“When I say I love to fish, that’s the kind of love I’m talking about. The kind of love that comes with pain and struggle and death. The kind of love you eventually wish you had never known.”
The night sky is just opening its eyes. The first bright pin pricks in the cold blue firmament slowly twinkling to life. Like shining snowflakes falling on a glass dome they multiply, forming a blanket of heavenly light over the Wind Range. There is no moon. The only real light is coming from the last sliver of white along the horizon. The sage brush fades from dusty green to black and the ribbon of pale dirt road that stretches as far as I can see, both ahead and behind, takes on an eerie glow. I feel the first bite of night air and hear the rustlings of nature’s second shift punching the clock. It’s a beautiful Wyoming twilight.
I’m twenty miles, if I have my bearings, from the nearest paved road, a few more to the nearest house. Thirty miles from the nearest cell tower or tandem truck moaning down the highway. Fifty miles from the nearest town. This is what I love, the kind of thing I live for, work for, go way out of my way for. To be alone under the night sky with a trout stream near by and the promise of another day. A perfect ending, to any other day.
I turn my flashlight on my right leg. My calf is now as big around as my thigh. The skin is a dark purple-red and the texture reminds me of a macro photo of an over ripe strawberry. Blisters cover a good half of the outside of my calf and oily yellow fluid runs down wetting my sock.
I can tell I have a fever by the weak jittery feeling and the cold sweat. The night air gives me chills. I have a fleece jacket but no long pants and I couldn’t get them on if I did. My foot feels like its about to bust out of my boot, like the incredible hulk, but I dare not loosen it. That would be the start of something that would end with me barefoot.
I take a drink of water from my filter bottle. I should come to the river in a couple of miles and I can refill the bottle then. I’ll be close to water for the next fifteen miles or so, after that it’s going to get tough. I guess I’ve been in deeper shit, but it’s been a minute. Maybe I should have stayed in the rental car. I couldn’t even run the heater with the oil pan lying in pieces on the road. I would have killed one of my fishing buddies if I’d stayed. The last thing you need in a crisis is a friend who’s pants-pissing drunk.
The real reason I’m hiking to town is the same thing that was going to make it a nightmare. That leg. What had looked like a mild case of poison ivy when it went into the waders that morning had come out looking like the Black Mariah. I’ve seen infections like this, traveling in the third world. I know how the story ends. I don’t just need a phone or a ride, I need a hospital, and soon.
I clip the water bottle back onto my belt and take a painful step, and then another, and another.
“Would you like the insurance?” asked the guy behind the counter, “$249 covers the car bumper to bumper and covers you…”
“No, I don’t want it.” I snapped back.
That was rude, it wasn’t his fault that the last car company had pulled a bait and switch on me. Gotten me out to Denver and doubled the price of the car I’d reserved. My budget was shot to hell and I hadn’t even gotten off Pena Blvd. I stewed about it all the way into town. Well, half way at least. The other half I stewed about being a dumb ass. I travel half my life, I should know better.
I was distracted by the episode and that’s probably why I forgot my waders. No big deal, I thought, the weather is nice. I’ll wet wade. I was busy catching up with friends and making a few new ones that morning before the start of the Denver Carp Slam, a Trout Unlimited event that raises money for stream improvement by inviting anglers to fish for carp on the stretch of the South Platte River known as the DSP, where it flows through the city of Denver. Colorado is known for its pristine trout water. It’s easy to think of it as an ecological paradise, and parts of it are, but like everywhere else, Colorado has its environmental issues.
The DSP is one of the most tragic rivers anywhere. Pollution ranges from industrial contaminants to, human waste as well as good old fashioned trash and even straight up poison, used to control insects and other pests. Along with the usual tires, bottles and paint cans, Carp Slam anglers have found human bones and discarded weapons in the river.
The day I photographed the Carp Slam there were dead animals everywhere. Rats, muskrats, birds, dead at the waters edge. I saw a coyote skulking around the edge of the brush on the far bank and wondered if he would be next. It’s the kind of water where you’re not surprised to find carp. Like no other fish I am aware of, the carp is tied to industry, at least here in the US. They were planted, as a food source, by Chinese emigrants working on the rail road, and as factories and warehouses sprung up along those rails, so did the carp.
I am surprised when I look down and see a rainbow trout working a run. I find a grasshopper on the bank and toss it into the current. It rides the bumpy little seam like a ride at a water park for a few feet and is taken by my new friend. I take a look around at this unfortunate piece of water. A ways upstream there is a family from Laos, all in their underwear, wading in the river. They are sharpening homemade spears on the rocks and spearing carp for food. I look back at the little trout and wonder, how did you get here?
A foolish question. I know how he got there. The same way the carp did and a long time ago. He doesn’t belong here anymore than I do or the Laotian family, but he had brothers, cousins at least, cutthroat who were there before. Certainly trout belong in this river but they seem out of place now.
Like an elderly couple who have stayed in their home, long after their children have left, and watched the neighborhood go to hell. Watched as drug dealers and prostitutes take over the streets, as the homes of their friends burn or become drug houses or massage parlors. Watching the police turn their backs and their children move away to Highlands Ranch or Wash Park, they bolt their doors and shutter their windows and wait.
There in the toiling city of Denver, the last outpost on the plains, among its factories and transportation hubs, its working class and its poor, its homeless and its criminals, there in the lowest of places is the DSP. What a beautiful sight it must have been to the settlers who first stopped there. A cool clean flowing river of Rocky Mountain water, there on the edge of the desert. It must have taken weeks to cross that desert in wagons. I imagine plenty of those travelers didn’t make it. Mothers, fathers, children, left under the dry dust of the great plains. What a sight the South Platte must have been.
I can imagine myself one of them, dropping to my knees and taking up hands full of that precious cold water, pressing my face into it, feeling it run down my chest leaving streaks in the trail dust, running wet fingers through my dry and dirty hair and looking up at those mountains, beautiful and foreboding. I can picture myself looking at my exhausted family and perhaps thinking of those we’d lost and then looking back at that beautiful cold river and saying,
“Y’all have a great time in California. I hope you strike it rich, but I believe we’ll be staying right here, ’cause this looks like paradise from what I see. Write us some time.”
That river is as long gone as those people who crossed the plains in wagons. We fly over those plains now in an hour or so. We drive across that river without even seeing it. We have no context now for how precious it is. We have forgotten why our cities were built on rivers. We have forgotten that, without them there is no life.
Maybe TU can help the Platte, clean it up, put some fish in it and look after it. It’s hard for me to imagine but luckily there are folks out there with better imaginations than mine. Folks who see a better future. For now, at least, the DSP is not pristine trout water. It’s not the kind of river that makes you want to stay and make a life there and I can tell you from experience, it’s not the kind of river you want to be in without your waders.
It was the next day when I noticed that something was going on with my leg. I drove from Denver up to Wyoming to meet friends for a week of fishing. They were flying into Jackson the next day and since I was already short on cash I figured I’d camp rather than spring for a room. I drove through Pinedale and up to the Green River. I know some nice camp spots on the river so I pitched my tent and managed to hook a few fish before dark.
It was cold that night and I didn’t have any fire wood. I heated some beans on a camp stove for dinner and drank a healthy amount of whisky before crawling into my sleeping bag. My right leg itched and felt irritated. I figured it was from sitting on it in the sage brush. I’d had enough to drink that I didn’t care and it was too cold to get out of the bag and shuck down to have a look, so I ignored it.
The next morning my tent was covered in ice and my fly rod was frozen to the car, where I’d left it. I had to start the car and run the defroster to get it loose. Taking down a frozen tent is a pain in the ass and the ice cost me time. I had to hit the road without coffee. Still in my fleece wader liners I sped along the highway keeping a sleepy eye out for moose and antelope. My leg itched but there was no time to think about it.
I’ve been making this trip with these guys for years so I know what to expect. Them stumbling off of the plane, shit-face drunk at eight in the morning is as much a part of the plan as picking up the rented drift boat and the U-Haul truck and heading to the cabin in Pinedale. We hit the grocery and the K-Mart and load up the back of the truck with everything we will need for a week of fishing. Plenty of everything, except for beer and liquor.
I don’t know why it is that these two will never buy enough beer. I don’t know if they are ashamed be seen in the checkout with two buggies full of beer or if they honestly don’t know how much they drink but they’ll buy three or four cases and act like they’re set and by morning they will be in a panic to get to the market before breakfast. That’s the routine, every morning we buy a week’s worth of beer and every night it’s gone.
It’s not that I care. These guys don’t need to be sober to fish. I suspect one of them couldn’t fish sober. At least I’ve never seen him try. They don’t even need to be able to stand once they’re in the boat. All I’m saying is that any crew where I’m not the drunk is an interesting bunch and a crew where I’m the sober one is headed for trouble.
The first day’s float is miserable. We’ve misjudged the flow and we spend half the day dragging the boat through the skinny water and the other half floating directly over the fish, because that’s where the water is. We had planned to float the upper Green all week, but with flows what they are, we’ll be looking for a plan B. By now I’m convinced that I have full blown poison ivy. My leg is red and irritated and I want to claw the skin off of it.
“I don’t know where I got into poison ivy out here,” I remarked, “but leave it to me.”
I put some calamine lotion on it and fished in shorts to keep it in the air. I’ve never really been affected by poison ivy. When I was young I’d sit right down in it and never have a problem. As I get older I might get a tiny spot of it but I’ve never had a real case so I’m not sure what it feels like but my buddies agree it looks like poison ivy so I’m not concerned.
One of my buddies, who is extremely allergic to poison ivy tells me to run really hot water over it while in in the shower. “It’s weird dude,” he tells me, “it’s like having an orgasm.” I try it, and quickly decide that my friend is a kinky fucking bastard. I don’t know what his orgasms are like but want no part of them.
With the river too low to float we decide to spend the next day fishing some headwater streams in the area. It’s a long drive on bad roads most years. Some years the road is gone altogether. It had happened to me earlier that same year. On the way to a favorite stream the road ended, half way up the mountain, at a mud slide. A gash at least a hundred yards wide torn from the earth. It looked like an Alaskan moraine with a rushing stream in the middle of it. Like a fool I got out of the car and went to check it out. I sank almost to my waist on the first step and only got out with the help of friends. The difference between a mud slide and a moraine is, of course, the mud.
Today, the road was bad but it was still there. It would have been no big deal in a four wheel drive truck but we had decided to take the rental car to save gas. I thought about my buddy Bruce Smithhammer. Bruce does a lot of that kind of fishing and anytime you ask him about the condition of a road the answer is the same.
“What are you driving? A rental? Oh, you’ll be fine, just floor it!”
You eventually learn not to ask Bruce a serious question. I go up plenty of sketchy places in my Subaru. Through mud, creeks, boulders, over stuff that makes my buddies with jeeps uncomfortable. I’ve passed guys on ATVs who just shook their heads at me. I’m fearless in my Forester but this little Chevy felt disposable. We got to the pull off ok but it was a slow crawl.
With the car parked, there was still a good hike and a bit of gps navigating to do. The first leg is through the woods and along the edge of a little cliff. It’s a pleasant hike but the last leg is no fun. It’s a long push through high moose grass. It’s called moose grass for a reason, but it’s bears I always expect to see down there. The area is full of them and this would be a great place to catch one by surprise. Bears hate surprises. I fished around a lot of bears and I’ve never had a problem with one. Still, I am an animal attack magnet so I take them seriously.
The list of animals that have attacked me almost reads like comedy. When it comes up in conversation I skip the mundane species on the list. Dogs, snakes and black widow spiders are all exciting attacks when they happen to you but they don’t make for interesting stories. Running for your life from moose or bison is scary as hell but I don’t count it as an attack if I don’t get caught and so far I haven’t.
I generally mention the otter because no one expects to be attacked by an otter. They’re too damn cute. Big black eyes and long white whiskers. When one sets into you with its teeth and all four paws, it’s like being malled by a care bear. I’ll tell about the ostrich too, because it’s funny. Who gets attacked by an ostrich? By this time I usually have folks laughing pretty hard, then I tell them about the lion.
At this point I always have to stop and explain that being a photographer puts me in unusual situations. Aside from lion tamers, a day at work for most people does not involve being face to face with a lion. For me, it’s not that unusual and generally goes well. There are always professionals there to keep things safe but animals are unpredictable.
I didn’t see anything unusual but I remember the lion keeper saying, “He seems a little aggressive right now,” just before the seven hundred pound cat spun around and the big paw covered my field of vision, turning everything in the viewfinder black. It was just his way of saying, back off, I guess. When I stumbled up off my ass, ten feet from where he’d teed me off, he seemed totally disinterested. By now the laughter is replaced by open mouth stairs. Then I’ll tell about the elephant.
It’s an odd sensation being hoisted into the air by an elephant. At two hundred-fifty pounds, I don’t get picked up a lot and when I do it never seems effortless. I didn’t know much about elephants at the time. This was only the second time I’d photographed one. It was an African, a circus elephant. I didn’t understand the difference between African and Asian elephants. Asian elephants have been domesticated for a long time. They are still smart and precocious and you have to watch them like a three year old child but they are not wild animals. Africans are, all of them and this one, it turns out, was a bit of a trouble maker.
I thought nothing of it when her trunk bumped my arm. It seemed kind of cute when she did it a second time. The third time the trunk wrapped around my arm and I was instantly well up in the air. She pulled me up by her big brown eye, as if to get a closer look. For a second or two she looked into my eyes and I wasn’t afraid, just in awe. Then she lifted me over her head.
Below me handlers were pounding her with hooks and screaming, “Put him down! None of that!”
I didn’t know at the time that most elephants in captivity have a very advanced grasp of human language. She knew exactly what they were saying and what it meant. I, on the other hand was not sure of their meaning. The phrase, “none of that,” had caught my ear. What exactly was, ‘that?’ I would find out from the news two years later when that same elephant refused to drop her handler gently, as she did me, but instead pounded him on the concrete floor like an angry child would with a doll.
I tell those stories and make people laugh and give them educational facts about elephants because it’s fun and it helps me work up the courage to tell the story I don’t want to tell. The one that still gives me nightmares more than ten years later. It’s the story everyone wants to hear and the story everyone wants me to tell but I don’t like to talk about the chimps.
The story is impossible to tell. To really tell it, to make someone understand it. If you have never witnessed a chimp attack you can’t grasp it. The human mind shelters us from that kind of horror. It took weeks for my own mind to process it. Two weeks after it happened I woke up screaming in the middle of the night having remembered, for the first time in a dream, the sounds they made. Horrible, bloody, primal sounds that strip you to your evolutionary core. Sounds from our deep genetic past that our bodies understand.
I can tell you that chimps are seven times stronger than a human but you will not know what that means. I can point out that they have prehensile toes and powerful jaws, which means that fighting two of them is like fighting four men with superhuman strength plus two pit bulls, but I don’t think that captures it. I can tell you, they are so fast that if I had a gun pointed at one of them and it was cocked, when they were twelve feet away before they charged me, I’d have never gotten off a shot, but I can’t make you feel that helplessness.
I can show you the scars where their fingers pressed so hard into my skin that the flesh turned black and died and fell out in chunks. I can tell you that blood came through my skin like orange juice squeezed from an orange everywhere they grabbed me. I can tell you that one of them swung me full up over its head and pounded me into the floor five or six times, that they tried to gouge my eyes and that they tried to pull my arms off and almost did. I could tell you that they hit me so hard they shit themselves but I wouldn’t have to tell you any of it, if you could only hear the sound.
For years after the chimp attack I was terrified of bears. It doesn’t make sense but the odds of me accidentally running into a chimp are pretty slim and I guess my brain had to redirect that fear. I’d be fishing in Alaska and see one of those thousand pound monster grizzlies and my blood would go cold. Even at home in the North Georgia Mountains you’re bound to run into black bear. If you are going to fish for trout, bear are a fact of life.
I think it was the idea of getting chased through that moose grass by a bear that made me put on my waders. Again, not at all rational. Waders were not going to help but I didn’t feel good about pushing through that moose grass with bare legs, especially with one of then eaten up in poison ivy. It was a bad decision. It was warm and my bare legs sweating inside those hot waders created a perfect environment for what I mistook for poison ivy but was actually MRSA.
If I’d known what was wrong with that leg, I’d have stayed in my shorts. If I’d known that I would punch a hole in the oil pan of the rented car on the drive out, I might have chosen a different stream, one with a good road and near civilization. If I’d known that I was walking around with Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (antibiotic resistant staff) , I wouldn’t have fueled it with scalding hot water. If I’d know any of this, I’d like to think I’d have gone to the doctor instead of fishing, but probable not.
Walking down that dirt road, in the dark, on a bad leg with a fever, fifty miles from town it’s hard not to think about your own mortality. Riding motorcycles as a kid I always said, “Never say die.” you could get into some pretty bad shit on a bike and get yourself out of it, if you stay focused. Like the night of my twentieth birthday when I was chased off the road by a pickup truck coming straight at me. The bastard crossed into my lane and followed me into the dirt on the side of the road but he only grazed me. I had to have some surgery but I kept my leg. I learned early on that if you started thinking about dying, bad shit was going to happen.
As you get older that motto gets harder to live by. Thoughts of death make their way out of the realm of impending disaster and into everyday living. It doesn’t take a truck bearing down on you or a vicious animal. You can be sitting and having a beer listening to a buddy go on about some stupid shit his girlfriend did and think, “I’m a fucking half century old, I don’t have time left to sit and listen to this horse shit, the clock’s ticking!”
I’m manning up and pushing those ideas out of my head when I see headlights coming across the sage brush. A big green pickup with the crest of the Wyoming Fish and Game department pulls up onto the road and an officer rolls down the passenger window.
“You’d better get in the truck,” he tells me.
Before the words are out of his mouth my attention falls to the bed of the pickup. It’s full of what I can only guess are cow parts. Just a lot of blood and meat and fur at this point but cow makes sense.
“Get in the truck,” this time it’s not a suggestion and I climb in. “What are you doing out here, broke down?”
“Yeah, tore the oil pan out of the car a few miles up the road. I’m trying to get to town.”
“Yeah, I’ve got a problem with my leg, I’m sure glad to see you.” He turns on the interior light and I turn my leg so he can see it. He bites his lip and looks at the floorboard for a second, shaking his head. I can’t help but think he is at a loss for words and just wants to slap me.
“No, I’ve got two buddies back at the car.”
“We better get back there. There’s a bad bear out here, been killing a bunch of cows, the last one just over there a hundred yards. I was setting a trap for him when I saw you.”
He turns the truck around, running over the sage brush on the side of the road and speeds back in the direction I had pointed. It’s heartbreaking how quickly we cover the ground I had worked so hard to to put behind me. When the car comes into view in the headlights we can see my friends, clearly up to some kind of drunken hijinks, an argument of some kind I imagine. When they realize it’s a Fish and Game truck pulling up they start frantically gathering the two dozen beer cans that are spread all over the car and the road. The officer rolls down the window and leans out.
“Guys, we’re having a little bit of a bear problem out here and it’s not safe. I’m going to take your friend into town but I don’t have room in the truck for you two so I need you to clean up this mess and stay in the vehicle until he gets back. Is that clear?”
I’m not sure if it’s the officer or the phrase, “bear problem,” that sobers them up but they can’t get themselves or those beer cans in the car fast enough. The officer waits until the car doors close then turns the truck around and heads for Pinedale. We talked for a while, about the bear and the wolves that have made their way down from Yellowstone. He tells me how to get to the hospital and after a while we fall silent.
I start to think again. I have long thought that I would like to die on a fishing trip. It would be better than wasting away with cancer like my father did. It was hard watching the toughest man I’d ever known lose a fight for the first time in his life, growing weak and frail as the disease whittled him down. I don’t want to die like that. I can’t reconcile that idea, to live through animal attacks and motorcycle crashes and a hundred other things that should have killed me, only to die sick in bed. Better to go out doing what I love. Better for me, better for my wife and family, better for everyone if I die on a fishing trip. But not this one.
There’s the rub. I’ve thought about it and talked about it for years. I’ve told my wife that one day I might not come home. That one of these trips could be my last and that I was OK with that and she should be too, but without knowing it, I’d made a bargain with my subconscious. I’d told myself it would quick and painless. I’d pictured myself releasing one last fish and fading away into the river. I hadn’t thought about lying, hypothermic in the snow, my leg trapped under a boulder or shivering in the wrecked fuselage of a Dehavilland Otter trying to decide who to eat first, the pilot or the guide. I sure as hell hadn’t pictured myself hobbling down a dirt road in Wyoming, on a bad leg with a grizzly bear gaining on me.
No love is without risk. In the end to love is to risk everything. When you say, will you marry me, it’s not long before you’ll say, ’till death do us part. When you hold your new baby in your arms and kiss his head you know that the best you can hope for is that he will watch you wither and die. Love and death are brother and sister or maybe man and wife but there is never one without the other.
When I say I love to fish, that’s the kind of love I’m talking about. The kind of love that comes with pain and struggle and death. The kind of love you eventually wish you had never known. The only promise I have ever asked of my wife is let me die first. I am not afraid of my own death but at the thought of hers I am a coward. I don’t know how I could bear it.
I ask for that same promise from the river. Please do not make me live without you. I have given you my heart and my life and I will freely give you my body and my soul. Just please, not today.
The Fish and Game officer drops me off at the U-Haul. I’ll have an hour drive back to pick up my friends and another hour back to town, then a night at the hospital before renting a car dolly and driving back to get the car and finding a mechanic. There won’t be much time for fishing and if there is I should be in bed. As the U-Haul bumps along the gravel road by the river glowing in the moonlight, I think, that’s OK.
It’s a beautiful Wyoming evening, I’m near a trout stream and I do have the promise of another day.Louis Cahill Gink & Gasoline www.ginkandgasoline.com firstname.lastname@example.org Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter!