves and frayed bits of decay. The sweet, mucky smell makes me listen for the slurred whistle of a red-winged blackbird, though it’s too early for them to be tipping about on the cattail stalks. The north wind that blew hard yesterday is just a light breeze now, hissing through the tops of the big oaks on the hill across the pond. Beyond the hill there’s a cabin with hardwood smoke still trailing from the chimney. The fire was fed later into the night than it should have been but with euchre and whiskey you tend to flow along somewhere above time rather than in it. It’s rare that I have regrets here, as the woods, the pond, and the trout stream nearby are separate enough from the rest of the world to create a sort of neverland-effect that prevents the usual analysis.

We’re both tucked into the cattails by the time the eastern edge of the sky flushes pink. Sharing coffee from a thermos, we speak in low whispers about the odd combination of things that pass through the mind while waiting for daylight. Early morning thoughts share the rambling, disparate nature of nighttime thoughts though they tend to be comical rather than morbid. It may have something to do with the comfort of another day ahead, as we seem to know that the end often comes at night. The breeze is stirring the fog over the water and just as it begins to thin enough to make out our raft of decoys there’s a sudden whistling overhead. We both flinch slightly as a pair of wood ducks flash past us and out into the fog. There’s silence for a moment and then two consecutive splashes as the birds land somewhere out in front of us. Travis looks at me wide eyed. “Well – “ he begins, before being cut off by the throaty barking of mallard hens in the marsh behind us. The whir and splashing of a roost full of birds taking off is punctuated by the squealing flight calls of wood ducks. We sink into the cattails a little, clutching our shotguns as birds begin to appear, streaming out of a watercolor sunrise.
Last edited by stillsteamin on Tue Feb 19, 2019 8:57 am, edited 2 times in total.
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By stillsteamin
Green, Empty Water

There’s a dull, rhythmic throbbing like a fist hitting sand. It’s nearby or maybe inside my head. I stare through the windshield at the thick cedar trunks beyond the edge of the campsite clearing. They’re dark, somewhere between brown and black, and vague through water on both sides of the glass. Rain on the outside, condensation from my own breath on the inside. As I stare, droplets break loose and trickle down through defined channels. It’s not raining at the moment, though I either dreamt or awoke to multiple downpours throughout the night. After three days of standing waist deep in a river in the almost constant pouring rain, I’m physically and mentally soaked. Once home, I’d dream of rain frequently for the next two weeks. After a certain amount of time, the drumming of rain on the hood of your jacket, top of your tent, or on the roof of your truck becomes silence – it’s the brief lapses that are deafening.

Dan and I had driven into town the night before, having made eye contact while eating a silent dinner under a tarp that told us both the other needed a dry place to regain mental footing. The risk of coming unhinged is already higher during the Northwest’s short winter days, and though outdoorsman tend to be more durable than the uninitiated, in my experience steelhead anglers, particularly those that fish with flies, can also be unpredictable. Durability and unpredictability is an odd combination of traits that’s a little bit like tossing a sealed can of soup in a fire. In our case, the flame was rain, cold, dark, and fishlessness, and we both had a sense that the other was beginning to strain against our seams.

We said we’d sit at the bar long enough to let our jackets dry, which apparently was until the place closed. Now I’m reclined in my damp sleeping bag watching rivulets of water on the windshield, trying to focus on something besides my hangover. I haven’t moved yet but can tell it’s going to be a good one, the kind that forces retrospection and prohibits the type of optimism required for winter fishing. The thought of climbing into cold, wet waders is repulsing. I step out of the truck forgetting I’m not wearing boots and plant my last pair of almost-dry socks in an inch of cold, muddy water. The world is suddenly horrifyingly literal. I stand sullenly in the mud and pee, stewing about the state of everything all at once: my wet socks right on up through politics to the inevitable demise of everyone and everything.

I like to fish with Dan for a number of reasons, one being that he always at least pretends to be happy. I needed it that morning, and cheered up a little after some strong coffee and two bagels with thick schmears of cream cheese. Physically we were still lopsided and untucked, but mentally things were taking shape. Behind the campsite the river is hidden by head-high blowdown and tangles of blackberry, but its rumbling course down a bedrock stairway is impossible to ignore and eventually bends all thought and conversation toward it. In our case that meant picking a stretch to fish. We were well beyond debating which section and particular lies within it might be best. Given the paltry number of fish around and their apparent mood, assuming either of us had any idea where to find what we were after would have been mildly egotistic, bordering on ridiculous. Instead, we simply decided to fish the most scenic reach. Scenery is not much of a strategy, though it’s often the best one when it comes to steelhead.

I sit on the guardrail at the edge of the road and watch Dan fish through a pool below me. He’s a smooth caster; the flicks and rolls of fluorescent orange line on the jade water lulls me into a trance. A great deal of literary sweat has been poured into the effort of communicating the beauty of famous rivers through words, to the extent that I think it’s now been done as well as it can be for certain waters, or surrendered to the necessity of experience for others, given that they are indescribable. Though it may have been due to my somewhat mentally-repressed state, from my perch I guess this place is one of the latter. Even the way the river moves isn’t repetitive enough to understand. The boulders and shelves that form it are fixed, but the way the water moves around and over them seems to be infinitely variable. I am not sure how the fish make sense of it, though they clearly know something I don’t. If I think too much about fish and current I start to drift, making my feet feel foolishly awkward and far away. Sensing that I’m beginning to lose touch with almost everything except the metal guardrail, I try to change the subject by looking across rather than down. The opposite bank is a sheer cliff, a moss-smeared giant that doesn’t ever really top out, but appears to sink upwards into the heavily timbered hillside above it. I do not know exactly where the topography goes from there. It seems to be some sort of stairway to heaven, always disappearing into a low-hanging cloud. Today it’s snowing up there, the blue-green spruce tips fade to gray then white before vanishing completely. A passing truck slows, and stops. A man in a ballcap rolls down the window and asks me how the fishing is. It’s been slow. Yessir. Have a good one. I look back down toward the river. Dan’s line is slipping across the current, covering the end of the pool. In a moment he’ll hook his dripping fly to the foot of his reel and climb back up toward me. I begin to peel myself away from myself, grateful there’s not all that much to talk about.

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By -G-
stillsteamin wrote: Mon Feb 18, 2019 9:49 am We said we’d sit at the bar long enough to let our jackets dry, which apparently was until the place closed
“You guys are driving home??”

Also, pretty sure I actually stepped into the wet mud in my last dry sock too reading that part.
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By stillsteamin
Through a Fog

I was in and out of sleep, dreaming of being awake as I slept, and thinking of sleep when I was awake to the point that I wasn’t sure which was which or if I was really ever completely one or the other. As it often does in wild places, sleep came the easiest as gray light began to build, first giving color back to the walls of the tent, and then rousing the laughably small and plump songbirds that flitted around the spruce trees at the edge of our alpine camp. Apparently I had slept, and deeply enough not to wake to the elbow in the ribs my brother had given me as a bear sniffed our tent’s rainfly. Our two friends had heard it too, the typical huffing and rummaging coming uphill from the direction we’d seen a large black boar the night before. My insistence that they were nothing but curious when sated by blueberries and salmon did little to soften my brother’s resolve to stick the next one that sniffed our tent with his skinning knife.

Whispering in the natural way of hunters at low light, we split into pairs, and my brother and I hiked up and over the easy crest of the mountain top to a vantage on the other side. Morning was seeping up the ocean inlets to the east as we settled onto a moss-carpeted ledge, reclining in old deer beds and picking dew soaked blueberries off sparse, woody bushes. The dawn light held the muskeg flat below us in a sort of suspended animation, a silence that made the view look painted. Fog hung between rocky nobs topped with cedar and juniper, and the swirling edges drifted upward without direction, like wraiths of ideas left behind in the pockets of a mind, stalled by a lapse of momentum. Lacking deer to focus on, I wondered at that abstraction, binoculars hanging idly from my neck as we waited for whatever might happen to happen. Being hunters brought up in the Midwest, we are deer people – their size, tendencies, and even smell being as familiar as a family dog. The turn of an ear, the flicker of a leg moving through brush, or a certain exacting color amidst other similar colors required almost willful distraction to miss and I was sure we weren’t missing anything at the moment. We just needed patience – something that is available to me in very limited quantities. I save it for deer hunts, forcing myself to fill a jar with enough idle concentration to span a season. I store and brood over it the way my aunt defends her annual cache of Montana huckleberries, only breaking into it when absolutely necessary.

The next moment broke cleanly into two pieces, the before and after splitting apart like a sharp ax stroke through green wood. Before the movement below us I was consumed by the metaphors hidden in fog, and after, I was rapt so completely by the animal that I believe I forgot my own name. Sway backed and potbellied like an old mare, it held its velvet-wrapped antlers high as it picked its way toward a brushy ravine. He was flanked by two smaller bucks who pushed and prodded at each other like a couple kids following along behind a famous athlete, hoping for an autograph. Almost as quickly as he’d appeared, the ghost buck evaporated into thick brush. We watched for an hour, often convincing ourselves we’d seen a piece of him moving somewhere below us. Eventually the buzz wore off and we admitted he was imaginary again, as all deer are most of the time. Later under a high sun, the encounter caffeinated our hike back up and over the mountain.

We found camp empty, and the glassing spot our two friends had set up in at first light abandoned. With binoculars, I found them scrambling up a hillside across a valley below us, their distant, action figure-ish forms moving quickly toward something above them. I panned up and found the crumpled body of a deer laying in a steep meadow. Retracing their path downhill, I found another on its side at the mouth of a draw. Re-shouldering packs, my brother and I slipped and skidded our way downhill, then up again, arriving so out of breath that all four of us gasped and panted our way through a frenzied recount of the morning’s happenings. The deer were on their feet, turned out into the alpine pasture after two days of hard weather. More bad weather was on its way for the afternoon and while I couldn’t have guessed we’d be socked in for the next four days, my brother and I sobered quickly, turning our eyes uphill towards a spidering confluence of draws and crags. Ledges and spurs of meadow dotted the ascent, and without discussion we ground our boots into the side of the mountain and began a climb. A route up and over a high bench appeared, almost rolling out ahead of us. We moved quickly, goaded by an odd sense of focus and purpose that I now believe was simply dumb luck and a sort of blank minded fluidity brought on by no breakfast or coffee. In the moment, if asked where we were headed, I would’ve probably looked at you puzzled, and simply replied “Up.” The fact that the bench we arrived on held a grazing buck, its forked antlers the width of its ears, was about the same as arriving at a house at the end of a driveway. Of course, what else?

The cascading slide of emotion and realization didn’t burst forth until my brother shouldered his rifle, steadied, and dropped the buck where it stood. The report of the rifle glancing off the rim rock above us knocked something loose inside me with the suddenness of jumping into cold water, as if during the climb uphill I’d been airborne, stuck in that blank second between decision and outcome. Color and sound returned to the world as my brother knelt in ankle deep green and lifted the buck’s head. Behind him, wild, empty land swept down and up again, rolling between ridges and peaks and finally falling off into the glittering ocean. Tall storm clouds were building on the horizon. They would catch us as we packed the deer off the mountain, stirring the ocean to rough swell, and tearing at our base camp with wind and driven rain for the better part of the next week. But in the moment, we celebrated under a warm sun, reveling in the sort of boundless happiness that only comes out of a subconscious assuredness that you are living one of those narrow, fleeting moments in life that later become the bedrock of your existence. It feels close enough that maybe in another dimension slightly above and to the left of this one, I’m still there – my brother and I on that ridge, sharp sun and blue sky and a cold alpine wind drying the sweat on our necks. I suppose I’m jealous of the versions of myself that get to live on in those moments. During quiet times, pauses between things, I try to cross back over, to merge with that part of myself and that feeling, but never quite make it completely. Perhaps someday I will, and everything will be as it was.

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By fatman
real good
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