By Ann Bodle Nash
I am in the midst of a love affair with Montana. I didn’t see it coming, as so often is the case with middle-agers. We drift into these close-to-the-heart relationships and, somewhere along the way, knee deep in delight and longing, we consider radical thoughts like leaving the comfort of home as we know it, and striking out to pursue the dream. Find out if it is reality or illusion, unwilling to waste our remaining best years wondering.
Several twists of fate have allowed me to glimpse the real Montana — whatever real means. It’s a state with a college town now disparagingly referred to by folk in Twin Bridges (a little, rolling tumbleweed burg south of Whitehall and north of Dillon) as Boze-Angeles. I take it as a sign the old Montana is stretching its identity either by choice or by default and, not surprisingly, there are complaints.
Life in rural Montana is impacted each time a ranch is sold and redeveloped as mini-ranchettes for movie stars or underfinanced vacation home sites for out-of-staters who arrive on a “tour-of-the-west vacation” and are entranced with the solitude in the quiet places, the famous Big Sky, the sound of crickets in the summertime heat and perhaps just the fishing. I’m not criticizing their choices, just listening to the murmurs.
Although I had driven east through Montana on I-90 a few times in the early 1990s, struggling to find a motel on a summer’s night, I was innocent of the state’s charms. It seemed a deliciously-open and wild landscape with golden, grass-covered hills, leaving no doubt as to the origin of the license plate slogan “Big Sky Country,” as my view stretched from horizon to horizon with rugged mountain ranges occasionally keeping me company.
All that changed around 1996. I had learned to catch fish, humpy salmon specifically, in the Skagit River near my home in Bow, Washington. Barry Christensen, an MFA-holding artist friend and neighbor, had noticed that my ten-year-old son Stuart loved to devour newly-smoked salmon he so maniacally produced in his back yard with his Little Chief smoker. Trying to help a young person understand where food comes from, Barry offered to teach him to fish for salmon if I, his mother with a drivers license, would deliver him to the river, just over the tall river dike near I-5 Auto World, at precisely 5:45 AM the next morning.
Twelve hours later, we were heading to his “secret spot” on the Skagit, otherwise known as the “meathole.” Tardiness would result in forfeiture of the exquisitely-small foothold at the base of the vertical trail through the thicket of blackberry bushes. We were on time but, from the first, my son did not fall in love with the idea of fishing. Bachelor Barry patiently taught us both the intricate composition of the line, rigged out with a double-barrel swivel, a three-inch piece of black, surgical tubing stuffed with a two-inch section of lead rope and a pink Dick Knight spoon with a single, barbless hook as per regulations. We learned to tie all this on with a triple surgeon’s knot, the most basic and useful knot of dedicated fishers, whether spin casters or fly-fishers. I was listening hard. It was exciting, but it was not about me.
Stu cast well into the swift and murky green waters of the historically-famous Skagit River, legendary waters of salmon, three varieties in the day, and notably Steelhead, now in tremendously-decreased numbers. Around eight A.M., he hooked one. New to the world of adventure fishing, he was terrified and handed the rod to me. “Here, take it!” That was the moment I realized a few things: that I did not have a license, which meant I was not suppose to reel in the fish; that I wanted to land that fish more than anything in the world; and that it was stupid to get up so early and not be fishing. I said nothing and passed the rod to Barry who promptly lost the fish. We soon went home.
The next day we returned at the same frightfully-early hour. I watched the sun and moon whisper greetings to one another as they changed positions in the sky while mist hung delicately over the majestic innocence of the Skagit. It was ghostly quiet. In ten minutes, Stuart announced his feet were wet and he wanted to go home. He had had enough; end of story. I remember thinking, “Wait, I love this. Maybe I need to get a license.” Which is of course exactly what I did after taking him home and watching him crawl into bed.
I headed to the nearest fishing store, the Holiday Market, and purchased the four-part license for fresh and salt water, crabbing and clamming; a large spool of monofilament line; about twenty Dick Knights in various hues and designs; enough surgical tubing to be suspicious and a small spool of lead. A feeling of power came over me. Now I could be one of those mythical hunter-gatherer types, a role usually reserved for men and boys.
Early the following morning I snuck out alone to meet my future. I backed out of the driveway possessed, drove to the secret spot and parked along the dike. Finding the entrance, I slithered down the prickly bank, carefully placed my pink plastic tackle box (with my name boldly printed in Sharpie marker) on a patch of dirt, and placed my feet on a flat rock partly submerged into the river. With lip balm and Kleenex in my fanny pack, I adjusted my sun glasses and hat and raised my red rod proudly. I was fishing, I was woman, I was emancipated and empowered.
There was no one to share the glory of the sunrise, the chirping of the birds, the quiet elegance of the river. If I fell into the river, no one would notice and I would drown in my jeans and work boots. But smiling broadly, I cast repeatedly, thrilling to the controlled movement, until suddenly my reeling stopped with a jerk and I had a fish on.
In those following moments I had a quick lesson in drag and soon lost most of my 100 yards of new monofilament line to the river. The screw at the top of the reel had been stripped by the force of water and fish and the top simply popped off, releasing the line. Total slack in the line told me the fish was gone and, mindful of Barry’s heavy warning about the dangers of slack, I thought it best to extract the line from the river so it wouldn’t add to the garbage below the surface. Setting the rod down and placing a rock on it to keep it stationary, I imagined myself pulling a heavy rope, hand over hand like a Volga boatwoman, making the best of the situation while realizing I had failed miserably on my first solo outing. I was still proud, but embarrassed.
As I neared the end of the line, it grew heavy and I wondered momentarily if it was stuck on a snag. Maybe there had never been a fish. But the next pull revealed, unbelievably, the fish was still attached! I shouted for joy to anyone within earshot. Smiling from ear to ear, my chest now swelling, I hauled that poor excuse for a salmon to the closest rock and smashed its head until it was unconscious. Then I wriggled it into the grey-brown gunny sack I had brought along for the purpose of hauling my trophies up the bank and to my car. What a joyous ride to my husband’s office parking lot for the requisite photo moment. Never in forty-five years had there been such a powerfully-sweet moment for me.
Over the next fifteen days, I caught thirty-six more, cleaned them myself, filleted them, brined them in a borrowed secret formula solution, purchased my own Little Chief smoker and put up my winter’s supply. Proudly, I sent in my catch record to the State of Washington.
The following summer I wandered into a free fly-fishing demonstration while vacationing with family in Colorado and then signed up for a one-day instructional class for women-only, taught by Cindy. An outstanding female fisher, beautiful, petite, and confident, she was the model who would inspire my new life adventure. I fished for baby rainbow trout, brown trout, cutthroat trout, green trout and whitefish, wherever I could, with a fever. Cindy explained the mantra of “catch and release” to me. I bought a five-weight Sage DS fly rod; Sims wading boots; a camo fishing vest with too many pockets, Velcro patches, zippers and netting; neoprene wading socks and, eventually, Gore-tex women’s waders in the “stout” model (a little extra space in the hips) and two technical women’s fishing shirts.
A couple of years later, having discovered a women’s-only fly-fishing club in Seattle, sixty miles south, I was a regular fishing gal swapping stories and listening, listening to the stories of adventure fresh-water fishing in Kamchatka, salt-water fishing in the Bahamas and back-country fishing in Alaska, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. It all pooled in the back of my brain as I saved enough of my working money to hire a quirky, pot-smoking, seventeen-year veteran of the Yakima River male guide named Chuck and diligently learn to fish the Yak from a moving drift boat. I was in fishing school and was going for A’s.
The tipping point, piscatorially and geographically-speaking, was the year I was the winning bidder at the annual Northwest Women’s Fly-Fishing club fancy-dress-fundraising auction. My prize: a one-day, guided fishing trip in the great state of Montana, on the Missouri River at Craig. I packed my bags and, on the upcoming tenth of August, presented myself.
When I arrived in rustic Craig, epicenter of the known fishing world, I had nine hundred miles of driving behind me, mostly on Highway 287 from Estes Park, Colorado, the scenic route by choice. My family had flown home from our annual Colorado vacation, and I and the family vehicle — loaded down with four trail bicycles barely attached to the rear — had powered along the lonely back roads with my maps, a cooler and my sense of adventure.
Turning off I-15 North, exit 234, at the sign for Craig, I drove tentatively down the gravel and dirt road toward a small wood-sided shack with an oversized, painted, and very graphic house fly attached to the front. Ah, the Trout Lodge Fly Shop where I was to check in for my two-night stay. Assigned to a small, three-bedroom house adjacent to the shop, I promptly negotiated myself out of it, fearing it too large for one person. Instead I talked my way into a single-room inside the unpretentious Trout Lodge, with a bathroom down the hall.
Backing out of the shop, I sat wearily on the porch on a rough wooden bench positioned near the front door. A tall, curious, middle-aged man with wild hair and unkempt clothing perched on the adjacent bench. He quickly sorted me out and fiercely lectured me about the condition of the bikes hanging droopily off the end of my car.
“Yes,” I answered, “I DO know one of the wheels has been dragging on the pavement the last hundred miles.”
“No,” I told him, I do NOT have the key that would release them from such torture. It’s lost in the back of the Explorer, “wherever my husband put it.” He never imagined his tightly-wrapped collection of bungee cords, chains and other ties around the bikes would work loose on my journey.
I was curious, entertained and suspicious of this man, my first Montana fishing acquaintance. Suddenly announcing it was time to eat, he pulled over a large cooler packed with cheddar cheese, crackers and beer and offered me one. Not wanting to give an inch of indebtedness, I responded with a listing of the sustenance I had in my car. Similar to his list, including beer, it also included a small jar of peanut butter. We settled into a sort of domestic bliss for all in Craig to see but were pretty much unnoticed.
It was now about seven P.M., and the evening fishing hour was close upon us. As a newcomer to Montana ways, I hadn’t realized that fact. The stranger, whose name was John, stood up and announced it was time to fish. “You coming?” he asked.
I thought hard, willing the yes to come from my mouth. I had nothing else to do and had just driven 900 miles but suddenly realized I did not have a Montana fishing license. “Not a problem,” said John. “But you’ll have to drive your own car,” he said. “Too much shit in mine.” And off we went, cars flying down a dirt road along the west side of the Missouri River, heading upstream to an uncertain destination.
Eventually we parked under the shade of a basalt rock overhanging the roadway, pulled body-length waders over our lightweight clothes, tied up our boots, shoved on hats and glasses, grabbed rods and struck out across a farmer’s cow pasture towards a shallow entry point of the river. (I could hear my husband’s voice whispering, “Do you have permission to be on this land?”) We crossed two fences and walked fearlessly into the great Missouri.
The enormity of the Big Sky engulfed me and I felt knee-deep in a living, moving force of nature. The sky changed from cloudless blue, to cirrus clouds of pinky orange, to purples to nearly black in that long twilight of Montana in August. I said to myself, “So this is Montana…” and smiled and smiled. I understood nothing and everything all at once.
Later I wrote: “The Missouri River Trout Lodge, Craig, Montana. Made me wonder if I’d stepped into a universal time warp or black hole or something. Where men speak of “sixty to a hundred” fish days in hushed tones. Caddis flies so thick in the evenings that your skin jumps with them under your glasses, in your hair, down your shirt, in your ears and up your nose. You realize you’re just a miniscule past of the river ecosystem, very low on the food chain, deserving of no respect at all.”
The morning brought Gary, my auction-purchased guide. He found me perched in terror on a tall stool at the high counter, as close as earthly possible to the cooks of the Trout Lodge who scrambled eggs, flipped pancakes and whispered the latest fishing village gossip. The funky dining area behind me was full of groups of middle-aged men in their Orvis-endorsed gear, already swapping fishing stories, laughing loudly the way men on vacation from their spouses will do. There were no other women, let alone a singleton like me. The young female waitress understood my predicament, I believe, and served me an extra helping of hashbrowns as comfort.
Gary took me in stride as a client, not revealing until the end of the day that I was his first female solo client, ever. We fished hard and seriously with little conversation except his retired biologist’s commentary on the various species of fish I landed and or missed. It was dreadfully hot, near the upper edges of the 90s, and my skin felt like it was burning beneath my “professional” long-sleeved fishing shirt and multiple layers of SPF 45 lotion. I thought of long-ago settlers to the old Montana who must have toiled the fields in such heat and of the utter nonsense of paying for the privilege of this roasting. But the fish were large and smart and each cast reinforced my addiction to the rhythmic movements and occasional rewards.
That evening I met up with John in the dining room and shared a meal in a room full of exhausted fishers. I learned that, in fact, he was a fishing vagabond/adventurer on a month-long roam of the West, content to sleep on the ground at night, eat from his red metal cooler and fish the storied rivers of the West as he wished. He was a scholarly traveler, a professor of landscape literature at the University of Colorado, Boulder. This made everything clear, Boulder being one of the last six bastions of tie-dye and hippyesque dress leftover from the sixties. He was just an old hippy living his dream.
Prior to that bizarre shared meal, I had not heard the term landscape literature and wondered silently at its possible meaning. “Professor John,” I asked “what is landscape literature?”
“Ah,” he replied, eyebrows arched, “the literature of place.” This, of course, made it so much clearer.
It was then I began my affair with Montana. On John’s recommendation, I bought The Last Great Place, a compilation of Montana fiction and non-fiction, short stories, Native legends, poetry and other creative works. This opened my eyes and my mind to the definition of the title.
Shortly after that, I learned of Mildred Walker and read her 1930s novels of place; Thomas McGuane’s crazy tales of borrowed (temporarily stolen) cars in mythical Montana cities; Wallace Stegner’s loving descriptions of home in short-story format; and returned again and again to Ivan Doig’s Montana-based epic novels, barely fictional.
There were tales of six-pack roads, winter snow storms and blizzards, sheep and cattle lost and found, hard tales of love and lust, and dancing, dancing, dancing through the western experience of the nineteen twenties and thirties and forties and fifties.
I began to recognize some of the places. Reading Annie Proulx, I lifted my western gaze to include Wyoming. I began to viscerally feel the desperation and joys of such lonely places, the unforgivingly-harsh lessons learned that matched the respective landscapes and how those emotions travel with the characters throughout life as indeed our own individual childhoods always do.
Then stories set shockingly in Montana in the 1960s — in my time — found me. Judy Blunt’s classic memoir, Breaking Clean, raised questions about women living in the quiet corners of Montana. Stories of women searching for their identity in the midst of marriage, children and other, last great places of the West. These stories made me cry with sympathy and understanding.
I feel a kinship even if I do not deserve it. Hands reaching out to me through the writers’ words, taking me in and out of Montana, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming. They are the great states I have continued roaming both physically and emotionally as I move forward in my life cycle, feeling some unknown pull, as a salmon returning to home waters.
I continue to read the words of place, stories of Western landscapes. I continue to make the journey to Montana every summer, to feel the unforgiving heat and cold, to fish with wayward young and old fishing guides on the Missouri, Dearborn, Blackfoot, Clark’s Fork, Bitterroot, Madison, Ruby, Beaverhead, Yellowstone and Big Hole rivers. I wonder what new stories I will hear from fishing companions, secretly knowing I will integrate their personal stories with tales they tell of others, be they wealthy, quirky clients or puzzling girlfriends and ex-wives.
I did not know I was going to learn to fish in my forties and that such a simple bit of exercise would transform my life. That fishing would take me to places I had never thought of going, that I would meet women and men on two continents and one coral atoll. That I would see cougar tracks and bear tracks and wonder where I was on the food chain, hoping I was on top that day. That I would laugh so hard with an aching back or shoulder, or cry and have a fight with a guide on a river and wonder if I would have to walk home. That there is no dirt on Christmas Island and no private place to pee while standing in a salt water lagoon; that it is not advisable to wear deodorant in the Smokey Mountain National Park in April when the black bears are waking up hungry, and that fishing girlfriends can be so competitive or so loudly yell shouts of encouragement when you land that huge rainbow on the Beaverhead.
Sometimes, when things seem so incomprehensible, it’s only because you have nothing to compare it to. In the end, I gather stories tightly and wrap them round with a big length of mental string so they won’t get away. I utter words of largesse that tie it all lovingly together, as if it were a husband or a lover. “It’s Montana.” It’s enough for me.
Copyright Ann Bodle Nash 2009