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A better road trip is the sudden kind, an unexpected invitation to explore leaving precious little time to plan or plot. Such an invitation came my way last week when Ed Olsen, a great friend and fellow swordsman on the battlements, hit me up with a chance to fly fish on Pyramid Lake, Nevada. We’d meet in Reno the day before, and next morning bomb north to the Paiute Reservation where one of the world’s better treasures holds an abundance of Lahontan Cutthroat trout–a species once nearly driven to extinction and now thriving under the tribe’s careful stewardship. Ed and I have fished together on the McKenzie River, the Crooked River, and once took an extraordinary three day trip down the Lower Deschutes with Steve Erickson, a world-class fly fisherman, guide, and admirable human being who is also my neighbor, and who once gifted me a beautiful flask engraved with a quote from Thomas McGuane:
“The trouble is, you can’t properly present something you don’t believe in.”
So I said yes.
Pyramid Lake, which is equal in surface area to Lake Tahoe, is a defiant body of water. One of the last remnants of ancient Lake Lahontan, which covered most of the Great Basin, it is over 400 feet deep in some places and sits in the middle of a desert moonscape, fed only by the Truckee River. The Truckee flows down from Lake Tahoe, through the heart of Reno in the Washoe Valley–where it sucks the occasional bum and his shopping cart full of possibles into the current–and finally around the big bend at Wadsworth where Chief Numaga and his Paiute warriors rubbed out a contingent of drunken militiamen from Virginia City in 1860–when Nevada was still known as the Utah Territory. It has been home to the Paiutes for many thousands of years but was given its current name by John C. Fremont, who was guided onto its northern shore by Kit Carson in 1843. Fremont was taken by the towering tufa formation near that shore which is pyramidal, but the native name for the lake is Cui-ui Pah, after the Cui-ui fish. Pyramid Lake and the lower reaches of the Truckee River are the only place in the world that sucker-fish lives. It is also home to the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, a subspecies of cutthroat found only in areas of the Lahontan basin in Nevada, northeastern California, and southeastern Oregon. I grew up just west of Pyramid Lake, and have spent many nights camped at The Pinnacles–a science-fiction world of sand dunes and tufa formations where one expects any minute to see old Ben Kenobi come strolling through the desert with a staff. But I had never fished it, never been on the waters, and this was a chance I wouldn’t miss.
So I threw my things in a bag and punched out into the Cascade darkness in my truck, now known as the USS Eisenhower because it cannot be parked in spaces meant for sampans, dhows, or junks. The Eisenhower must be docked, and more often than not it must be anchored well away from any grocery store or restaurant, whose parking lots often look like a filipino fishing harbor after a typhoon. I’ve now sailed the Eisenhower over large portions of the American west and can report that we are seaworthy, sound, and bristling with armaments. I drove for two hours in the dark, scanning the radio for something interesting to pass the time, and feeling perhaps a little of William Bradford’s trepidation because I realized, listening to a report that the IRS has proposed to require facial recognition to view tax returns on line–that there indeed remains a howling wilderness, and that the airwaves are full of its noises–but that the wilderness of Bradford’s terrors isn’t what he thought it was. It isn’t the woods and the wolves and the winds and the darkness of a vast continent. The howling wilderness is made entirely of human beings.
I’ve noted in most of my travels that a theme will develop, if I’m open to it, and as I dropped into the Great Basin in time with the cold sunrise that theme suddenly became fog. Freezing fog in this country is often called Pogonip, a native word, pronounced poyonip, and it creates a seductive netherworld of muffled sound and mottled light on the desert. It migrates as a kind of organism, and it’s possible to travel in and out of it like an underwater current. As I rolled into Summer Lake, Oregon, where the curtains are pulled back and the Great Basin is perfectly revealed, I was presented with the rare vision of an enormous fog bank, miles long, hovering over the water, and as I had promised myself to remain disciplined–and to take the time to make some photographs, I stopped to study, and to watch, and to do the work required.
Onward then, and south, out of the fog and into the razor slant of winter daylight for a hundred miles or more. There was no traffic on the highway and in those moments it’s possible to get conceited because it creates a kind of illusion in the mind, where the speed and comfort of modern travel, and the joyous solitude of vast spaces, feel more like a birthright than a gift. That’s a dangerous state of mind–the results of that sort of thinking are all around us–and I corrected it by rolling down the window and sticking my head into the frozen wind as a kind of reminder, and maybe a penance.
Approaching the Honey Lake Valley in California I could see the fog again. It was arrayed on a slight rise just north of the valley, like an army ordered for battle, and right at that confluence where the dirt road to the Smoke Creek desert joins the asphalt, where the Emigrant Trail and the starvation horrors of the Black Rock country came in from Sand Pass, and where today the US Government has parked a wild horse corral and adoption center. I drove into the bank headlong at 75 and the world suddenly lost its color in a dense and hovering world of freezing fog.
After a focused photo shoot through the valley of my childhood, I got started again, out of the fog and south through Doyle, which was nearly burned to the ground last summer by the Dixie Fire. After another hour on the road I came over the last hill into the sprawling metropolitan nightmare that has become Reno, and joined the flow of traffic into a concrete jungle where every car is trying to kill you at freeway speeds, and met up with Ed at the Grand Sierra Resort.
I’ve watched the evolution of this casino for more than forty years, from its birth as the MGM Grand, where the disinterested and toothless movie lion was caged and on display in the lobby, to Bally’s Hotel and Casino where I sat in the front row watching James Brown sweat through his magnificent cape routine, to its current iteration as the GSR. They banned smoking in casinos years ago but somehow they still smell like your grandparents’ furniture. That smell just never gets out of the woodwork no matter how many times a place gets renovated, and although the casino had signs up demanding everyone sport a face diaper it wasn’t being enforced. If you are beached in front of a slot machine for hours on end you are also keeping the lights on–not a thing that raises security hackles–and Covid probably isn’t high on your list of concerns anyway.
Ed and I convened at the casino’s asian restaurant for dinner, where the waitress taught us it is bad luck to pour your own sake, and I ate several pounds of Maguro sashimi, Yellowtail, and spicy tuna rolls. It’s possible we were mistaken for an aging homosexual couple from Palm Springs as we poured out each other’s sake and flailed about with chopsticks, but the waitress seemed sincere and anyway, why tempt the goblins of Shinto? My Uncle Rick first served me sashimi at his house in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, thirty years ago. It was straight from the boat and we ate it off of newspapers with our pocket knives. I’ve been a lunatic for sashimi since. In those days I was a fully dipped university student, straining for irony and neck deep in the French existentialists and Southern Gothic writers like Flannery O’Connor whose Good Country People remains one of the finest short stories ever written. And I was something of a roadie in my uncle’s fan club–wherever Rick went–and he was a seaplane pilot so he went just about everywhere–I was sure to follow. I was with him in San Juan one summer when his plane was hijacked out of St. John by a Rastafarian wearing a flowerprint house-dress. Rick’s co-pilot was a Korean War Fighter Ace named Bob Johnson and as the rasta was brachiating in the cabin he pulled an enormous wheel gun from his kitbag which rapidly changed the power dynamics and the flight landed safely on calm waters.
Rick once offered me $20 to eat escargot at a restaurant in St. Thomas, USVI, but I won’t eat bugs for money and I was certain–then as now–that he wouldn’t have paid anyway.
At any rate, a casino in the early morning–even a nicer one–shares traits with a hospital Emergency Room on Saturday nights–there is a palpable air of exhaustion, a general air of tide-shoveling futility, and urgent medical needs wherever you look. Next morning I dropped 19 floors in the elevator alone and stepped out to navigate that sea of human indignity, composed mostly of ruined partiers from a cattleman’s convention and the usual assortment of sandblasted nightclub riff-raff, to meet Ed at his truck in the parking lot. We were on the Pyramid Highway headed north before sunrise, out through the relentless strip-mall development hell of Sparks, Nevada, and 45 minutes later performed a locked wheel skid on the south shore of a pleistocene lake where Sam Vasily, our guide, was already backed up to the water with his boat.
When fishing strange waters it is better to have a guide. The guide gets to be a guide, and make a living that way, because they know where the fish are and can spare rank amateurs days and weeks learning the cruel particulars of the water. A good guide doesn’t steal the ego boosting temptation of “going it alone”, he teaches what he knows, gets you where the fish are, and saves you precious time. A good guide might even unass your bad casting with a helpful tip, or a series of helpful tips, and in my case save you the heartache of continuously wrapping yourself in tippet and leader while getting reacquainted with the subtleties of a decent cast. In an enormous place like Pyramid Lake it would likely be straight foolishness to let pride carry the day, and Sam would prove an excellent guide. Born in Bishop, California, he made his bones in the lakes and streams of the incomparable eastern Sierra, and now spends considerable time on Pyramid Lake, plying the waters where 20 lb. trout are not exceptional. As we sped across the glassine surface toward a hot spot on the eastern shore, not far from that point where the Truckee pours into the lake, and where Kit Carson and Fremont traded Paiutes for fish–3–4 feet long, Fremont recorded in his journal–the sun was rising in the east, out toward Winnemucca dry lake where one of the last heinous acts of the Paiute War took place.
In an act of pure barbarity, and true evil, the US Army cornered and murdered a band of fleeing Paiutes, and when they were done shooting old men and women and children at point blank range they made hatbands out of the women’s genitalia. That’s a true story and worth remembering every time you start thinking happy thoughts about what government is, and what it does, and what it is willing to do put you on the reservation. When they decide to put you in a mask, or force you to undergo an experimental medical procedure, or to submit to facial recognition technology, they will do it if they have to starve you, or murder you, or parade your body parts around in their headgear to prove a point. At the end of the day, they aren’t interested in your notion of “rights”, which are viewed by everyone from the city counselor to the President of the United States as an impediment to their authority–which is why they employ thousands of lawyers to find “work arounds” to your objections. It is an enormous mistake to believe that our relationship to government is of any other kind, and the people who can’t see that, or won’t believe it, are dangerous to all of us who’d just rather stay far, far away from the reservation and the soldier’s fort.
Feel free to change my mind.
When we pulled into our first fishing spot Sam dropped anchor and, as absurdity would have it, he made a first cast into the lake and struck a fish square on the head with the indicator. If you are sitting in a boat eager for tight lines that sort of luck is encouraging and so we started fishing with boyhood eagerness in the cold. The lake was flat and the air was cold and as we stripped our lines water became shaved ice between our fingers. It was cold enough to remind me that I was alive, but it wasn’t so cold to drive a man internal, which is a sweet spot in the world we should probably seek more often. Our largely sedentary lives and the quest for comfort are probably killing us and as I get older a lifetime of hard pushing in physical pursuits now shows up in daily aches and pains. These days I’m seeking a middle road somewhere between discomfort and relative ease, with a bias for slight discomfort. I can’t pack the loads I used too, or endure the old notions of “travel light, freeze at night” with my former aplomb. Where I could easily sleep in the bottom of a fighting hole with a poncho liner, these days I’d rather have a Big Agnes under my joints and a bedroll full of Pendleton blankets.
So it was perfect, and as we sorted through our casts there was a hint of warmth–just the faintest breath of it on our cheekbones–as the sun climbed higher.
Ed caught the first two fish, and one of them was a pure toad, and like all anglers I was beginning to feel the pride-crushing weight of a potential skunking. Real men are competitive and anyone who says otherwise should be put in stocks in the town square. No man worth his weight in salt would be happy with being skunked in the presence of other men. What’s the point of raiding if it comes with no loot? What warrior would say, and truly believe, “I’m just happy to be on the raid even if I get no scalps.” My advice is to never leave the campfire in your lodge if that is how your brain works. So I was feeling the pressure, and furiously whipping my mojo, when at long last, nearing that point of desperation, my indicator disappeared beneath the surface and I was on the fish. But the time it took felt interminable, like waiting in line for the last plane out of Kabul, and in that interim between the first cast and the first fish I began to question my reason for existing at all, wondering what cruel games they were playing on Olympus at my expense, and decrying what a pure waste of time and energy my investment in cold-weather gear had always been. Also, one never says those things out loud. They are the internal struggles of the fisherman, whether alone or angling in company, and Hemingway won a Noble Prize for his mastery of that universal condition which probably has nothing at all to do with mere fishing.
But the Gods aren’t really crazy–and as every fisherman knows–that compounding, soul-destroying persecution-complex disappears with the first hard tug. And so we fished on, caught more fish, snacked from our cooler and guzzled Gator-Aid against the sake. When the fish vanished we cruised across the lake to try another spot where Ed lost another toad two feet from the net–which is another kind of heartache altogether. The sun was now falling hard in the west and we zoomed back to our first spot. I had been hours without a fish and the terrors were beginning to rise again, a kind of existential bile inching upward in the mind, when my indicator went down with a hard yank, my arm up went up in reflex, and I had my final fish of the day. I could see, as I stood furiously stripping and feeling the weight on the line, that he was a fish with some real color and the thrill of the catch was in an intellectual snake-fight with the fear of losing him. Ed kept making White Lotus references because that brilliant series, with its expert evaluation of modern absurdities, had become a theme in the boat. So I fought through that commentary and my own high expectations and the fish finally made his way into the net. He was not my largest catch of the day but he was the best–for his color and because he had been raised in Summit Lake, far to the north, one of only two places where Lahontan Cutthroat still enjoy their natural spawning runs. He’d been raised there, planted here, and so a loop in my own life and travels had been closed. I held him up for the grip and grin, eased him over the side of the boat, and in a flash he was gone to the murk.
I was warned once never to write about fishing, or dogs, or baseball. There is some wisdom in that caveat, because those stories are never really about fishing, or dogs, or baseball, and they come with enormous artistic challenges. But it’s true that I hope, with time and refinement, one day to write about them all and to tell some good stories well. I say that because this story I’m writing may not be a fishing story at all–it’s hard to know–but after a great day on Pyramid Lake, Ed and I parted with Sam–who would be off to guide more wanderers on the waters–and we made our way back through the desert and into Reno for the steak we had promised ourselves. After a shower and a break we met at the bar in Charlie Palmer’s Steakhouse, our bodies still rocking with the movement of the boat, our backs made of crushed glass. We washed down a brace of excellent Old Fashioneds then took our seats in a booth at the restaurant for what would prove to be excellent beef, cooked with attention.
It was a meal to celebrate a series of victories–over the madding world that overburdens modern humans with regulation and minutia, crushes us under the weight of absurdity, and tries like hell to prevent us from escaping the reservation to simply get out, get on a boat, and go fishing. To get from our homes and meet in Reno took 14 hours of combined driving, of dodging the world of yahoos who consistently overestimate their driving abilities, and any number of logistical hurdles between work, family, and the freight of modern obligations. So the first toast was made to that success, and as we tucked into our meal the talk turned to the things men care about: our families, our prospects, our dreams of retiring to a comfortable fortress overlooking the lands we command, to reminiscences of old raids we made when we were young warriors, and raids we may still be required to make. We talked of old warriors already gone up the trail, and the lessons learned by watching bad commanders lose a battle. There is precious little of that in our lives, and after a day of throwing prayers into the lake, occasionally seeing them answered, and getting reacquainted with our souls, we toasted resilience, and the many favors of Krom.
Next morning I was wide awake at four a.m.. I had wanted to get on the road at five, to be on the desert for the golden hour, so I packed my gear, checked my pockets, and headed out to find the Eisenhower still docked in the parking lot. There was a decent coat of ice on the windshield, so I let my warship warm up and sent Ed a text: “The Eisenhower is leaving port…” knowing he was awake and would get a smile. He was, and we sent a last few semaphores agreeing to meet again, when the winds and the seas would allow.
And so off again, into the dark, driving north toward home.
Sunrise found me on the desert near Ravendale, California, where a man at the Ravendale Motel once showed me pictures of his truck that had been hit by a train, with him in it. I was scouring the earth for a photograph of my own but there wasn’t much I was inspired to shoot, only miles of empty desert and an uninspiring light. I needed fuel but the diesel pump in Alturas wasn’t working, there were forty lineman fighting for coffee and burritos inside, and so I hung the nozzle back on it’s hook and sailed north, past the Pit River Reservation, New Pine Creek, and finally back into Oregon. I stopped for a while on an overlook at Goose Lake, waiting for a change in the light, studying the rimrock across that enormous expanse, but there was nothing worth shooting. So I took a long piss in the sage and pressed on again, full steam.
At last I docked the Eisenhower at the Cooper Express in Lakeview, Oregon, for diesel and a cup of coffee, both of them sorely needed. I’d been told they had a version of chicken tenders inside that were world-class, good enough to serve as an effective barrier against the dreaded Omicron Variant and also a prophylactic against generalized despair. So while my tank was filling up with old dinosaurs at $400 a gallon I shuffled inside to suss out the truth.
Apparently I had been too long at photographs around Goose Lake because once inside I was ambushed by a squad-sized element of hungry Mennonite women who were ordering all of the chicken tenders–known as Chicken Poppers in the local dialect. I wasn’t exactly crestfallen as I watched these greedy Children of God bagging up the last of the poppers, or the tenders, or whatever they are called, but I will admit I began to feel an unexpected kinship with that kid on the playground who is perpetually chosen last when the teams are being made for dodgeball. And it must have been fairly transparent because at the last moment a goodly woman in her white bonnet asked the counter girl to save the last two pieces for me. That relief was the equivalent of the red rubber ball not hitting you square in the face. I took this as proof of my clean-living bonafides and also verification of Matthew 18:20, where Christ tells his disciples that “whenever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them…”.
Yeshua was clearly in the building.
I can say that with some confidence because the fact is those two pieces of chicken–which I ate one-handed while highballing into the wind and listening to the BBC’s fascinating, and exhaustive, four-part investigation into Boris Johnson’s 10 Downing Street booze-in-the-briefcase garden parties–were the best I’ve eaten anywhere between the Figure 8 in Sisters, Oregon, and Pappy’s Smokehouse on Olive Street in St. Louis. The Cooper Express deserves a measure of recognition and I’m certain, were he still with us, Anthony Bourdain could have made an excellent show there.
I can’t say much for the coffee. It was the gas-station kind that comes out of a bellows contraption with a cup that says “Morning Brew” in a sad font. But then again no one had raved about the coffee. It was the kind of coffee that has been in the bellows device for far too long, at far too high of a temperature, carries a hint of burning tires and instantly coats the inside of your mouth with a vile aftertaste, as if you had just been caught unawares and French-kissed by an Iraqi camel. But as a connoisseur of gas station foodstuffs across the American Outback I have learned something important: somehow, in some mystery of chemistry, that kind of coffee rises to a palatable–and almost good–level once it cools about 15°, which is why it sat in the center console for about 40 miles before we could be friends.
I love photography because it keeps me actively looking for beautiful things in the world. It’s the difference between taking a hike in the benign woods with your dog and tromping through the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness strapped for grizzly, cougars, and wolves. There is nothing wrong with the former, but when you are in the woods where the wild things are the body and mind seek a different kind of plane, a different kind of awareness and togetherness. You breathe slower, you see better, and you move more efficiently. It’s a plug-in to the old ways, the old mentality, and most importantly it just feels good. A camera, for me, works to conjure that magic, and if I’m carrying one I’m looking at the world around me like the point man on a patrol-to-contact.
Through Valley Falls then, a broad valley bordered to the east by one of the world’s largest fault blocks, over the Chewaucan River, through Paisley and around the long curve in the highway to the shores of Summer Lake–which never disappoints no matter which direction you are coming from. There was no fog this morning but it had rained. The desert to the north was dark with the aftermath and the clouds were low and brooding in the winds. I pulled over on the highway across the road from the Withers Ranch, who saw much of their summer range burned out last year during the fires. I sat for a while then, watching the clouds over the lake, gazing over at the Paisley Caves, then back to Winter Ridge. There was no traffic for a long time until a single truck and horse-trailer from the ZX drove by in the golden light. The horses were all saddled. The outfit was covered with mud. The cowboys waved. I waved back. I turned off the BBC who were going on ad nauseam about Joe Biden’s mortifying speech in Atlanta. Sudden wind gusts were buffeting the truck, and I could feel in my marrow that lonesome rushing whistle that comes with the wind in empty places. I sat and thought for a long time about the fish I had caught. I closed my eyes and imagined them swimming in the murky depths, gliding through the dark parts of that ancient lake so full of mysteries. I tried hard to imagine it through their eyes. I thought back to the boat, the banter, the laughs, the references to the Australian concierge whose performance commands the storyline in The White Lotus. I smiled with my eyes closed. Then suddenly, as if ripped from a trance, I grabbed my camera from the passenger’s seat, jumped out into the fragrant sage and wet grass, and started shooting the sky in a condition of pure, and elevating wonderment at what Kerouac once called “the mad hilarity of it all.”
That was exceptional. Except for the camel analogy . That’s sticking with me like the aftertaste of a tooth filling. As an observation from someone who has read a few “ fishing” books, the best fishing stories are seldom about fish. You are light years beyond the average clients awareness in this regard. Thank you for the kind mention. There are times in the lives of guides when the vocation of it all takes a subordinate role to the experience of it all which is probably a grandiose way of saying that the guide can actually like his clients and enjoy the experience. Believe me it’s not always the case. I have written several murder mysteries in my head fueled by such experiences. But on those days when all is right and plot lines aren’t imagined something way more than fishing goes on. And on those days lots of positives congeal and the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. So it was for me when we fished and I’m sure it was for Sam as well. This was a very fine piece of writing. Thank you for sharing it.
Craig Rullman says
Thanks Steve, and I look forward to our next adventure.
Only you could put the experiences of this spectacular trip to words. Great read!!!
Well done sir!
Craig Rullman says
“I love photography because it keeps me actively looking for beautiful things in the world. It’s the difference between taking a hike in the benign woods with your dog and tromping through the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness strapped for grizzly, cougars, and wolves. There is nothing wrong with the former, but when you are in the woods where the wild things are the body and mind seek a different kind of plane, a different kind of awareness and togetherness. You breathe slower, you see better, and you move more efficiently. It’s a plug-in to the old ways, the old mentality, and most importantly it just feels good. A camera, for me, works to conjure that magic, and if I’m carrying one I’m looking at the world around me like the point man on a patrol-to-contact.”
Well Said! Catch & Release Reality?
Craig Rullman says
I think that’s right…if only for a minute
Wow. Incredible essay. Although I’m shamelessly PDF’ing this one, I hope you will string some of these together for another book.
The Old Man and the Sea is truly magnificent but I thought The Big Two-Hearted River sent an even more impactful message about “the struggle.”
Craig Rullman says
Thank you sir, and another book is in the offing. I agree with you. Big Two Hearted River, for my money, is one of the finest things ever produced in our language. I do not love all of Hemingway, but when he was good there was almost no one better.
I remember reading Old Man and Sea in High School and being really taken with it. I read almost all the book at a science fair waiting for my project to be judged. I don’t remember what my project was, but I remember how much I enjoyed the book. I did not remember every detail though, because the test on the book asked me a lot of questions like how many sharks were in the book and I could not remember such quibbling details. The great irony was I was pretty much the only person who enjoyed the book in my class. It also contributed to my cynicism about teaching literature.
I agree that Hemingway wasn’t always on, but when he was… Of course, every writer varies in quality to some degree.
It’s probably due a reread.
Jim P says
I had no idea Ed was into boxing!!
Great story! Great trip!!!
Craig Rullman says
Now that’s funny! He’s looking more like Papa every day 🙂
Great stuff. Somehow I imagined a trip or visit so that I may learn more.
Chris Youman says
Thank you for adding interest to my Sunday morning cup of coffee. I have an original version of “The Adventures of Kit Carson and Fremont“, from 1885, and I now had to find his original description of coming upon this lake. After very, very carefully leafing through its crusty, fragile brown pages, I found it on page 370. Turns out they were there in the winter just as you were, he even describes an icy fog in the country similar to what you experienced on your way down. The Indians shared the trout from the lake with them and apparently the taste was remarkable. Nowhere however can I find Fremont’s description of the casinos in Reno. 😃