The Passenger

The sun had barely reached it’s zenith when Chad decided that it was time to return to civilization.  A tube tent had been his bedroom for the last three days;, a simple wire grate with its ends set on two flat stones over a fire his kitchen, and a nearby stand of bushes his bathroom.  Chad’s food supplies rested in his backpack, which hung from a tree limb by a thin nylon rope; hardly more than a string.  The elevation of the backpack offered protection from bears, and the thin rope protection from the squirrels that could clamber up and down a rope of  thicker caliber.

It was in all ways a comfortable camp and it had given Chad a place to unwind after an academic year of pre-med studies.  Chemistry, microbiology, pharmacology and a half dozen other courses that ended with ‘ology’ had filled his time and tested his intellectual capabilities for the past nine months.  The last few days had allowed him to replace those subjects with hiking, fishing, beginning to read “War and Peace” at last, and sleeping soundly in the tube tent with his head extended outside so that he could watch the stars put on their light show every night.

The camp’s comfort quickly vanished however when Chad, returning from a mountain creek where he had been fishing, discerned from afar two figures lounging in the middle of it.  He had been trying, without success, to fool some unsuspecting trout into thinking that the concoction of threads and ribbons and feathers which hid the hook that was attached to his line would make a good breakfast.  Chad hadn’t cared too much if the trout would bite or not, but in the event that it did, fresh trout would have been a welcome break from eating the freeze dried eggs and oatmeal with dried fruit which now would once again constitute his breakfast.  The fish were uncooperative, and as the sun rose and the best feeding times for the fish passed, Chad decided that it was his own feeding time.  He broke down the thin, segmented backpacking pole, replaced his lure in the fly case in his pocket, and began to walk back to his camp.

He was a good fifty yards from the camp when he saw the two men sitting there.  Some primal instinct warned Chad to not go any further.  He ducked quickly and quietly behind a cluster of boulders and watched as the two men sat on a fallen log at the edge of he camp.  The two men talked but Chad could not hear what was being said.  The way that the two men made themselves at home in his camp conveyed the sense that they considered it their own.  Chad’s aversion to going down into his camp grew with every second that he watched the two men.

One of the men was a burly brute, with shaggy black hair and a large beard.  He wore jeans and a plaid shirt that could barely conceal the size of his upper body.  His companion was a wiry character with short hair, tan pants, a Tee shirt and a down vest.  This second man had a nervous habit of jerking his head first one way, and then the other, swiveling like a monkey’s head, as if looking for approaching enemies up here at 7,500 feet

Chad stayed motionless behind the boulders, straining to hear any of their conversation that might carry in the still, thin air, and trying to convince himself that he was just being paranoid.  To the contrary, the sensation of peril increased and Chad became convinced that nothing good would happen if he arose and entered his desecrated camp.  He now reached down and patted his pocket, where the key to his Yamaha 250 cc off-road bike rested.  A moment of panic swept Chad as he felt pocket knife and fly case but no key, but when he dug his hand into the pocket the reassuring form of the key was felt.

Chad had parked his bike in a copse of trees well away from his camp.  He liked to ride far up into the remote areas of the mountains to establish his camps without the time consuming need of hiking in. He could then begin to enjoy camping with all of its activities, or lack of activities, for the greatest amount of time at the greatest distance from civilization.  Once he had made camp however, Chad did not want to see the bike, as it represented the civilization that he wanted to get away from.  “Yeah, it’s contradictory” he had thought, “but it’s the way I like it.”  Now he was glad that he did it that way.  “I hope that they didn’t see the tracks in the dust” Chad muttered to himself as he worked his way almost silently to where he had stashed the bike.

Chad heaved a big sigh of relief when he arrived at the spot where he had parked his bike and found it untouched.  After a quick look around to make sure that neither of the two men was close by Chad mounted the bike, inserted the key, pushed the starter button and was rolling downhill towards the train before the roar of the motor could begin to echo off of the surrounding bare rock peaks.

Chad’s heart was pounding as he hit the trail and pointed the bike downhill, towards civilization which lay many miles distant.  He looked in the rear view mirror, expecting to see the men running after him.  There was nobody in the mirror however, and with a sigh of relief Chad raised his eyes up, just in time to grab ahold of the brakes and swerve, barely missing the woman who was standing in the trail, right in front of him.  The bike nearly went off the trail and Chad nearly went off the bike.  They both came to a stop upright and the woman came running up to him.

“Please mister, get me out of here.  Oh, please, don’t leave me here alone” she said.  There was a quiver in her voice and tears ran down through the dirt on her face.  The thought that she might be with the two men flickered through Chad’s mind but he quickly discarded it.  The tears, the voice, the torn blouse and pants askew, and particularly her shoeless feet in the rough terrain convinced Chad that this girl was in trouble.

“OK.  Climb on the back” he said.  The girl quickly straddled the back of the bike’s seat and locked her arms around his waist.  Chad fired up the bike once again and they began to roll, this time at a more measured rate of speed, down the trail.

“What are you doing out here without shoes?” Chad asked over his shoulder, but the roar of the motorcycle’s engine combined with the wind whistling past their heads must have made it hard for her to hear, for she didn’t answer him.  She kept her grip around Chad’s waist and her head buried against his shoulders at the base of his neck.  After a few more tries at conversation Chad gave up and focused on getting hem both out of the forest.

After they had passed over several miles of trail, and were not very far from the parking lot at the National Forest campground that was the trailhead, Chad became aware of the girl tapping him on the shoulder.  He looked over his right shoulder and saw her arm extended, index finger pointing to a small trail – barely a path, really – leading to the right off of the main trail.  Chad was tempted to say “Aw, hell no.  I’m not going up there,” but by some impulse that he could never later explain he agreed, and turned off of the trail and up the path.

They didn’t go far.  Not two hundred yards up the path a small clearing in the trees opened up on the left.  There was a small pond at the far edge of this clearing and a two foot or so boulder resting in the middle.  “Stop here, please” the girl shouted in his ear.  Chad pulled over and brought the bike to a stop.  He did not, however, turn off the ignition.  The girl dismounted quickly and walked over to the rock, upon which she sat down.

Chad extended the bike’s kick stand and followed the girl.  She was seated on the rock, and as he approached he asked “Do you live around here?”

“Live around here?’  The girl repeated his question in a dreamy voice.  “No, I don’t live around here.  I don’t live – – around here.”

“Then what are we doing here”  Chad asked.

“I am looking for Cindy.  I know that she is close to us.  We are camping a little further up the road, but I know that she is here.”

“Camped?  You have a camp up there?  Well come on.  I’ll take you up there.  Cindy is probably up there.  We should get you both out of the forest.  It’s not safe here today”

“No, Cindy is here.” the girl said in a soft, dull voice once again.

Chad looked around and saw nobody, nor sign that anybody had been anywhere near there for quite a while.  “Look miss, I think you need some help.  Let’s go down the trail the rest of the way.  The rangers there can help you to find Cindy and get you some medical attention.  I want to help you, and maybe help Cindy too.  I think we’ve both had enough craziness out here for one day, and I want to get to the rangers and report those two goons who took over my camp back up the mountain and go home.”

“Two goons?” the woman said, her voice rising slightly and her already pale face blanching further under the tear-streaked dirt on her forehead and cheeks.  “Oh, two men!  I must go.  Please, I must go.”

“OK.  I’ll get the bike and come back for you” Chad said as he turned and trotted back to where the bike stood on its stand, idling.  Upon arrival Chad straddled the seat, gave it some gas and put the bike into gear.  He came about and looked towards the rock in the middle of the clearing, but to his amazement there was nobody there.  The boulder lay in its place in the middle of the glade but there was nobody to be seen there or anywhere else.

“Miss!”  Chad yelled.  There was no reply.  He turned off the bike motor and yelled again, “Miss!”

There was nothing but silence in response to his call.  He could hear the rustle of the leaves in the soft breeze that was blowing down off of the mountaintops and the gurgle of the stream which fed the pond across the clearing, but as he listened he also noticed the absence of any sound that might have been produce by any living creature other than the brush and trees.  There were no chirps of wren or squawk of bluejay, no hum of fly or bee.  The place was silent, and that silence was so profound that it raised the hair on the back of Chad’s neck and caused the sweat to once again begin to bead on his forehead and neck.

“To hell with this” Chad growled as fear once again rose up from his chest and settled in his  throat.  He twisted the handle to pour on the gas, and the rear tire sent a rooster tail of dirt and grass flying into the air behind him as he sped across the clearing, down the path and finally onto the trail that led him to civilization, now only a mile or two away.

Chad finally pulled into the parking lot at the trailhead and rolled over to the ranger station which stood beside it.  He rolled his bike to the station, shut off the engine, mounted the steps and crossed a wooden porch to where a customer service window was open.  The ranger behind the window smiled and said “How can I help you?”

Chad told him about the girl, saying that he feared she was in trouble.  The ranger listened in silence, and when Chad was finished he called for a second ranger to come over to the window with him.  “He’s seen Julia” he said as the second ranger approached.

“Julia?” Chad asked.  “You know her name?”

“Probably” the second ranger answered.  “Torn blouse?  Pants messed up?  Dirty face?  Wanting help getting out of the forest?”

“Yeah”  Chad said.  “What the hell is this?  What kind of freak show is going on here?”  Chad was beginning to feel anger replace the fear and confusion that had filled his day so far.  Was this some sort of monstrous joke that the locals enjoyed playing on visitors?

“Julia was a girl who went camping in those mountains with a friend two years back.  They were gone longer than they said that they would be, and when we went in to look for them we found her body about five miles up the trail, raped and strangled.  She’s been appearing to people ever since.”

An icy shiver crawled down Chad’s spine as he digested what had just been told to him.  “You’re shitting me, right?”  he asked.

“Nope” the ranger replied.  “I wouldn’t tell you such a wild-ass story if it wasn’t true.  We aren’t up here to monkey with the customers.  What I’ve just said is God’s truth.  I can give you a list of people who have seen the lady, and it isn’t a short one.  You’re the first one who has spent that much time with her though; who’s given her a ride.”

Chad stood still in front of the window, feet rooted to the porch and jaw hanging agape.  At last he regained his voice.

“So you’re telling me that I rode down that mountain with a ghost on my bike?  That’s bull shit.  She was as solid as you and me.  I felt her arms holding onto me and her head on my back.  I know when a person is riding on a bike with me.  She talked – a little anyway – and she pointed to where she wanted to go up a path.  Then she made me stop and said her friend was there, but I didn’t see anybody.  Then, when I turned my back she disappeared.  But she was friggin solid man.  She was friggin real!”

As Chad told this story the rangers’ interest picked up considerably.  At length one said “She guided you somewhere?”

“Yes” Chad replied.  “She took me to a clearing and said that her friend Cindy was there.  But there was nobody there.  And since I had split from my camp earlier because two sketchy-looking dudes had moved in on me while I was fishing – oh, I forgot to tell you all about that shit.  Two rough looking characters came into my camp while I was fishing and I really, and I mean really, didn’t like their look, so I left my gear and started down the trail.  Right then’s when I almost ran into the girl.”

The two rangers looked at each other for a moment, and then back at Chad.  At last one of them said “Would you be so kind as to come inside for a moment?” while the other was reaching for the telephone on the desk.

Six months later Chad was reading about the trial.  He had taken investigators to the clearing, where they had found the body of a murdered woman beside the stone that his rider had sat on.  The body turned out to be that of Cindy, the other camper.  Along with the body, forensic evidence was found that tied the murder to Robert and Leroy Paige, brothers who’d had minor brushes with the law and spent much of their time in a cabin a few miles away from the clearing where the murdered girl was found.  These two were the same men who had invaded Chad’s camp on that memorable day.

At length the two confessed to the crimes.  They explained that they raped and killed Cindy and buried her on the spot, and then took Julia further up the trail and repeated their crimes.  They were nearly seen by approaching hunters however and didn’t have time to bury Julia.  They expressed no remorse for their acts and were sentenced to life in prison.  Leroy committed suicide shortly after he arrived at one big, cold maximum security prison, and Robert sits snugly in another, never to see the free light of day again.

As to the girl?  She’s not been seen by anybody since the body of her friend was found and her killers were put away.  Chad decided that there was no point in returning to his camp to recover the gear that he had left.  It had probably been stolen, he reasoned, and even if it had not been it would be in poor repair by the time he could get back to it.  The truth however is that you couldn’t have lured Chad back up that trail for all of the money in the world

Camping in Wonderland, Part III

     Wes and I recovered quickly from our arduous climb to Minaret Lake, and after a short while of sitting under the lone tree that was close to our camp we decided to get busy.  We were both hungry so we lit a fire in the rock fire pit that we had built. The nearby stream seemed to contain clean snowmelt off of the white stuff which crowned the nearby peaks and so we scooped up a couple of pans full with which to cook up some of our freeze dried dinners.  It was probably beef stroganoff for me, and as I recall the finished product did roughly resemble beef stroganoff.  I certainly remember that it tasted wonderful, but then sitting in paradise at 9.800 feet eating food cooked over an open fire, I could have eaten the sole of one of my K-Mart boots and liked it just as much.

     Wes suggested that we explore the valley in which we were camped and so after cleaning up our mess we began to poke around the area.  One of the first things that we noticed was that even at 9.800 feet mosquitos lived near water.  And they were big suckers, too.  While not as numerous as I’ve seen elsewhere, these guys were on steroids.  As we walked along the lake shore the little vampires rose up and attacked like kamakazis.  They would bite anywhere, including through denim jeans. I had completely failed to take mosquitos into account and was therefore defenseless.  Wes had a small amount of a commercial insect repellant in his kit but it was nearly gone.  I could see that Wes’ repellant wouldn’t last long even if he was the only one using it, and it didn’t seem right that he should suffer more because I neglected a pretty basic tenet of camping.  I declined his offer to share and continued slapping at the little monsters, leaving bloody splotches on my arms, face, and jeans.  

     At one point we jumped over a small stream and mounted one of the rounded rocks near where the trail rose up out of the valley below.  Lying on the ground on the other side of the boulder was the remains of a camp which did not appear to be more than a week old.  We could see where the tent pegs had been driven into the ground, where the campfire had been, and where the garbage still was.  Up next to the rock were two large black plastic bags with all manner of cans and paper products and uneaten meals and, most amazing of all, empty bottles of one of the cheapest and nastiest pop wines on the market at that time.

     Wes and I stood there looking at the mess with disgust and astonishment, and did not hear the sound of the horse’s hooves until the beast hove into view over the same rise that we had surmounted earlier that day.  Seated atop that horse was a forest ranger who was making his rounds.  I believe that the ranger saw us before we saw him because he never once gave us the impression that he connected us with that pile of trash.  I’m certain that he could read the disgust on our faces as plain as day.  

     “Good afternoon boys.  How is your day going?” he asked.

     “We were doing fine until we saw this mess” was my reply.  “What I want to know, beyond why somebody would leave this crap in a place like this is how they got it here at all.”  When every box, can and bottle in that pile war full it would have amounted to a lot of weight.

     “They probably got it here the same way that I got here.  Usually a party of hikers will be met by someone with a pack horse who will bring their supplies in here.  It doesn’t happen a lot and usually they clean up after themselves, but this is not the first pile of shit that we’ve had to haul off of the mountain.  Someone will be back later to pack that stuff out of here.”   I couldn’t help but wonder how somebody with the resources to have access to a pack horse would stoop to drinking that increadibly nasty wine, but they were clearly bottom-feeders so I left it alone.

     “What kind of camp have you set up?” the ranger continued.  We showed him our camp in the distance and described our equipment and plan, which was limited to exploring, relaxing, fishing, and maybe a little reading.  Wes and I were both avid readers.  

     “The only thing bothering me is that I forgot mosquito repellant” I commented in an off-hand way.  The ranger scowled and said “They’ll eat you alive.”  He reached into his saddle pack and retrieved an olive drab can with a spray nozzle on the top.  “This will keep the little bastards off of you” he said as he tossed the can to me.  The can was classic government issue.  As I wrote earlier it was olive drab, with some code of letters and numbers denoting what item number it was in some catalogue somewhere, and written across the can was INSECT REPELLANT in black letters which blended into the deep green of the can.  I gladly accepted and sprayed myself down, and as I handed it back the ranger smiled and said “Keep it.  I’ve got plenty.”  I don’t know what was in that insect repellant but I am certain that it had a plutonium base.  The mosquitos never bothered me again on that trip.

     The ranger told us that someone would probably be back the next day to clean up the mess and waved goodbye.  We returned the wave and continued with our exploration of the valley, which was in fact more like a shelf.  We jumped over creeks, waded gingerly through marshy ground, and eventually came back to our camp.  The day was creeping into evening, and shadows from the cliff behind us began to advance across the valley floor.  Wes began to fiddle with his very light weight, collapsable fishing rod and other gear while I laid back against the tree with a book.  We could cook dinner in the shadows of evening but it would be hard to read or do much else, and that is pretty much how we spent the rest of that day.

     After cooking and cleaning up, night fell upon us like an onrushing train.  Wes and I pulled out our half-pints of cheap bourbon whiskey that we had brought and drank a swallow or two before turning in.  I shed my shirt and jeans and crawled into my mummy bag.  Even in mid summer the nights can be pretty cool at 9,800 feet, especially with a wind blowing off of the showpack even higher up.  I felt perfectly comfortable lying in my bag on a thin foam pad in my little tent.  The darkness was as nearly pitch black as it could be, especially as I was cut off from the starlight in my tent, and there were almost no sounds apart from the occasional rustling of the grasses by a light wind.  I lay there awake for a short while, alternately nervous in the unfamiliarity of near total dark and near total silence, and utterly relaxed in those same phenomena.  I was reflecting on that duality and the next thing of which I was aware was the light of a new day penetrating the nylon of my tent.

     After leaving my mummy bag and dressing quickly in the chill of the morning I emerged from my tent and immediately got a fire going.  I knew that Wes wouldn’t be far behind me and coffee would be needed on an emergency basis.  I took a nip of bourbon to get the blood moving and then went to get a couple of pans of water from the nearby creek.  By the time I returned Wes was sitting on a rock close to the fire pulling supplies out of the pack which we had hoisted into the tree the evening before.  In no time at all we had breakfast and coffee prepared and ate one of the finest meals ever cooked.

     After putting our camp in order we prepared for our first adventure of the day.  Behind us rose the 800 foot cliff which I previously described and at that height, nestled in a bowl created by the confluence of the cliff and the Minarets, lay Cecil Lake at 10,400 feet.  The book that we brought with us said that there was a steep trail which led over the top of the ridge and sure enough, we found that trail.  Steep, however, was an understatement.  The climb was as close to vertical as one could get without going hand-over-hand, and near the top that’s just what we did.

     The payoff, however, was worth every exertion.  Cecil Lake lay cradled in its stony crib with little more than rock, ice, snow, and water making up the scene.  The starkness of the environment had a severe beauty and Wes and I simply sat for a while admiring it.  Broken rock had tumbled down the steep sides of this natural bowl with little growth of any kind poking up from between the jagged stones.  The lake had a fifteen to twenty foot ring of ice extending from the shore towards the center of the lake, with the ice-free bulk of that center even more blue than Minaret Lake below.  The picture was stunningly beautiful.  Rising from our rocky perch we carefully crossed over to the other side of the bowl, disturbing marmots who somehow lived in that sterile-looking place.  Climbing the bank on the other side we gained the rim to look out over a vast scape of mountain peaks, most of them at a lower altitude than we were, which stretched west across the Sierras towards Yosemite and beyond that the great central valley of California.

     After taking in the view for a good long while we retraced our steps and returned to camp.  We had taken a couple of hours to climb the cliff and return and we wanted to try our luck with fishing in Minaret Lake.  Our gear was as simple as we could make it, but we had enough to try bait, lure, and fly.  Unfortunately, none of them seemed at all tempting to the fish.  We would switch baits, we would move to other spots, we pulled in our lines and then returned in the evening, and nothing worked.  I suppose it’s possible that there weren’t any fish in that lake at all.  I don’t see how they could have gotten there in the first place, but as I have heard elsewhere, “Life finds a way.”  We finally threw in the towel and broke down our rods and stashed our gear away.

     The trout dinner which we had expected had to be substituted with more of the freeze-dried food that we had packed in with us, and we were eating that at a faster rate than we expected.  The exertion of the climbs on both days, the general exhilaration of being so far into mostly unspoiled nature, and the fact that we were two twenty-one year old men with serious appetites, combined to make us literally chew our way through our supplies a lot more quickly than we had intended.  Taking stock, we saw that we had enough for one more day, but we would have nothing for breakfast the morning after that.  Our path back may have led downhill but it was still eight miles, and neither of us relished that long of a walk on an empty stomach.  In the end we decided that we would have a good breakfast the next morning and break camp.  I was beginning to fear that my mosquito repellant was running low anyway (it wasn’t really.  It lasted for two more camping trips).

     The next morning we made up the coffee and a larger than average breakfast, and lounged in our camp until the sun was well up.  Wes and I took our sweet time folding up our tents and rolling up our sleeping bags, and when we were packed and ready shouldered our packs and bid goodbye to Minaret Lake with as much melancholy as it was possible for two young men with their lives ahead of them to muster, and then we set out on the trail back to Devil’s Postpile.

     My car was untouched and waiting as we trudged into the parking lot.  Wes and I quickly stowed our packs in the trunk and fired that Mercury up.  In very little time we were on the road, and pulled into a restaurant in Bishop ready for a real meal.  I’m certain that we smelled like a garbage dump when we walked into that squat & gobble cafe but that didn’t bother us at all.  If it bothered anyone else they didn’t share their displeasure with us.  It was about two in the afternoon and since it was between lunch and dinner we decided to eat both.  I am sure that I put five pounds of food down the hatch and Wes might have eaten more.  All that remained was about nine or ten hours of driving and we would be home, clean and fed again and lying in our own comfortable beds in our own homes, with refrigerators full and the noise of the city around us, a million miles away it seemed from the pristine beauty of that jewel of the wilderness, Minaret Lake.

     

Fish Story

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  So goes an old saying the origin of which I haven’t a clue, and I suppose that there may be some truth in it.  I suspect however that the author of that phrase never met a fisherman like me.  Many an accomplished angler has tried to impart to me the ways of the fish and how to coax one onto my hook but the result has, for the most part, been a failure.  Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.  Try to teach Glenn Durden how to fish and you’ll be wasting your time and will probably get an ulcer.

I was introduced to fishing when I was a very small child.  My brother, who was four years older than me, had found out before the earliest reaches of my memory that he never wanted to mess with fishing, so I can only remember my father and I going to the lake to catch our dinner.  The lake which I remember best is Lake Henshaw, a reservoir in San Diego County located about 70 miles northeast of the city.  The lake was usually pretty low in those days because the region was in a prolonged dry cycle, but it had everything one would need for a good day of fishing; water, boats and the bait and tackle shack where necessities such as soft drinks, potato chips, candy, beer (for Dad), and a cardboard carton of worms could be bought.  There was no doubt other fishing stuff could be purchased there too but it held little interest for Dad and I.  We were going after catfish, and catfish liked worms.  Little did I know then that catfish would have cheerfully eaten the chips and candy that we bought there and the sandwiches that my mother had packed for us and anything else that was food or in some small way looked like food.  Catfish are the pigs of the aquatic world.

After Dad had purchased our day permits, rented the boat and procured our bait we would choose a rowboat and propel ourselves across the lake in search of a corner where the fish might be biting.  One would think that fish in a lake would as likely be biting in one place as another, but that did not seem to be the case.  Dad would choose a spot where we would throw out our lines and wait for a while, and if nothing happened we would move to another corner of the lake and repeat the process.  Eventually one of us would feel a tug on the line and jerk the line in order to set the hook.  I later learned that this was unnecessary with catfish as they scarfed down any morsel that they came across with no hesitation.  Like I said; catfish are pigs.

The bait that we used were common earthworms.  Not the big bruisers that you can see emerging from the ground after a spring rain in the Northwest where I now live, but their smaller cousins.  They would be packed in some moist substance which was sort of a cross between coffee grounds and sawdust.  We would dig into the carton and find the largest, and then skewer their wriggling bodies on our hooks.  Being young I assumed that it was a normal and natural thing to impale worms on a hook; it was their karma, and I thought the worms knew that and didn’t really mind.  If Dad had any similar feelings he never shared them with me, so I just did what he did.  I have occasionally wondered if someday I will be called to account for my serial murder of those innocent worms, much less the catfish I caught, but that is meat for another story.   It seemed like as I got older my luck left me and I brought home fewer and fewer catfish for Mom to cook.  Catfish are slimy characters, so I think I didn’t really mind too much not catching them, and I eventually moved on to try my luck with other fish.

Bass, Crappie, and even large bluegill are a better order of fish, and I next remember trying my luck in the lakes, ponds and streams of Georgia, where my father grew up and we visited every couple of years.  Georgia was not my cup of tea as it was hot, sticky, had enormous bugs and was populated with adults whom I didn’t really know and kids who viewed me with suspicion as an outsider.  I usually went with my dad to the town swimming pool, read Hardy Boys books or whatever I could find, or sat on the covered front porch trying desperately to find a breeze and counting the seconds until we would leave Georgia and repeat my torture in Kentucky where my mother grew up.

On one particular day I decided to walk a half mile or so to a large pond which I knew to be teeming with nice, fat, catchable fish.  The idea of a dinner of fried bass or crappie, a few dozen bluegill or even a by-now-detested catfish would be an improvement over the unsavory table set by my paternal grandmother, who frankly scared the tar out of me.  Mealtime on these ‘vacations’ was always an ordeal.  On this particular vacation, one of the last as I remember, I heard my father say to my mother “he can eat his grandmother’s cooking or he can starve”.  I felt like a soldier freed from a prisoner of war camp after the armistice was signed; a choice at last which didn’t involve me getting beaten about the head and shoulders!  I clutched my Get Out Of Jail Free card and cheerfully starved.  On the trip back to San Diego, Kentucky being mercifully omitted on this trip, I lay sick and weak in the back seat of our car and heard my dad say “if the kid will starve himself, I can’t win that battle”.  That statement signaled a blessed end to the struggle which Dad and I had fought for many years over what I was and was not willing to eat.  Anyway, I knew that one decent meal was waiting in that pond for me to catch it, so with pole, tackle, and Granddad’s 12 gauge shotgun I strode off across a field and through some woods to get to the pond.

I arrived at the pond and soon found the experience to be pleasant in many ways.  It was early, and so not yet oppressively hot.  I had no relatives or their friends and children around so I could sit quietly on the bank of the pond without having to perform for anybody.  The surface of the pond sported barely a ripple, and the sounds of birds and the soft breeze made me come very close to enjoying myself.  I baited the hook with a fat worm which my grandfather had dug up for me earlier and cast him out towards the snag of an old tree which somehow had found its way into the center of the pond.  I thought that fish must certainly like to hang out near old snags, although I couldn’t possibly tell you why.  I sat down and waited for the fish to jump onto my hook, and when they didn’t oblige I reeled in my line, changed my bait, moved a short way down the edge of the pond and cast again towards the center. I did this a few more times and began to wonder if I would bring home any fish after all to relieve the unpleasant prospect of that night’s dinner.

I don’t know how much time had passed, but eventually I became aware that the sun was rising in the sky and the breeze had vanished.  I was determined to catch my dinner however and reeled in my line one more time.  I was about to try a different bait when a movement in the water attracted my attention.  I looked out toward the center of the pond and saw that it was a snake swimming across the water, out by the old tree snag.  I had very little knowledge of snakes in the Southeastern U.S. but had heard of water moccasins which were poisonous.  I just sat there and watched the snake, being a young boy and naturally interested in such things.  Being a young boy however it was also naturally difficult for me to remain still for very long, and my small movements were enough for me to attract the attention of the snake.

The snake stopped dead in the water and seemed to look right at me.  I froze and waited for him to swim away.  He did not swim away.  After giving me the eye for a minute or two the snake changed course and began to swim towards me.  Being a kinder and gentler West Coast sort of kid I gathered my gear and worked my way through the undergrowth in order to gain the bank on the far side of the pond.  That took a while and the snake waited patiently until I arrived at a clear area from which to recast my line.  I baited my hook and was poised to cast when I saw the snake turn in the water and begin to wriggle across it, once again, directly towards me.  That was enough for me.  Forgetting all ideas of catching my dinner I put down my rod, picked up Granddad’s shotgun, waited until my reptilian pursuer made it abundantly clear that it was me towards whom he was swimming, and then dispatched that snake to whatever eternal reward my slithering friend had to look forward to.

The surface of the pond erupted and the largest intact part of the late water moccasin flew end over end to wrap around one of the branches of the old snag jutting from the water.  The ‘boom’ of the shotgun echoed through the woods and the serenity of the scene which I had previously enjoyed was officially flushed down the toilet.  I was fully aware that any chance that I would catch a fish, slim as it was to begin with, was now near statistical zero.  With the sun beginning to pound down on me in earnest and the remains of the snake dripping from its resting place on the dead branch I reloaded the shotgun, picked up my fishing gear and began a sad march back to Granddad’s farmhouse.  My failure to catch a fish would result in the near certainty of another night of sitting hungry in front of a bowl of some unrecognizable swill that everyone at the table but me would eat, and another night of my stomach growling as I waited for the morning and the corn flakes that would keep me alive for one more day.  I was so pissed off at this prospect that I returned to the pond and put another blast from the 12 gauge into the incomplete carcass of the snake.  It flew off of the snag and landed somewhere; I neither knew nor cared where.  I still don’t.

One of my last efforts to catch a fish occurred when I was a teenager.  I don’t know where my dad was, but it was Mom who accompanied my friend Mike and i to a reservoir closer to San Diego than Lake Henshaw.  My mother never learned how to swim, and since she witnessed the drowning of a neighbor when she was a child she had no great desire to get into more water than a bathtub.  It was therefore quite a sacrifice for her to climb into a tiny rowboat with Mike and I and row from one end of that lake to the other in search of somewhere where the fish were biting.  Mike and I both had tackle boxes like real fishermen and we tried every sort of bait and lure that we owned to try and coax a fish onto our hook.  Real worms and salmon eggs, fake worms and minnows, flies, poppers, and spoons.  Nothing was tempting enough to induce the canny fish who toyed with us for nearly the whole day.

We rowed over to a shady beach and had a late lunch, and then regained our perches in the boat and reluctantly resumed our quest to find one fish stupid enough to allow himself to get caught by either one of us.  That quest took us toward the back of the reservoir where the water became more shallow, with rocks and water grasses and snags sticking up into the air.  I was at this point thoroughly tired of chasing fish who were obviously determined to not get caught.  The sun was quite hot and my skin, which refuses to tan (quite a disadvantage for a kid growing up in Surf City) was beginning to take on an ominous red hue which signaled a very uncomfortable next two or three days.  I was ready to throw in the towel but wanted one more crack at catching a meal.

I rummaged through my tackle box and found shunted off in a corner an old Bomber lure.  This thing was created to look somewhat like a frog.  It would wobble when cast and reeled back in, and it was filled with some phosphorescent substance that would glow in the gloom of the water world.  The top of this lure had been cracked and some of the phosphorescent goo had oozed out and ran down the sides of the lure in streaks.  It had two treble hooks that made me uncomfortable using it, and in general it was a lure that desperately needed to be tossed into the trash.  That made it the perfect lure for this moment.  I carefully plucked the lure out of the bottom of my tackle box and affixed it to the end of my line.  Then, balancing myself in the center of the boat, I cast that piece of trash straight into the center of the rocks, grasses, and snags which adorned the edge of the lake, with little thought of successfully reeling it back to me through that obstacle course.

The result was almost immediate.  The tip of my rod bent down almost to the surface of the water and I only barely retained possession of both the rod and my seat in the boat.  All ideas of ‘setting the hook’ or ‘playing the fish’ went instantly right out the window.  For the first time in more than recent memory I had a fish on the line and, judging by the strength with which it was trying to tear the pole from my hands it was a big one.  Right then and there the conflict became personal; I would not play around.  Come to me or live with a big, ugly Bomber lure stuck in you mouth for the short duration of the rest of your life!

I reeled and reeled, and then reeled some more.  The fish exploded out of the surface of the lake; it was a largemouth bass and easily the biggest fish I had ever caught.  I didn’t miss a beat.  He plopped back into the water and I continued to reel until I could see him swimming side to side and back and forth just to the side of the boat.  Mike reached over the edge of the boat and slipped our net under the fish and hauled his big, beautiful, wriggling and flopping self onto the bottom of the boat.  I was nervous about fiddling with such a large and angry mass of teeth and fins and scales as this was so Mike did the honors and disconnected the fish from the lure and put him on our stringer.

At this point I was fully ready to go home.  Mom had been ready to go home from the moment we pulled into the parking lot.  Mike, however, was a very competitive guy who nearly always could do things better than me in almost every activity.  Mike was also my best friend, so I fished patiently while he chucked lure after lure into rocks and snags and any other forbidding sort of terrain that looked like it could hide a fish.  It was all of no avail however.  Our fishing was done for the day; the fish knew it and I knew it, and after losing a couple of much-more-valuable lures than my old, fractured Bomber, Mike knew it too.  He reeled in his line and we called it a day.

That was the last fish that I ever caught.  I tried several times more; at the ocean, in mountain streams and in the mighty Columbia River.  Nothing.  Not a nibble. It has been years since I last tried, as I live a fairly busy life and have little time for endeavors which I know well in advance will be futile.  I have to admit however that I am still drawn to the lure (if you’ll pardon the pun) of fishing.  Perhaps in a year or two when I retire I will purchase some tackle, a license, and whatever accoutrement are necessary and once again wade into a stream or river and try to bag a trout or steelhead or salmon, partly for the meal that it would afford but mostly just to say that I have finally become smarter than a fish.  My only reservation is the suspicion, based on a lot of past history, that I probably have not.