The fire red underbelly of ferns yellowed by
low water and late fall
greet us as we step out of maple and oak
into swept old rolling Appalachian mountains.
The green is leaving the canopy along with us, a trail cut
bank along the slide.
Red blazes on pine.
The dirt roads of Pennsylvania
are a good breakfast for a day in the woods.
I swear, some day I’ll just pull off
to the side of one and rest, watch the suns and moons
of its days and nights turn into each other.
Some clouds. A rain.
Cross Forks to Windfall to Red Ridge.
There’re your directions.
Up this high, the ground is soft.
Not like most of Pennsylvania. Didn’t turn my ankle on a rock once.
The trail curves, gaining a few feet of elevation, slowly as it
wraps itself up into the Hammersley Ravine.
No deer. No bear. Just a few chipmunks.
This morning trout were snatching my woolly bugger
as it dipped and streaked through their water.
From up here I see no water. Just endless wooded crescents and ridgelines
folding into each other
tired from the shift of the plates of years ago.
Tonight we’ll eat fajitas around a fire, but right now
it’s just you, me, our dog
standing in the middle of this old burn - 1964 -
small birch stained yellow by October, groves of ferns,
teaberry, dark streaks on rock nestled among little thorns.
We stop and stand before leaving,
eyes closed, a wind comes up out of the deep
sweeps across our mouths, chilling the sweat, the hair at the edge
of our ears.
The taste of this settles in my tonsils.
Shade mountain, Jacks Mountain, Penn's Creek.
A Bobcat in the rear view mirror
with still a few gulps of coffee left in the parking lot.
I got pissed at the big water by noon.
A morning of slight takes and spitting flies
ended with two dudes dropping into the middle of the run I was fishing.
I cut up the bank, crossed into the meadow and threw some hoppers.
It was lunch, I was hungry.
I had eaten my last granola bar an hour ago.
I walked back to my truck and drove up the mountain
until I found a pull off
and the stream winding itself out and away
into the rhododendron and mountain laurel.
I took one fly and my 6'10" rod.
Hiked into the woods
following the only path the water cut.
A few deep plunges,
some shallow riffles,
a cut bank that bled
into a hill of ferns,
some small brook trout
and I was fishing.
Eventually I reached the road,
walked back to my truck and off to find lunch.
Yesterday was raw*. The rain started when I woke up and was still falling when I fell asleep. The cold wind cut through all the layers and sliced into bones. It was the first day of the year that felt like winter. It felt good. It felt like Pittsburgh.
Back then I’d keep myself warm riding bike to class through shit-stained slush with a pair of headphones and a beanie. I’d escape the brutal cold not with layers, but with music. Layers kept the chill out; music kept me warm and away from the congestion and concrete of the city. My roommates and I were also really cheap, so we kept the heat only as high as needed in order for the pipes not to freeze. I had the largest room in the house, up on the second story, with a set of three windows that looked out onto Juliet Street, two streetlamps shining their signs onto the beige carpet all night, no curtains and a mattress on the floor. I’d burn a few sticks of Nag Champa every night and throw on a record to fall asleep to and keep warm under my comforter. In 2005, during my senior year, there was one particular album that I would listen to nightly as I waited for the incense to fill the room - Will Oldham and Matt Sweeney’s masterpiece Superwolf. It took me 44 minutes to fall asleep on those nights.
“I know nothing and I’m overjoyed…” is sung, repeated as an incantation, throughout “My Home is the Sea” as Sweeney’s guitar sends reverberations, ripples of riffs throughout the industrial landscape of cold, winter Pittsburgh night. Silence outside for once. The snow has a habit of doing that, shutting everything down, sending a big “shhhh” quiet enough and long enough that everyone gets the point. Those were the nights that I loved that city the most. When Sweeney’s guitar and Oldham’s voice created an urban meditation in a sea of concrete and rough edges, I could see the city as a habitable place, a home of sorts. An ocean.
That record played me through Pittsburgh, loneliness, heartbreak, hangovers, delirious canoe rides down the Allegheny. It kept me from capsizing when the barges came to close, or when I just couldn’t paddle fast enough. Sweeney’s rumbling chants would protect my ears from wind as I pounded those bike pedals up and down riverine hills and across yellow bridges.
The thing is, that record didn’t stop playing when I left Pittsburgh and went deep into the north Maine woods. I couldn’t bring my LPs with me, but I had it, at the time, on cd and then eventually on my Zune. For three years that record would put me home as I lived out of a backpack and traversed the country from Maine, up and down the Pacific Crest Trail in California, and then Colorado. One night I sat on the beach of the Lost Coast and listened to Oldham sing about running as elk bugled behind me and otters wrestled in the water. There was a thick mist the next morning. I could hear the waves, but couldn't see where sand stopped and water began.
I kept repeating those lines to myself, a mantra for me - “I know nothing and I’m overjoyed, I know nothing and I’m overjoyed”. Because I didn’t. I still don’t. I was living not knowing where I was going to sleep the next night. All I needed was a sleeping bag and a little stove to heat water with. A chaw of beef jerky and my lunch was done. I had so little, knew nothing, and was happy.
I still am. I still barely know anything and yet, I get excited just driving to work. Today, a field of sunflowers. Yesterday, some rain that darkened the creek. Tomorrow I’ll drink a cup of coffee and mow the grass. I know nothing and I’m overjoyed. My copy of the record is now 12 or so years old. It’s one of my most played records and I can't tell if it's dust or Sweeney's guitar fuzz that I hear as I wash the dishes. It's beautiful either way. I still have the tickets to the Superwolf show I saw at the Rex Theater back in 2005 in the sleeve. After the show, I saw them outside the theater smoking cigarettes in the back alley; I was too nervous to say hey and tell them how much their record meant to me.
“I sing evil, I sing good, I sing as a seagull should, and if you melted, then I would, melt myself all into you” - Will Oldham
Buy it here - Superwolf - Superwolf
*I wrote that line last November. It's actually really nice, fall like weather right now. The record still plays perfectly as cicadas and locusts get their last choruses in.
Washington felt like home.
Maybe it was the two days of driving through 100 degree Idaho and eastern Oregon dry landscapes. Maybe it was insanely good burrito we got at the food truck in Olympia.
Maybe it was finally reaching the end of the swing, sliding into the last stretch of the boomerang arc, heading north along the coast, slowly making steps towards the east, our house.
Mostly I think it was the trees, the blues, the grays, the ocean and its driftwood.
Our first night was spent on the Pacific Ocean. We walked along fields of driftwood laying like fallen totems between the sand and the thick interior forest. There was a ceaseless breeze that kept the ocean in our camper and burned our fire quickly. After dinner sat and watched the sun set on the ocean. The sand skittered towards me and I would close my eyes but not for too long. I didn't want to miss the last bit of sun. I wanted to see the lightness of the dry wood begin to meld into the dark spruce as day left.
I'm still processing this place. It's fingerprints have been tattooed on me. There are only a few places I've been in my life that have completely altered my perspective. Northern Maine in late October. The saddle between the Upper and Lower Devil Peaks in the Siskyous Mountains. Predawn late August on the Susquehanna River. The Hoh Rainforest. It's primordial colors of blue and gray serve as a thick backdrop to the large Sitka Spruce and fields of fern that cover the soft forest floor. I want to go back with my fly rod, a backpack, some food and hike deep into it until I'm lost. 15 elk crossed the river right below our campsite as the sun set.
Our last few days were spent in the Cascades. I found some water full of Westslope Cutthroat trout eager to take a hopper on top. We stayed away from the crowds and camped in forest service land surrounding the National Park. We were reluctant to go, but knew we had to eventually start making it home or else we'd never leave.
After a night of eating take-out Mexican food under the Milky Way while Nebraskan rednecks shot off legit fireworks around a lake a few miles east of the Wyoming border, we scarfed down an amazing breakfast at Luxury Diner before driving down the last hot stretch highway towards the Rockies. We made it to mountains after 2.5 long days of driving.
A strike through the Gros Ventres along the Hoback still swelling with the last snow lead us to Granite Creek. Spring currents under a heavy summer canopy.
From left to right: Yellowstone Cutthroat, Crystal Creek Campground, Our Home in the foothills of the Tetons, Granite Creek Hot Springs, a Mountain Whitefish, and Granite Creek Campground.
Black-eyed Susans marked the quebrada made by Granite Creek as it tore through the Gros Ventres. The hot springs cleaned us after days on the road, the mountain wind swept the dirt through our pores.
We stayed in Wyoming for about a week, camping almost exclusively in Forest Service and BLM campgrounds. We had nothing but wind and sun on the Green River. We were scorched, dry, our skin mottled with the fine scratches of the valley. Mountains bordered us on the north and west. Nothing but flatness and goat prairies to the south and east. We built a fire and watched, sat in the ecotone, the place between, while fireworks still scraped the horizon back towards Nebraska and early July.
After lounging in the Gros Ventres valley and wilderness, we decided to head out to the coast, to big trees, ocean, and rainforest. The Olympic Peninsula was just a day and half drive away. We stopped at the Kelly on the Gros Ventres for coffee and breakfast and kept heading west.
We're leaving for Wyoming on Friday.
That means I won't see the river for a few weeks.
By the time we get back, it'll be in its Summer space.
Low, warm water. High grasses. Maybe some hibiscus.
I wanted to get out in it one last morning before we left.
The water's still high and muddy.
The bass seem to be settled below rapids or along the shallow water along the banks.
This one inhaled my slider and immediately took flight.
He was in only a foot of water, right along the bank.
He fought hard down stream.
Jumped a few more times and after a long fight, I finally landed him.
My personal best smallmouth bass - 21",
I was lucky enough to have a good friend along to snap some photos.
This river has some beautiful water and some beautiful fish.
Get out and enjoy it.
Check out the newest issue of The Drake Magazine (Summer, 2017), for my latest essay on fly fishing, Shank's Tavern, the Susquehanna River, and my close friend Steve.
"freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams
Summer is here.
Nettles are in full throttle.
I walk through them when I'm looking up, paying no mind to my steps,
tramping towards the next fence or bend in the stream, trying to avoid another groundhog hole.
It's never intentional. Sometimes necessary.
Cold water soothes the sting, but long after my legs are still mottled with the red scratches of their thin hairs.
Though, just the other day, I thought I was in the middle of a field of nettles,
mixed in with high grass, but soon realized it was mint. The breeze filled with the cracked leaves
and I rubbed some on my fingertips and on the fly I was casting.
Another day, last week, I found myself walking
the banks of Penns, watching for the air
to fill with bugs.
It was morning, which I tend to enjoy fishing
more than the evening. There's an anticipation
that can last an entire day in the morning.
The evening offers a quick spike
in the denouement of the day. It's subtle and reassuring
but there's always a solemnity in it for me.
Looking up, I realize my shoulder just passed through a cobweb full of Green Drakes.
They got caught as they were leaving their branches to drop eggs into the water late last night.
Some of their wings still twitched.
I promised Whitman a long walk today.
We explored a couple of ponds
set back from the trail
between a copse of trees and a cornfield.
There, he could bark at the ducks
and I could throw a popper for bass.
Check out the latest issue of Susquehanna Life Magazine for my essay on the Susquehanna River, "Bringing a River into Focus".
We set off around 8:30 a.m.
The clouds were coming in from the west over Brunner Island.
The kayaks, smooth.
The water, muddy.
The sun couldn't make it out of the east,
let alone onto our shoulders.
"You're gonna have wet asses"
Steve's uncle politely mentioned as we pushed off.
"Eh," we shrugged. We've been getting advice from his uncles for years
and they're usually right and we usually ignore them.
Just a few weeks ago, they had to tow Steve's boat back upstream
after the engine died,
after they carved a wooden plug so we wouldn't sink.
Luckily, we were able to paddle hard enough to run into some trees
leaning out into the river and tie off so we didn't get washed downstream.
Just a few minutes later and a about a hundred yards downstream, just past the first bend,
it started to rain.
There was a break in the clouds down past Shocks Mill Bridge
so we paddled. Didn't fish much.
Past the Conoy
Past the White Cliffs,
Through the Haldeman Riffles
skirting Ely and Pole Islands aiming for a big slow eddy where we pulled ashore.
There, under a thick grove of river birch and maple,
we had a morning snack and shot the shit for an hour
until the rain passed through.
We watched the water.
I notched off a piece of skin, right at the base of my pointer finger, last night.
Being stubborn when a simple snip would have done.
This morning, I knew I had to get out and up into the woods.
I left in the dark and hit the dirt roads just as my Stanley mug drained of coffee.
Black winged caddis fluttered and flailed up stream. Inches at a time.
The wind caught some rhododendron and for a second it sounded like
barbed wire on aluminum foil.
Most people are with family today for the holiday. It's why I have this water to myself.
Just a thought
while I change flies, chew on some beef jerky, and let the cold limestone water,
the hue of moss and mud,
wash my wound clean.
Like a Tibetan Buddhist shrine deep in the Himalayas, here stands a trash shrine along the banks of a trout stream in central Pennsylvania. For sure it's ugly, but it's the creation of all the mangled jumbled plastic bits that run down the currents of this stream. A reminder as you cast of our ceaseless over-consumption and apathy for our environment.
It's hauntingly beautiful when the wind catches the used quart of oil bottle and it raps against the beheaded doll. Maybe we need more of these shrines since it's become so easy for us to flush away any semblance of pollution or swipe left when glint of a disturbing image catches your eye.
Things to do before Tuesday's Snow Storm
Drink another cup of coffee.
Build a fire and howl at the cold clear night.
Cut down the tall grass that's browned thru the winter.
Pick up large dead limbs taken down by the wind.
Listen to these records:
Loyalty - The Weather Station
Singles- Sun Ra
Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes
Superwolf - Superwolf
Get out the shovels.
will fall into the river.
Somehow the beavers keep it solid.
The water behind
is murky with mud and bugs,
grasses and dead wood.
It captures the moonlight
as mayflies hatch.
In the spring it flows.
In the summer it shrinks.
In the fall it fills with leaves.
In the winter it freezes.
Sun Ra and Rain Dogs tenderly blister the morning.
Instruments and melodies I don’t understand,
sublime abstract cacophony of the unexpected.
dark, with a bit of sugar.
Ice, slush, April air after a December winter storm,
wind keeping the leaves off the ground.
Bull trout in Idaho, the panhandle,
that slender slice of land between Montana and Washington,
campgrounds down winding gravel roads -
Dreams of summer.
Wrapping pheasant tails around #14 hooks,
Peacock hurl, red thread, gold bead head and lead wire.
Unknown melding with known.
These flies work.
They catch fish.
Keep it simple.
They’re all I know.
Big water out west, flies in the vice.
My mind wanders to mountains, a cathedral of pines, cold beer.
The dog barking down the alley, the train tracking its way downstream,
bring me back.
I’ll have to try these flies on some local water, first.
The ingredients of a great weekend:
A cabin in the woods
Wild brown trout
Winter in Pennsylvania
Hemlocks and pine
The old rust of last season
wake up covered in snow,
Gone by mid day.
hare's ears on ice.
Killed a 6-point buck with the front end
of my car. Early Friday morning.
"A clean patch of ground after a rain
an ancient pine half-covered with moss
such things appear before our eyes
but what we do with them isn't the same"
There's a county up near where I live that is the pariah of the Susquehanna watershed. Whenever anyone has an incest or meth joke to tell, they be sure to locate it there. It gets written off fairly quickly and regularly, even by neighboring politicians who make bureaucratic jokes at its expense. Most people see it from the interstate - a nice farm valley butting up against a slice of the Appalachians. In the winter, like today, the mountaintops have a glittering of frost on them, like grouse tracks traversing the ridge line. Most of the crevices and caverns aren't seen by anyone but the locals; I think they like to keep it that way.
I took a drive up there today to explore two different watersheds. The day didn't warm until right before lunch, when the sun was halfway through. I started on some nice water in search of roaming brown trout. A few deep pockets and nice runs to check out for the spring, when water is up a bit more. I followed it up to it headwaters and found brook trout before cutting up and across the mountain down into a hemlock holler that cradled shavings of some riffles and runs.
It was getting on into the afternoon by the time I crested the last ridge and headed down into Henry's Valley. The last creek turned out to be the most enjoyable. The stone were freer when they tumbled down this ravine and in return, they were rewarded with a plethora of cold springs. Ice shelves created pocket water and opaque slices up and downstream. I found a frozen over beaver pond that will be great to fish in the late spring.
"Along the Girard Ridge"
We hitched for nine days
up along the Girard Ridge.
Shasta to our north, giving us looks all day.
Frost over the sixth night.
Along the Girard Ridge we spread
like sinuses on a cold morning.
The crew went through with loppers first
then brush-cutters and pole saws
to widen the trail.
Some dusty tread work with McCloud and Pulaski
to finish the hitch.
Pine pitch to start fires,
a bag of potato chips as a snack.
It's been a slow fall of fishing for me. Points just didn't seem to connect throughout the last two months. I ended the summer of fantastic bass fishing and big Maine brook trout and landlocked salmon by falling quickly back into a deluge of work. I lost all my headspace that allowed me to explore in a pile of papers and lesson plans. So it goes. No complaining here. Sometimes it's just hard to not let your life become, as Jim Harrison mused, "the sloppy leftovers of your work." This is just to say that it's easy for me to trace my life over the lines of fishing and come up with a pretty dynamic and accurate portrait of how I've been living. The past few months have held very few points and the lines that were connected seemed short and didn't draw much more than a few incoherent shapes that look like they were traced left handed by a right handed person. Pretty symbolic of how I've been feeling.
It's easy for us to measure our life by one or two points: relationships, work, hobbies, money, politics, things, whatever our focus goes to, and not take into account the whole landscape of what we've been living. Now that the leaves are mostly down and the sun is gone by 6, I'm left with some space for reflection. It's easier to see further when the trees are naked, but you have less time for it. Anyway, a few points have bolded themselves and have marked the last few months. One has been Jack Gilbert. Life seems to always go back to his words. There is one poem that I keep coming back to, rereading every other day - "I Imagine the Gods" . Two lines in particular.
"Teach me mortality, frighten me
into the present, Help me to find
the heft of these days."
If ever there was a prayer that I should say every day, this is it.
On a purely stylistic note, I absolutely love his choice of "heft" instead of "weight". Completely different connotations in this context. Weight holds us down, requires strength to maneuver. Whereas Heft has the duality of functioning as both a noun and verb, thereby not immediately attaching itself to its root meaning of weight, but also of action and active engagement in the moment.
There's been a lot of discussion about whether or not Dylan should have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I'm firmly in the camp that he is well deserving of the accolade. Here's why.
All of what we consider to be Literature came from the Oral Tradition. Stories like Beowulf, The Odyssey, The Illiad, are the foundations of our language and story. These stories were created with breath and given to the air through a scop or someone like Homer usually accompanied by a Harp or instrument. Dylan is simply an extension of that, therefore, I consider his work Literature.
You can read his lyrics off the page or listen to it with music, both have their individual effect and emphasis on the word. Add a different voice to it, the effect changes. Change the instrumentation, and the meaning/mood will change. One could argue that Dylan's writings are more dynamic than a novel in that regard.
Take Shakespeare and his works as an example. Reading a Shakespeare play is dramatically different from witnessing it. The lines take on different meaning based on individual performances by actors & actresses. Make changes in tone, setting, backdrop, costume, and performers and the play takes on a different meaning and effect for the audience. Change the audience and you'll change the play. Dylan's lyrics can be read from the page for one effect, then performed in many different ways by different people using different instruments; each singular way projects a different interpretation and meaning.
Take, for example, "All Along Watchtower". It can be read one way on the page without any singing or instruments (I read the tone very different than the album version - pleading, desperate); however, listening to his version off of "John Wesley Harding" can impart a different mood and voice (laconic, matter-of-fact). Then, take Hendrix's electrified version and the song takes on a completely different meaning (apocalyptically urgent, intensely fried) . It's great Literature either way and up for endless interpretation.
There is also the argument that a lot of modern Literature, and even some of the writers that were/are also in consideration for the Nobel (Murakami is the most obvious), wouldn't be possible without Dylan's lyrics. His influence both on artists and language is undeniable and, at least in my opinion, larger than any other modern writer.
Dylan's lyrics contain everything great Literature has: story, characters, conflict, theme, and a universal appeal. They can be read off the page, sung to yourself while you walk up a stream, witnessed in concert with thousands of others, performed by anyone, and translated into other languages. Without Dylan's work, the culture of the world and the literary landscape would be without a foundational block that thousands have used in order to create their own art.
The sultry September summer air drifted in through the open doors of the theater mixing the smell of decaying plaster and patchouli; reminiscent of the mixed generations of people who showed up for a beautifully intimate performance by Steve Gunn in the lobby of the historic Lansdowne Theater. Industrial fans, set up like sentries at both sides of the lobby where the bathrooms once were, blew through the heavy humidity. Light, occasionally flickering in, found its way onto the ancient scrolls of flaking paint on the walls and ornate carvings marking steps across the ceiling. Faded paintings of ships sailed above the cracked concrete where fountains used to stand and greet visitors.
With, at most, 100 seats, the lobby was completely full of people as an old friend of Mr. Gunn's took the stage to introduce him. His preamble was an amazing, rambling homage to the community that he and Steve created in Lansdowne as kids. It marked the occasion perfectly; this was a homecoming and a celebration of community, of saving a special part of the past for the future while performing in the present. As an outsider who never stepped foot in Lansdowne and, honestly, only came because I am in love with Gunn's music, I was moved by the connections to place, home, and family that were celebrated at last night's show that was set up to raise money to restore the Lansdowne Theater.
The meandering introduction to "Water Wheel", relaxed and cyclical, like a a small stream low after a long drought gently pushing the wheel for another spin, set the rhythm for the night. Each song was full of Gunn's sweat and sweet improvisation. "Night Wanderer", about a cat prowling around Lansdowne at night, was next and the first track played off of his latest record, Eyes on the Lines. The song, stripped down like it was, connected eloquently back to the introduction and the powerful connection to this austere place the audience and musician have.
I was giddy when Gunn took a few minutes to tune his guitar and mention that, because of the heat, he was going to take the next song slow and that "it'll be kind of long". I knew it was going to be "Old Strange", a personal favorite of mine. Gunn played the intro for a few minutes and abruptly stopped to let us know that it was borrowed from an old Greek folk tune and that the song was in honor of a local Greek Pizzeria, which drew a loud applause from the hometown crowd. There's this lick inside of that track that, even when the music goes far beyond where it started, is still lifting the tune on its back and taking it through the dark woods and a "path through the fields/to find out what was real....". That riff shows up throughout my days, playing a subtle rhythm while I'm teaching the kids about the rhetorical situation or mowing my grass or walking Whitman down to the river. It's beautiful and I never want it to end. I could have sat there on that hard plastic folding chair with my eyes closed and listened to him play that song for hours, days, forever, just to watch that melody come back and leave, come back, leave, diminish, then expand, endlessly going back and forth and reaching itself out like a patch of mint that grows and dies and with each death comes back even taller and further out from where it sprouted.
Gunn then went into a set of newer numbers from the last two records - "Ancient Jules", "Milly's Garden", "Way Out Weather" and "Ark" with winsome stories about his championship youth soccer team (which, I think, Kurt Vile also played on), skateboarding in the parking lot out back, and his short run with the Boy Scouts scattered throughout. "Milly's Garden" was more of an improvisational track. He sang the first stanza a few times until eventually making his way to the chorus. We were left to fill in the rest of the lyrics as he kept coming back to remind us that "...your faith is savage, your mind is damaged, you're more than halfway there..." while taking the song into all the corners and cracks of the lobby. "Ancient Jules" has been the soundtrack to my summer since it came out earlier this year with the lines "take your time, ease up, look around, and waste the day". It was my mantra for my summer vacation and it took me to some beautiful places. Thank you, Steve.
The show ended with "Wildwood", which Gunn mentioned was his father's, who recently passed, favorite song. He dedicated it to his mother and sister who were in the audience and mentioned how much it meant for him to play it that night; a perfect ending to this great homecoming and celebration of place, family, friends, and great music.
Way Out Weather
I stumbled upon the name "Raftman's Path" walking the river trail that traverses through the little town I live in. It was named during the days when lumber was a huge commodity in this area. The Susquehanna River was an industrial thoroughfare - bearing down loads of lumber from the northern reaches of Pennsylvania towards the Chesapeake. Marietta was a stopping point, a place for the lumber either to go to the mills lining its banks or shoot further downstream through pig iron smoke. Raftmen would guide the lumber down to the mouth of the Susquehanna into the Chesapeake - an estuary of salt, water, lumber, ore, eel and shad. When their job was done, they would walk the raftman's path back through the Susquehanna Riverlands of Lancaster County towards their homes. The path is now wooded and meanders through some of the only "wild" places left in the county.