In the long winter of our mutual debasement, it helps to remember that we were once free people, knee deep in brisk waters polishing a bed of black basalt. Maybe that was just me.
Standing knee-deep, thigh-deep, ass-deep, in the Middle Fork John Day River, I cast a fin of green and red alloy, decorated with a tuft of synthetic thread, past swirling pools of water further downstream. As I wound the line back around the spool, holding the tip of the fiberglass rod close to the water and jerking it left and right, trying to make it pass through those deeper pools where a fish might wait in ambush, a native American man and his wife watched me from the front porch of their cabin. A tug came quick and I jerked the rod deftly to hook the attacker’s lip on one of the three barbed points that hid among the glittery threads. Reeling it quickly to my end, fighting the fish and the current all at once, I soon held a writhing, slippery, eight inch muscle in my hand—a baby Oncorhyncus. Big enough to eat, but with so much delicious potential, the snag is ripped from it’s diaphanous lip, and it slips back into the current.
The nominal draw of this place is the hot springs. A side channel to the river ravine pours forth a stream of hot and sulfurous water from cracks in the neon-stained basalt. They run down little channels and converge into a vivid orange and green stream that slips under the cinderblock bunkhouse where the soaking pools sit. The water for soaking is actually drawn from a covered hole in the ground. The bunkhouse roof has long past fell in. The rotting plywood doors to the once-private soaking rooms lay off to the side. Desert sage and dirt runs right up to walkway. The owner called it apocalyptic. I call it blissful plein air. Take your clothes off under the sun. Someone might see you. Birds and lizards, and any passing satellites or sky-dwelling deities, definitely will.
The man and his wife saw me catch the fish and smiled and waved. I waved and started up the bank toward their cabin, intent on making an immediate left and heading downstream. But they waved me up to the porch and started chatting with me, small talk. The woman asked me if I wanted any crab? I paused to consider desert crab, and not just any desert, but this hidden nook down at the end of a road to nowhere else and hours from the sea. I remembered a sweaty palm of m&m’s once offered me in the middle of a summer football game. In that situation, I’d taken the m&m’s to decide, based on how much chocolate showed through the candy coating, whether to eat them or not.
“I’m actually heading downstream to try my luck down there.”
“No problem,” the man said. “You just stop back by on your way back to your cabin.”
“Alright, I’ll do that.” I felt slightly ashamed at my reticence, and wondered if I’d let him see it.
This whole stretch of river is pools and eddies between deep riffles. Further down it meanders through a grassy floodplain of deep soil and it split into little oxbows that undercut the banks creating deep pockets of invisible water. It was trout paradise, so I shed my inhibitions about trudging through the deep grass at water’s edge in shorts and ankle-high moccasins.
I cast a few times, trying to bring my lure back through those invisible pockets under the bank, to tease out the life I imagined hiding there, hungry and aggressive, undulating in the silty darkness. Unfortunately, the sun slipped behind the ridges above before I was able to drag a splashing, writhing creature from its hidden den. It was time to turn around, time to get back and check on the beef short ribs stewing in tomatoes and wine on a gas burner outside the cabin. The woman and Native man were still sitting on the porch, and she went inside to get the crab. The man and I looked out at the stars just beginning to appear over the river, listening to the current burbling and splashing. It’s beautiful here, one of us said.
There was no need to worry about the crab. There were two carcasses, and had they been m&m’s, the lettering would have been sharp. I cracked a beer, poured it into my water bottle, returned the container to the cooler, and took a long drink. As I tilted the bottle down, I saw the owner gesturing to me from outside the kitchen window.
This freedom, like all freedoms, came with restrictions. A sign at the entrance read, “No Alcohol on Premises.” I’d pretended that meant that they had no alcohol on the premises, but I’d made the old Baptist compromise, and kept it to myself. Was this not good enough? Setting the bottle on the formica countertop, I went out to to meet him on the front porch.
“That meat smells heavenly. What’s in that?,” the owner asked, smiling, apparently perfectly content with himself and his place in the universe.
Not wine, not wine, not wine.
“Um, tomatoes, garlic, bay leaf…bunch of stuff. Do you want some?”
“Oh, no, I don’t mean to interrupt your dinner. That smells absolutely incredible. Are you liking it here?”
“Oh yeah…went fishing, the couple in the cabin across the creek gave me a couple of crab. It’s beautiful.”
So I told him about the juvenile salmon, told him how I’d gotten bites nearly every cast, told him how the water was almost too fast to wade, and the bottom was slick and potholed. Left out how I’d lost my balance and got my wallet wet.
“Great. Good, good. Hey the guy staying here in room one at the hotel said he saw a sixteen inch rainbow trout under the bridge today,” he let me know, still smiling, and I noticed that his eyes were literally the color of a desert morning, and as distant and inaccessible. Still, he made me comfortable, even though he seemed to know things that I couldn’t even name.
I said I’d try for it, and offered him part of my catch.
“Oh thanks, I don’t really eat fish, but good luck.”
I guess I know some things he didn’t. I went inside to finish my beer.
Drinking in a ghost town is thrilling. Everything—the spinning wheel and butter churn in the corner where a wood stove should be, the guy who cooks pork steaks on his tailgate, the sound of the creek pounding the air and pushing down gravel—seems significant. It should seem sinister, and others probably find it so. The old general store, which only sells pop and ice, nevertheless has shelves on every wall that once likely held tack and soap and moonshine. It still smells vaguely of old leather and oil, but mostly like damp earth and decaying wood. Parts of the roof have caved in and the wood plank floor must be trodden with care.
Everything seems to be hiding something. Or at least to have something inside that can’t be seen, but only intuited. The tattered curtains of the hotel, the tall grass skirting the buildings, the back room of the general store and the collapsed rooms on its periphery, the space under the soaking pools, the cracks in the rocks, the owner’s smile.
The dark waters of the river hide vigorous life, nourishment, inaccessible but for an incredibly fine polymer line. To feel that invisible life springing into action, to feel lives long past texturing the spaces, waving gently from the rafters, softly filling forgotten corners, to vibrate along with the naked, inextricable totality of existence is our freedom, forever lost.