Cutthroat and Garnets

The wrong creek was the right creek, in the mysterious way of manufactured déjà vu.
by Robin Carey
(from the May/June 2008 issue)

You never go back to the perfect truth, assuming there was such a thing in the first place. If machinery hasn’t changed the landscape, then the mind changes it—polishing, pushing, rearranging, so much so that if you found something like truth again, unchanged, bedrock, you’d probably be disappointed.

We go back anyway, poking for old shards, because what little we find lusters in our palm and feels heavy. What else we find glitters with mica-sheen and with that momentary fooling of ourselves that sometimes grows to permanence. There was plenty of that in my search for the garnet creek after an absence of many years. It was a place the family had gone once up a dust-drenched road to that schist-bedded stream not far from St. Maries, Idaho. We stood in water up to our knees and shoveled in the cut-banks and down around seams between rock. We came away came away with two buckets of star garnets rolled free of the schist by water power, some of them bigger than golf balls, all faceted and sheening with iridescent purples.

I remembered the stream as a tributary of the St. Joe. My father wrote me later that we had dug in Emerald Creek, no tributary of the St. Joe at all. Simply, then, I went driving out along the St. Joe in a fog of self-delusion, following a will-o’-the-wisp, seeking the long-lost and wrong-lost river, re-experiencing there what was never experienced there. I spent years of my youth grinding and polishing those garnets, and the stars never centered easily, so I should have suspected something similar in the place of their origin, but didn’t. Not that it really mattered. What mattered was that I drove east, rebounding from the West Coast, backwards in time toward the memory, as I had promised myself I would do one day.

This much I had right—St. Maries the town of record, the place where my father had connected with a crusty rockhound named Red, and from where we all had set off after garnets in the old Plymouth with the silver sailing ship on its hood. But this time around I drove into town behind
the wheel of a Nissan in late September, with a Brittany spaniel whimpering in her sleep on the passenger-side floor and my fly rod behind me in its case on the backseat. A vague déjà vu attached itself to the building facades of Main Street, probably manufactured by my brain for the occasion. At Ed’s Sporting Goods, which turned out instead to be the Blue Goose Sport Shop, its name in transition, a fellow in total camouflage explained just where to drop a fly in four pools between St. Maries and Avery. In his gear, he blended perfectly with the cash register and the countertop, but I successfully located his palm and purchased several Goofus Bugs and a dozen Humpies. In the last few years I hadn’t tied much, or cast much either. The clerk allowed as how I would surely knock them dead, the water being at perfect levels and all. If he guessed I was fishing for something more, for some illusive Western specter, he didn’t let on.

An ill-conceived north-bank road construction, so lacking in setback and corridor that workers had riprapped the bank for stability, led east toward Avery, where a better road from the south side bridged the river, and I drove it upstream, closing in on the borderlands edging Montana, eating dust from logging trucks, looking for garnet schist and pools where a trout might hunker. At a shadowy bend the river left the road, and I parked there, pulled on waders, rigged up the rod, and walked out through timber, the spaniel, Paddy, bouncing out front with a silly grin on his chops, his nose low and snuffing for scent. Here and there I paused, casting for landmarks, while Paddy pushed his silky ears against my hand. The tricks of casting took their time returning. I kept flipping my wrist this way and that to check the curves each movement threw. The river beaded out ahead of me in pools. I walked and cast, walked and cast, rediscovering the feel of line, the smell of flotant, the push of current, the refractions of water, the feel of river bottom underfoot; rediscovering where the blister always started on the middle finger of my casting hand and remembering that look of concentration my father always gave to fishing a good pool, his pipe cocked down toward his chin and his busted black fedora pulled low to his eyes.

When you get them finally, you hold them just above the surface, your hands wet and cold, observing the patterning of spots, the crimson slashes on the throats, looks that are altogether new in the moment and old in the way of formed memory. Hungry, I kept my allotment of one, hiked back, and found an empty campground along the road. The sun set. My campfire crackled and spit around pine knots. The trout barely fit the foil I pulled from a pack. I cooked the trout in coals while Paddy chased things that chattered at him from high branches. With odors of trout prompting me, I flipped the foil out with a stick, opened it carefully, inhaled the full aroma of cooked trout, added salt, and ate the hot flakes with cold fingers. That was the taste again, sure enough, and the backbone lifted cleanly from the flesh as it always had.

A chilly wind kicked up, soughing overhead, and Paddy dug a hole, memory working in him, too, stone-age memory. He turned three times and curled down. The fire burned lower. Tall pines did their magic, thinning their dimensions out into space in that odd convergence of faraway waving crowns. A satellite tracked across the sky. It felt very dark and tight and secret beneath the pines. The river murmured its low-flow whisper. Paddy went roaming again, spooked something that gave out a birdy rasp, returned, sat looking at the fire, a touch of northland statuary in his pose.

In the morning I found a canyon and waded crisscross down it to its deepest arc far below the road. Water pushed against rock faces there, and big cutthroat kept sucking at my Humpy and mostly missing until the weather, which had been turning slowly all morning, turned more quickly. A squalling wind mixed with rain struck down over the canyon, and I climbed up into the pines. Sitting there in the drip, watching Paddy scoot and roll in wet moss, I held to the present with his energy, though the past pulled at me the way my sister used to tug me along by a sleeve. I couldn’t remember if we had been exactly in that place before or not, but surely somewhere close. The family had camped and fished along this stretch, I thought, had chased those garnets in a nearby feeder-creek gully. Recreating in that way looks retrospectively delusional, recollection sprouting up from a false premise of place like a springtime weed, but I take for solace those Western myths of lost mother lodes that tinkered with men’s hopes.

In those early days—Jedediah Smith days, let’s say—looking behind meant checking the back trail, survival matters, guarding the lousy scalp. I’d found cutthroat of a different ilk, but no garnets, not even small ones in schist. Memory had spun its dim patterns, however, had leavened in turns of line, the tastes of trout, and the acridity of roadside dust—things pleasant enough but trending toward wistful. And in the way a horseless elk hunter might point at a hulking partner across a kill and yell, “There’s my mule,” I pointed inward at myself, allowing that the Western memory is a wild haunch packed out with labor, more weight on bad legs.

Just west of St. Maries, driving a new route home, I pulled over to skin a banana and saw the sign.

"From this view can be seen the shadowy St. Joe River flowing between two lakes. On the right is Round Lake and on the left Chatcolet. The St. Joe River is the highest navigable river in the world. The elevation at this point is 2,307 feet."

A muskrat lined out from shore below me. A couple of mallards jumped quacking from nearby tules. The two lakes, Round and Chatcolet, held to the centering river like gills to a newt. We had stopped here—my parents, my sister—right at this spot as we headed west to find fire opal. I remembered it clearly. A river flowing between lakes, almost through them from the look of it; the shadowy St. Joe flowing through the baggage of back eddies and dead water. That image stayed with me as I drove on west, returning, the Palouse purple with smoke and sunset, an ancient barn warped over an upthrust, its boards like rainbows, and Joan Baez on the tape deck singing, “All of your history has nothing to do with your face.”

At a gas-groc-sport combo I stopped to fill up and get matches, my slim supply used up on fire building, needing some for the glove compartment before I forgot. The young woman attending inside said, “Sure,” and handed me a pack across the counter. “That’ll be a dollar fifty.”

My hand went automatically to my wallet, accustomed to the pit stops of San Francisco and Seattle, my mind elsewhere anyway. Her laughter stopped me. “What did you think?” she tinkled, and danced off down an aisle of doughnuts.

And then, outside again, flying insects suddenly all around, slanting up, hovering, descending—ladybugs, I saw they were. One landed on my hand and crawled over a vein. Their cupped wings hummed around my face. They landed on my head, my face, my lips, my ears, my shirt, my pants, while others flew out on the wind, across the road, circled the gas pumps, rose up in a sweep above the store. A spectacle I’d never seen. New and fresh beginnings, their tiny beetle bodies launched to fly away home, or to set sail for unknown frontiers, im-possible to tell just what urges buoyed their flights.

Where I found the garnets, more or less by accident, was in the Kibby Dome on the campus of the University of Idaho. A copious woman in riding pants had a garnet booth there, just about centered beneath a backboard. From her I learned that Emerald Creek is now some kind of official garnet area replete with parking lot, onsite instruction, open and closed seasons, required permits, rented shovels, all kinds of hoopla, which is perhaps a right and proper management but absolutely
different from my recollection of rattle-board road, seclusion, and secrecy of “the strike” like some Sutter’s Mill moment. Furthermore, she said, Emerald Creek had a wild history of claims robbing, murders, and shotgun wars.

“This is why,” she said, placing a shimmering tumbled garnet in my palm. “Ten thousand dollars for that one.”

I held it and peered at it, recalling those two heavy buckets of ours filled to spilling and marveling that, as a boy, I had preceded there that gunslinging, potshotting Western history. I turned the stone in the glare of the Kibby Dome and knew its purple luster. The facets were gone, of course. Tumble them up that way and they change. I knew all about that—how to stick a garnet on a dowel with wax, grind down the cracks and the nicks, then polish what remained on a felt wheel. It hadn’t been easy, garnets being considerably softer than agate. This one in my hand, I had to acknowledge, was beautifully done, its chatoyant glisten telling the deep structure. A tad off center, along the crystalline axes, shone the star. So the star was there, as the cutthroat had been, but the facets were gone, and the right creek ran in another drainage. And that seemed a fair enough way to leave it, uneven and clumsy, because it was that way too with my personal diggings and crosshatched nostalgias, some of them holding, eddying, and real; others gone the way of dead brain cells, fading grouse scent, and birdy rasps in the night.

Funny how my memory now is clearer on the Kibby Dome and that woman in riding pants than on any garnet schist I ever saw. Clearer still are those images of curving cutthroat held above the water, and of those canyon behemoths sipping at my fly and missing. I’ll go back sometime, with less nostalgia in my head and more flies in my pocket.

Robin Carey has received both an Oregon Book Award and a National Endowment for the Arts award. His latest book, Upstream: Sons, Fathers, and Rivers, was recently released by Oregon State University Press and is available at He lives with his wife in Missoula, Montana.

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