Howdy boys. It's been a while since I've written, and I've so much to tell you.
March 12th, 2011. I was scared shitless. My drinking had gotten to the point where it seemed as if I was in the front seat of a roller coaster that had just crested over the top and was starting to accelerate downhill--but the track was broken off at the bottom, and I didn't have access to a brake. I'd been white-knuckle sober for just five weeks and, in retrospect, was a raw jangled nerve walking about in search of an irritant. Sleep deprived, easily startled, irritable and discontented, I could hardly stand being in my own skin. I'd just recently started seeing a counselor, slipping out of town on Monday afternoons to make a sixty-plus mile round-trip to meet with a professional in the hope of not being spotted by anyone I knew.
I wouldn't know it yet, but the worst of it was already behind me. I was prescribed a potent sleep medication, and when I expressed my fear of its addictive properties, I was gently reassured with the obvious. "Let's take this thing one step at a time, KP. I'm only giving you ten pills at a time--your risk of addiction is small. Once we get your sleep patterns ironed out, you'll be in a better place to begin addressing your drinking."
She was, of course, right. After a couple of weeks of normal sleep I was in a much better frame of mind. And while the craving for alcohol was still a daily ordeal, I had been stacking one day at a time on top of another now for over a month, and there was consolation in hitting 35 days. It wasn't enough to claim I had established a new habit, but each good day was another day, then week, then over a month away from my liquid habit.
I found then (indeed, still do today) that deliberately seeking out things of beauty, peace, Truth, and tranquility helped sooth my state of mind. Exercise helped too, and I spent hours on end building a large greenhouse, beginning the process while there were still patches of snow in the yard and garden. My body ached from the exertion, my mind reeled from applied problem solving, and my soul kept counting and stacking the pile of sober days.
It was in this context that I first encountered "The Tree." A forum member unknown to me posted a trip report from the Oregon coast with an image that took my breath away. Here it is:
Everything about the photo whispered serenity--the verdant hillside, the tranquil current sliding into the gentle bend of the river, the posture of the patient fisherman engaged in one of my favorite exercises in hope, and--of course--the majestic and ancient tree that defines the image, and that place.
A friend of mine tells the story of going to Christmas Mass with his faithful wife. The priest greeting him warmly, and playfully mentioned how he hadn't seen much of him. Glenn replied "Well father, I'd rather be fishing and thinking about God than sitting in a church thinking about fishing."
In my mind's eye, "The Tree" and the location where it has lived for perhaps the past 200 years is the culmination of both: a holy sanctuary--a place of communion, respite, introspection, and peace. At that moment in my life, I was seared by its beauty and desperately longed to experience first-hand what the angler in the photo seemed to be experiencing. I could only dream about how wonderful it would be to be fully immersed in the rapture of the actual place as opposed to just what was being conveyed through my computer screen. I posted to that thread, " Your photo made me realize that my life will not be complete before I stand beneath this tree."
Shortly after he posted the thread, I sent a PM to the author, asking if he would share the location with me. And though I swore I'd never reveal it over the open internet, his denial was cryptic. "I won't reveal the location. I will tell you that the photo was taken from a bridge. If you find yourself on that bridge, you'll know exactly where you are." Dreaming about The Tree would be all I could do about it-- for the next 2940 days.
We have so many metaphors for the passage of time that invoke rivers. Indeed, time does flow like a river--sometimes peacefully and at other times with alarming speed. Events come and go, passing like water under the bridge. During the eight years that I waited, so many things have come to pass:
The birth of two grandsons
The loss of my father to pancreatic cancer
One son's graduation from an Ivy League college (that thankfully my dad was able to witness)
Another son's near-death dance with alcoholism, and now five and a half years of sobriety
My daughter's marriage to a fine young man that I'm proud to call my son-in-law
Three surgeries and two terrifying trips to the emergency room
The premature death of the finest dog I've ever had to joy of knowing
...and a thousand other more mundane events that are common to all of us.
The Tree was seldom far from the front of my mind, although I most actively searched for it when the nights were longest and coldest. January and February would find me after dinner, sitting at my computer, poring over Google Maps or Google Earth, search for the intersection of rivers and bridges. Ever searching, never finding, but still stacking the days and finding meaning in the quest that would likely have escaped me in earlier years.
Last summer, my wife and I hosted a family reunion on the Oregon coast. She grew up in eastern Oregon, and some of her happiest childhood memories were visits to the ocean. A young couple we knew were getting married in July in Portland, and so we took the opportunity to combine that event with a week at a rental home for our family.
I had hoped to sneak out for a day to search for The Tree. However, it quickly became apparent that this would not work, due in no small part to the crush of summer tourist traffic on US 101. I committed the time to our family, and happily so. The stacking of days continued and the quality of those days has slowly, almost imperceptively, improved. The Tree would have to wait, and I could be patient with this. I had been waiting this long already and in retrospect I would have only frustrated myself. As I would soon find out, it would take much longer than just a day to find it when the actual searching began.
Old Man Winter threw a number of sucker punches this year. First, he arrived so late that I entertained the false hope that he wouldn't really show at all. There would be no snow in the valley until after the first week in January, but he quickly made up for lost time. One snowfall set a local record, dumping 36 inches in just 32 hours. In fact, the last of the snow is melting in my yard during this last week of April, nearly two months later than normal.
Once again I found my search for The Tree quickened by the dark months, and perhaps with a greater sense of urgency this year due to the crueler than normal winter. Sensing this, my bride made the suggestion that I spend spring break in Oregon, looking in earnest for The Tree.
She's better than I deserve.
My time searching the internet doubled. I booked a vacation home on the coast and spoke in earnest with friends about my plans. One of these friends suggested that we partner up on the trip. His dream was to fish the Olympic Peninsula for winter chrome. We could splint the expenses and he'd join me in Oregon, fishing while I searched for my tree.
I might be a little fixated, but not so much that I couldn't see the appeal of his suggestion.
In late March, I stopped at his home in the Inland Empire. My truck, his raft, all of our mutual gear, and off we went in pursuit of overlapping adventures.
I'd been tying a bit in anticipation.
We took the scenic route, and arrived at our destination late in the day. Our original plan had been to fish the Quinault, but as it was exceptionally low and gin clear, we fished the Queets instead.
It did not disappoint.
I'm an intermediate spey caster. I've had some success, but the truth is that all but one of my winter steelhead have been caught nymphing rather than on the swing. Late in the first day, I got my first grab.
...and I trout set.
Steelhead one, KP zero.
Toward evening, my buddy stepped up on a gravel bar to take care of some pressing personal business. He took off his wading belt (which had an expensive knife, Abel pliers, and a Folstaf on it,) and put it on the ground. The scenery was so beautiful that he neglected to put on his belt afterwards. We wouldn't know about it until we arrived at the take out and he started putting away his gear.
It was near here.
We amended our plans to fish another stretch of river the next day to instead float the same section again on day two. My buddy had a belt to find, and I wanted to solicit another grab and not trout set this time.
As it turns out, we both got our wishes--mostly.
We were guided by Ryan Davey through The Evening Hatch Guide Service. Ryan is a seriously fishy dude, and a knowledgeable and patient teacher. I endorse the man whole-heartedly.
Day two dawned bluebird bright. I was told steelhead preferred a gray drizzle. Apparently, nobody told this to the steelhead.
More to come.