Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Unstoppable RRCC

Rising water
Barbed wire across the river
Psycho-property-rights-hillbilly landowners on the ridge tops

And another great trip.

You don't need good weather if you've got good people. Thanks, everybody, for making it a pleasure once again, and get ready for a blow-out post trip meeting soon.

At around two o'clock the rain stopped, and though the outdoors was mainly sodden red mud and a sullen sky, I decided the worst was over. I called Hale and caught him loose, and argued him past his wife's objections by promising to get him to Dennis bridge by the following night.

He was a good friend and an old one and the best kind of company. We were camped sloppily on a loose-sand shore a mile or so below Old Man Willett's, with willows furnishing a leaky break against the continuing cold northeast wind. The river was high and wide and thickly brown, and made angry noises in the dark against snags and the roughness of its banks. Hale had brought steaks and some good whisky, which we were drinking out of enamel cups with honey and lemon and water while we waited for the fire to make coals.

He'd put out a trotline, a quarter-inch nylon cord from shore to shore with maybe twenty hooks, baited variously. The big cats bite most willingly in a rising muddy stream. I'd helped him set it, fighting the brown shove of the river and watching for the drifting logs that can toss a boat end over end, but had told him that if he wanted to run it during the night not to wake me. Now, restless, he emptied his cup and took the lantern, loud and functional again with white gas he'd brought, and went down to check it alone, absorbed in the bow of the canoe, pulling himself across hand over hand and examining the stagings as he went. Against the night the lantern made a clear bright circular picture of Hale and the canoe's curving bow and the hard-rushing brown water. I wrapped potatoes and stuck them in the fire and got the grill ready to use. Hale came back grinning, the lantern in one hand and his chain stringer in the other, with a six-pound channel cat and a couple of others that looked to be maybe three pounds each.

"My breakfast," he said. "Them as works, eats."

The steaks were plump; garlicked and seared over glowing oak, they came out fine, and when we'd eaten we had coffee and smoked and talked about the days when we'd gone out to the mouth of Falls Creek in Hood County with big black Bill Briggs, Hale's family's chauffeur and yardman and occasional cook. Hale agreed that they had been the size of telephone poles, the tree trunks that Bill had lifted and carried over to drop across the fire.

The wind, quite naturally, as though it had intended all along to do so, started bringing horizontal thin rain, so cold that it seemed it should be snow; and in fact, I knew when a fleck hit my cheekbone and slid down to where beard stubble stopped it, it partly was snow. We tarped things and tumbled into the little tent. Hale had unrolled a fancy down bag on the windward side, which was sagging, its stakes unfirm in the sand. After I'd lain there for a while and was nearly asleep, I heard him cursing under his breath.


"Leak," he said.

The flashlight showed a drip from the down-curving sag of a seam, and a dark stain on his sleeping bag. We rolled out into the night, all wet snow now, and pulled the stakes tight and pounded them deep into the sand, trampling it down on top of them and finding stones to put on the trampled spots. It was tight then, but the snow was piling up against it, and I knew that having started it would probably keep on leaking. I offered to flip a coin to see who slept on that side. We did. I won, and lay down again on the good side and slept well except when, from time to time, I woke to hear him thrashing and blaspheming in his bag. Once when I did I said: "Hale?"


"Hale," I said, "how come you don't go run that line? . . ."

In the morning it was worse, still snowing, the ground a mass of melting slush and patches of dirty golden sand showing through. I stayed in the sack, as was my policy with weather. So did Hale, and slept a little finally; it had not been so much wetness as the first-night-out insomnia that had bothered him, most of the water having run off onto the tent floor beneath his air mattress.

Finally at about eleven he woke up and reminded me that I'd promised to get him to Dennis by night. It wasn't far, but on the other hand we were bound to move slowly. . . . Outside, the thick wet snow plastered itself to us, and having lost my raincoat somewhere upstream I soon got soaked through a "water-repellent" jacket. While I gathered wood, fishing for it with numbed, hurting hands beneath mounds of snow, stumbling on numbed, hurting, wet feet, Hale built a fire. It took him thirty minutes to get it going even with gasoline, and when he did, a willow branch bowed down with slow grace and deposited a load of snow in its exact middle, and put it out. Later, when we had it burning again and a pot of sugared fruit bubbling on it, nearly ready, I raised my foot too high as I passed and dropped a thick glob of wet sand from my boot sole into the pot.

I looked at it, aware that seldom in my life had I wanted food as I had wanted that hot sugared fruit. Not even those beans on the island . . .

Hale started laughing. So did I, and remembered with a clarity that I hadn't felt till then exactly why it was that he was good company, out. It was an awful day. The tent pulled together into a collapsed double-pointed lump finally from the weight of the snow on it. My old shotgun, left in the canoe, gushed water out both barrels when I picked it up. A drifting snag carried away Hale's trotline, entire. We got coffee and fruit at last, and stood by the fire steaming ourselves for a couple of hours, and then, the snow thicker than ever, hit the brown river miserably, the pup a shivering sullen protuberance under the tarp.

I remember most clearly of all the feel of melted snow crawling down the hollow of my back and between my buttocks, and I told him, to put it on record, that if it hadn't started clearing by the time we reached Dennis I was going to pull out too, for the year.

But the snow stopped not long before we came in sight of the 1892, plank-and-iron, one-way bridge, and blue sky showed behind us in the west, and at last the yellow setting sun. Soggy, we went into the old ser sta gro there and braved the stares of another set of philosophers while I bought some things I needed.

Outside again, Hale grinned. "When you think up another good joke, you be sure and call me," he said.

"You picked the worst of it," I told him.

"Picked, hell. Was picked."

But it was a measure of how much like me he was in certain childishnesses that he looked wistful as he stood by his car beside the rusty cotton gin, the stringer with its catfish in his hand, and watched us move off downriver. Wistful was the only word for how he looked. The pup stuck his nose out from under the tarp and looked back at Hale until willows intersected the line of sight between us. . . .

Goodbye to a River, pp. 182-89.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have finally recovered enough to make a comment to my band of brothers. Thanks to all for sticking together and making this a memorable trip. A special thank you to Skip whose leadership and political skills never cease to amaze me.