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.   

The Summertime Blues

mowing

Well my mom and pop told me, “Son you gotta make some money,

If you want to use the car to go ridin’ next Sunday”

Well I didn’t go to work, told the boss I was sick

“Well you can’t use the car ’cause you didn’t work a lick”

Sometimes I wonder what I’m a gonna do

But there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues

Summertime Blues, Eddie Cochran,

My teenaged children explained to me the other day that summer was supposed to be a time for sleeping in, staying up late, sleep-overs and high end camps which indulged the mind, body and soul.  I shared with them that summer break was an anachronism, the last buggy whip of an age of tanned, outdoor laborers who planted, tended and harvested their own food.  The three-month holiday was invented in agrarian America to accommodate the need for child labor in the fields during planting season.  Summer was a time when “industrious” and “ dedicated” young men and women were shipped out to the countryside to earn the redeeming calluses only found on the end of a shovel, plow or milking stool. Sunday was the only day of rest and a time where community was not forged by incessant texting between a gaggle of unimaginative, acne-ridden teens but with your family and neighbors at church.  Fun was a relative term.  “Kids, isn’t it fun to pick this cotton? First one to get to two bushels, get’s a slice of Mom’ s blueberry pie that is cooling on the windowsill”  “Honey, let’s get up at 3:30am tomorrow instead of 4am to milk the cows.  What a time we had this morning with Old Bessie! “

My father understood clearly that idle hands were the devil’s workshop.  Summer was an outmoded and socialistic invention of a liberal government more riddled with commies than a deer has ticks.  Three months off from hard labor would render the US apathetic and defenseless.  When we had all become teenagers, he gathered us one May afternoon and announced that we must get jobs for the summer to finance our profligate spending habits.  Allowance, which he felt was tantamount to welfare, was a relic of our past. The problem with welfare, he moralized, was that people began to view it as an entitlement and became dependent.  Instead of serving its intended purpose as stop gap assistance until one could become self sufficient, welfare became a money tree under which one could indefinitely rest and still feel sorry for themselves.

Instead of reacting violently to being suddenly cut-off from the pater familius gravy train, we took the news reasonably well.  Summer could be boring and the chance to earn money starting any number of businesses seemed terribly exciting.  We were relishing the prospect of having our own money and as a result, not being subjected to statements like, “ whose money is this anyway?”, “ oh, that’s right, I went to work today and you sat here like a lazy sack of …”, “when you are eighteen and can pay your own way, then maybe I will listen to what you have to say.”

Each kid devised his own strategy on how to make money.  There were the low value ideas like lemonade stands and redeeming bottles and cans for change.  The primary source of income was of course, the hard labor of neighborhood yard work.  Somehow, cleaning someone else’s yard for money seemed less of an imposition than cutting one’s own lawn.  It’s my belief that years from now, sociologists will recognize The Boomer generation as the last of the “mow and rake” demographic – before swelling ranks of harder working “mow and blow” immigrants crowded us out with superior technology and indefatigable work ethics.  It would now seem like corporal punishment if I deigned to make one of my kids mow our lawn or rake leaves.

However, in the days of cold war, children were considered free labor and a landscaping professional was any kid who had used an electric mower or had facial hair. The main tool of the trade was the ancient lawn mower -a rusted manual cutting cylinder with a rotating blade.  The simple mechanical design was unimproved since it was invented in 350 BC by a Greek teen that could not swing a scythe but was told to cut the wheat or he could not attend the Poison Oracles concert that evening at the local amphitheatre. The mowing implement was harder to push than a field plow or shopping cart filled fifty-pound sacks of dog kibble and a broken wheel.

To operate the cast iron monstrosity, one would have to back up several paces to build enough momentum to cut through any lawn higher than one half inch. As the blade ripped through the various varieties of suburban grass – Bermuda, St Augustine, Fescue, and Kentucky Blue – the whirling blades filled the air with green shrapnel and debris.  By the end of a lawn cutting session, you resembled a bizarre grasslands creature –covered in flecks of emerald, sweat and whatever insects du jour were visiting for that season.  It seemed the grass fell everywhere except into the ancient canvas grass catch that hung precariously behind the machine on two hooks adjacent to the back wheels.

After cutting and raking up the grass, you were expected to edge the lawn with a device that looked like the unholy union of a jousting stick and a pizza cutter.  The metal blade knifed along the sidewalk and garden beds as you carefully trimmed the rectangle of property to geometric perfection. After all, an uneven yard suggested to your neighbors that if you could not control your lawn, how could you possibly hold the rest of your life together?

Leaves were accumulated with a bizarre device called a rake. It was a cumbersome implement made from fragile metal strips that made a distinct scratching sound as they were dragged across garden beds and backyards.  If raking was not tedious enough, the final indignity involved depositing your detritus into the trash.  Instead of launching leaves into your neighbor’s front drive or into woods where property lines blurred and ticks reigned, you were forced to stand in the trash cans stomping down on the debris to make room for more clippings.  Invariably, the trash can would tip vaulting you and your days work onto the cement where you would lie for moments, bleeding and angry that you must repeat this Promethean task all over again. .  Eventually, you succeeded and became expert in jamming eighty cubic feet of leaves into a 20-gallon trashcan.  It made my father quiver with pride to see his four sons bouncing up and down in his trash cans tamping down debris like serfs in the fields.  There would be times, when out of sheer elation he would come out and jump in the trash bin with us.

My eldest brother loathed this manual labor as it gave him blisters and uneven tan lines.  He quickly figured out that everyone needed his or her windows washed especially in the unfiltered light of a Southern California summer.  He formed a window washing business and proceeded to make a fortune.  It was genius – low overhead – a squeegee, ammonia, rags and an FM radio – and there was little competition.  He could complete a 3000 square foot home – inside and out in about three days bringing in $ 150. He quickly figured out that condos and apartment complexes had identical layouts, a fixed number of same sized windows and air conditioning.  He went door to door in upscale condos complexes offering to do windows for $40 a unit – usually completing his work in less than two hours.

The local YMCA helped out by creating a kid’s job bank where local citizens could call and offer a job including details of where, how much, when and who.  These were before the days of trucks driving down to Stamford to pick up highly industrious undocumented workers desperate for any paying job.  We were the labor force desperate for money and in those 70’s summers and we lived off an economy of yard work, spring cleaning and vacation support services – watering, feeding pets, gathering mail.  A community understood that it needed to create a consumer class among its kids to support our summer economy. Neighbors felt an obligation to keep the teens employed and out in the open where they might find less trouble, more supervision and self esteem.  Parents understood that their kids needed to work.

Years later, two of my three kids have summer jobs.  I am hitting .666, which is not a bad batting average for this Ivory Tower Division team. My third child is threatening to call protective services as he has determined that most ten year olds are not supposed to be working.  I point out that they are not supposed to be playing some game called “ Spore “ for 92 hours straight, either. He can earn cash around the house doing yard work, washing a car or a cleaning a window.  Minimum wage seems beneath him.  I am this close to pulling that lawn mower out and tasking him with taking on the front yard.  He may even grow a beard right in front of me just from the sheer maturation of the hard work and industry that would be foisted upon his narrow shoulders.

And then again, I may be forced to go out and help him – showing him how to cut, rake, edge and stomp on the cans.  I get dizzy just thinking about it.

Never mind.