Between the Rivers

Submitted by Michele White (Murray), Tumbling Trout Outfitters

While on a flyfishing expedition through Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, Doug and I met lots of friendly folk. Very helpful. The best encounters occurred as the result of our motor home (with carpeted ceiling like the inside of Barbarella's space ship) breaking down between rivers and our need for immediate libation. In fact, I had one of the best Bloody Marys in this world on The Great Missouri River in the hamlet of Craig, Montana in celebration of the broken fuel pump. Make that two Bloody Marys.

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It occurred to me that we might just get in the dory and leave the leaking fuel pump for the shuttle driver to deal with. After all, it was costing us fifty bucks to get our rolling-hotel-from-hell delivered down river. I was standing in a riffle nymphing upstream in a braided bend of the Missouri River. Colorful, smooth cobbles hid an army of caddis-munching browns that were rising like popcorn in a pan of hot oil. Our dogs balanced on the dory's gunnel waiting for the day's venture faithfully guarding our lunch. Doug woefully sat in his waders still in the motor home behind the steering wheel. Both his rods were fully rigged and stuffed into the sleeves of the double rod case. All systems go. Yet, Doug waited, pondering what kind of karma we were likely to generate if we left the limping motor home to the shuttle driver. He gave in to duty and we packed up the dory and headed for town.

If your motor home ever breaks down in Montana, you should go to Craig. They have a mechanic there who keeps 20 year old Chrysler parts in stock. The cover-all clad guy stepped out of somebody else's motor coach onto steps that magically appeared and then disappeared from under the chassis. We were humbled. Doug has to use a medium size hammer to whack our steps into and back out of the iron slot they live in under our door. He was elated that the mechanic stopped what he was doing and began to work on our hillbilly vehicle. Doug suggested I go to the local bar and wait for him there, considering the owner and locals are known for yodeling and other such spontaneous entertainment.

The bar in Craig is a hub for sophisticated humor, the kind you're dad would like. In addition to a barrage of third generation xerox-copies tacked all over the walls with clever sayings like, "If your wife calls and you're not here, YOU tell her", and "You've only got one liver -- so live 'er up!", it also has the best light switch I've ever seen in a ladies room. The switch cover is a plastic Superman half-undressed with the lever sticking out of his crotch in either the up or down position. There are red rings of different women's lipstick kisses on the wall around the switch. I'll never go fishing in Montana without my lipstick again!

Another amusement in the bar is the result of a New York Times article critiquing the flyfishing in the area. If you sit at the bar for a short length of time, someone will bring the article to your attention because of an error the journalist made. His article, though flattering about the torpedo-size fish to be had in the river, made reference to an old gray mare for local color, I suppose. It was actually a blue-roan stud. The locals will make it clear to you if you go there, that it was no old gray mare at all. That, in fact, the critter has since been "cut-proud", meaning the stud part doesn't apply anymore. They're still a little sensitive about that misinformation. However, the writer was from New York City, after all, and the locals seem to be a forgiving bunch.

On a different leg of the trip (between the Gallatin River and the Snake River -- the leg that this story comes from), late into the dark part of night, our motor home died again not too far south of Victor, Idaho. A person can only view so much of an engine that is mounted at chin level on the roadside with a 5-inch pocket mag-lite late at night. We looked anyway. I always look to see if at least the engine is on fire, which would be a clue, but it wasn't. I left Doug in the dead motor home to contemplate the sad state of owning this demon of a vehicle. I'd seen a sign for a bar along the highway right before the engine died. I had learned in Craig that's where you go when you have engine trouble on the road.

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Doug is predictably rational about engine trouble the way most mechanically deft men are. He flung things about and cursed the swindler who sold the thing to him. I always assume a dead engine means a broken alternator because those devices regularly go out, according to my experience. Sometimes, dead engines even fix themselves by osmosis if left alone long enough. (Except for ones without oil.) We figured if Doug terrified the dogs and shook the vehicle about, then the morning would dawn and he might see, in fact, a suspicious dangling wire that needed to be reattached or something as simple to fix.

Some contraption had to have come loose earlier that afternoon when we were bumping down a particularly bad road. We got lost in Idaho long enough to park cross-wise in the middle of a dirt washboard and read the map. We stopped between two muddy flat places, which must have reminded Idahoans of a sublime oasis at one time, because the desiccated mud holes coincided with little blue spots labeled Twin Lakes on the map. Our vision of two lakes out in the middle of a remote, unexplored (by flyfishing standards) area intrigued us to take the trepid drive. Eventually, the skeletons under our skin had been rearranged and all our possessions fell in a dust-coated pile on top of the dogs in the middle of the floor. Probably, that venture is what jostled the motor home to a state of death.

Doug seemed surprised as I left the scene, that I didn't want to see his rare fit of anger. I thought for 3 seconds about staying with him -- to insure him all would turn out all right. We could have a night cap and commiserate this event together, like one of those "through thick and thin" sort of things you hear so much about at weddings. After all, he has always been kind to both me and my evil twin: Skippy. Then, I remembered some vague atrocity committed by some vague boyfriend in the past and decided to listen to the soft voice of a cocktail calling to me from across a field instead. I left Doug with the dogs in the stink of his anger, faithful he would be all right.

They have a different sense of humor up there in Idaho. On my walk to the bar through a moonlit, frosty field of tall, dry Autumn grass, I came across a crouched, normal looking young lady in a white bathrobe with black, webbed curlers in her hair. Really. She was very normal looking, even attractive. Blonde. I looked in her eyes and saw that it was only the circumstance that was weird looking, not actually the woman herself.

Apparently, she was stalking her brother who was drinking at my point of destination. She asked me to check on his status for her, as her ol' Auntie had died that afternoon and her worthless brother was no good for being out hunting and then going to a bar when the family was in need and etc. Seemed logical to me. Nothing weird about a sister lurking in the field, in lieu of her ol' Auntie dying. I wondered if I had an ol' Auntie whose death would lead me to stand in curlers out in a field at night. Maybe, if it was my Aunt Charlotte. I liked Charlotte. And if my hair needed to be curled for the funeral... seemed sensible enough.

The bar looked closed -- no lights visible on the outside. A thin, inside kind of door, the type you might have for a bathroom door in a trailer, provided the front entrance. It was obscured by a half-assed facade of pseudo hunting lodge ornamentation (split logs) that made the building barely distinguishable from any of the other half-fallen, old mechanics' buildings and junk collections along the road. I entered into a nest of camouflaged, drinking men, a few of whom had rifles near them. I was surprised that the bar was so dark, but there was a dance floor, which is always a sign of sociable people. There were also some women in there of the hard-life but still alive variety. That was another good sign-- this being a woman tolerant bar.

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A girl has to do what a girl has to do under these circumstances. The bar patrons were all staring at me as if the movie, 'Deliverance', was a love story. So, I greeted them as gentlemen and launched into a bar joke. Did they hear the one about the lost flyfishing-woman who entered a local bar way out in the middle of Idaho?

As the joke goes, a poor flyfishing-woman gets fandoogled into jumping out of the bar's window over a cliff because one of the locals tells her and then demonstrates a variety of outlandish stunts, finalizing with how the wind catches him and blows him back up and onto the windowsill before he hits bottom. (I acted this out and assumed the character's voices.) The character invites the flyfishing-woman to jump out the window, which she does, but she doesn't get blown back in. The joke ends with the local guy returning to his bar stool, as the bartender says to him, "You sure are a jerk when you've been drinking, Superman." The reaction to my joke was silence and some blinking from a lot of red eyes. I ordered an MGD (stopped myself short of asking what micro-brews were available or if they had any Merlot).

I didn't realize when I told the joke, that it might be too complicated for that time of night, especially when everyone had been drinking for a few hours already. Hunters' ears were smoking under blaze-orange baseball caps as the wheels creaked on their cogs. Probably, I like to think, they didn't know that their eyes were bulging out at me like shocked oysters. I realized then, that some of them thought the story was maybe a true one. I was wondering how I might go about convincing them it was not a true story without coming off as a big fat liar -- and maybe even a big, fat liar from a big city. Unfortunately, not to be too arrogant, but the biggest thing in some of their heads were their tongues.

Gradually, a camouflaged fat one of them asked me where I'm from. I truthfully said, "Victor". This produced an element of suspicion amongst the group as I didn't look like nor act like no Idahoan. So, I added, "Victor, COLORADO". This had a good effect. I could see he was thinking that if there are two towns named Victor in the United States, then, it's possible we could be related in some way. Kind of like getting each other's mail mixed up at the post office or sharing similar accounts off by one digit at the video store.

He then spread his hands on the bar and put on his big, standard, joke-telling face and told his own joke -- something about a little bird buried in a pile of bull poop. Then, another guy put on his big, joke-telling face and told his special joke about some other type of situation in a blizzard (the theme being bad things that have happened to people with morals to the stories. The humor was actually quite sophisticated, you see). This was good. I was safe to have a beer without fear of being expunged by Bambi killers.

At one point, Doug walked in. He wanted to test the alternator. The camouflaged guys heard him mention the alternator and stirred in their seats. They liked the idea of a mechanical problem waiting down the road in the middle of the night. You know the routine: drinking beer, belly up to the vehicle's grill with flashlights, hovering with greasy sleeves over a nice, crippled engine. Great excuse not to go home quite yet to the little women waiting for them in black, webbed curlers. Every one of the camouflaged men had a pocket full of engine problem opinions based on what their Daddies taught them soon as they were big enough to hand Daddy a Phillips-head screwdriver. So, some of the camo-guys and Doug took off to go look under the hood with a bunch more assorted flashlights.

It was just then, as a few of them were shuffling out the bathroom door that served as the main entrance, that the brother whose sister was stalking him, lost control of his 7 mm hunting rifle and shot a hole in the floor. He later said he had been fiddling with the safety latch. This resulted in a slow, ghostlike evacuation of the entire bar, which left me in the position of being this guy's only friend. (Doug thought the noise was someone's truck backfiring.) This errant-brother-irresponsible-hunter guy was very enthusiastic about our alternator to me. He wanted to be real helpful (in case I, like everyone else, might think he was an idiot, I suppose). I suggested he also go outside and look at the engine, as this was men's business. I certainly didn't want him to join me. He left obediently.

I hailed my neglected beer and focused on loosening up the lone bartender (a woman who was not so easily accepting of my outlandish nature, because women are more wary than men are and because there was a fresh bullet hole in her floor as an indirect result of this unusual night's company). I was trying to amuse her when the same errant-brother-irresponsible-hunter guy returned with Doug in a '70 Chevy pickup (I deduced it's year by comparing it to my own '72 at home). His had four different colored fenders. No grill. Probably no insurance or license plates for that matter either, let alone seat belts. Certainly no rearview mirrors. No more rifle, either. Doug was slightly wobbly and told me that he had been subjected to a little bit of Dickel with the hunter-brother.

Someone had given our battery a jump and the motor home was running in the parking lot with the dory behind it like the Frankenstein Monster risen from the dead toting a toy choo-choo. (The battery would temporarily hold a charge, but the alternator wouldn't regenerate it, so we couldn't go too far). The hunter-brother directed us in the motor home to about halfway down the bartender's father-in-law's ex-wife's mile long driveway, next door. It finally died for good in front of some gutted out jeeps without windshields hidden in the tall weeds. Some of the jeeps were only visible by their "for sale" signs in the driver's seats. I had a vision of the motor home resting there amongst the jeeps, like a big, ugly duckling, or cowbird chick in a sparrow's nest for a long time from now.

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Then, of course not to be rude, we had to accept an invitation to dinner (1AM) at the hunter-brother's 15 foot, single-wide mobile home. The 5 of us, (hunter-brother, Doug, me, and 2 dogs), had macaroni & cheese -- (the hunter-brother wouldn't eat white cheese or a cauliflower my mother had given to me a week earlier, but the dogs did)-- and hamburger patties, (which we forgot until later when we discovered them still sitting in the black, cast-iron skillet, looking like cold poverty).

I saw things in his bathroom that only stinky ol' bachelor men have in their bathrooms. Unmentionable things. Doug was handling the evening's events with pioneer stamina. This fishing trip was probably not much different from hanging out with his older brothers who occasionally allowed him to attend their wild fishing expeditions as a silent mascot. One comes to learn that these rank sort of situations sometimes sweeten up if you're open minded. Besides, some of the nicest people in the world are stinky 'ol bachelors.

Then, the hunter-brother showed us his guns. It was around 3 in the morning when our host told us that he was an ex-felon and not allowed to have a gun in his possession. EVER. But he trusted us. He emphasized that point: HE TRUSTED US. (And, we bet he could find us, too -- even if it was a decade down the road and we lived in a teepee on the backside of a mountain in Tibet!) He also showed us his beautiful, custom buck-knife collection -- gifts from his estranged children -- evidence of their love for him. It was really very touching.

When we finally left Jim's house in the new day's dawning (we picked his name up somewhere between macaroni dinner and the rest of his bottle of Dickel). The whole community had turned out to view the 7 mm hole in the bar room floor. Everybody was eyeing Jim like he had made a poop on the floor or some such nasty thing. But, he was happy because of our preferred companionship with him. Since they were at the bar already, most everyone (not us) had a morning shot and a beer. No one would take our money. Not even the bartender's father-in-law's ex-wife for camping in her driveway. They closed their eyes, turned their faces away from our money and held their palms up to deflect the dollars. Our money was no good there.

It's important to accept people's generosity and to occasionally allow strangers to help you. That's how trust and brotherhood still manage to hang on in this wacky world. But, in order not to take advantage, I argued I had $200 in five dollar bills that I won at bingo in Craig, Montana. One look at the 20 year old motor home in the light of day and it wasn't hard to imagine that $200 was all my money. Which, actually, it was. We were traveling around errant, flyfishing from the Colorado River to The Great Missouri and all rivers in between because I had been laid-off two weeks earlier. The fact is, I did have $200 in five dollar bills because the ATM machine in Craig (remember the town on the Missouri River with the blue-roan stud and 20 year old Chrysler parts?) only dispensed five dollar bills. It probably never dispensed a portion larger than $25 at a time. I'm sure I left the town of Craig broke. When Doug saw the 2 inch slab of five dollar bills that couldn't be folded in half coming out of the machine he said "BINGO".

Under a hail of good-byes and well-wishes from the crowd and thank-you's to each person, Doug and I drove away like visiting relatives you never get to see. Sometime during the night's escapades, all of us had transformed into some kind of clan from the ancient days. We must have been reincarnated. Now, we recognized each other as different families from the same Pleistocene tribe. We all used to live along the banks of the Snake River, thousands of years ago. Doug and I were traveling clansmen with exotic shells to trade for trout fishing access along their shores. "Keep your shells -- you can come back and fish here anytime!", they said to us. We released all their trout, though, except for the remote releases that liberated themselves.

The friendly folk watched us until we drove out of sight. I'm sure they were expecting to witness the next break down -- perhaps a muffler falling off or the engine finally igniting. In fact, the morning light had revealed a suspicious wire dangling from the alternator. When reattached (and recharged) the engine ran fine all the way back to Victor, Colorado (with a few more stops along and between other rivers). That is, if you view a fume-generating, noisy, tortoise-paced engine as running fine. The wire probably got shook loose when we were bumping around the muddy flats of Twin Lakes, Idaho looking for a body of water.

All text, photos and graphics Copyright © 2001 by Michele White (Murray), Tumbling Trout Outfitters. No reproduction, linking, or copying without permission