"...when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it."
I'm not sure a phone call is always appropriate, but I understand what he's saying. We all crave just a few more words from Maclean and Hemingway, yet we know that in truth it's the unanswered questions in their stories that leave room for us: missing sequences in a DNA helix, for us to splice in just enough of our selves to allow the story to really mean something.
Still, I'll bet that an evening on the river with Professor Maclean and Papa would be a lively time.
I recently sat across a dim kitchen table from songwriter-poet Stan Rogers, asking questions which he evaded with a smile – this dreamt while I slept in a starlit canvas tent, deep in Tahquamenon country. On this trip I listened to Stan for four days straight, his short discography on repeat in the Jeep. And in my sleep. I'm left unsatiated, hungry for more. But there isn't any more, and I suspect this hard stop magnifies his words' and songs' lasting power.
In a heartbeat I would call up Stan Rogers, long-distance to Nova Scotia. We'd gather some friends, family, a bottle, and sit around a kitchen table and laugh and sing.
Of course some writers are entirely unapproachable: Tolkien, C.S. Forester, Patrick O'Brian, for three. Their work is heavy fiction, a real and complete world. It would be easier to call up their characters (Lucky Jack Aubrey always has a good story to tell) but other than stories we wouldn't have much in common.
Some writers I'd be afraid to talk to. Cormac McCarthy comes to mind. Reading his troubling books – in moderation – is as close as I want to come to that man's consciousness. Solzhenitsyn and Vonnegut, too. They've shared their pain with us and I wouldn't ask any more of them.
Lately, because I write this blog, I've been reading a lot in the flyfishing writer world. By its nature I'm connected via earth-flattening internets to a multitude of writers. Automatically included. Some really good, contemporary, like-minded, writers. No phone-call necessary: e-mail is easier. They're writers.
Through reading dozens of blogs we are organically drawn to those writers with whom we share certain appreciations; for fish, woods, water, words, minutia. We should not be surprised when we happen to get along like old friends.
That's what fishing with Jason has been like. I'd been following his work for a year before we met at a flyfishing trade show this spring. One weekend this summer I asked him for up-north campsite suggestions, hoping to avoid pitching my tent in a rowdy RV park. Following his lead, I found myself bouncing my Jeep down a sand two-track, and setting up alone among the pines, within earshot of a cold stream and wild brook trout.
Perfect. One of his favorite places, it turns out, and now one of mine.
Later that night he and I stand in another river, talking quietly in the dark as we wait for Hexagenia limbata. Above, stars glitter and shoot, while a serious storm clambers out of Lake Michigan and overland toward us. It's a primal feeling, the desire to seek shelter at the weighted approach of a good storm in the dark. The leaves betray the front as it moves over us and the encroaching clouds flicker and glow from within. Walking artillery, headed our way. The lightning bugs flash chartreuse at a too-high frequency, as if the electrical static has them supercharged. But we still have some time.
The fish begin to rise before we see the bugs. Jason lets me make the first cast, the first fish plays along, and soon we're releasing a healthy fourteen inch brown trout. Another rises in the same spot – but this one is big. It's Jason's turn, but the fish ignores his fly and continues to rise, arrhythmically. So, show him something else. Rather than re-tying in the dark, Jason trades his rod for mine (ask any gunfighter: the fastest reload is a second gun) and the fish commits to the slightly-different fly. It doesn't run, but dogs around our legs in the dark, getting larger – eighteen! twenty! twenty-three?! – as it pulses through our red headlamp beams. With Jason's camera I take the shot and the fish is released.
The camera flash dazzles our eyes, but not as much as the lighting that is now nearly upon us.
Jason: “You want to stick it out a just bit longer?”
Tom: “Yeah, I think...”
Unison: “Time to go.”
(They exit, river left.)
We sit in the Jeep for about an hour just in case the storm blows through, shouting over the Jurassic downpour and thunder. Hamm's, Oberon, books, hunting, writing, family, fishing. It doesn't blow through, but we don't run out of beer or things to talk about, and the time is not wasted.
We've since worked a couple brook trout streams, trading good runs in a comfortable rhythm. We've hiked windblown wilderness flats for carp. Last weekend Jason and Alex (also an accomplished writer/photog) invited me to fish another nighttime river. Between groups of bugling and smashing elk we thrashed the water with rodent imitations and cautiously picked our way around the beavers' punji traps.
Jason and Alex deeply love their part of Michigan. I'm a lucky beneficiary – sharing experiences and ideas with writers I admire in the beautiful places that trout live and that I, a Minnesotan, would not find on my own. They have these premium spots saved up, distilled from a lifetime of water explored. Concentrated awesomeness, which they share a bit at a time.
Shared with me because I was able to do what Holden Caulfield wished he could. Terrific friends indeed.
* * *
Appendix A: some more really good writing.
Erin Block, Mysteries Internal
Wendy Berrell, Fishing and Thinking in Minnesota
Matt Dunn, Fishbeer.com
Tim Schultz, Madness and Magic
Appendix B: some July and August photos
Appendix B: some July and August photos