In many respects I never was what you would call a “believer.” I was always rather skeptical and asked a lot of questions. I debunked most of the great myths of life at a relatively early age. Even with childlike innocence if you look just a little below the surface, you will see the fallacy of most of the myths. I didn’t want to stop believing in Santa Claus, after all it would be traumatic to Mon and Dad. But how could anyone believe that some guy could travel around the world in one night dropping of presents along the way. Hell, it’s nearly impossible to fly to Chicago and have both your flight arrive on time and your baggage not get lost. I knew it would be tough on my folks but they had to get real. The same went for the Tooth Fairy and the really dumb one, “eggplant is good!” For almost 50 years there was one truth that had stood the test of time. Finding out that I had been misleading myself for all those years was even more painful than being dumped by my first teenage heart throb.
I’m a rather serious, or as some would say a fanatical, trout fisherman. Living in Kansas City, going trout fishing requires some effort and advanced planning. It isn’t like I can get up on Saturday morning and decide to go trout fishing rather than read the paper at the coffee shop. Back during my working years, I would lead a group of friends and co-workers on a long Columbus Day week-end adventure into the Snowy Range of south-central Wyoming. In my zeal for big brown trout I hadn’t noticed that the number of participants had been steadily decreasing. In retrospect I should have noticed that after each trip when the weather turned miserable one or more people dropped out. When you’re a fanatic, little things like sub-freezing temperatures or major snowfalls don’t get noticed. What gets noticed is how good or bad the fishing was. But the word was being spread about the conditions. Everyone I tried to cajole into going with me had a good reason for turning down the adventure. One guy had to rearrange his sock drawer and another said he was thinking about having a kidney transplant. Fanaticisms die hard. I go with the one companion I knew would be there with me - Sandydog (it is her real name – all one word).
I’ve been camping since my Boy Scout days in New Hampshire. There had been some great trips . . . singing around the campfire at night and racing to it in the morning to get warm after leaving the friendly confines of a sleeping bag. As an adult I had continued the tradition of great camping and fishing trips. Troop 281 had been replaced by my sons Ethan and Dan, and by my former Columbus Day week-end friends. Boy Scout songs had been replaced by ribald stories, card games and warming liquids other than hot chocolate. The morning rush to the campfire was still there but now it was also go get a cup of strong coffee and to plan the days fishing. There had always been a group. I had never camped by myself. Things change one year.
The work day was over and the truck was packed with all the gear and food my sole companion Sandydog need for a long drive and a fishing adventure. With high spirits we were on our way. For the first 25 miles Sandydog was as excited as I was about being on our adventure. Her head was out the window and here tail was wagging a mile a minute. That soon gave way to her lolling over more than her share of the seat as she slept past each and every mile marker. Eight hours and two gas stops later we stopped for the night in North Platte. Sandydog didn’t see any difference between the bed in the motel room and the seat of the truck. She staked out her half from the middle and went to sleep. Once I managed to claim my section of the bed sleep and dreams of big brown trout came quickly.
The sound of my 5:30 wake-up call spooked a big brown that was rising to my size 22 Olive Bodied Adams and jarred me awake. Within minutes we were back on the road. Breakfast was a cup of motel lobby coffee and the homemade oatmeal cookies my beloved had made and secretly packed away for me. Sandydog’s enthusiasm for the trip was renewed, until the last cookie was gone. In just 5 more hours we would be fishing!
We finally crossed the pass and descended into the Hog Park Creek valley. We had reached our destination. Hog Park Creek is one of those lazy mountain meadow streams. It is no hurry to leave its valley and begin its rush to the sea. With all its meanders, twists and turns I bet it has to travel 5 miles to cover the valley’s 3 mile length. About half way through the valley, Hog Park has taken a fancy to the hills on the south side of the valley. A rock outcrop on one of these hills didn’t yield to the force of the creek as easily as the others and produced a ponderosa pine covered point. From this commanding point, the only high spot in the valley, you can look down on the creek and watch trout rising in the smooth water of a beaver pond. With trees for shelter and fire wood, trout rising at your door step and the morning sun to wake and warm you, what more could you ask for. No wonder others beside me and my sons and former fair weather fishing companions had chosen this as a camp site. It seems that local pre-historic Indians had favored the spot for its beauty and the beautiful quartz stones that they could fashion into tools and gifts of jewelry. My history filled camp site was now an off limits archeological site!
Just down the valley a few hundred yards was the “primo” fishing area, the mouth of a secondary valley where the South Fork of Hog Park entered the main creek. While not nearly as nice as my pine covered point, a spot near the junction of the valleys had some redeeming qualities – it was flat, had a nice rock to include in my fire ring and it was only steps from great fishing. Despite the lack of trees for cover and wood and no warming sun it would do. After all I could damn near cast to a trout from here. But noon I had pitched my tent and rigged my road. By noon-10, I was fishing. And what a beautiful day for fishing it was. No wind, clear skies, 60 degree temperatures as a caddis hatch! Within 5 minutes, Sandydog, exhausted from sleeping all the way, found herself a spot in the sun and left the fishing to me. As the sun warmed me and the water, the caddis hatch intensified and my only thoughts were of another big brown sipping in my fly. But after a few hours the sun was sinking toward the horizon and the temperatures were cooling. I had forgotten that all I had done was pitch my tent.
Coming to my senses at about four o’clock, I realized that I had to lay in a supply of firewood and attend to other camp chores. In the middle of a mountain meadow trees, and thus firewood, are in short supply. By the time the sun had set, I had managed to scrounge a barely adequate supply of fire wood. Many hands make light work and lots of firewood. Funny how it doesn’t take any more wood for 4 or 5 people as it does for just one.
By the light of my lantern I got a fire going to prepare Sandydog and I a meal of Chicken Marsala and pasta with pesto sauce. Even hunched over the fire cooking it was getting cold. First a flannel shirt was added, followed shortly by my coveralls. It was the start of a clear, cold autumn night in the mountains. Stoking the fire to keep warm and hasten our dinner, I realized what a long evening lay ahead. Sandydog is all you could ask for in a pet but not a great conversationalist. I thought, “Get dinner over with and go to bed early.” It sounded like a great idea. Then Ben Franklin’s words floated into my head, “Early to bed, early to rise”
It doesn’t take very much Marsala to make Chicken Marsala, even if you are making it for five hungry fishermen and a lazy dog. When there is only one fisherman and a lazy dog it takes even less. I had an entire bottle and only needed about half a cup. With dinner finished and the dishes done, I huddled near the fire to try and keep warm. Sandydog doesn’t tell stories, jokes or play cards. Again I thought, “go to bed’ but realized that if I did that I’d wake up too early in the morning. What to do . . . cold and no human companionship. There were only two things I could think of; feel sorry for myself and drink the bottle of Marsala. I did both. As the night grew colder, the wood pile grew smaller and the bottle of Marsala lighter. I might have been freezing but Sandydog didn’t seem to mind at all. She had found a spot near the fire and rolled herself into a little ball and tucked here tail around her nose. She was even making sleep noises. Enough was enough for me, both of the Marsala and the bone chilling cold. So what if it was just a few seconds after eight. I’d worry about waking up early when it happened. I was off to my tent and the warm confines of my down sleeping bag. No passing Go, no collecting $200 and no assembling tinder, kindling and the other necessities of a morning campfire.
The warmth of my sleeping bag and the bottle of Marsala was making for a cozy night. There was no need to count rising trout. I was sound asleep, and likely making my own sleep noises, in no time. About one am I started to get a squirmy feeling and heard a scratching sound. The campfire had burned down, Sandydog had woken up and wanted to get out of the cold and in to the tent with me. The Marsala I had so greedily consumed by the fire also wanted something. It wanted out! Reluctantly climbing out of my toasty down bag I slipped on just my camp shoes and unzipped the tent flap for Sandydog and the Marsala. Out I stepped into a world of cold and frost. Mist rising from the Hog Park Creek had turned into a thick snow like coating of frost over everything, including Sandydog. Moving only as far away from the tent as necessary I let the Marsala out as quickly as possible and hurried back into the tent pausing just long enough to cast a look in the direction of the campfire. All I saw were a few small glowing embers and all I heard was the quiet of a cold mountain night. There was no blazing fire to warm anyone and none of the laughter that follows “did you ever hear about the three guys . . .” Cold and alone I hurried back to sleeping bag and Sandydog in my tent.
I was awake long before morning first light. The long drive and day of hard fishing hadn’t compensated for having climbed into my sleeping bag at 8 pm. I tried to roll over and go back to sleep for just a little longer but my Marsala induced throbbing head wouldn’t let me. I didn’t want to look at my watch and see how early it was in the morning. I just wanted to stay in my warm and toasty sleeping bag, have my head stop pounding and hear the sounds of a bustling camp, a sound that would mean that coffee was brewing. Mustering all my resolve, I pulled on my jeans and sweater and unzipped the tent flap. There was not a sound to be heard coming from the camp fire spot. But why should there be? Only Sandydog had joined me on this adventure. No camp sounds translated as no coffee brewing – god did my throbbing head need coffee and need it now.
The embers from last night’s fire were gone and the ashes were as cold as the pre-dawn air. Why wasn’t there a fire in the camp fire spot? Sure I hadn’t neatly laid out tinder and kindling but both were by the camp fire and there were still enough logs left to build a fire to perk the coffee. But the fire hadn’t been started. There always is a fire going when I’d climbed out of my tent. How could it be? And then a cruel fact of life hit me right up beside my throbbing head. There was always a fire going in the morning because someone else had climbed out of their tent well before I got up. They started the fire! Now I had to face reality and fact of life. No one, like a wisp of smoke riding on the wind, was silently flitting from camp to camp in the early morning hours carefully putting kindling in the camp fire spot, laying kindling over the tinder, topping it with a tent of small logs and artfully striking a single match. No Santa Claus, no Easter Bunny and even worse no Camp Fire Fairy! Alone and with a shiver, more sadness than the cold, I realized that I had to give up my last great belief. I had lost my last vestige of innocence.