"What the fuh- get out of the road, dude!"
A boy in his early teens, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, darted across I-90, narrowly reaching the marginal before I clipped by at 80 MPH. It was after 2:00 AM. His movements were awkward, almost puppet-like. Something wasn't right... what the hell was a kid doing on I-90 at 2 AM, 30 miles from the nearest semblance of a town?
I arched my aching back and squinted hard, fighting the sleep deprivation and soreness tugging at my eyelids. As my pupils contracted and struggled to focus on the road ahead, I noticed them; Two giant black dragons, racing at breakneck speed toward a common destination. It was difficult to make them out against the backdrop of the night, but I could see the undulations in their spines, tails fluctuating up and down in rhythm with the car.
I was stone cold sober, and tripping balls. Could it be that after only twelve hours into the trip the Brodor has already reached intoxicating levels?
I slapped myself, hard. As we coursed through the northwoods of Wisconsin in the dark, the speed dragons I'd been racing were nothing more than trees lining either side of the highway. I looked over at the passenger seat where Alex was contorted into what looked like the worlds most uncomfortable sleeping position. I tapped his shoulder, startling him to attention.
"Sorry to wake you man, but I need to switch out. I'm seeing shit. Weird shit. Gonna' pull over at the next rest stop."
Having already endured the lion's share of the driving, he grudgingly obliged. Unspoken between us was the understanding that pulling over to sleep was never an option. At the front end of an 11-day roadie, the utility of a numbers-on-a-clock construct of time was already fading. Distance and daylight were taking priority, soon to be followed by casts made and pools fished and trout landed or lost. These are the units I prefer to set my watch to when traveling. I am a notoriously tardy individual but I am fairly certain that, operating under this much-preferable and far less abstract interpretation of time, I have never been late.
A few worthless cat-naps and a half dozen shitty dry flies later, with the glare of an August afternoon beating against the windshield, the monotony of the great plains began to give way to rolling hills. Ears perked. Conversation escalated. Beers may or may not have cracked. Like flies hovering around a dogs ass, we knew there was good shit on the way. When at last we stepped out of the car it was like stepping through a black hole into a world unknown. I laid foot to ground with trepidation for fear that I might plummet into another galaxy. This was not Ohio. It was not Wyoming either, for that matter, but for the moment no one really seemed to care about that... I've never seen steelheaders string up 3-weights with as much fervor.
The Black Hills were a welcome respite, an oasis breaking up hundreds of miles of hard prairie country. Her wild trout were jewels to be sure and, unsurprisingly, she was reluctant to give them up. But she kindly allowed us enough of a taste to fuel the four-hour drive across the border into cowboy country. As we laid camp at the base of the Bighorns, trout splashed in the background. My body, sleep-deprived and tortured by flashback visions of behemoth browns engulfing foam dry flies, functioned at a quarter capacity.
'Should I set up a rod now so I don't have to do it with shaking hands in the morning?
Or... should..... I........'
With a little rest under our belts and an unquenched lust for big trout, we couldn't get to the creek quickly enough. Our first stop was a piece of water we'd all visited the summer prior. When I finally laid eyes on her it was like seeing a long-lost lover. For all the great memories we'd made together, I'd cursed her over and again during our separation, swearing things could never be the same and that I'd been a fool the first time around. BUT... but, damn. I mean, God Damn, did she look good. Even better maybe, than I remembered. It always hurts to wonder about what you might have missed in between... I couldn't wait to make that first cast.
As expected, things weren't quite as I remembered them. The spark was there, but the fireworks lacked luster. Where I'd remembered an 18 inch brown annihilating a Chernobyl, a 13 incher took its place. And when things did heat up and I was given a chance to score, I blew it. Perhaps it wasn't that either one of us had changed so much as the chemistry just wasn't there. But such is life. It was a great reunion and a fine table-setter for the rest of our trip. The accommodations weren't so bad either, and for what would turn out to be the last time in over a week, we slept soundly in real beds with real pillows.
We awoke to a flat tire. Truth be told, smooth sailing just doesn't make for as good a story, so I'd punctured it during the night. I blamed it on J-Fabes, made him pony up the $20 patch fee, and hid my smirk as we jacked the truck up to put on the spare. Two hours and three margaritas later, we were headed for the western slope of the Bighorns.
And yes John, I'm kidding.
There were too many miles in between to keep lines dry. Besides, Alex and I had bones to pick with a few trout from 2011. It wasn't hard to find a juicy looking pull-off and in short order our boots were wet once again.
But there was still ground to cover. West of the Bighorns, the forgeound turned to moonscape. Signs of man disappeared. Not so much erie as liberating, we had to stop and soak it up.
We found our campsite in the waning hours of daylight. With Fabes sleeping on the picnic table and dusk falling fast, Alex and I took to the stream with three-weights in hand, showing far more exuberance than this tiny creek warranted. Some shockingly beautiful and not-so-miniature brown trout came to hand before our quest turned futile. Back at camp we scoured up a mean batch of steak fajitas and took our station under the stars. A nearly-full moon lit up a red rock face adjacent to our camp. For "unexplained" reasons the Fish Gods spoke loudly that night, cautioning us to go to bed lest we should miss some subsequent spectacularity. We knew better than to argue.
The drive to the trailhead was concerning, to say the least. Barren, desolate, parched country. Nothing about it inspired confidence in the water/trout-thirsty fly fisher. I couldn't even find the foot path, which had been obscured by prevailing winds and an infinite maze of game trails. This was the valley of the Shadow of Death and sure as shit not a fly fishing destination.
A quick jaunt around the trail head revealed six kill piles and nary a trace of human activity, yet my iPhone was boasting four bars. Fearing the worst, I shot Brett a cautionary text, knowing he was the only person with even the faintest clue as to our coordinates.
"If the shit hits the fan, you know where to find us."
And so we set out out, compassing, mapping, word-of-mouthing our way toward a trout Disneyland.; Getting there is a motherfucker, but the rides are more than worth it - or so we'd been told. Over one ridge line and then another, our world continued to shrink. As we crested the final lip and moving water finally came into view, it was as if I was a cartoon dinosaur reaching The Great Valley in "The Land Before Time." We surfed pure anticipation down the final slope and soon forgot about how we'd gotten there.
I knew it was a big fish from the second it broke the surface, and I made sure everybody else knew as well. What I didn't know was that the motherfucker was fishing 5X. In and out of boulders he dodged while I hooted and hollered, as if I had any say in the matter. When that fish finally came to hand, I took much more pride than I deserved. Well played, Alex. Well Played.
That night the Moon and stars and rocks and water spoke loudly again....