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.