In November, M wrote to say it was cold in the North. What she wrote specifically is, “Just wanted to let you know that it’s beginning to get freezing cold outside up here! We also have a snow record now. It’s been 100 years since it was so much snow in November.”
At the time I was living in the U.S, but soon to move back to the North. What does that much snow look like in a town north of the Arctic Circle? It was 77 degrees in Colorado. People were walking around in t-shirts. Yet there was more snow in the North than there has been in the past 100 years. As some of my Norwegian friends might say, “Oi.” Although M, who is not only Norwegian but northern Norwegian, didn’t say that. She described the place as a “winter wonderland.”
Now that I am here again, I suppose this country is a winter wonderland. In between typing a few words or struggling with another sentence, I look up and see snow and darkness outside my kitchen window. It is a world of quiet and mystery. Some people can live here and others cannot. The darkness and cold are too much for some people. I don’t feel that way though. I am among those who can live here.
A world of quiet and mystery. Photo by Damon Falke
During my last couple of months in the U.S., I began to receive notes from friends in England, friends in Denmark, friends in Norway. There were invitations to have coffee, to have lunch, to go for walks, to travel. A note came from a friend in Barcelona who, like me, missed the North. She wrote to say, “my heart aches for the snow, the purple skies on the mountains and the stillness that comes after the freezing storm. The little noises fresh snow makes under your feet when you walk out the house.” She wondered, too, if I was already in the North. I think she wanted another account of snow and ice from someone who loves them as much as she does. For as much as her Spanish heart is rendered by heat, she would not deny her affection for the cold.
As more invitations arrived, I felt a combination of homesickness and a sense that I had run my course in the U.S. Much had been good about living in the U.S. again. I made a couple of long drives and didn’t worry about speed limits or yellow lights. I saw a few friends. I slept in strange rooms. I pulled over to watch sunsets. I fished creeks and rivers and lived, as I once did, on the road. I met a motorcycle rider named Dave in Wyoming. Dave told me how it was his first time to ride in two years. That’s how long it had been since his wife had died of the cancer. That’s how he phrased it—the cancer—which sounded oddly personal to my ears.
I fished creeks and rivers. Photo by Ben Lawhon
He said to me, “I couldn’t get on that bike again. She and I had ridden together for twenty-six years.”
“Must be tough.” I said.
“It is tough, but it gets better…I guess it gets better.”
“I’m glad, Dave.”
“What’s your name again?
“Damon and Dave. I like that, Pard.”
“Yeah, that’s all right.”
We stared at the wind and heat shifting the prairie. Then Dave said, “Well, Pard, I should get back on the road.”
“Take care of yourself, Dave.”
“I will.” He got on his Harley and adjusted the bandanna tied around his head. “I might head up to Bismarck. I got a daughter up that way.”
“I’d like to see that country. I’d like to walk in the Lakota country up there, you know. I hear it’s good country.”
Fishing with Steve in Montana
He glanced at the prairie then looked at me. “Ah, it’s all good country, Damon. All of it.”
Damon and Dave. Eastern Wyoming. The Safeway clerk who managed to get all my groceries into one bag. The note from Steve Story saying he had a dream about him and me fishing a river in Montana. The boys and me tossing a football one sunny afternoon in the field behind our house. The dog who played catch with us and who hauled his own slimy tennis ball into the field, sensing, perhaps, that the football was a too big for his mouth. Scanning a.m. radio in my borrowed truck late one night and listening to Charlie Pride sing “Roll on Mississippi.” I thought of my grandmother, Grandma Faye, and how she would occasionally pick me up from school in her Cadillac with the radio on and Charlie Pride singing “Roll on Mississippi” or “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” or “Is Anybody Going to San Antone?” My grandmother would ask me, “Do you like Charlie Pride, son?” “Yes, ma’am. I do.” “He’s good singer, isn’t he?” “Yes, ma’am. He is.” All of that comes back in four notes, maybe less. These things gone forever.
I can’t decide if I spent enough days fishing in the U.S. this past year. I returned to southern Utah and Colorado, but I didn’t cast a single line on those rivers or creeks I once knew, not even on the Big River. I drove with Gene Story on a mountain road that follows a branch of the Big River. We stopped to throw sticks in the river for Gene’s dog, a big yellow lab named Riley. Riley may love water more than he loves the ground, but it’s difficult to say with a dog. Gene and I threw sticks and talked about old times. We talked about an elk I had killed on the mountain just across the river. That was two, almost three decades ago. We talked about how I had come down from the mountain looking like I had rolled on the floor of a butcher shop. We laughed. The mountains were different in those days. The country was different. There were no trail markers, hardly any place names. The road was dirt and gravel. I think both of us felt a little sad about those days being gone. Then I showed Gene one of the necklaces I wear. An elk tooth hangs from this particular necklace, and the tooth comes from that same elk I had killed those years ago. Gene and I stood at the very crossing where I had walked down the mountain covered in blood.
We threw a few more sticks to Riley and didn’t say much else. I thought about pools in the river I had fished over the years. Before leaving, I picked up a stone and slipped it into a medicine bag. A pretty stone from a river of memory—I’ll call that medicine. It’s something to keep. It’s something to keep close to the heart.
It’s something to keep close to the heart. Photo by Damon Falke
I stayed a couple of days with Gene and his wife, Janet. Janet caught me up with the family news, with what her daughter and granddaughter were busy with in Arizona, with what adventures Steve and Becky had planned. After supper that first night, Gene introduced me to a couple of Netflix shows, which I enjoyed. One was a cowboy show with the expected cowboy carnage—hangings, town burnings, mean killings, running horses, a strong silent type, and a damsel who would have been in distress thirty-five years ago except now she’s a damsel in slight distress but with good aim and willingness to whip a cowpoke’s ass or to kill some sadist outlaw. The other show was about America falling apart. Gene liked it because of an attractive FBI lady who could shoot a pistol almost as naturally as she could breathe. I’m confident he liked her shooting more than her looks, though her looks weren’t bad.
Janet, Gene and their yellow lab. Photo by Damon Falke
There was another afternoon when Gene drove me to where his mother, Irma, had lived as a young woman. Gene’s father, Kiergan, had worked the land near the old house there. Gene said Kiergan tried to make a go of it as a farmer, which I had never heard. I knew Kiergan’s brother, one of his brothers anyway, had been a pretty good farmer. Those were the days of dry land farming, which was difficult and dependent on rain that hardly fell. Evidently, Kiergan loved farming. The habits of a farmer stayed with him, too. Steve said that at the time of Kiergan’s death the old man had a large garage packed with tools and farming implements he hadn’t used in decades. He said his grandad would go into thrift stores or flea markets and purchase another screwdriver or wrench he didn’t need. Steve said, “He probably had two dozen just like it back in his garage.”
“Why did he buy another one?”
“He liked to talk with people who sell old tools and junk, you know. He was happy to buy another screwdriver just for the gab. You remember how Kiergan was.”
I do. I remember.
I didn’t fish on the trip to see Gene and Janet, and I was a short drive from a half dozen creeks I could have fished blindfolded. Instead, I spent time with Gene and Janet. We told stories. We went to eat sushi one night in town. I spent one evening alone on Gene’s porch after he and Janet had turned in early. I watched again what I have called for years the best sunset in the world and wrote a note to a friend. I saw fields and canyons soften under the sunset and sky, with all of them leaning as they did, towards some other infinite edge. I wished that I understood something more of our crossings. I wished that I could have told you more.
The best sunset in the world. Photo by Jim Stiles
Although I didn’t fish any of the old rivers or creeks, I did fish new water. I fished a small river outside a town in Wyoming. The boys decided to go with me on that trip. They thought they could swim while I fished, which is a proposition that rarely works for either fathers or sons. But we went anyway. I was over-dressed and over-prepared with fishing gear. The boys wore swimming trunks and t-shirts and carried towels. After we reached the water, I faced the boys like Montgomery staring over the sands of El-Alamein and laid out our approach.
“The fishing pool is up there.” I pointed. “The swimming pool is down there.” I pointed again. “Never the twain shall meet. You understand?”
“Okay,” the boys said in unison.
“I don’t want either of you swimming in the fishing pool.”
“You know what you do.”
“Why do you always say ‘you’ when it’s only one of us who does anything?”
“I believe in equality. So, do you both understand where you are swimming and where I am fishing?”
“Good. I came here to fish.”
“We know, Papa.”
With that, I started upstream. Yet within 10 minutes, maybe less, the rod was put away, and I found myself portaging boys from deep water to shallow water, from bank to bank, from hope to hope.
Swimming, or whatever the boys splashing in the river should’ve been called, soon became another production of Escape from the Blackflies. Getting in the river was indeed the best defence against the blackflies. That said, run-off had only recently ended, and the water was cold. I let the boys hide in the water until their lips turned blue. Afterwards, they tried to hide from the blackflies by getting under their towels, but the damn blackflies were relentless. They were everywhere. As such, the towels didn’t make great fly cover. But when the wind blew, even for a few seconds, off went the blackflies. This worked well enough, unless the boys were still wet after their swim. Wind, after all, is a cooling agent, especially for children who have so soon extricated themselves from cold water. This, of course, led back to blue lips, complaints about the flies, a search for the brightest patch of sunlight, and the inevitable question of why did we ever come on this trip in the first place.
I have no idea what the boys were thinking. I’m not any fun to fish with, which the boys understand, but they toughed it out anyway. They swam when they could. They battled blackflies and the wind. We are now months after the trip, yet I can look up from anywhere and see those boys on the river in Wyoming. There is Uncle Charlie (a name I call my oldest son), resting on a log, letting the sun warm his skin. He holds his head high, and his pretty eyes look sleepy. He is beautiful, this boy. Then there is Seb (a name I call my youngest son), searching beside the log where Uncle Charlie sits, hoping to find a bug. When he finds one, he lifts the insect towards the sky, smiling as he does, as though he has discovered God’s favorite creature. He is beautiful, this boy.
We can have our returns, but we can never relive anything.
Like some rivers and streams, a year in the States came and vanished. I fished a few days, poked around a few towns and mountains, drove a few dusty roads and smaller highways. I walked across familiar landscapes and into new country. I wasn’t re-living a past or wanting for more. We can have our returns, but we cannot re-live anything. In all the running around and looking and fishing and seeing one place or another, I felt there wasn’t much I could say about these worlds anymore. The truth is, we can carry ourselves only so far. One of my favorite movie scenes comes at the end of Little Big Man, when Old Lodge Skins, played by the iconic Chief Dan George, is ready to die. He takes his adopted grandson and goes into the mountain. There he calls upon death to come and take him. He lies down on his elk robe beside his burial scaffold. He then waits. Rain begins to fall.
His grandson, Jack Crabb, played brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman, notices the old man isn’t at peace, and he says to him, “Grandfather?”
Grandfather blinks and raises his head.
“Am I still in this world?” he asks.
Grandfather lies back down and sighs.
“I was afraid of that.”
But he soon sits up again. The rain falls harder on his face. He grins and says, “Well, sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t. Would that I could possess such wisdom, but I don’t. I’m another nitwit drifting through the world, making mistakes, asking the same old questions, and feeling less than satisfied with the answers.
The scene from Little Big Man is one of those movie scenes that returns to me. I save a few moments from films. There is Sam’s monologue from The Last Picture Show, with Ben Johnson cast as Sam the Lion, and his tender delivery of “old times.” From the same scene, I commend Sam’s insight into how, “Being crazy about a woman like her is always the right thing to do.” Tender Mercies is another favorite film and one full of moments. I love Mac’s lines to Rosa Lee, “You see, I don’t trust happiness. I never did, and I never will.” In Manhattan, Woody Allen, as Isaac Davis, asks “Why is life worth living?” In a string of answers that includes, among others, Groucho Marx, Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Potato Head Blues,” paintings of apples and pears by Cezanne, he arrives at Tracy’s face, and he nearly falls apart at the sound of her name. Then there is Jeremiah Johnson. Watching Jeremiah Johnson as a child was something of a cult practice.
Jeremiah Johnson made his way into the mountains,
Bettin’ on forgettin’ all the troubles that he knew.
I must have been ten, maybe eleven years old when I first watched Jeremiah Johnson. It wasn’t long after seeing the movie that I admitted to my Sunday School teacher, Debbie Norris, that I wanted to be a mountain man. The conversation started as one of those lessons when the teacher asks the children what they want to be when they grow up. A fireman was an option. I liked fire, but I liked making fires, not putting them out. I hated cars and trucks. Every now and then someone would make the mistake of giving me a Tonka truck as a present, which I in turn would burn in Donnie Courville’s sand pile. Donnie and I usually devised an elaborate story about how the Tonka truck caught fire. Think of the vinegar + baking soda volcano experiment. Donnie and I did that one, but we also added gasoline to create a degree of realism. Thus into flames went the Tonka trucks.
So I confessed to Debbie Norris that I wanted to be a mountain man, and she smiled. The smile was genuine, but I saw a shade of doubt, too. Why not doubt? I was a sick kid from southeast Texas, wishing to pursue the life of a bearded man with a Hawken gun, a horse and mule, awareness of where to hunt and fish, where to take shelter, how to start a fire in rain or snow, and get along in the worse weather. Meanwhile, in real life, I was wearing a colostomy bag, weighing maybe 60 lbs, getting admitted regularly to Texas Children’s Hospital, and not likely to reach thirty.
What’s remarkable, two or three years after Debbie Norris asked me the ubiquitous “what do you want to be when you grow up” question, my family moved to Moab, Utah. I continued sixth grade at the middle school there, located then on Center Street, one block east of the court house. On my first day of school, another sixth grader—a pretty blond girl—gave me a tour. I saw the gym and offices. I was given an ugly orange locker, like everyone else, and struggled to manipulate the combination lock. Along with my mother and Mr. Johnson, the principle in those days, I picked my classes. Rex Hamblin’s dad taught English. Mr. Radcliffe taught science. Maybe Mr. Walker taught history. I’m not sure. Regardless, I learned I wouldn’t need to take Utah history. After all, someone mentioned, I had taken Texas history back in Texas. As though something irredeemable had already happened to me.
I believe it was during my first week of school in Moab when I noticed a row of papers taped to the walls near the second story stairwell. On the papers, students had written mini reports about what they wanted to be when they grew up. To dance, to play quarterback, to become a baseball player, to be a movie star or singer. I’m not sure if any of those children ever found their way onto the stage or field or screen, but I hope so. I wanted to be a mountain man or maybe—maybe—a professional fly fisherman. No one up on that wall needed to know that, and I never told them.
We will not close this distance. Photo by Damon Falke
outside the kitchen window
The house is quiet this morning. The hours between 4 and 6 usually are quiet. Every so often I get up from my chair to refill a teacup. Afterwards, I stand beside the kitchen window and press my face to the glass. It’s cold, the glass. It’s cold outside. I look out of the window and wonder if I’ll see nordlys. Out where I live, I can see them almost every clear night. This morning there is a storm. There is snow everywhere, and I can’t see much. But below the kitchen window, I see moose tracks. What the hell was a moose doing so close to the house?
In a few hours there will be light. The sun doesn’t rise above the horizon this time of year, but it comes close enough to color the sky with pale blues and grey. In another three weeks, the sun will peek between the mountains across the sea. If it’s a clear day, I’ll throw up the window shades to let the light inside—all fifteen minutes of sunlight, if we get that much. I’ll watch it come and go. For now, I look again outside. Dark and cold and snow falling on snow. I press closer to the window. I can reach and you can reach, but we will not close this distance.