Sept. 26, 2008
By Roger Emile Stouff
Tomorrow. Tomorrow, there’ll be no worries, at least for time.
I plan on waking at 4 a.m. Shower, make coffee, take the dog out and then give him breakfast. We’ll spend a little time playing fetch and tickling his belly, then he’ll go back inside. By spring I hope he’ll be trained to stay at heel when we go. When we go to wilds. But for now he’ll stay with Suzie for the day.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow, I’ll get in the truck hours before the sun comes up and head west then north. I’ll make a stop to pick up a buddy near Lafayette, and we’ll keep slicing through darkness. The elevation will rise subtly but surely. By 8 a.m. I hope to be pulling up around the same time as my brother at the convergence. When I open the door of the truck, I’ll hear it:
Water. Rushing, chortling, laughing, mumbling, telling secrets gathered over millennia and held close to its crystalline heart.
Harry Middleton, the author so often quoted posthumously in these meanderings, knew that sound, the mystery. Once, with his old Uncle Albert in the Ozarks, they took lunch beside Starlight Creek:
"Trout," Albert said, his voice low and sullen. "Bring civilization within a mile of them and they turn belly up. It’s wildness for them or nothing. No compromises. They believe in the simple life. Cold water, plenty of food, and clean oxygen. Wildness. They don’t know any better, I guess." He took another bite of his egg sandwich and a long pull of cool creek water and shook his head. "Doomed. Doomed, and me along with them, thank whatever gods there are."
It’ll be my fourth trip to the creeks north of here. I go in fall, and in spring. Here I live in the Atchafalaya Basin, surrounded by passive water as Harry called it and I love it all. Yet for now, it’s all black and dead and the stench brings tears to my eyes. So the movement of water, the singing, lilting syncopation of it is like a siren’s call that beckons me.
Tomorrow, we’ll string up our fly rods there on the tailgates of the trucks and load our gear into our pockets and shoulder bags. Extra leaders, fly boxes, water. Behind us, the creek will be tumbling out a chorus of hymns over sandstone terraces in rapids you wouldn’t dream existed in Louisiana. Far downstream is a remarkable little waterfall, nothing to brag about by northern standards but lovely by my own. That little stream has cut through these hills for thousands of years, and Adai and Caddo once made their homes there, giving it the name kis’achi, or "long cane" after the bamboo that used to grow along it before the floods of the 1920s eradicated it completely.
They say Starlight Creek, whatever it’s real name might have been, if it ever had one, doesn’t exist anymore. Dried up, exterminated by urban sprawl and progress. Doomed, as Albert would have said. But Harry didn’t see it. He died at 43, the same age I am now, of a heart attack. The author of four books by then, he was working the back of a garbage truck in a large city to feed his family. His obituary would remark that he was an author whose work earned him more fame and friends than fortune.
Déjà vu? Yes, I’ve been here before, and so have you, because any time I’m nearing a trip to that lovely, rushing stream, I start thinking about Harry. I stood in Montana looking over Otatsa Creek before I had even known Louisiana creeks existed and though I was on the rock-strewn bank, Otatsa might as well have been running through my ears, my sinuses, my veins and my heart. I knew I would never be the same. Mountains and wild, cold water imbedded in my cellular structure. I have never gotten them out.
"It has always been water, moving water, water still marked by wildness, water that is active rather than passive. Wild water scrubs away layers of dead skin, stirs my dreams and the legacy of blood and bone, the legacy of earth and sky, sunlight and wind, water and fire, the rush of the universe, the drift of time."
Tomorrow, we’ll step into a creek far from here along the sand bars, away from any other forest visitors that might be around the more "civilized" section of the stream. Sometimes, people content to dangle their toes in the water and ride rubber swimming pool rafts just need to be left behind in search of the wild places and the wild things upstream as the cool, clear water rushes toward us, threatening to take our feet from beneath us and topple us into the rapids. There’s a big pool ahead and white bluffs that reach high above our heads, strewn with large rocks.
If we’re lucky, the spotted bass will be agreeable and take the flies we present them. A largemouth bass variation, "spots" are frantic fighters, amplified by running water. I’ll fish bamboo, most likely, because a bamboo fly rod is far more at home than graphite in a stream once called "long cane" by distant cousins.
"After all," Ed Dentry said in the Rocky Mountain News, "you wouldn’t make a violin out of graphite."
As we make our way upstream…oh, how can I explain it? We’re people born of water. All three of us. There is no greater peace. No cathedral fashioned by the hands of men can equal ours; no parable offers more enlightenment, no retreat nurtures greater meditation.
I call myself a fisherman, but much as I love the fish, it’s not about the fishing. You know that by now. Concrete is grinding arthritis into my joints, fluorescent lights tumors in my brain. Harry’s mother died of a tumor in her brain. He cared for her through the last months of her life, and the final pages of The Bright Country are as heart-breaking as any you’ll ever read when he relates her last days and the loss of her memory, personality and spirit right before his eyes.
Just before the end, as Harry was leaving for the night, having put his mother to bed in the hospital, she suddenly hugged him tightly around the neck.
She said, "Thank you for caring…whoever you are."
And when the depression settled over him and the doctors poked and prodded him and Harry lost his job at Southern Living magazine, he was only soothed by wild water and wild places. What he called ‘the bright country" of his life.
Ebb and flow, Harry often said. Things that come and go.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow, there’ll be no hurricanes, no damage, no black water stinking of dead fish and rotting vegetation.
"Often I have been exhausted on trout streams," Charles Kuralt wrote. "Uncomfortable, wet, cold, briar scarred, sunburned, mosquito bitten, but never, with a fly rod in my hand have I been in a place that was less than beautiful."
Tomorrow, everything will be right again. At least for a while.