Santa Cruz Vice – a West Coast travelogic

You’ll never estimate the time well driving to NorCal’s Bay Area. Meeting with some surfer friends I truly thought I could get to Capitola in 2 hours, but by the time 3 were up I struggled to revel in the glory of Santa Cruz Mountain’s twists of pine and eucalyptus.

But I was so there.

Forget the toasty beaches–you roll up on million dollar shanties and park where you think the locals won’t slash your tires, then pace over to the cliff’s edge to suck in the mussel and kelp air and see the black dots suspended between the breakers like stubborn marshmallows in a Jell-o mold. Marshmallows who will slash your tires if you try to slip in some lingo.

Everyone walking dogs, precarious 50-year-old construction workers eyeballing the tide for when they get off work. It takes a while of gawking and a trial inquiry to a disinterested onlooker before you build up the courage to walk the cut path down to the rocks. The wrong questions are suicide but staying up top defeats the purpose. Step down and pretend you know what you’re doing.

Middle-aged couples missing the timing and and getting their Nikes wet in the wash-up makes you feel better so you post up on some sandstone and do what you know how to do. Stand stoically and try to understand where you are.

When no one in particular is looking you snag the obligatory shells and pocket one each for your kids. You take some pictures with your cheap camera spending lots of time framing the shot to send the vibe that you might be at least a surf mag intern. Taking a picture of a surfboard on the sandstone and a mansion hanging over the cliff gives you away.

“40 dudes down here, nothing big going on” is the text you send to arriving friends, hoping to be a contributor. They’ve already delayed their arrival 1 hour and 15 minutes knowing exactly when it will be big, where, and why. Stop trying to be cool and just be cool.

How do people afford to live here? With that single gear bike and 8-year-old O’Neill hoodie. That one raggedy dog and eating scenery and smell instead of food. Not even Top Ramen. You need a car to go buy it.

How do I not live here? Oh, right. The cards didn’t fall in the right place. There is relative job security and a lawn for me. I can also afford food. Why am I here again? Because of…what could have been? No, wouldn’t really ever have been. What might be? Naw, too old, dude. Gotta invoke the southern “might-could” to keep it vague and stop asking questions. Understand what you have the ability to today and be glad you have insiders.

Surfers get naked in the street. Just smile at them, but be cool. Not too much, and not right when they’re naked. Perhaps a quick nod and put the camera in your pocket. Purposelessness is best, which speaks much more than trying to do something specific. That’s not a collector’s car, man, that’s just my car. I welded some board racks on top with some pipe.

I cruise around, trying not to look like I’m cruising. Just driving. Don’t judge me because I have a car. I’m not going to get in the water, chill. I get lost but only compared to going somewhere. Skyscraper redwoods panel the wide expanse of the Pacific and the nothingness beyond that fades to mist and teaches you something. You don’t know what yet because you had the damned camera out. Just have to be there.

Meeting the friends, letting them get naked in the road, taking my socks off in the back seat, forgetting to put sunblock on my forehead, paying for it later. But good money. They went out past the Point in the freezing water, I sat on erosion-proof blocks high above the tide and finally just looked for a long time. An older couple leaning on each other against the sea wall. They’ve been there forever and will be there more after I leave. They saw what they were looking for before I was born and they’re still learning about what’s left of it as they huddle in silence below flowering iceplant covering the cliff above them.

I take a hiatus and try to journal at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing Co. I wait 15 minutes while a guy buys a keg and apparently buys 15 minutes worth of minutiae as I give every humanly possible signal that I just want the beer. I get my sampler and sit down to journal but the beer is so-so–best of intentions with juniper additives and whatnot–so my journal is a brew critique. I at least make note of the oil lamps in all the windows and the giant misplaced Eland mount sticking out of nowhere.

We regroup at the original O’Neill surf shop my friends looking for rack straps that were cut behind the restaurant while the board got lifted. They don’t have them, but a little kid talks more surf to his dad than I’ve ever heard in my life. I maybe buy an ONeill hat, but then I look at the sticker and I maybe don’t. Get it online. It’s not against the code.

After lattes and my friends recalling how warm the liquid nitrogen sea was today, a gem rolls out of a friend’s mouth that I didn’t see the shine of at first, not til I drove home, this time seeing everything in the Santa Cruz Mountains that I’m supposed to. “Man, I wish I had some vices. I just don’t have any vices.” What would that be like?

I jumped to quitting a million things simultaneously as I accepted the blasting dubbstep on every local station on the way home but it wasn’t action time yet. Just thinking. What would it be like to not having any vices?

I followed the Ariadne thread back home to the Valley and days later on my morning run through the country roads it clicked: vice means stopped. Humans adapt. Adaptation means movement. We were meant to adapt, that’s why we are what we are now. I momentarily chastise the high school youth group object lesson I’m rapidly whipping up but push it out of the way and refuse to minimize the impact. I lock the lever on my vices, sitting there looking at them. Look, there’s a vice, clamping down on my dreams. I don’t dream of staying still. My subconscious knows better. I dream of adapting past the confinement of where I find myself. Only a matter of time before I live it. What matter? That lever’s rusty, but a few knocks and it comes loose and I walk. I run. I dream and live. The tide washed in the ethereal at the coast and hung in the marine layer until late in the day when I was ready to stop and take a look. Look at what I’m doing. Look at what I can do.



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Writing lessons I’ve learned from thinking a lot

You can see that my last two posts have been passionate by way of extrapolating the hardest things in life and effectively working through them. The hardest things in life aren’t writing, or parenting, or breathing. They’re the fabricated perceptions we’ve made of ourselves.

What do you want to do, write? Then write. I feel like this message is conducted through Facebook and Twitter and any given Bohemian book on writing technique, so the sentiment is at risk of losing its value. But it’s true.

I’m writing this from the vast irony of having not gotten up to write this morning. What was the excuse? My alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. as usual and I even got up to go to the bathroom when it did. I was up. But the conversation between the window overlooking the back patio and me was conflicted. “Stay up,” I told myself. “It’s pretty early,” the air said through the window. “And your wife’s gone for the weekend. Weird schedule. Might as well sleep.” “No,” I said. “It doesn’t matter. If it’s my career, it’s just something I do. Right here, right now, and if I can get as far as the coffee, I won’t look back.” “I’m still warm,” the bed said. “What?” I asked. “You don’t talk. You’re low-thread-count sheets. You have no voice.” “Allegedly. But what now?” “Touche.”

And so it goes. But I have already set the coffee timer for 5:30 a.m. as of 10 this morning. And I will set my alarm again. Being ruled by the moment is human. I’ve been watching a Discovery Channel series on “The Human Body,” in the last couple of days, and the human brain is amazing. It takes over when we have no choice. But perhaps we have too much choice.

When I was a teacher, I had no choice. I learned pretty early in my career that my personality needed to get up 30 minutes early to drink coffee and deal with the reality that would become imminent for each day. I maintained that mantra for all my educational years, gearing up for the sociological hell that would ensue, since I’m an introvert that can live just inside the extrovert line when forced. But personality doesn’t matter. I had no choice. And so I did.

Nothing is easy. There aren’t enough times you can hear it. Nothing is easy. Nothing will be easy. Life is not easy. Where did we hear it was? Doesn’t matter – it’s not. So….what? Fight. You’re able. There’s no other choice. Again, I find no comfort in those feature stories that talk about best-selling authors sneaking in writing hours in early hours or odd time frames. I know it’s supposed to make me feel an affinity for them, but it doesn’t. No one else can be you.

I’m 254 pages into my second novel. Hand-written. That’s just what I do. And what I do, as an individual, is what I do best. Because no one else is me. I’ve found my way. How did I get here? Sometimes I can force myself to get up in the morning, and sometimes I can’t. That’s just the way it is. But I’ve found what I would consider moderate success in the process of daily flagellation, that is, when I write, I’m glad, when I don’t, I resolve to do it next time. And there is always a next time.

You write a novel word by word. It’s not even thought by thought, because you get to a place where it’s without conscious thought, and pregnant with what you’ve conditioned as your creative unconscious. It knows you have a story, and it gave you most of it. I’m steering dangerously close to the category of “you either have it, or you don’t” and I think that’s half-true. But it’s not that you either have writing skills or you don’t. It’s that you either are tough, or you’re not.

What’s keeping this post from being narcissistic? Probably nothing. This is my own battle. But experience tells me it’s the battle of others, the minute details of which have not been told. It’s easy enough to say “writing is hard.” Simple to explain why writing is hard. Quite elementary to pontificate about how writing is hard. I believe another thing altogether to regroup and get in the face of writing’s hardness. You don’t own me. I created you.

So here are my lessons, admittedly inspired by Mayo Clinic physician Amit Sood’s book: Train Your Brain….Engage Your Heart….Transform Your Life: A Course in Attention & Interpretation Therapy (AIT).

When faced with a writing crisis in which you feel immobilized to do your art, go through these questions:

1) What am I feeling? (reflection)

2) What is making me feel like this? (recognition)

3) Will the cause of this feeling kill me? (examination)

4) Can this be resolved? (innovation)

5) What steps can I take to resolve it? (solution)

In my tedious non-fiction writing, which is what funds my literary ventures, these are what I’ve found to get me through.

At the end of the day, being a writing master isn’t about housing a dram of whisky (it’s the correct spelling, trust me) at your side, or wearing Warby Parkers  and bolstering your persona with that mandatory cafe Americano. It’s about naming your demons (in Latin if necessary), and annulling their clout. Then it’s about becoming a demon of sorts yourself (working in the dark, accessing the forbidden places for the things you know are real) and not apologizing for it.


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Take two of these and don’t call me in the morning

I’ve eyed laziness like a coveted obsession in a storefront window, as if I could afford it. I’ve looked outside from my writing desk to watch for apathy coming down the sidewalk, ready to open the front door. All of these things populate my life. But this weekend I snapped and punched despair in the neck.

We all know, especially those of us who set goals, that living is a series of starts and stops. It’s just a matter of how realistic the goal is, and how long it takes us to redefine it before we actually get there. But I’ve vowed to stop stopping.

It’s not the writing that takes the toll, or my [boring list of things I have to do because of the choices I’ve made], and it isn’t the work itself. It’s the thinking about it.  “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now,” says Hemingway. I like that because it isn’t a future promise–it’s a present order. You have to be your own cop.

If I were writing about my own metacognition (ironic)–knowing what I know–or at least thinking about what I’m thinking about….a lot…I would have completed a Funk and Wagnallian collection by now, with film options. But narcissism comes at a cost, and from it does not emerge confidence.

There is no book or regimen or religion or song that I’ve come across that lights up my DNA and turns the focus knob to perfect in the world. This is something I’m saying in my own way but something we all know and find at different times. It’s been cliched all over the place and striven for by gurus who are paid to know yourself better than you. It’s too bad that Freud spoiled ego for everyone because when life is hell and all closeness seems stripped away it barks in the night until you notice it and let it back inside. And it remembers. And it will tell you the story again.

My former self had to yell at me this weekend when I had hit bottom, knowing I was bound to get back up, but wouldn’t even bother to look where up was. My ego called to me from deep inside, deeper than the cliche of it, more ubiquitous than my blood, deeper than we have measurements for. And it told me to do what I’ve always known how to do. Fight.

Watch this:

As a child I knew how wild I was and didn’t feel bad about it. And as Norman Maclean puts it, “His toughness came from somewhere deep inside. He simply knew he was tougher than anyone else alive.” If I couldn’t do it, it couldn’t be done. None of this “I can’t do it.” We patronize when we say of children, “he has chosen not to do it.” That’s not right. He WON’T do it. Maybe because he can’t. And he needs to find out exactly where that edge is and confront it.

Through the taming gentility that I’ve done to myself, having learned from watching others, I’ve made myself a victim in my not-that-old age. Get off your ass and do it isn’t prevalent enough, and I feel the full effect of depriving myself of it now. But I feel it less than on Friday. Because on Friday, my good Friday, my ego talked to me. It concocted a tailored aperitif of disillusion, rage, madness and clarity.

There will always be the natural resistance to unpleasant things. Sleep over work. Food over movement. Beer over water. But if you sit and listen closely to who you really are–the one nobody can write a book about, or give a speech about, or capture on a screen–you will see that, although flight is lovely, fight is eternal. I learned how to write a Hallmark card this weekend and here’s the inscription: If no one else is willing to kick your ass, you’ll have to do it yourself.

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“Shut Up and Write Something” : lessons from my high school writer self

So was entitled the literary collection of my 12th-grade Creative Writing class. The name represents the brooding fervor of youth, when we had the ability to bat off all distractions and focus on the task-at-hand when we chose to. People always say our parents get smarter as we get older, “youth is wasted on the young,” other adages that glorify the dissipation of our dreams. But I find myself in a sweet spot now where I’m beyond wishing for childhood and wise enough to feel the effects of passing time. And so I begin to see the plots of un-contrived wisdom in my younger years.

Writers share many problems, but most of them are different. My author friends run the gamut from newly-married, childless, living the neo-Bohemian life, trying to make that MFA work for them, to married-several-years with kids and living that suburban dream we all swore against, to long-married (10+ years of marriage is getting scarce for Gen X-ers like me) and toiling in the fields of all those “Writer’s Digest” feature success stories where it’s some mom in corporate management who found pre-dawn blocks of time for 12 years, monastically staving off little ones and work e-mails and the recycling truck to power through a best-seller. More power to them. I couldn’t do it. I don’t check e-mail until after sunrise and I listen for Waste Management on Fridays at 7.

I don’t even have a “thing.” Bestselling authors, as it turns out, don’t live enchanted lives. They put their pants on one leg at a time like everyone else, but the difference is, once their pants are on, they make best-selling novels (if you didn’t catch the reference, you definitely need more cowbell). I admire Stephen King because he’s a real dude who started being persistent with his goals when he was young and after the quintessential stack of rejection slips impaled on the metal spear at his desk, he started selling books. He puts his family first, he makes a pot of tea at 9 every morning and writes 10 pages, every day of his life, except his birthday, according to King in his book On Writing, which is about…

If I have a thing, it’s simply choosing to be a writer or not within a 10-20 second period of every day – when the alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m. I get my coffee not out of precious routine but because someone’s going to get hurt if I don’t. I sit in my uncomfortable recliner and put on my grandma’s old blanket because it’s there, and I’m cold. I write 2 feet from my gun cabinet because that’s the only place it will fit, although if I ever become a best-selling author I can lie and say that it had significant meaning. Isn’t it pretty to think so.

Every writer wants some sort of community. Writing groups (I’m not part of one but I guess I should be), camaraderie a la Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs milling around some broken-down shack where they do drugs and muse about the drifter’s plight. Forum threads where we say things like  “my routine is sitting in my recliner with my grandma’s blanket.” But I wrote way more per day when I was 16. I’ve got volumes of journals ranging from the severely narcissistic to ones I actually TITLED, like “Thoughts and Ponderings on Existence and its Meaning” or something that was destined to be cool. But now that I’ve simmered down and taken a look at life, the path to being a successful writer comes down to doing this, for me: write words on a page. If you know you have a story to tell, put it down. Put it down for as long as you can for one day, and when you can’t do it anymore, come back and do it the next day. Physically force yourself to go to your place, address your pen or keyboard, and make the white page black.

It’s a long time now from “Shut Up and Write Something,” I have to do more than shut up. I have to get up. I have to step up. And I have to keep that momentum that I know I have, despite vocations, appointments, domestics and that false thing I’ve picked up since being 16 years old, impossibility.


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Life imitates art

I knew it would be a good weekend when I arrived at the campsite to see it empty but for the open trunk of my friend’s car.

After parking my dad’s old truck with the half-rigged camper strapped in the bed, I stepped into the rain and the heavy clunk that only Old Blue’s door can make resonated throughout the empty campsites beyond and sealed away anything more pressing than the river for four days.

Among things that tug at men’s hearts are dogs, dads and a lone man on a river in cold weather. I didn’t make a sound for a moment because the place was pure before we came and it was still that way, standing on a bluff watching the rhythmic casts into gunmetal water and waiting for a line to go taut.

The smoke of the camp rose and fell over the days with meat, eggs frying in skillets and wood haze marinating our clothing, the days having been filled with knots tied and conjecture of trout habits and water’s nature. We said things and we didn’t say anything at all, we didn’t have to.

What wells are filled and for whom? All of us various trades but descending on one place and making none of them matter because trade is not life, only an expression of it. Out of community we’re still gathered, huddled, all of us, but it’s different where there are no more actions to define our symbols other than waking for the sunlight and fire. Potential progress but knowing we are frozen in time in a place where there is no time.

Now that I’m back from camping in the valleys of Southeast Minnesota I’m only changed in the ways that happened when I was gone. It’s no more easier to write, work, than it was before and it seems even harder. The only thing that can fill the well of what we aspire to be is that elusive element time, not what we do in it when we have it.

Inspiration not for itself or in itself or by anything that brings it because it doesn’t – only a life being, not a life lived, makes it worthwhile, and I try every day to find what “it” is.

We primeval forests felling,

We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines within,

We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving,

Pioneers! O pioneers! – Walt Whitman

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On writing: skip the games and start

In Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, we are told to always nurture the “inner artist.” The inner artist is the same as an inner child, if the inner child grew up without getting its way all the time and therefore began listening to all of the Rage Against the Machine albums that its parents had purchased for it whenever it had asked.

That’s not really fair to say. But that’s exactly the kind of surliness found on my path to getting some work done. I write, it’s my work. I get paid for some of it, but the kind that costs the most compensates me with nothing more than darkness, warmth, a dull lamp and the Pilot PhD pen I’ve been using to write fiction with since my senior year in college.

But, see, that’s exactly the kind of whining that keeps me from writing. That’s more toward the end of the path before I actually arrive at doing some work. That’s what Louis CK calls a “non-contributing zero.” I fiddle around at 5:30 a.m., and by fiddle around I mean press snooze a lot, then I finally get coffee and sit in my recliner to write. I’ve made it my ritual to write in my journal first, apparently to get “warmed up” aka “waste time” before I write fiction. But it works most of the time.

If I were to ever get a doctoral degree in Psychology, I would most likely specialize in “micro-decisions.” Then the thesis committee would ask, “Can you narrow it down to something smaller?”  The bottom line is, I wish I could capture the very moment, a still shot of my brain synapses, when I make a decision that propels me toward my goal. If I could do that, I would go to that exact place every time so I move from non-contributing zero to non-inhibiting hero. That’s all the poetry you’re going to get.

There’s only one problem. Life is fluid. Thoughts are fluid. Ideas are fluid. Our brains are fluid. Literally. I think there’s a certain percentage. But you can never relive the past and now we’ve gotten somewhere – I’ve gotten to the place where I can write. Because the fact that I can’t relive the past and the conviction–quandary, rather–that I’m creating my own future kicks in my fight or flight. And I choose to fight. Choose.

Nobody’s holding my hand. Nobody feels sorry for me because I’ve “just got all this passion inside” and I’m trying to express it. It doesn’t matter until I make it matter. And that’s how I write. And ultimately–because if there’s one thing no one will ever accuse the Burt family of, it’s lacking work ethic–I don’t freeze-frame a chemical reaction in my mind. It’s not possible. I don’t invoke the muse. She is beautiful and romantic, but a beacon of co-dependency. I sit down, click my pen, place the point on the paper and start moving the damned thing. And no matter where my characters are, or what landscape I left off with, or whatever the point of my entire novel is, as if I know, that place in myself that I know I can control takes over and reminds me that I can be my true self whenever I choose. And no matter how much money the words on the page can potentially make, the whole thing becomes necessary.

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“Consciousness of Stream”


He knew the shock of mountain runoff and the way it could burn the legs. He liked it.  He would look out the window any chance he got while traveling and hope to see a ribbon cutting through a ditch.  These things reminded him of who he used to be.

Days he would think on ways to find a gathering of granite somewhere or happen upon a shining pool while walking around the bend of somebody’s pasture.

There hadn’t been a day in his younger years he hadn’t thought of this kind of water, and what it was like to find it.  In mundane moments of everyday situations his mind would flash to his dad wearing suspenders and getting a rod from the trunk.  The father had changed at these times and would be not as tame.  He would get more irritable here but in a passionate way no one could blame him for.  He was looking for the water.

This version of his father rolled over in his mind for years.  From this he had learned that a man is always looking for something and when he feels like he’s close to finding it he is at his best in life and closer to any purpose he’s ever been.

He had been born by mountains.  Clovis in the ‘70s was still ranches and clustered communities butted against meadows that flared out from the Sierras a few miles away.  He only knew this place from photographs of his mother leading horses through heavy metal gates.

They said he had risen early some mornings and ridden the rams in the pasture with bailing twine around their necks.  Whenever they reminded him of this, he had smirked and looked at the ground. He was not embarrassed, but he wanted to be the child again and wake that latent history.

These stories defined him and he saw the West in his whole youth.  He remembered the Snake River and his dad getting on water.  With trout in the tent or not, there was always the search for them in places hard to reach and cold in all seasons.  He couldn’t always remember exactly what he did himself in these times.  There had been the natural bouts of boredom and merciful stints of discovering dangerous places to climb or interesting pieces of tackle to touch at camp. The river and his dad on it had always seemed farther away than it was, and muted. A man’s back against a rolling river looks like a wall that opens and closes windows that show the past and future to anyone patient enough to stand and look.

There had been times after the cancer that he felt a residual paternity. Lessons were learned without the old man there and the unsolved problems he had left behind became new and endearing challenges.  The acceptance came one night when he had cast for bass and landed one.  He spoke to his father as he drove home and the fish gave him and his mother something to talk about.

They were teachers, most of them.  His parents had grown up in the scattered hills of southwestern Iowa and not known each other.  The father had worked construction between college and spent a summer in Montana on a Libby fire tower.  The mother had studied education and moved to Littleton with her sister.  Colorado brought them together, as the West calls those looking for answers.  They spent time getting on water in the hills and washed some of the past away.  The water shows the true version of who someone is.


As he stood on the banks of White Pines Lake and cast his first fly between the reeds, there had been a solemnity.  There is no quiet like the prince nymph plopping through the surface and silently coursing, searching the entombed bottom for life.  Thinking of this had made him more silent, but more understanding of what his life was like.  He had come up to Arnold with his friends and his wife, old tackle from his mom’s garage dusty and waiting to be shaken to life after many years.  They all went higher up the mountains into the Big Trees later on to try Beaver Creek for Rainbow.

The water had bubbled over the pebbles and reminded him of many things from before.  He had cast all afternoon when he saw a dark hole under a fallen tree on the opposite bank.  The friends had dropped lures in there but nothing had happened.  He rolled the line over that surface and the Rainbow hit.  He had practiced rolling his cast and asked the friend, “like this?” when the strike came.

“Yeah, that’ll work.”


The water crackled on downstream and allowed him to see it pull its way across logs and rocks and push around a bend in a continuous wash.  In the car he slowed down while crossing the Stanislaus River and he could only respond to his wife that he thought of his dad.  This had been his first Rainbow on the fly.  There had been a previous hook, lodged deep inside, which couldn’t be removed, and he felt as if the trout knew him a bit more than he knew himself and understood.

Back at camp they had wine.  The friends had left after awhile and he and his wife ate the Rainbow and drank the red down.  The fire popped and made everything an orange shade.  He thought that the fire made things at night look like things at dawn.  There didn’t need to be much talking, the wife grinning into and across the fire and he looking at the dark wine in the cup.  A fire means many things to many people, but this was theirs.  It had cooked the trout and it simmered like a silent friend, sitting with him and his wife.

A week later the wife lay on the couch, tired.  He had gone in town to meet friends and see some music and when he came back she didn’t know he had gone.

“Where did you go?”

“To see Ben play.  I told you I was going.”

“I didn’t hear you.  I think I might be pregnant.”

“Why?” he leaned back and looked at her, “how do you feel?”

They had thought about children and wanted them.  When they moved to the Central Valley they had forgotten about it.  This made him think of many things.

That summer he went to the mountains to get in cold streams.  Something deeper stirred him this time and called him to the water.  “Will I have a son or daughter? Will I be a good father, like dad?”  There is a fear that accompanies these things.  This fear is not danger, but a fluid tension that rubs and sometimes perforates the soul.  Some things are true, but cannot be seen in the clear.  But the things wait to be known and want to be known. He could only figure these things in the moments between laying the line on the water and stripping it back in.

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The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen: a Highway Bleeding excerpt.

Photo: Randy Brock

Then he opened the fly box to see what he had. Part of the fun of fly fishing for him was trying out different patterns, just to see if he could get bites on them. His stomach tightened up as he began his ritual monologue.

He took a deep breath. Al-right. Tie this bad boy on and see what we can do. He pulled the fly line through his hand until he got to the leader at the end of the line. See what we have here. He held the little stonefly by the hook and pushed the tip of the line through the eyelet on the top. Get this through here. He made a circle around his middle finger, and wound the tip of the line around the rest of the leader a few times, like a noose. Do a little bit of this. He made little staccato cadences with his tongue, pushing out air while tapping it on the back of his teeth. Through here…as he pushed the line tip back through the circle around his middle finger…and…see if we can’t get this. He took the tip of the line upward, through the loop that had been made on top now, forming a kind of circle-eight with the line through both loops. And just for good measure…he licked the line where he had wrapped it around itself, and brought the whole knot into his mouth. Okay, as he pinched the knot and slid it down to the top of the hook, and cinched it against the eyelet. He tested the strength by pulling the fly down hard against the line, and clipped off the excess at the tip. Let’s see what we can do, as he held the fly between his fingers and picked up the rest of the rod to carry it all down to the water.

After walking down the creek a ways and swinging the flies across the water some more, Don checked the time and knew he should work his way back up so the steak wouldn’t burn. When he got back to the base of the path that led up to his table, he decided to cast once more to the spot where he had gotten one on.

Don always tried to make the last cast of the day perfect. With a self- admonishing snort, he wondered why he didn’t do them perfectly every time. He made sure that his arm was fluid and didn’t jerk, and took care to pull the rod far enough back behind him for a good rollout to the target behind the log.

The line unfurled across the water and the leader gently sat the fly on the surface. Don mended the line, lifting the rod and stripping in to get the slack out. A second after he firmed it up, a divot of water popped next to the fly. Don automatically jerked the rod to the air, straight up this time.

The rod instantly bent in half and he was careful to let the extra line slide through his hand quickly, but with enough tension to keep the rod bent. There hadn’t been much excess line stripped out, so it soon got to the point of pulling off the reel.

The drag on the reel was light to allow a quick run, so Don gently dialed it down a couple of notches to make the fish fight against the friction of the cork disc spinning inside the reel.

Don raised the rod high and pointed toward the fish’s run, downstream. Whenever it stopped he swiftly reeled, and the fish bolted away two more times. Finally he could feel that the fish was tired so he walked toward it, steadily winding the line in.

He saw it suspended in the middle, gills pulsing in and out, and he softly tugged the line until the trout was on the shallow silt, next to the bank. It was a beautiful yellow-sided brown, and Don was surprised that he hadn’t jumped at all.

He remembered the description of browns in a story he had read. The Scotsman author had called browns “meditative,” and that had always struck Don. He picked up the fish, and smiled when he found he needed two hands to take its weight. It pushed twenty-two inches and had vivid, fiery red spots through his middle and above the lateral line.

The fish didn’t wriggle out of his grasp, and he knew he wouldn’t eat this trout—wouldn’t even take a picture. The best thing he would take from this fish was how he looked below the clear surface, against the sediment and speckled sand, in his own habitat. Don thought about what the fish’s underwater hold looked like.

A professor of his had once said, “Sin is anything that is not life-giving.” These words struck him now. He remembered how long he had been handling the trout, and rocked him back and forth in the water to breath. He opened his palms and let him glide away. The author might have meant that this fish makes us meditate.


When Don walked up the bank from the stream he could smell the meat and he knew that it was ready. He liked it rare and his deer he took even redder because he knew nothing could taint a clean kill. The factory beef needed to be medium for him to feel good about it.

A small cut in the middle showed pink and it was time to eat and look around. Don chewed the marbled savory. Few things tasted better than those cut with a Buck knife. It was his dad’s old 110 blade, and it connected the meat to the mind in a way that a man can only think of in terms of his father’s days.

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Had dreamt, dreaming

Lachlan's first time casting for trout.

The strong and silver Rainbow trout of my youth course through my dreams. We caught so many on Mepps #2 lures I can’t remember where my first one was caught. But I know what counts, how I did it and that I did it with my dad.

Colorado trolling on blue reservoirs and surreptitious into the wet dewed grass aside unknown mountain brooks. My dad’s dreams moving into practice and seeping into my own.

Flashes of unturned rocks, mossy when you don’t know it but always glistening under the high sun and a hidden promise of the leader jerking so suddenly you almost forgot why you were there. I didn’t know what I was doing yet, but my dad did and he guided it.

These things work their way through my life and continue on beyond me where I can’t see yet. In the midst I take my own son out, now to brushy banks stepping through cow pies and burrs and thistle, seeing the fish easier than than I could when I was young. My son looking where I point and not understanding yet that some day he will know.

Watching him throw into the water and lever roll casts better than I had in my first 4 years of taking it seriously, but remembering my first fly trout came on a practice cast like it. He asking “like this? Now what?” And saying with pride “just like you’re doing.” Watching the bright-colored scud float through the habitat.

I used to think that the wisdom was in the mystery of what’s subsurfuce, but I think now it’s more to know that I know what’s in there. The underworld of pockets and knowledge that they’re there, the silver dream not realizing what they are to me, the mystery for me still not grasping what they do know. But I have known them and now my son will.

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Of trucks and men

The evening of my 8th grade year was turning cold, but cold in a California way. Chilly in its 50 degree late-spring night.

My dad and I had two days before taken the ’78 Ford over Donner Pass through the Sierras pulling a red gooseneck trailer. The yellow pickup protested by Lovelock and we turned around.

The decision was easy. Replace one Ford truck with another. The truck that comes into play as “Old Blue” in my novel came home with us in that summer of 1990. One truck crapped out, so you buy a new one. A trip had to be taken. It’s the way it had to be.

I stretched out in the Supercab, at that time just long enough for my 14-year-old frame to fit on a sleeping bag and look up at the stars through the big back window as we ascend to Truckee. My dad had the wheel and everything was safe as a man can make it for his son.

I drive Old Blue now. It sits in my garage and I start it from time to time to get the quirks out, and it hauls deer and leaves for me in the fall. But sometimes I have to take it out just because. The wheel begs to be turned and, despite the white smoke blowing out of the maltuned motor, it’s mine and has been ours. Mine and my dad’s.

It’s telepathy.

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