Best Book of 2014: Wait for Signs, by Craig Johnson
Good books mark my life by chapter and verse. I own many of them. We moved last spring, a little deeper into the forests of Horse Butte. When we bought our new place, I refused to consider living there until I found a place for my bookshelves. Joe and I packed up Pony, Stella, and Oscar, along with everything else which makes up Big Sky Anglers: rods, reels, hackles, hooks, flies, hoodies, hats, wading boots, computers, printers, fax machines, boats, kayaks, oars, old Toyotas, scanners, filing cabinets, waders with holes, waders without holes, rod tubes, books about trout, photos, articles, cameras, bird dog collars, kennels, shotguns, the Dirty Harry pistol (which Joe used to hide in my magazine basket until I pitched a fit), fishing shirts, Joe’s dress shirt, socks, jackets, leaders, tippet, fly lines, and two broken guitar cases. In addition to my books, I brought along a small suitcase of clothes, two NPS flat hats, and 24 pairs of skis.
Almost as important to me as my books is Wyoming. The land speaks through sagebrush, cowboys, broken china tossed off Conestoga wagons, and abandoned sod dugouts in the middle of the prairie. Wyoming is full of elk, pronghorn (antelope), cows, cowboys, deer, and wind. Lots of wind. Mountains, bluebirds, and crisp fall mornings soothe the wounds created by its harshness. Since a lot of great authors also enjoy the state, I possess a fine collection of Wyoming writers, including Craig Johnson, Annie Proulx, Mark Spragg, Gretl Erlich, and CJ Box. They write about the rowdy surroundings and the survivors who call it home.
Between Meeteetse and Thermopolis, Highway 171 cuts through the rough country in a futile attempt of control and symmetry. All around are ridges of rock hiding coulees, dips, and valleys full of antelope, red-tailed hawks, and golden eagles. Geology takes precedence over the engineering egos of the WY Department of Transportation, as the narrow road winds its way south. I love this stretch. Austere in its presentation of natural wonders, it’s a far cry from the in-your-face drama of Glacier or Yellowstone. Wyoming begs you to look for the unknown, hidden at first among a seemingly boring setting of dirt, sagebrush and drab color. But watch for morning sunlight or evening fade, and the earth turns pink and purple. Walk around until you stumble upon the Legend Rock petroglyphs, where people used stone walls into artistic canvases for thousands of years. Hear the stories of the people of Wyoming, hacking a life out of the wilderness and bearing their children along the way. And wait-just wait-until you meet Wyoming personified, Sheriff Walt Longmire.
In Craig Johnson’s Wait for Signs (2014), twelve short stories give personal profiles of America’s favorite sheriff, Walt Longmire. Walt is the main character in a series of novels, recently adapted into A&E’s Longmire. Johnson originally wrote these short works as Post-Its, annual Christmas gifts to readers that subscribe to his email newsletter. Amidst a wintry holiday backdrop, Walt rescues hitchhikers on Christmas Eve, hands out presents from the back of a wrecked Toys-R-Us semi, and investigates miscreant residents of the local old folk’s home. Like the main character in any good crime series, Walt Longmire is always in the thick of a case, even if his jurisdiction is the middle of nowhere, Absaroka County, Wyoming.
Several years ago I first met Walt Longmire one cold night in Lamar Valley. Actually, I was attending a weeklong course at the Yellowstone Association Institute-Lesser Known Scats of Porcupines, Mating Calls of Bison, or some other such awkward and intimate animal knowledge. While wolves howled outside, I huddled in my tiny log cabin with a headlamp and a bottle of wine and read almost all of The Cold Dish. I laughed, I cried, I had to replace my headlamp batteries, and I fell in love with Walt and his perspective of the world. Thankfully I know a thing or two about Yellowstone, because the next morning I was worthless. Walt says, “It wasn’t that revenge was a dish best served cold, it was that it was a dish best not served at all.” Cold Dish is the first of ten in the Longmire series. Set in the fictional town of Durant, Absaroka County, Wyoming, his jurisdiction covers the least populated county in the Lower 48. Born and bred in Durant, Walt was elected sheriff shortly after playing all-state tackle at USC and serving with the Marines in Vietnam. He’s a big man, nearly 6’4 and 240, although his intimidating physical presence is often balanced by a friendly smile. He wears blue jeans and a cowboy hat with his sheriff’s star and sidearm. His department includes Ruby, who mothers Walt as much as she dispatches calls; Double Tough, a former oil rig welder, the Ferg, who ties flies and scouts good fishing holes while on duty, and Vic, who gave up a fast-paced career with the Philadelphia police department to follow her engineer husband for job in the Bighorn Basin oil fields. Henry Standing Bear, Walt’s best friend since childhood, steers Walt true with constant companionship. Walt’s daughter Cady is an East Coast trial lawyer and constant reminder of her mother Martha, who dies of cancer before we ever meet Walt for the first time.
Longmire is a hero, a comic, a ladies’ man, a lawman, a father, friend, and completely infallible. Propelled by a clear sense of right and wrong, his heart usually finds the right way to get there. In my favorite story, “Ministerial Aid,” Walt confronts a domestic abuse situation. A few things are a little odd about his approach- he’s hung over and wearing a bathrobe. Its New Years day and Walt finds himself in between the troubled couple, all the while still confronting his grief about Martha’s recent death. His own redemption emerges from helping others besides himself. He thinks, “Just then, I thought I might’ve caught sight of that first ray that shoots over the edge of the earth like a hopeful thought, and maybe, just maybe I might’ve felt something. ‘Well, like the rest of us…’[Walt] sighed. ‘She’s just waiting on something.’”
Walt’s way with women follows him on most cases. In the “Divorce Horse,” he and fellow Absaroka County heartthrob and his best friend Henry Standing Bear look for a stolen pony. Walt muses, “The much-storied case of the divorce horse was the kind of situation familiar to most rural sheriffs, one of those disputes you ended up getting involved in even thought it had nothing much to do with law enforcement.” Johnson inserts hints of his involvement with Undersheriff Victoria Moretti, who is half Walt’s age and moves twice as fast.
Faithful BSA readers might feel tricked by my post, as they realize I’m not reviewing a book full of fish. Ha! Gotcha. In a scene from “Messenger”, Henry and Walt catch a few creels full of brookies, with designs on releasing them into the frying pan for dinner. Ok, so it’s not Isaaz Walton. But it is full of wit, humanity, and most importantly, Wyoming. Not ready for a full book of Walt just yet? Dip in slowly with Wait for Signs.
The Fishing Life: An Angler’s Tales of Wild Rivers and Other Restless Metaphors (2013) compiles Paul Schullery’s best stories fish, flies, water, and the people who love them all. Including articles originally published from the 1980s and later, he adds previously unpublished pieces. Schullery fishes his way from Pennsylvania to Mexico, Yellowstone to Alaska, with stops in the Adirondacks and Ohio. These essays explore conservation, favorite rivers, beloved and scorned varieties of fish, non-traditional fly patterns, and the passion behind fly-fishing.
Schullery is a soft-spoken legend, well-known for his reflections about the natural world. He authored nearly 40 books about bears, fly-fishing, Yellowstone, and two works of fiction. Raised in Pennsylvania, he began his career as a seasonal ranger in Yellowstone in 1972. Much of his writing and research is devoted to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, editing the quarterly journal Yellowstone Science from 1992-2009. He also served as executive director of the American Museum of Fly Fishing from 1977 to 1982. I met Mr. Schullery at Montana State University in 2003, when he taught “History of Yellowstone.” I can’t remember most of the lectures, and my old notebooks were trashed along with the futon and PBR cans. I would surely relish the chance to travel back and time and reabsorb every word. Since then, I’ve consulted many of his books for program research. Among his writings outside of fishing, I recommend Mountain Time (1984), Searching for Yellowstone (1997), and Yellowstone’s Ski Pioneers (1995).
Through common goals of keeping fish plentiful and happy, wilderness advocates and fly fisherman usually find companionable ground. Protecting fish inevitably leads to preserving their natural ecosystems. Chapter 21, “How Can You Do That?” explores the wavy lines between catch and release and just…catching. Returning the trout alive to the stream is a conservation practice designed to prevent overharvest in the face of increasing pressure from anglers, environmental concerns, and habit degradation. All of the sport, yet unlike game hunters, none of the bloodshed. Ah, what a fine compromise fishermen made! However, naysayers of catch and release decry the intense pain fish feel from hooking, playing, and prying the hook from its jaws. Schullery relates his experiences amidst this debate. At a wilderness conference, he is approached by some of those in opposition of catch and release. Their claim is that anglers might as well kill the fish as instead of torturing it without ending its suffering. They kept asking, “How can you do that?!” He pauses to think it over, recalling days of glorious fish and wild water, and thinks, “Oh, but how can you not do that?!” Observant anglers are privy to various natural delights besides the pursuit of trout. Chapter Four, “Antlers Aweigh,” reminds us that fish, flies, and water are a small section of the outdoors. As Schullery is fishing Michigan’s Au Sable River, he encounters a deer swimming upstream. His mind immediately relates the doe to various flies crafted with deer hair, prized for its floatant nature. While pondering the creations possible from the deer’s body hair, he watches her make a 90-degree turn for the opposite shore. Startled, she is laboriously swimming away. Realizing he spooked her, he thinks maybe the value in that day on the river comes not from the fishing, but from the larger experience occurring in the ecosystem.
Fish are as important as those searching for them. Schullery introduces us to different fish, and helps define them according to a sort of anglers’ social class. Reigning supreme are the browns and rainbows of the Gardner, Gallatin, and Yellowstone. In “Home River” he describes the Gardner River as a magic stretch of water that can mark an angler’s soul forever. Catching his first trout on a fly rod there, Schullery discovers hatches, currents, and a whole world the tour busses whizzing past never see. I immediately understood this perspective, if not as an angler, but as a Yellowstone visitor looking for more than bears and geysers. A whole world exists underneath the surface, whether that of the fish in the water, the birds in the trees, or the thriving bacteria mats next to flashy erupting geysers. “So Long, Sucker,” acknowledges that not all fish are created equal. Suckers, for one. The name sucker comes from their tendency to live along the bottoms of rivers and lakes, vacuuming up plants and insects. If suckers were people, they would have weak chins, bug eyes, and wear Cheetos-stained sweatpants. Schullery notes they are often known as trashfish, forage fish, and amongst Vermont anglers, shitfish.
The Fishing Life is a fantastic book. It can sit with pride on any diehard anglers’ shelf next to Richard & Swisher’s Selective Trout. However, if you are interested in the broader aspects of the sport like myself, an evening spent with Selective Trout would find you not understanding much, or dying of boredom. The humor, honesty, and detail of this writing offers more than enough to keep fishermen of any breed well engaged. Bearing in mind this idea that not all anglers are alike, so it stands to reason most will find a good laugh or a moment of reflection. Schullery says,
Fishing-in my case fly fishing- is an opportunity to exercise our intellects and emotions in a realm of inexhaustible wonder. At any given moment we may think we’re in this for just one thing, say the challenge of a difficult fish or the companionships of a fishing trip. But I suspect that most of the time we’re in it for everything we can get, and we’re out there just to see what will develop.
I doubt I will ever wake up one fine July morning and say, “Let’s go float L to P and rip some lips. A dozen over 20” in the boat by noon!” But meandering along small streams in Yellowstone’s backcountry, or fishing for brookies in the pothole lakes of the Beartooths are activities I’ve enjoyed since childhood. Now if you will excuse me, I have to get back to picking out colors for my new wine bar. Those of you who know Joe may have heard about our recent home remodel. He is busy installing my new Jacuzzi, and will hopefully make it to my custom cedar closet by tomorrow. Happy fall.
….can’t you smell that smell? That new boat smell…
Picked up my new drift boat this afternoon in Bozeman after a few errands and a quick stop by Brick Breeden Field House for Ice Out. While I didn’t stick around long, I was able to pick up a few much needed items from Montana Fly Company and say hello to some good friends whom I don’t get to see that often anymore. Really looking forward to getting this new craft on the Missouri for the next week.
Speaking of the Missouri…..
I will be fishing up around Craig for the next two months, dependent upon run-off, and still have a few openings for May and June. July is getting tough to book, but there are a few slots left. Once again, for the 18th season, Greg Falls will be spending the summer on the Missouri River. While his schedule is tough to crack, feel free to give us a shout and we’ll hook you up with one of the finest guides on the Missouri River. There are some who are as good, but very few are better.
RO Drift boats is getting closer to unveiling their newest hull design – the RO Camino. The plug has been delivered to their Bozeman boat shop as they gear up for the 2013 fishing season. Robert, Dane, John and the boys are working hard getting new boats out the door and designing the layout of the Camino.
Earlier this week, I got the full run through on interior options for all of RO’s hull designs:
1. Full walk around – no more stumblin’ over the rowers’ bench or rear leg lock.
2. Dry box or pedestal seats. YETI cooler front seat option as well.
3. Front and rear leg locks (newly designed walk around rear single leg lock to eliminate the “dancing client”)
5. Nomad Light – a simpler version of the Nomad withoff the floor storage for spare oar and life jackets.
6. Grab & Go rod storage – this is new for RO and a nice change for stowing fly rods. No more skewering.
7. Refuse can – for tippet, old useless flies, beer cans, chew spit, litter or maybe a small ice chest for the gunnel bar.
8. New rubber coated floor for grip that won’t shred fly lines.
9. Raised floor around rower’s seat to keep gear dry.
With any luck, the boat will be finished upon my return from Argentina in mid-April. There is one other fella who is getting a Camino as well and I know he is already tapping his toe.Build the boat Bud!
The Patagonia Stormfront Pack, the Freewheeler Max and some clothing items made their way through our back door a few days ago. It’s always fun to get some new gear for a big trip. Tying materials are also showing up for big streamers, but I made the mistake of leaving out a brand new badger hackle and Stella plucked most of the feathers from the skin……at least she didn’t chew’em up.
Molly made a good point the other evening with regards to bird dogs and hackles, “Just how is a hunting dog supposed to differentiate between birds and bird feathers?”
My answer was, “cause they are, dammit”.
I think Stella knows that I am leaving……with out her and is secretly pissed off.
Ever since I was a wee youngster, down garments have been a staple of my wardrobe. My down fascination started out with an old school, western style down vest, worn around the age six or seven, in the back yard bagging leaves. At some point, while hunting waterfowl at Cow’s Head Slough with my Dad and Uncles, a down jacket hung on a sixteen penny nail in our duck blind. It was tan, probably made back in 1970’s and warm as pie. On really cold days, this jacket was my blanket, as I would wrap up in it and fall dead asleep on a cot in the back of blind. I acquired another vintage down jacket (that my folks bought on a trip to San Fransisco in 1969) in my college days. Molly has tried to take this to Second Wind on several occasions, but I narrowly averted disaster and rescued it. And then, there is that zero degree 1970’s Sierra Designs down mummy bag, belonging to my Dad, which still has two fee of loft. If there is one common theme here, besides down feathers, and it’s the fact that down will last a lifetime, if properly taken care of.
The full zip down hoody from Patagonia is one of finest pieces of gear I own. Why? Well, read on……
Wearable – yea, this seems like a no-brainer, but some down jackets give the impression of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. The down sweater or down hoody, wear quite well underneath waders and one doesn’t feel restricted at all when rowing or casting. This jacket was designed for the mountain climber, but the versatility of Patagonia clothing allows it to double or triple for use. I often wonder if college kids in Bozeman are given this jacket by MSU once they enroll in the four year plan to becoming a better outdoorsman/woman.
The hood – this is my favorite part of jacket. Hoods, especially down hoods, keep your neck warm and the wind out. When fishing, spring or fall, I wear the hood up or tight around my neck. Cold, windy days are even colder when your neckline is exposed. The draw cord can be cinched up for better visibility when the hood is up – a great feature for when wearing underneath the SST Jacket.
Packable – when stuffed away, using the interior stretch mesh pocket, this warm layer packs anywhere you want it. And, weighing in at under a pound (15.2 oz.), you’ll never know it’s even there. While backpacking into Wyoming’s Alaska Basin, the down hoody was stowed away in my pack all day long, until nightfall.
Suppa, duppa warm – this past fall, while backpacking with Molly throughout the Colorado Plateau, we both carried our Patagonia down jackets. Morning, evening and from time to time as a pillow, down works like nothing else. Note: when rowing, this jacket can be too warm, unless of course it’s blowing snow and cold as January in West Yellowstone. On ski trips in Yellowstone National Park, the down hoody never leaves my pack, it’s my safety net for warmth and I pull it out each time we stop to enjoy an erupting geyser. On guide trips, this jacket never leaves my drift boat and has been worn by multiple clients on cold days.
The price – okay, this jacket is expensive. At $250 for the hoody and $200 for the sweater, not everyone can afford it right away…..save your pennies and buy it, as there is no substitute for good gear and good gear is not cheap. I plan on getting at least ten years out of my hoody (I have two thus far), so that works out to $20-25 per year to stay warm. The Ironclad Guarantee will help to extend the use of your gear. My goal is too use a piece of equipment until it falls apart and can’t be fixed, thus reducing my impact on the environment and making the jacket cheaper over time.