My Blackfoot Whispers

AUTUMN 2006 Blackfoot River
AUTUMN 2006 Blackfoot River (Photo credit: Doug kueffler)

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.  The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.  On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.  Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.  I am haunted by waters.  ~ Norman Fitzroy MacLean, A River Runs Through It

In the summer of 1981, I worked as town boy and ranch hand for a small guest ranch tucked into a great stand of cottonwoods, aspen and pine at the confluence of Montana’s Blackfoot and Clearwater Rivers.  I was given this gift and, like so many that are wasted on the young, didn’t fully appreciate it until the experience had been swept from my hands like so many granules of sand. 

Montana is a rugged place.  The Blackfoot valley was carved by an ice flow fist formed in the Pleistocene period by a great glacial lake.  In this less traveled part of America, people live in respectful harmony at the foot of mountains that can be penetrated only by logging roads and on horseback.  Some places in the adjacent Bob Marshall Wilderness remain untamed and only tolerate those who choose to pass through.  And for the experienced angler, the Blackfoot ranks among the Madison, Frying Pan, and Fire Hole as sacred places to practice the mystical art of fly-fishing.  

I had fished for perch, blue gill, sunfish and trout in local lakes as a boy, but never held a 9 weight switch of graphite rod that whipped neon line out across the water in a great rolling sine wave.  My first day on the river, I watched spellbound – the last of a fisherman’s line hesitated, silent in the air, his monofilament leader attached to a microscopic artificial caddis fly that would alight gently on the ripples.  As he stripped his line toward the shore, a flash of brown and red shot through the green riffle of water as a brook trout rose to attack.  There was no bait, no shrill cry of victory nor creaking of a rusty reel.  There was only sweeping wind, a splash and an ancient struggle as the angler landed a three-pound, 18-inch fish on a silk thread capable of snapping once two pounds of pressure had been applied. 

Netting the fish was as much an art form as the act of hooking him.  Yet, within minutes, his creel was opened and the fish was deposited to be served within two hours for dinner.

The Blackfoot is a magnificent and reckless flow of water that cascades 137 miles down from Rogers Pass atop the Continental divide — some of the wildest land in the contiguous United States.  Fishing consumed my waking hours.  My friend and I called it “Stalking Big Daddy.”  Although chores on a working ranch never truly conclude, on brief breaks and on our one day off a week, we would ride rusted bicycles down long dirt roads through sagebrush and chaparral, bumping along with fly rods, creels and nets.  We carried an insect net fashioned from a metal coat hanger and cheese cloth, which we would sweep beneath stands of cottonwood along riverside reeds, catching insects and hoping to match our fly patterns to the color of the captive bugs. Big Daddy was the term we used to describe the biggest fish in the river – a fifteen pound brown that lingered in the shadows of the cut river banks near our ranch. 

Our heroes that summer were curmudgeonly anglers who would don neoprene waders and work the river’s edges and runs — whipping home tied, wet and dry flies with the precision of a lion tamer.  As the trout would jump, tail and sip at the confederate lures, we would stand at a respectful distance trying to emulate the effortless bullwhip strikes of line that would extend across the water, dropping flies into places no larger than a postage stamp.  Big Daddy was there, watching us from underneath a shelf of rocks and branches. 

Fly-fishing was our new religion and these ancient fisherman had become our reluctant clergy.  They would shake their heads in condescending contempt as we shook at branches and tore at tree limbs that had snagged our back casts.  A retiree named Bud patiently taught us roll casting and how to read a dead drift. It seemed an innate obligation that they pass on this knowledge to the hungry neophytes who caught more leaves and sticks than trout.  John, a local rancher, scolded us to understand that each day the river changes, so you need to know how the water will guide and place the trout you want to catch and release.

We became part of that river, spending hours wading its shallows and sand bars, often stopping to watch an osprey, eagle, moose or white-tailed deer hesitate for a moment then melt back into the deep forest.  Each trout that rose to our fly had the potential of being Big Daddy.  If you were fortunate enough to hook a phantom brown or cagey cutthroat, your fishing partner would stand in silent envy, torn between not wanting to acknowledge your superiority as a fisherman but tortured by the need to know what fly pattern you were using.  “Black ant?” he would say nonchalantly, looking down river.  “You say something?”  I would smile, and then finally confess to the Wolf Hair Caddis. 

Twilight lingers forever in the Montana summer.  The dry, warm air slowly rises, giving in to small pockets of cool air that rush like phantoms down across the river at night.  The “early evening boil” was something to behold, as the trout would once again rise to feed.  We stood, silent silhouettes, swaying rhythmically with dark cords lashing quietly against a pink and purple sky.  Suddenly it would be dark, and we would pedal by moonlight to the cabin we shared with wranglers who worked the corrals and led the guests on horseback rides. 

Late that summer, I arose at four to take guests to the airport for an early morning departure and saw what looked like great wavy spikes of white light rising into the sky.  Dawn was still an hour off, but these beautiful sheets of light moved and swayed – blown by some magic celestial wind.  It was my first glimpse of the aurora borealis, and it is burned into my memory against the jagged skyline of the great Swan range.

As I get older, many of my senses have dulled while others have seemed to sharpen.  I sometimes stop to just listen as the wind rakes pine trees that guard the adjacent woods. I can almost hear the dry Montana wind sweeping down  pushing the tops of the pines, and shaking cottonwood and aspen leaves until they quake with exhilaration.  The river moves tirelessly and is restless, always eager to lean somewhere beyond the bend of an adjacent dirt road.  The Blackfoot is like the course of my life, creating new banks, patterns and places for others to hide and watch. 

The river provides for everything that lives along it and ministers to anyone who takes the time to listen closely to its sacred theology.  It flows back to me at night in my dreams.  I am always standing in the river, the weak morning sun streaming over the trees.  Just out of the corner of my eye, a faint riffle and flash.  A trout rises.  I roll a cast across the sequined water, squinting to see if I landed the fly on the narrow run that eddies into a deep pool.  A large brown belly turns as the white mouth gapes for the fly.  It is only eight in the morning and the Blackfoot whispers to me that there is no rush.  We have all day.   

Under a Neon Moon

As Long As There's Light. . .
Image by Cayusa via Flickr

Under a Neon Moon

When the sun goes down on my side of town, that lonesome feeling comes to my door. The whole world turns blue. There’s a rundown bar cross the railroad tracks. I’ve got a table for two way in the back where I sit alone and think of losing you. I spend most every night beneath the light of this neon moon… If you lose your one and only, there’s always room here for the lonely to watch your broken dreams dance in and out of the beams of a neon moon .  Brooks & Dunn, “Under A Neon Moon”

A guy can’t really ever become a dude until he’s suffered from his first broken heart. There’s nothing quite as humbling as getting your guts surgically removed by an indifferent female and left like road kill by the side of some country road. Yet, when life decides to perform open heart surgery, there is no better anesthetic than an “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” Hank Williams song. We seem to find solace in country music – the ballads and their lyrical, maudlin bellyaching . It’s just nice knowing that some poor idiot has passed through this place before us.  The music helps us get outside ourselves and discover our capacity to cope and eventually  rejoin the long gray line of “dudes”.

I still recall the dull ache of a certain July 4th weekend when my budding college romance was gutted by 2000 miles of summer. My dream job had landed me in Missoula, MT as a day hand working at a dude ranch while my love interest had parachuted into a Wall Street investment bank internship.  As I lived out the first few weeks of my Norman McLean fly fishing fantasy, she was slowly being seduced by the Big Apple and her 35-year-old boss.  It was clear after a succession of emotionless and increasingly distant phone calls that she had lost interest – – finding someone older, wiser and with an expense account.

I remained sullen for days, wallowing in self-pity. I was even more annoyed that my martyred behavior was going completely unnoticed by my bunkhouse mates –  a silent sinew of cowboys who rarely spoke or paid much mind to me unless I asked them a direct question.  Always keeping their own counsel and not wanting to meddle in anyone’s affairs, these emotional tree stumps saw nothing abnormal in the fact that I had been dumped – or as they like to call it, “bucked off a filly”.

The cowboys finally tired of my melancholy and set about “fixing me” – – admitting me to their midnight fraternity which convened each evening over beer and music to share emotional war stories and malign the opposite sex.  We were an odd remuda of misfits that had at one time or another been a passenger on love’s ship of fools.  I had been stung hard and my friends were concerned about the possibility of a rebound relationship.  While I had managed to offend most of the cabin girls at the ranch with my college boy arrogance, the town of Missoula still abounded with willing small town girls and the occasional divorcee with two young kids that worked as the check out girl at the local Super Save.

I was told to abstain from “wimun” for thirty days and report each night for therapy. The diagnosis, prognosis and treatment always concluded with the prescription: “Take a few beers and call me in the morning.”  Physical therapy required me to join five rail thin dudes in filthy jeans and cowboy boots as we crammed into the cab of a rusted Ford pickup.  We would drive along the ancient Blackfoot river at dusk – –  seven dusty miles to a dimly lit roadside bar where we would listen to music, drink and shoot pool.

The juke box played only country and western music.  In Montana, The Doors were things you walked through.  The Boss was someone you worked for and the Grateful Dead were war heroes.  Music and life lessons were taught each night by professors Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Jones, John Anderson, Ronnie Millsap and Tanya Tucker.  The lyrics seemed written just for me and each night, a different surgeon would seek to suture my eviscerated self-esteem. Each ballad sought to assure its listener that life was not over but in fact, on the cusp of being lived more deeply. I was neither the first nor the last person to ever allow a female get the best of him.

The wranglers with whom I shared the bunkhouse fell in and out of love at the drop of a ten gallon hat.  A guest/ranch hand affair had a shorter life expectancy than a lightening bug in a room full of flypaper. Each week was a soap opera with an all too predictable script. Introduce one new single female guest. Stir in the ingredients of ten wranglers. Watch as a doomed relationship heats up between successful Wrangler A and a clearly out-of-his-league female guest B. Their romance percolates like cowboy coffee over a morning campfire and heats up at BBQs by the river and under the spell of crimson sunsets.

There was something in that fresh Montana air. Perhaps it was the glimpse of a less complicated life or the sudden absence of confusing urban materialism that stirred some latent homesteading gene in these city girls – driving them into the arms of these weathered, sinewy, reliable, monosyllabic cowboys who worked like ants – lifting ten times their weight, stringing a mile of barbed wire, and still having the stamina to dance all night to the Cotton-Eyed Joe.  Tragically, the perfume of moonlit nights and high alpine sage faded into the musky reality of earthy communication, limited professional prospects and a parochial inability to know the exact location of Atlanta, Georgia.  The red hot romantic fire would quickly smolder. All the while, a distant transistor radio would sit illuminated in the bunk house window playing classic country music that hung like smoke of a distant forest fire.

In the summer of 1981,  country music became forever burned into my musical liturgy.  I instantly identified with the tortured baritone of Keith Whitley, a gifted rising country star who chose fame over family and drank himself to death. His penchant for self destruction battles with his self awareness and self effacing humor in each song.   In ” It Ain’t Nothin”, Whitley is “lower than well digger’s shoes, knee-deep in a mess of blues.” In his haunting signature song, “ I’m No Stranger To The Rain “, Keith seemed to understand that he could never escape his own demons. “I’m no stranger to the rain. I’m a friend of thunder.  Lord, is it any wonder lightning strikes me ?  I’ve fought with the devil, got down on his level, but I never gave in so he gave up on me…”

I never forgot those feelings or the promise that I would recover to love again. There was integrity in the music and century-old, oak understanding in the lyrics.  Above all, this music was all American.  The songs were anthems to our way of life and dedicated to everyday men and women enduring hard knocks and taking risks.  Whether the singer got his or her black eye from a lost job, broken marriage or lost opportunity, every song seemed to revolve around having the courage to carry on. The songs also remind you to celebrate the little treasures of life –butterfly kisses at night with a young daughter or remembering to live your life like you were dying.  Country is not about serving yourself first, it’s about putting service ahead of yourself – – to your country, family and those less fortunate.  They are ballads of the broken and the brave. They preach personal responsibility and perseverance.

Country captures what it is like for those who live within the noble lines of life. It’s music fills a void in many of us. It teaches the value of family, and the simple pleasures that arise out of hard work and sacrificing for something that is worth the wait.  It serenades those who live, love and labor — and celebrates our authenticity and nationalism while lamenting our broken dreams, imperfection and disappointment. It’s all part of our personal life lessons as a people and as a country.

In the end, Americans are as durable as denim. When we get bogged down by our own divisiveness and self pity, we occasionally need to be kicked in the ass – perhaps in a song. The lyrics are sharp and to the point — tomorrow’s another day and nothing happens until someone starts doing something.  And don’t forget to give it everything you got. After all, that’s what it means to be “country strong”.