Sunday, August 16, 2009

The ‘Fishing’ Trip

Copyright 2009 Erik F. Helm

The theme of a fishing trip where there is no fishing to speak of sprang to mind one day as I was taking a walk. I had been on many strange road trips as a young man. Some of the odd-balls and their less than reliable death traps of vehicles stick out in my mind. There was the VW bus that carried a friend and I from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania driven by an eccentric older acquaintance that pounded the gas pedal to the accompaniment of Jethro Tull. The bus lurched forward down the interstate as we slid backward and forward on the floor. A fellow competitor’s father piloted my first trip to a rifle match several states away. The green Chevy Vega we all rode in had to be started with a screwdriver, and the upholstery was all torn up. Going over a bump, the rear of the car would hit the road, causing sparks to fly. Then there was the story of a friend of mine who was accompanied on a fishing trip to New Mexico by a guy who brought along fifty tons of gear, but could never locate or use any of it.

I once drove all the way across the state of Wisconsin to fish a spring creek, and had actually gotten to within one mile of the water, when a huge thunderstorm suddenly struck, causing massive flooding and washing out parts of the road. Timing…
In my younger days, I also discovered why baked beans and cheap beer should not be combined the night before getting into waders.
All these trip disasters are often remembered as vividly as the best fishing days on the water, and are retold around the campfire with a sort of pride. I thought I might place them all together, and have them driven by a guy I know that owns a truck that… well, you will see. I think we all know a character like him.
Erik Helm, August 2009


He had been after me to go fishing together for so long that I could not remember a time when he was not suggesting some road trip or another. I had finally acquiesced, which explains my befuddled state at 4:30 on a cold morning as I wrestled with the coffee maker. We had been friends since high school, though I frequently lost track of him for a few years at a time as he single-mindedly pursued some new adventure in hopes of making a living. Adventure. That was a pretty good way of describing Zeke. When he was born they not only broke the mold, but also sent the pieces into outer space. He would blow into my life for a visit, all fired up about one thing or another, full of inspiration and followed by a cloud of chaos. Susan was polite to him only out of respect to me, but could only take him for short periods. She applied to him the description of Lord Byron, the poet: “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” As I sipped the scalding coffee, I remembered his gold panning venture, the emu egg farm, his lawsuit against a local café for not serving apple pie, and the scheme for importing Chinese-made tubas which turned out not to have any valves. One thing was for sure; Zeke could never be described as ‘boring.’

Why I agreed to this fishing trip was due as much to my sense of guilt as his persistence. Why I had put it off for so long was due to my stodgy need for order in my life, and the threat he posed to that very sense of sanity. I sighed with apprehension as I walked out to the garage, making my way through the false light of dawn over the mountains. Muddler creek was just across the state border, and over the continental divide as well. Assembling my fly tackle in the dark garage, I heard a low rumbling and scraping approaching on the highway. Some dark spot with a single headlight was making a cloud of dust as it turned into our drive. The dark spot quickly became a pickup and plywood camper. The vehicle was a local legend. Zeke had named it ‘Grendel’ after the monster in Beowulf, and it was rumored to be as temperamental. It was gray, brown, and rust in color. Which color it was originally was anybody’s guess. I was not looking forward to my baptismal trip in this beast. “Hey!” Zeke shouted as he leapt out of the driver’s door with a flourish bearing a hammer. He opened the hood and began banging on the engine block. Grendel coughed, spit, and finally was silent. A blue cloud of oil fumes drifted back to envelop all three of us.

“How you been?” Zeke asked. Dressed in bib overalls and a stained red Hawaiian shirt, his six-foot athletic frame was topped off by wild brown hair and a beard that would make the Amish proud. “Pretty well, thanks… and plan on staying that way” I replied. “That thing safe?”
“Grendel?, oh hell… she’s as fine as the day she was… well, she’s all right anyhow.”
“Got everything?”
“Rod, reel, line, lunch, fly boxes, coffee… yup, pretty much” I checked off.
“Let’s go then.”

I grabbed the door handle, noticing at the same time that the running board was held up with bailing wire. Opening the door, I was hit with an odor of stale coffee, oil, and skunk.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” Zeke shouted, headed toward the open hood with a screwdriver. “Hit a skunk a week ago… hard to get rid of the smell.” I pushed aside the debris on the seat to take up its residence on the floor with empty beer bottles, wet paper bags, and other trash. ‘Floor’ was sort of a kind word to use, since plywood covered large rusted holes, and prevented me from falling out the bottom of the truck. Zeke was poking at something in the engine, when Grendel sputtered to life with vigor, and began lurching forward toward the firewood lean-to next to our garage. I saw Zeke leap nimbly to the side just before the truck plowed into the structure, effectively stopping it, while sending me to the floor, and collapsing the lean-to. His face popped into the window with a grin. “Have to start her by jumping the engine with a screwdriver. Have any plans to tear down that shed?”
“Not really.”
“Well, I saved ya the work” he stated through a smile while hopping into the cab.

We turned down the highway and ‘hit the road’ in a metaphorical sense. Zeke had rigged up an old 8-track player and had taped it to the dashboard. It never seemed to bother him that a tape was permanently stuck in the player and repeated Jethro Tull’s ‘Locomotive Breath’ endlessly. He began telling me of his latest idea, shouting over the music. “Herbal Viagra… juniper berries. What gives gin it’s reputation. Make a fortune!”
“Oh good…patent medicine. Well, just don’t drink your own snake oil” I jested sarcastically.

To describe the epic journey over the mountains and the continental divide would make a likely subject for Homer. Suffice it to say that the view was beautiful, but any aesthetic joy was shrouded by fear, as I realized that Zeke was the worst driver I had ever seen, and that Grendel had a damn good chance of falling apart altogether. I clutched the door handle so hard that my hand cramped. Zeke seemed to drive by the theory that he could save wear and tear on tires by having at least one of them spinning over thin air as he negotiated blind curves at twelve thousand feet. At one point, the truck’s engine began coughing. Zeke bade me grab the wheel as he got out and began galloping along side of Grendel, pouring a bottle of ‘Old Crow’ into the gas tank. “Damn bitch. She got the taste for booze when I ran outa’ gas in Wyoming a year ago. Had to burn a bottle of moonshine just to get to the next town. She gets ornery if she don’t have it for awhile.” He tipped the last inch down his throat while climbing back in, and the bottle joined the debris field at our feet. “Hey, looky there!” he said suddenly, pointing to a homemade tombstone and plastic flowers along side the road over a precipitous drop. “Guess somebody didn’t steer too good!” The morning coffee and the ancient crusty doughnut Zeke had provided me for breakfast began to slowly make their way upwards as I felt my panic rising. “Don’t worry bud, I ‘been doin’ this for years and I ‘aint dead yet” was his reassurance. “Have some circus peanuts,” he offered, holding out a large bag of the vile orange marshmallow concoctions. Begging off, I mused that of anyone over five years old that I had ever known, Zeke was the only human being that actually liked circus peanuts. “Good with beer” he explained, popping the top on a warm can of lager. Just then, Grendel topped the divide and began to descend the other side. The descent was as fast as the ascent was slow, and the truck lurched around hairpin turns as Zeke wrestled the wheel from side to side. “Gotta get them brakes fixed one of these days” he explained.

Dawn had just broken when we pulled off the highway and made our way down a dirt road to the river. Zeke was explaining global weather patterns and human migration in the early middle ages despite my attempts to distract him. Stopping the truck, he performed the ritual of hammering on the engine to get it to stop. I had to pry my hand off the door handle as I literally fell out of the truck. The silence and sound of the river now emerged from the history lectures of Zeke and death groans of Grendel. It was not a large river, but every hundred feet contained a small riffle. Hatching insects broke the water surface tension in these riffles, and the trout would be waiting. Zeke opened the back of the camper and handed me my rod tube and backpack. He then began rooting around in the back, tossing objects out the rear and onto the ground, all the while muttering to himself. “Shit! I’m sure I threw the reel in here somewhere…” “Zeke, you have got to be kidding,” I said. “Are you sure?” “Yup, looked everywhere. No reel.”
“Well, lucky for you that I always bring a spare five-weight reel and line just in case.” I opened up the backpack and pulled out the canvas bag containing my fly reels. “You can use my spare, but be careful with it, will you?”
I noticed the problem the second my fingers found the reels. I had grabbed the wrong bag. I never do things like this. I always am more than prepared. My wife even refers to me as “Captain O” for organization. It had to be a fluke… or destiny. Chaos followed Zeke around like the four horses of the apocalypse. Maybe his karma was stronger than mine. It made no real difference now I thought, as I pulled the two salt-water reels with nine-weight lines out of the bag. Oh good… nine-weight reels and lines with five-weight rods. This was going to be an adventure; like using .357 ammo in a .22. “Oops…” I shrugged at Zeke.
“No problemo bro! I once used a tin can as a reel. This will do just fine,” he said through a mouthful of circus peanuts while popping open another beer.

We rigged up the rods with the outsized reels, barely coaxing the line through the guides.
“We will have to go easy on the casting stroke,” I said, as my rod bent back and forth wildly like a drunk.
Donning hip boots, we closed up the truck, and began to walk down to Muddler Creek. There were small insects hovering over the first riffle. “Blue wing olives,” I whispered to Zeke. We both tied 5X tippet to the end of the 20 pound salt water leader, and tied on little parachute olive flies. “Go ahead, Zeke offered, you’re up first.”

I crept into position downstream of the riffle and brought the rod back for the cast. The little rod overloaded and hit the water on the back cast. I flopped it forward with as much grace as a cannon ball, and sent the little fly towards the riffle. Then the tip section of the rod fell off. “Shit!” I grabbed for the section as it lay in the water by my feet. I spotted a splashy rise at the same time in the riffle, and raised the butt section of the rod. A trout was firmly attached to the little fly, wiggling and jumping. As I tried to play the fish with the two sections of rod in my hands, my feet became entangled in the line and I pitched forward into the river. Coming up sputtering, I heard wild laughter coming from a prostrate Zeke, who had fallen over with mirth, legs wildly kicking the air as he giggled and guffawed. There, suspended from my hat and dangling from the line was a ten-inch trout. It wiggled back and forth in front of my face with what I swore were curious eyes as if to ask “What in the heck just happened?”

“Okay smart guy, your turn,” I said to Zeke as he recovered from his laughter, tears running down his cheeks.

The second he put down his beer and entered the water, the mayflies disappeared. I don’t mean that they just stopped hatching. No, they simply vanished. In their place were an empty riffle and the sound of thunder.
“Where did that dark cloud come from,” I asked rhetorically as lightning flickered and the wind picked up.
Zeke was already headed back to the truck with rod, circus peanuts, and beer in hand, when it began to rain.
“I thought blue winged olives LIKED nasty weather. What the heck happened back there.”
“Bummer man. That’s all, just a bummer.” he philosophized. “Bad JuJu.”

The temperature had dropped by what seemed like twenty degrees, and both of us had forgotten our rain jackets in the truck. My teeth were chattering by the time I arrived soaking wet. We both were seated in the cab a few seconds later, watching the rivulets of rain run down the windshield. “What now? I asked.”
“I’ll get Grendel started and then we run the heater and get warm.” He opened the door and ducked into the rain, screwdriver in hand. A few moments passed, and Grendel gave a single belch of life, accompanied by a short refrain from ‘Locomotive Breath’. Then there was silence.

I waited a few minutes before opening my door and shouting into the downpour. “Zeke! Hurry up!
Hey Zeke! Zeke?…”

As I got out of the truck, my foot found purchase on the running board for only a second before the bailing wire broke, spilling me to the ground. Wet, muddy, and by now in a foul mood, I got up and went around to the front of the truck, squinting through the rain to see. Zeke lay semi conscious directly in front of Grendel, a blackened screwdriver clutched in his hand.
“Wow, man. Now I know what being electrocuted feels like,” he said while slowly sitting up. “My hair hurts.”
Sticking a metal object into a truck battery while soaking wet was bad enough; the brown streak that escaped the rain by running under the truck was worse. A mountain lion. “Oh shit.” We both said together.

So there we both were. We spent the next two hours shivering in the rain huddled together in front of Grendel, and unable to move. I was so cold and hungry that I even accepted the offer of a circus peanut.

Suffice it to say that eventually it stopped raining enough for the big cat to feel comfortable leaving its shelter. Either that or the oil dripping from Grendel finally got to it. Either way, we got the ancient truck started and headed for home.

The return trip was rather quiet, and Zeke seemed to drive a bit slower and more carefully after his brush with electricity. Grendel was not so complacent. She developed a rattle that threatened to drown out the 94th repetition of ‘Locomotive Breath’, and began to belch black smoke. “Just a second,” Zeke said, stopping the truck. He went in the back and rummaged around, emerging with a pint bottle of some bluish liquid. “Home made Viagra,” he said as he poured the solution into the gas tank. Grendel seemed to like the stuff, because she made it all the way over the continental divide and to within one hundred feet of the state line before she blew a tire. I sat cross-legged by a sage bush as Zeke coaxed another retread tire onto Grendel. All the while the sign announcing the state line hung overhead like the sword of Damocles.

We turned into my drive an hour later.

“We have to do this again,” Zeke said, as I retrieved my backpack and rod tube from the pickup.
“Sure, someday…” I replied as he pulled away, Grendel belching and rattling. Someday…
“When hell freezes over…” I muttered to myself as I wondered how long it would take to wash off the bad karma that was Zeke. One thing was for sure; if and when he blew into my life again, he was sure to have a different vehicle. Grendel could never last that long. Or could she?

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