Of Fires, Mudslides, Geologic Time, and Trout

Ed showed me the sliced heart of a petrified palm tree from the shore of the freshwater lake that covered Wyoming 50 million years ago. He showed me the fossilized imprint of a fish on a stone, and you could still make out the scissors-like tail, the torpedo shape of the body. I ran my fingers along the intricate indentations left in the rock by the thread-thin ribs. There were fish here before there were people to catch them.

“When do you do your digging for fossils?”

“Whenever the hell I feel like it,” Ed muttered.

He put some more rocks on the counter, snagged another Marlboro, put it in his mouth, and continued talking without lighting up. “It gets too cold sometimes to go out, but most days if the trails are open and I take a notion, I go.”

“What do you do when it’s so cold you can’t go out at all?”

Ed shook his head. “Ah, I just find somebody to hug and sleep with.”

He wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, and I thought about this chain-smoking octogenarian walking the snow-covered small-town streets looking for women. It was an image as strange as fish with nobody to catch them and shells on mountaintops.

“But by spring,” Ed continued, “I get tired of people, so I put the closed sign on the door, and me and Mr. Grayson”—he nodded in the direction of the sleeping cat—“head into the mountains on the four-wheeler to look for rocks.”

Now I was trying to imagine an octogenarian and a tabby cat named Mr. Grayson heading into the Rocky Mountains on a four-wheeler armed with picks and shovels to scavenge for fossils and then cut and polish them so that tourists like me could look at and buy the frozen image of life from 50 million years ago.

It all seemed so strange. But I guess he was telling the truth—why would he lie? Besides, I understood why he went to look for fossils. It was because he needed to, had to—the same way I needed to fish.

The world is a bizarre perch for us humans—burning up, sliding away, changing its shape so that what was low is now high, and all the while the fish are there waiting for some fool like me to come along and become obsessed with catching them. And some other guy gets obsessed with digging up rocks. You can’t explain any of it.

I had just made my purchase when there was a rattling of the glass on the front door.

Greg burst in. “Where the hell you been? We been in three stores looking for you. Road’s open. We gotta go. Now!”

He sounded like a general. But he was talking about fishing, so I gathered my things and headed for the Trooper.

TERRY WAS RIDING SHOTGUN, and if the fight had happened, it was over. Everybody was focused on fishing. The excitement in the old Trooper was palpable as we began to wind into the stark Wyoming mountains. Our gear was stuffed in back and piled high on the luggage rack, Greg was gunning the engine, and the beat-up old Trooper was rocking along those mountain roads like a motorized double-wide house trailer.

We looked at the roadside and saw how the mudslide had taken huge rocks from the mountainside and pushed them across the road—into and over houses. But it wasn’t nearly as bad as the fires would have been. No one was hurt, and the property damage was minimal. And the fires, fickle as the fish or, no doubt, the women old Ed sought in snowy Wyoming streets, had turned again, because the wind had taken a new direction. So our trip was on—for now at least. But I guess someone else’s trip or house or ranch was probably ruined. So it goes. Life is a precarious matter—nothing guaranteed except that it can’t be predicted.

That summer we fished the Wind River Range’s alpine lakes, scooped out by glaciers ages ago. The lakes were deep and clear and pristine, the water reflecting the blue sky so perfectly that you couldn’t tell what was up from what was down. Terry told us that the trout we caught were primarily descendants of the trout that Finis Mitchell brought into the Wind River Range on horseback.

“It was the Depression, and he’d lost his job, so he told his wife he’d stock the lakes in the Wind River Range and build a fishing camp.”

“Now just imagine that conversation—,” I said.

“No,” Terry said before I could finish. “His wife, Emma, helped him. Together they stocked three hundred and fourteen lakes—lugged the trout in five-gallon milk cans covered in burlap. Before him, nobody fished here because most of the lakes were barren. The area was used for ranging sheep and cattle.”

Against all odds, the plan worked— even though it was the Depression and thus one hell of a long shot. And now we were catching the descendants of those fish Finis Mitchell brought in. He’d named some of the lakes; others he left for others to name and fish or even stock if they felt the need. A few of those lakes froze so deep in the winter that all the fish died from a lack of oxygen. But in most, the fish multiplied and thrived.

I was thinking of old Finis Mitchell on our last day there. And I guess that made me remember that last trout, descended from a trout brought here in a milk can by a man who had no job and was betting on a long shot. I was fishing a Woolly Bugger, pulling it through some undergrowth near the shore of Christina Lake, and for the 10th time that day I felt a tap on the line. I pulled back.

It wasn’t a big fish, but the rod bent and came to life in my hands, and I played it for all it was worth. And then when I landed the 10-inch brook trout and held it for a moment in the afternoon sun, I was struck by the colors— the orange underbelly, the black and white stripes on the edges of the orange pectoral, pelvic, and anal fins; the mottled greenish sides with rose moles strewn as randomly as stars in the sky on a clear night.

No one could ever explain the colors or the patterns. They were slightly different on every fish. And nobody knew why the fish were so beautiful.

But somehow the fish were here, and I was, too. And that might be enough for another summer.

H. William Rice chairs the English Department at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta. He lives in Rome, Georgia, with his wife and son, and dedicates this story to all who believe in and act on long shots—gamblers, ramblers, fishermen, and especially the late Finis Mitchell.