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Grays Best

Colors on the Ronde Print E-mail

Silver and gold, green and pink, and an icily therapeutic blue.
by Michael Doherty
From the March/April 2011 Issue

I. As good a year as any to drop out of Lincoln High

There’s a vine maple my grandfather planted near the south edge of my house. Every fall, when the big storms roll through, its leaves drop and threaten to clog a drain. If they do, water coming off my roof backs up and spills along the house footings down to the foundation. It works its way through cracks, under the concrete pad, and up into the basement. And although I’ve ripped up carpet and replaced watermarked drywall, I can’t bring myself to take down the maple.

I’m told if I don’t want to remove the tree, I can dig a French drain outside, or get some guys to install a sump and an internal perimeter drain, or maybe just clean the trap. I go with the latter. I prune the tree, I rake the leaves, I clean the trap. It’s one way I pay my respects to a man who brought more than just fall colors into my world. Let me try to explain that.

In October of 1977, I dropped out of Lincoln High School. Big storms marked the following weeks, strong words from all the family, even my younger brothers. My mother was the worst. I was convinced I was right, and they were convinced of the opposite; any brief respite ended in shouting. Yet when the last of the leaves dropped, when things cooled down a little, my grandfather and father, sage and canny, hatched a plan.

They decided I would join them on their annual fishing trip. They expected I would reflect on where I was going, what I would do with myself. And maybe, if I pulled my head out of my ass, I’d fish. They said the latter just to get me excited: there would be no fishing, not for me, not in 1977.

I was pleased to have made the cut; their trip was always mysterious, timed when school was in session and off limits to my brothers and I. The whole trip put my mother on edge; every year she spoke of being “abandoned by your father.” As such, the escape from home was welcome, if only to further irritate her and annoy my school-bound brothers. Cocky to a fault, I assumed their plan would fail; I assumed this would be a kind of holiday; I assumed I would be one of three equals.

We drove a full day to reach the Grande Ronde, a river where steelhead as long as your arm make their breeding run from the Pacific up through the dams of the Columbia and the Snake to a remote corner of Washington and Oregon. The Ronde’s a broad freestone river, knee to waist deep at that time of year; it cuts through a sagebrush range in terraces and canyons. It’s as far away from Lincoln High School as the earth from the moon. The only people who care or even know about it are fisherman and a handful of farmers. It’s an otherwise inhospitable place, unkind to hippies or those without purpose.

I’d heard talk of the trip before, hushed tones that left off when I entered the room: man business with no place for a boy. I felt lucky to at last go with them, to see it. Lucky enough to just be sitting there in a truck filled with road noise. That I was included seemed fundamentally good.

They pitched a square canvas tent at a pullout along the river, sweeping the site first, laying the tent and groundsheet over the shallow drain gutters they’d cut in previous years. The site, hidden slightly among high cottonwoods, overlooked the kind of run I now recognize as steelhead water—corrugated, a little turbulent, not fast enough to spin a man off his feet or hide his reflection.

I hammered eight star pickets on angles into the dry ground, then tightened the guy ropes. All of us grasped the tent poles, as thick as broom handles in their brass ferrules, and the canvas rose without words, the stained fabric stretched taunt and solid.

My father, a believer in both discipline and comfort, had a small barrel stove and about a quarter cord of wood that I split and stacked. I covered the wood with a paint-stained dropcloth and, at my father’s insistence, covered the pickets with slit tennis balls, so no one ripped their shins in the dark when we arose to piss. They had a system, and I was labor. Not just labor: I was the discipline, while they took comfort.

The tent had a black smoke jack lined with an old asbestos oven mitt. Linked stovepipe slid through and connected to the stove, set dead in the tent’s center. The stretch of fabric held the pipe in place, and even with a stiff wind blowing out of the canyon, the pipe never rattled.

Spring cots were folded out, a camp table set, collapsible chairs opened, and sleeping bags from Army-Navy arranged. Day one everything smelled of webbing, wood tar, pipe smoke, and Scotch. By day two it smelled of wet wool, drying waders, and fish. When I awoke at night, I heard only the river, the stretching of springs, the stove contracting, the open-mouthed snores of men.


 II. The Days and Weeks of Watching Paint Dry
The first night in the tent, sleep came slowly, heavily, and late. I was used to the sound of Interstate 5 and the steady thrum of sirens, motorcycles, and buses. I missed the luxuries of central heat, television, and ample food. I missed my mother. This place of subtle noises was disturbing; the senses were amplified and unreliable.

When I awoke, my father and grandfather were already up. The stove was stoked, and on its small top a kettle whistled, to be replaced by a blackened skillet filled with bacon. Cups of tea steeped beneath vapor clouds, while Dad and Grandpa strung lines through guides and tied flies on small loops. There were only two rods, two sets of waders.

“Help yourself to breakfast. When you finish cleaning up, watch us from the riverbank.”

“Watch where we step, watch how we cast, watch the retrieve.”

“When can I fish?”

“When you’re ready.”

The bacon was beginning to bubble and splat.

“When will that be?”

Grandpa stared at me, shutting me down with two pale eyes set in a face crevassed by reflected waters. I’d seen that look before, when I tried to explain why I was leaving school. Boredom. Stupid teachers, stupid kids, derivatives, economies of scale, bad food. None of it my fault. Disappointment came with a silent saucer-blue stare.

They walked quietly down deer paths to the water beneath the camp. I pulled a chair from the tent, wrapped myself in a sleeping bag, and through the mug’s vapors watched them point to where they would fish. Then my father, and later my grandfather, waded in.

Soon line was out. My grandfather stripped his fly crosscurrent. My father let his swing wide and stripped only toward the end. I watched them move up and down, casting, covering the water. Sometimes I’d hear a shout, see their rod flex, and then hear a curse as whatever bump they had vanished. I watched them through three mugs of tea, through binoculars or along the riverbank, through a slow warming as the sun made its way onto the valley floor, turning the darks of the canyon to gold and yellow.

When lunchtime came, they made their way back up the bank, seeming rejuvenated, laughing and joking. Dad opened a can of split pea soup, buttered bread with the green soup paste, cut some salami with a pocketknife, and handed us all a sandwich. Grandpa uncapped beers, but handed me a pop.

My father asked, “What did you learn?”


“That’s right. What did you see?”

“I saw you guys fishing. I saw you hook a few but I didn’t see anything landed.”

My grandfather came out of the tent with a chair and sat beside me.

“That’s all you saw?”

He had a sparkle in his eye, the same kind he got when he’d pull a quarter from an ear when we were young or when he got a pitch by me, wiffle bat humming and connecting to nothing. My maximal efforts, my 17-year-old reflexes, focused and yet completely deceived by a 75-year-old’s knuckleball.

“See up there?”

He pointed up the canyon wall.

“There’s a golden eagle on the hunt.”

Sure enough there was, riding the thermals.

“And down there, in that small river island, is a fawn resting in the tall grass, waiting for its mamma to come back.”

“I don’t see it.” I stared longer, wanting to see what he saw.

“Or what about that field: is it fallow or has it been harvested? What’s that farmer growing? What would grow here? Why’d he plow it like that, what’s the pattern here?”

Dad added “See the hop vines on the trellis? You think he’s late pulling them?”

“I don’t know. What are hops?”

“So all you did was watch us fish?”

“And drink tea.”

“Did you see any fish?” My father asked, now eating the green paste straight from the can with his knife, great joy on his face.


“In the water. Where else?”

“I didn’t see any.”

“Not even right there, behind that rock? Say five feet back and another five feet to the right?”

I looked where he pointed, a big midstream bird-crapped boulder—five down, five to the right. I saw only moving water.

“Nothing curious about you, is there, son?”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s not something I can teach you.”

My grandfather walked to the truck, rummaged around for his easel, a ragged thing built of salvaged wood and stained with oils and thinners, warped from nights left out in the weather. In his off time he painted landscapes—slow, undulating, unidentifiable, abstract. Palouse scenes. Hues of earth and sky, rolling wheat fields, some fallow, some green.

They reminded me of the disappointing mugs I’d shaped and fired in art class, the one class at Lincoln High I liked. Unfortunately, I had no aptitude and lacked focus. My mugs were supposed to be glazed bright with color, and yet they came out hard and immutable, marked as though stained in a settling pond. They were gritty on the lip, and spotted with cancerous oxides that bloomed in the heat and fire. Drinks took on the flavors of the clay. They weren’t even good enough to be gifts, not even to a brother.

He set the easel in front of me, and tore a sheet of paper from a large spiral-bound pad, clipped it to the top, set out a tray of kid’s watercolors and cheap plastic brushes, all brand new, and told me to paint what I saw.

“Are you serious?”

“Think of it as a grand time out.”

“A Grande Ronde timeout.”

They both laughed.

They’d thought this through. This was their plan. I was to paint slowly and carefully, when they walked back to the river. I was to paint them.

I didn’t fish at all that trip. I painted. There was no Karate Kid-like loathing for the assigned task. I liked the task, the direction, working each day, slowly and methodically.

I’d eat my breakfast of bacon and tea, my lunch of soup paste and cured meat sandwiches—a routine that was neither dull nor frustrating. In the absence of other distractions, I could focus here, on the Ronde.

By day two, having scoured all the paint from those shallow plastic pucks, I figured that now I would fish. But when Grandpa saw I’d finished, he produced an identical tray of cheap kid’s paints, unwrapping them with the kind of overdone ceremony the fool smoker has, banging his box on his palm to pack the tobacco.

Time passed quickly, and although nothing on paper came out of that week that you or I would ever describe as good, a new foundation was laid. The colors ran together; the paper would bleed, bubble, and tear. Details became lumps, brushes lost their hair. The waters of the Ronde diluted it all. A rod, just a brown line, really, would wash and become a post then a shadow and then vanish into the background along with the blurred images of my father or my grandfather.

But in the hours of doing this, I began to see that hidden fawn move and feed—saw its mother, too; saw the eagle seize some small prey, the phalanx of fish near the boulder, the fish that my grandfather and father would sometimes hook, land, or spook. When I began to see color and shadow, I realized I had no ways of describing it. I could mix an orange, I could mix a brown, but what I wanted was to capture the canyon and river moving from day to night. How to describe what I saw was then, and perhaps still is, the one thing that fascinates me. And until then, the only people who ever saw that were Grandpa and Dad.

Lucky for me, over time (over decades), others have been kind enough to teach me formally. And still later, to pay for my efforts. And although I am by no means wealthy, I hold no debts. And I owe this to my grandfather and those cheap sets of kids’ paints. And for seeing not an eagle by the cliff edge or a pod of fish but a child who had no way of seeing a world far bigger and more fantastic than Lincoln High or the fired pots that emerged from it.

III. More on the Merits of Split Pea Sandwiches
My grandfather died in October of 1986. That year, my father and I never drove to the Grande Ronde. Instead, we buried him, settled his affairs, closed up his house, put it on the market. We spread what precious things he had among the remaining family. I took his easel, his fly rods, every one of his Palouse series, the muted colors of which I had come to love. I took his brushes. Even the big fat stupid stiff ones he’d never cleaned well. I already had the vine maple. My old man took the tent, his canvas.

When we began going back, we found the Grande Ronde no less colorful now; his absence doesn’t diminish our trips. This past year we ended up going down there later, for Halloween. The pullout, when we arrived, was already taken by kids playing loud music, burning empty beer cartons, drunk on their successes. They boasted of fish caught, displayed headless carcasses pulled from coolers, suggested we pull up and camp with them. We wanted somewhere quieter.

We found a place and set up camp, a different view from years before but no less spectacular. I fixed my father a sandwich of green pea soup paste and cured meat. I strung Grandpa’s rod and walked with Dad to the river, and we fished together over water teeming with shadows and memories. We killed three hatchery fish, and prepped them for dinner and smoking.

“You know your grandfather’s theory?”

“What’s that?”

“The meat of a steelhead, when eaten the same day as split pea soup and salami, triggers the most vivid dreams and visions a man can have.”

“Is that so?”

“I didn’t think so at first, but tonight you’ll find yourself in a different world than perhaps you ever knew existed. I’ve experimented a little, you see. You don’t need salami; any kind of pork product will do, even Spam. That’s our job, see: to make it better, simpler, to let it evolve, to not get stuck.”

That night we ate, told stories, drank too much beer, and burned the beer cartons like the kids downstream. Not enough beer to get really drunk, but enough to put you to sleep before filling the stove. Enough to wake you up to take a leak or two.

When I got up, much later, I fed the stove a new load of wood, and when it caught a small cone of orange made its way from the stove door to the camp table, where my father’s wallet lay open, displaying a small picture of his father.

It was a photo of one of the oils I’d painted of Grandpa years ago. I’d made him sit after a day’s fishing, sipping his beer as the light died over the canyon. I’d taken photos and made sketches of him from all different angles. Those were his last days of fishing, and I think he knew it. I gave the completed portrait to my grandfather. My father later said he’d sold it. He was neither a sentimental nor a vain man, and the thought of him selling it didn’t bother me. After all, what kind of man wants a portrait of himself?

I looked at the photo closely, at those pale eyes and the deep creases moving toward them. It was too small, the light was too dark, and I couldn’t see them well. I put the wallet back and lay down to sleep again, trying to conjure up those saucer-blue eyes. It occurred to me, stupidly and too late, that I should have given the portrait to my father.

When I awoke the second time, the stove was still warm. I had dreamed I was eagle-high above those Palouse fields, looking down toward the Blue Mountains, toward the Grande Ronde—flying, yet distracted by a full bladder.

I peed outside beneath a navigator’s sky. From the shadows, deer looked back at me. We stared at each other, blowing smoke in the cold air. Back in the tent, before I closed my eyes I looked around, and there was sure enough a third cot with my grandfather in it, snoring, his head tucked and a smile on his face. I watched him there, heard him mumble once or twice in his sleep: “You see it now . . . .”

Neither a question nor a statement, just words, and I fell back asleep to some other dream fueled by steelhead, split pea soup, and cured pork. A dream of a vivid place that filled with whatever sounded good: women, beaches, fish, colors. And when the morning came I compared notes with my father, who knew the secret man business of the Grande Ronde, who knew the time out here was different. A man who knew it takes the right food, the right place, the right company, and the passage of decades to see clearly.


Michael Doherty lives surrounded by a bong shop, a tattoo parlor, a comic dungeon, and two pizza places. By day he treats people with seizures; by night, after the kids are asleep, he writes. On a good weekend he eats pizza, read comics with his kids, and fly-fishes Puget Sound beaches for sea run cutts.
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