She Only Tried to Kill Me Twice

Summer Magic, by Adriano Manocchia

Falling in love with a river.

 by Miles Nolte

I’ve loved many rivers, tried to translate their rumblings and silences into language I understand. Sometimes it even seemed to work. Rivers, like lovers, are never simple, the relationships never static. Sometimes every advance, no matter how clumsy, is welcome, reciprocated. Other days the barometer changes: no matter how suave, tender, or aggressive the approach, the shoulder remains upward, the face toward the wall.

I’ve learned that if I arrive at late-night doorsteps and gravel turnouts confident but not arrogant, open but not naïve, it usually works out. Even if I return home with numb toes, a spent fly box, or the shadow of a friendly peck on my cheek, it’s a worthy attempt.

Although each river, like each lover, is part of my story, only one can be the first. My first river love is the Yellowstone.

I’d like to say this love sprang from a well-informed sense of history and iconography. I’d like to tell you that I understood the resilience and determination that prevented it from being tamed by dams and what it represents as the longest free-flowing stream in the continental United States. It wasn’t, and I didn’t. All that came later. Love isn’t born of logic, though sometimes logic sustains it.

At 21, being a man inclined to romance and poetry, and seeing both in flowing water, I wanted to sample as many rivers, and lovers, as I could. I knew how to find the former but had little clue about the latter. I gathered a modest savings in my first year of teaching and set out on a road trip with a good friend. It was late May; I was fed up with hot, troutless climates, and finally not broke.

Rob and I spent four months fishing from L.A. to coastal Maine and back. We slept in campgrounds, roadside ditches, and beside secret creeks whose topography had been approximated on napkins in dimly lit bars. We fished in 10 different states, and I made unsuccessful attempts with women in nearly as many.

“Wanna come back to my campsite?” proved an ineffective pickup line.

It was late August when we reached Livingston, Montana, the iconic railroad town where the Yellowstone River emerges from the corridor of Paradise Valley, preparing for its long, slow journey to the Gulf of Mexico. Livingston is a precipice: it sits on the edge of the Rockies where alpine succumbs to prairie.

“Bullshit,” he said. “I can barely even see my feet. How the hell do you know it was a rainbow?”

We had paralleled the Yellowstone on the first leg of our journey, mostly in the dark, but we never stopped to fish or even appreciate it. Finding it on the return trip was revelatory, like the girl you fail to notice in middle school who goggles you in ninth grade.

We got to Carter’s Bridge, the first access point north of Livingston, after the sun was already behind the Absaroka Mountains. The river exhaled evening cool, a wide expanse of water studded with soft gravel bars and lined with cottonwoods. Below the bridge sat an immense pool; above it, channels and eddies fanned out a complex labyrinth of holding water; farther down, the river dropped into an intimidating rapid that hit a corner and sheared to the west.

Neither of us had a clue where to start or what to use. Rob walked upstream, so I tied on an attractor and a Prince Nymph and cast into the fading light downstream of the bridge. Just as I reached the tailout of the pool and squinting darkness, there was an explosive take on my dry fly.

I got one look at that fish—defiant, shaking its head in the ashy light—before it broke free. A few moments later, still shaky, regaling Rob from the truck’s tailgate, I swore I saw the blush cheek of a big rainbow.

“Bullshit,” he said. “I can barely even see my feet. How the hell do you know it was a rainbow?”

I wasn’t aware of it yet, but I was falling in love with that river. Perhaps my perceptions that night aren’t totally trustworthy, but that fish was truth. I saw a pink gill plate.