Lonely at the Top

The Grand Mesa was an unexpected delight and incarnate proof of the joys that stem from simply accepting all happenstances as they come. The climb from Restoration Land Cruisers to Cedaredge to the top of the Mesa was astonishing—you gain nearly six thousand feet of elevation in a mere fifteen miles—and by entering a protected National Forest two miles above sea level, you truly leave the rest of the world beneath you. Every corner revealed unexpected sights, both because I’d only learned of the Mesa’s existence some hours before and because I thought I would be in Los Angeles at that moment but instead was entering the glorious repose of an alpine forest.

For every moment that voluntary hardship and stubborn travel seems to be an utterly meaningless or self-indulgent endeavor, there are plenty more where it seems that the world is doling out irrefutable wisdom for whoever is willing to suffer through it. The same money that was nearly left in a meaningless bank account whilst I was unconscious on a sidewalk is now being converted into gas money and a new transmission and a lodging fee, and my same time that was nearly offered indefinitely to corporate copywriting, selling postal logistics software and nuclear temperature sensors to whoever buys those things was now spent sweating out a tow truck in Moab and freezing out a transmission replacement in Western Colorado. The tactile passage of time is a priceless experience; it gives substance to baseless assumptions and meaning to moments that seem to lack it. This virtue is as true of riding a bike up a hill as it is pursuing fish in unknown backcountry waters, and I only imagine it is the same for knitting or underwater basketweaving. We must make something of moments, to either be lost in time or so aware of it that every second seems to last an eternity.

And so, I arrived at the lone General Store on the Mesa, placed on a small plot of land ground-leased for 99 years to its proprietors and their descendants, in search of keys to a rustic cabin and fish stories about the copious waters nearby.  The store was authentically woodsy, made up of weathered planks and filled with various survival knickknacks and hot dog buns, and the woman behind the counter carried the weight of many winters in her mannerisms and her face. She knew who I was because I had called in to secure a spot and presumably nobody else had done so that day. I was given the keys and a brief rundown of the area, Hank was given a few dog treats and knocked over a stand of s’mores skewers. It was all so matter of fact and immediate that Los Angeles felt even further than 846 miles away. The utter lack of digital connectivity certainly added to this feeling, and it was something I yearn for everyone on earth to experience. I had made plans to be in Venice Beach by a certain date months ago, and in a matter of moments and a couple of disintegrated gears, those plans faded into distant memory. I almost had to contain my smirk as I unpacked my duffel bag and fly rod and swatted away an ungodly cloud of mosquitoes.

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I noted two teenage boys tinkering with dirt bikes at the adjacent cabin and I asked if I could borrow some bug spray. They empathetically and enthusiastically hurried it over to me and struck up conversation with casual confidence. I admired their bikes and assured them I’d be back to ask for trail advice. But for now, the sun was setting quickly and the primal need to see a trout in the net had overtaken me. I thanked them for the bug spray and set out for the nearest lake with a fly rod and a beer and little else. Such moments seem to comprise many clichés and advertisements and yet precious little of our actual lives. I seem to lose more of my taste for drink with every passing day, and yet the Fort Collins-brewed suds tasted as sweet as any I’ve ever swilled. As a bartender in a hipster enclave in San Francisco explained to me recently, “It is impossible to separate the senses. People notice presentation and even preparation, so we take our menu and the way we move when we make our drinks very seriously.” His delivery lacked irony or blinks, and yet, in hindsight, it’s true that everything from Odell’s to Coors tastes better on a river or lake. At any rate, I had Hank by my side and a beer in hand and countless trout sipping bugs off the surface of the lake while even more mosquitoes buzzed every part of me while doing risk analysis on the musky scent of DEET and human breath. This was priceless satisfaction in its purest form. The bugs a meaningful barrier for most fairweather fans of scenic spots, the trout a salve for every wound I’ve ever endured, Hank a friend who reminds me of every one I’ve ever had and then some, the beer a complementary sensory input to the sights and sounds and prickling cold air. I often wonder if I would resent people saying that “he died doing what he loved” if that Nissan Altima had been more successful in hitting me, but in this moment I knew that such an epitaph would be honest and true. There is only one thing that feels closer to Godliness than fly fishing for trout (and that thing is not cleanliness), but that tale shall be saved for later.

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For right when I had nearly transcended the earthly realm and drifted into Nirvana, a campy voice hollered from the base of the dock upon which I was perched, “Is there room on there for us?” Such a question simply cannot be answered with honesty (“No.”) and so I shrugged and invited them down. It was a man and woman and their grown sun, who was wearing gloves and a head net more suited for beekeeping than fishing somewhere with mosquitoes. I wondered whether this made him the smartest one of the bunch or downright ridiculous and settled on the latter, then turned my attention to the patriarch who had promptly begun slapping his “fly rod” on the water. Attached to the end of his line were a massive bobber and a treble hook smothered in PowerBait, which is to say he was not fly fishing in any sense of the word. He seemed to be content with allowing the unwieldy line to smash the surface of the water dozens of times in order to advance his preposterous rig a single foot, all the while telegraphing to every trout in the entire lake that they should steer clear of this spot.

He announced unasked that they had come from Nebraska and usually only visited the Mesa in the wintertime to go snowmobiling. I nodded. Then he asked if I had any pointers for his casting.

“Try not to let the line hit the water until you’re ready to set it down.”

“Oh, is that a problem?”

“Trout are remarkably delicate and sensitive fish, they notice when you throw a caddis fly a single size different from what’s actually hatching.”

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The wife and grown son had retreated to the shore where they were chucking PowerBait and bobbers with traditional WalMart fishing poles and were mercilessly reeling in trout by the minute. In such pristine habitats, wild fish are helpless against the power of pheromone-laden artificial baits and multi-prong hooks that could entangle a snake in a million-mile desert. They seemed satisfied that they were out-fishing me, though I was stuck trying to tempt trout towards my fly while the man continued to slap and splash the water haplessly. To my satisfaction, this irked Hank to no end. He bounced and barked and peered at the thrashing line as if it were alive and needed to be killed. I half hoped he’d jump in after it and put this man’s antics to rest. A canine cannonball would’ve been a mild disturbance to the fish compared to this absurd display.

Finally, the pointed silence and dog grunts got the best of him.

“Alright, I’ll leave you alone, then.”

I nodded and wished him a good night. I tried to return to my original headspace, but the damage was done. The trout had been scared off and my beer was empty and the inhumane horrors occurring down the shore from me grated on my conscience. I grabbed my line and called for Hank and we headed back towards the cabin to prepare dinner in the blessed silence of a wooded night.

As I passed by the cabin with the dirt bikes, I noted a healthy campfire and three people sitting by it.

“How was it?” the mother of one of the boys asked.

“Oh, it was so nice. It’s just beautiful up here.” I was pleased to hear my memory was clinging to what was good and divine about the evening’s fishing. “I caught a bunch of rainbow trout and just got to enjoy the sunset.”

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We struck up a conversation as Hank went through a round of greetings. Within minutes, I found myself sitting in a luxurious camping chair beside the fire, Hank at my side and the trio energetically sharing and listening as we spun our tall tales of time on the road and days spent in the woods. They listened on the edges of their seats and stumps as I told of finding pronghorn antelope in New Mexico and desert bighorn sheep in Utah. This was markedly different from the reception I received telling the same story in an underground tavern in Aspen, Colorado exactly a week prior. Before I could lose myself in the part about an antelope charging a coyote and sending it scurrying for the hills, that crowd had turned its attention to gossip and shrimp cocktails. Here, my new friends giggled and played it back for emphasis.

“The coyote was scared of the antelope?” one of the boys asked with wonderment. I heard their pronunciation of the word ky-oh-TEE against my own ky-oat and the observation drifted quickly away as I dwelled on the endlessly encouraging moment unfolding before me. It was still 2017, and two teenage boys were spending their week somewhere with no cell service riding dirt bikes and whittling sticks and making s’mores, and they were enraptured by talk about whether pronghorn antelope were faster than cheetahs and the particulars of potash mining in Utah.

I’d discerned that the two boys were friends from school, “the only ones who like riding dirt bikes instead of playing football and video games,” and that the woman accompanying them was one of their mothers. She asked me if I’d like some dinner, which I replied to excitedly, and she disappeared into their cabin and emerged some minutes later with salad, pasta, and wine. My eggs and bread sat sadly on the shelf in my cabin next door.

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We talked for hours as the fire burned down. They valued fleeting glimpses of marginalized wildlife and the feeling of conquering unknown trails on 250cc dirt bikes, reading paper maps and sitting around campfires at the end of long days. There were past lives as diehard mountain bikers and rock climbers and future lives yet to be defined. Eventually we allowed the fire to dwindle to nothing and the temperature had plummeted into the low thirties. I was invited for coffee in the morning and bid them goodnight.

Hank and I walked the twenty yards to our little cabin in blinding darkness, and I refused to let the collective city slicker concerns about bears everywhere enter my mind. Still, beyond the narrow sightlines of my poorly-adjusted eyes, the night held unseen nightmares far worse than ambling furry critters. At the peripheries were every failed advance and unanswered question and bizarre outcome I’d ever faced. I was tempted to look for a bear so I could face something a bit more tangibly fearsome. Instead, we peaceably entered the cozy spot which had dropped to fifty-five degrees inside. Pets were not allowed on the furniture, so I draped my wool blanket over the crinkly eighties cabin-chic comforter, and in a matter of moments we slipped into silent unconsciousness.

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