Of Fires, Mudslides, Geologic Time, and Trout

[by H. William Rice]

Trout are among those creatures who are one hell of a lot prettier than they need to be. They can get you to wondering about the hidden workings of reality. — John Gierach, Trout Bum

IT WAS A SUMMER OF FIRES, and we had been playing poker with them, hoping they wouldn’t spread into Wyoming and spoil our annual Western adventure. We called it Westward Expansion. Two, three, sometimes even four Easterners, hooking up with a Colorado resident each summer and trying to hike into and fish all the good spots in and around the Rockies before we get too old to cast. But this year the fires seemed to be heading everywhere we wanted to go. So we bumped up our trip two weeks to make it into the Wind River Range before the fires did—if they decided to turn that way. Fires are as unpredictable as trout.

Now we sat on the roadside in one of those small Wyoming towns that have nothing but mom-and-pop Western-wear stores, gas pumps, and a bar or two. All the doors of Terry’s old beat-up Isuzu Trooper were open, and we were stretching our legs and wondering how long before we could drive again, because the road out of town and heading north into the Wind River Range was temporarily closed.

“Whole damn side of the mountain let loose and slid on down over the road,” the young officer at the roadblock had told us. “These fires,” he said. “When they come and burn away the undergrowth—and then you get the hard rain like this morning and the soil so dad-gum dry already—” He held out his hands, trying to shape what he was describing. “Well, the soil ain’t got nothing left to hold to, so it lets go and, and . . .” he made a swooshing motion with his hands.

“And mud covers the road,” Greg said.

The officer nodded.

“So how long’ll it be?”

“Hour—maybe two, three. Not long. Unless there’s more mud. Then who knows?”

“Damn,” Greg sputtered.

Greg didn’t like to wait, especially when fishing was involved. And Terry, napping in the Trooper’s backseat, had already made us wait. He’d needed the usual two hours to get out of his house, had to check his pack, decide which fly rods to take, and which waders. And just when he’d loaded everything into the Trooper, he remembered he needed to tie a few more flies.

By the time we left, Greg was so mad his hands were trembling, and the fight would have started right then if we hadn’t been guests in Terry’s Colorado home the night before the trip. Even an argument contains a measure of decorum. But all the way up I-25 through northern Colorado and on I-80 heading west across Wyoming and then north on 191, Greg had been gunning the hell out of Terry’s Trooper, and we careened around curves and zoomed down mountainsides while he picked at Terry like a six-year-old scratching at a scab.

One way or another, this happened every summer: Greg hyper to go and Terry dawdling, and the rest of us just enjoying the ride and watching the fight develop. Those two were like a married couple heading for divorce and never quite getting there. The fishing held them together, much like kids will hold a failing marriage together.

But the mudslide seemed likely to become an avalanche, because Greg would be thinking that Terry’s dawdling had put us behind it. And so now, according to Greg’s thinking, we might also be behind the fires that might or might not be heading into the Wind River Range. If the Forest Service closed off the trails, our trip was sunk. And, of course, we were talking fishing. That’s why we came.

Of course Greg, hell-bent on fishing, would never consider that those flies Terry tied might also have kept us from becoming part of the mudslide or being burned out of our tents by the fires.

Greg was working on his second Starbucks Venti, one hand on the steering wheel, his body taut as a guitar string. A man of his metabolism needed to stay away from caffeine. And Terry was sprawled along the backseat, asleep. I decided not to be there for this fight, and walked into town to buy a gift for my wife, who lets me be part of Westward Expansion every summer. At least I could salvage that from the trip.

The only place that promised anything other than cowboy hats was Ed’s Rock Shop. Ed, pushing 80 and enjoying a Marlboro, sat behind a cluttered desk, leafing through the local paper. An enormous tabby cat slept on the desk. On the wall behind Ed, a printed sign read, WORK-FREE SMOKING ZONE.

“If you were getting something for a woman— something nice—”

Ed looked up and said, as he exhaled a cloud of smoke, “Mud slide get ya?”

“Yeah.”

Ed stubbed out his cigarette and began showing me his fossils. He’d put them on the counter, run his fingers along the variegated surface, and then tell me where they came from, what they were. He knew the intricate history of each rock because he’d dug them up himself.

From somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered that most of what is now the Rocky Mountains had once been the bottom of a huge lake, so that what is high up now was once low down—shells even showing through the eroded tops of the mountains in some places. And that the very streams and lakes we now fished were left after the earth’s tectonic plates collided and pushed up the mountains, and then glaciers and rain and wind and snowmelt began to erode them away.