I was selected as one of the Artists in Residence for The Bob Marshall Wilderness Area which gave me the opportunity to stay at Spruce Park Cabin along the Middlefork of the Flathead River for two weeks. Backcountry, off-the-grid, solo.
I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity and honored that I was chosen. These two weeks gave me the space to finish my next poetry collection, start another, work on some essays, and gather. Gather. That was my goal and theme for this trip. I didn’t want to force myself to work on anything in particular. Instead, I just wanted to be present, to experience it, and to gather as much as I could (and to hopefully give back in some way). Below are just some diary-style entries along with some photos of my two weeks as a way to share some of the experience.
Thank you to The Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, Hockaday Museum of Art, Swan Valley Connections, and the Flathead National Forest for giving me this amazing opportunity. Big thanks to Frank and his mules for carrying all my stuff to and from the cabin!
Day One – Saturday
I met Frank and Meg at the Bear Creek Trailhead around 9. Frank is a packer/mule skinner and is on The Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation Board. Meg works for The BMWF managing their trail crews. She introduced me to the mules as Frank started weighing and balancing my gear – Saltese (gentle, but a troublemaker), Star, Honey, Penny, Rev, and Morley who’s blind in one eye. They packed my gear within an hour and we started hiking up the Big River Trail. I hiked behind the mule string, and since Morley was in the rear, we got to know each other pretty well. I forgot how good it is to hike in the rhythm of a mule string. They kept good pace. Every once in a while, Frank would turn and tell a story or point out some trees. We passed through some larch that were over 100 years old, survivors of the last burn. You could still see fire scars at their base. Imagine holding a scar that long, growing with it.
It took us about two hours to get to Spruce Park, which is, in some ways, a bit like a compound. It’s got an outhouse, a fenced in yard for the mules, a workshop shed for trail work & tools, and the cabin. Frank and Meg unloaded my stuff, we had lunch on the porch, and they went on their way. I busied myself opening the windows, getting water, unpacking my food, settling in. Of course the first thing I did once I was settled was go to the river and fish the two big runs right below the cabin. It felt good wading in sandals. It felt good to be here. It felt good to catch whitefish and cutthroats on dry flies. Whitefish are incredible fighters, don’t ignore them.
A group of paddlers showed up just as I started swimming and they camped behind the cabin. Another group of hikers showed up towards evening and they camped down at the beach. I sat on the Spruce Park Ledge and watched the day fade into night. It’s a good spot.
Day Two - Sunday
My first morning and I quickly fell in love with how the light first touches Java Mountain to the southwest and slowly crawls down its face until it hits the water and the trees behind me, which then cast these big tree-shadows across the river. I love watching the day unfold like this. Mornings and evenings. They are beautiful times in the day.
I drank coffee and watched the sun crawl until I couldn’t stand it anymore and hiked downstream to the start of the Spruce Park Rapids. This is a slot canyon that once you enter, there is no getting out until you run it. I fished back up to the cabin and had my first afternoon alone. I was surprised at how easy it was to catch fish. Just throw anything with purple in it and the cutthroat would reach up from the clear water and take it. I had trouble getting my timing down because I wasn’t used to being able to see a fish reaching that far and that long for a fly. It was beautiful.
The afternoons are the hardest – they are hot and the flies are relentless. I napped, I read, I convinced myself this was going to be all worth it.
I went swimming at the hottest part of the day, made dinner, and watched the evening settle on my ledge. This ledge will be where I spend my mornings and evenings. It’s my anchor to the world. My timepiece. My home.
Day Three - Monday
Another morning, another beautiful sunrise. I left the cabin around ten after listening to the fire lookouts report in on the radio and made my way to Long Creek. I crossed the Middle Fork and scrambled around, making my way up Charlie Creek, until realizing I missed the trail. I bushwhacked up a pretty steep hillside until I found it and worked my way up Charlie Creek trail until its junction with Spruce Point. I quickly hit switch backs and gained quite a bit of elevation until finally reaching a knoll full of wildflowers and concrete abutments that used to hold a fire lookout.
One false peak after another, but each one with a better view of the entire Great Bear Wilderness. The last three miles of the trail was along a ridge that ended with quite a long scramble to Spruce Point which looked out over Mt. Baptiste, Red Sky Mountain, Prospector Mountain, Mt. Bradley, Vinegar Mountain, and Hematite Peak. It was an incredible hike that kicked my ass. Well worth it. I got back to camp around 5 and went swimming and sat on the beach behind the cabin. The cold water felt good on my sore muscles.
It felt good to finally gain some elevation and to see out across these mountains, to get my bearings a bit. To the west, Mt. Baptiste sat up high, cradling Cup Lake where its trees started to grow. I quickly fell in love with that mountain and how it sprawled across the horizon. Mt. Baptiste. A good guardian of this wilderness.
Day Four – Tuesday
I woke up a bit later than normal with my muscles sore from yesterday’s hike. The sun had yet to reach the river, so I quickly got my fishing stuff ready, brewed some coffee, and headed upstream. I started with a purple haze in the low light of dawn and had consistent hook-ups. Once the sun hit the water, right around 9, caddis started popping so I switched up flies and it was pretty much game-on for the next hour. Every other cast a nice cuttie to hand. I hooked a solid 18” at the head of a pool and was about to land him when he shook me off. Damn barbless hooks. I’ll go back this evening.
I spent the afternoon lying in the hammock along the ledge, reading, letting the wind rock me back and forth. The wind was pretty fierce all day and it brought with it the smoky haze from fires out in Oregon and California. The closest thing I have to news out here, I guess.
I went back to the river in the evening and had a solid time throwing caddis. I’m loving using my 7’6” 4 weight fiberglass rod. It covers just enough water and throws dries beautifully. I landed a solid 16” cutthroat right before the rain. They seem to be really keyed in on dark bodied caddis flies. I went back to camp and sat on the porch and wrote postcards and little poems until a young mule deer came into camp. She wasn’t sure of me at first, but quickly got used to me and we hung out for an hour or so, talking about the rain and the fires and the horseflies. It was a good evening. I fell asleep to the thrumming of grouse.
Day Five – Wednesday
“We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.”
I woke up to rain. A nice subtle steady rain. Which meant that my original plan of getting on the water early quickly changed to sitting on the porch and drinking coffee and watching the rain and just being here in this wildness. That’s one thing I love about being back here – my time is sculpted by the world around me – I wait to wake up until I see the sun touch the top of Java Mountain, I know I should be finishing my coffee by the time the light hits the river; if it rains, I sit on the porch; if it’s hot, I go down to the swimming hole and spend the hottest part of the day in the cold water – my life is shaped and sculpted by this wildness.
I went to the river late morning while it was still raining, but once the sun hit the water, the cutties started looking up. They were on anything purple or caddis all day. I fished upstream until I hit a trib which I hiked up a bit until I found a nice set of plunge pools. There’s something intimate I love about small streams. I found some solid little cutthroats and then turned back when it got too brushy. I think I’m the weariest when I’m in thick brush in this landscape – if I can’t see around me in order to have an idea of what is out there, I’m quick to move on. There are only so many Warren Zevon songs I know that I can sing to keep the bears at a safe distance.
I headed a bit further up the Middle Fork into another large, emerald pool. These pools are so deep and so clear that they seem best just for looking at and swimming in. A fish sees you long before your sight even reaches bottom. But Lord are they beautiful to watch. The last remnants of the ancient sea this landscape used to be. I’ve found that most of the fish hold up in the runs coming into these deep pools because of the low river levels. Since it was a bit later in the day, I tied on something big, foamy, and purple and within the first three casts I hooked a solid 16”-18" fish that took me downstream through almost the entire long pool. I finally worked it into the shallows and released it. I landed a few more in the 14”-16” range and decided that the day had been good, it was time to go back to camp for my daily swim.
Day 6 – Thursday
I hiked up the Big River Trail a good bit today to see more of this drainage. The trail stays pretty high up off the water so you get some really great views of the river, its tributaries, and the surrounding mountains. I had lunch at Lunch Creek and was hoping to see the infamous dead elk and to have a conversation with it; however, they had just floated it down to the next bend (there’s an outfitter that uses that place to take people back on horses and to have lunch for day trips). I was bummed about that, but it’s all good in the backcountry. I had lunch, fished for a bit, then headed back downstream to another tributary that I saw on the way up. I noticed some really sweet long deep riffles that I wanted to fish. I bushwhacked down to the stream from the trail, switched my hiking boots for sandals (I find that my Bedrock sandals are just as good for wading as my wading boots are), and tied on something purple. When in doubt, tie any fly that has some purple in it.
I fished up through the deep riffles, landed multiple fish in the 12”-16” range all on a big purple foam fly. It was a blast. I’m finding that my 7’6” 4 weight fiberglass rod is the perfect rod for this river. Though it is pretty low right now so maybe with high flows I would need more rod. Who knows? I’m fishing what I have and having a blast. Fish what you have. Have a blast. (Someone should put that on a t-shirt). I made it up to the last run at the edge of a deep emerald pool (there are so many) at a bend in the river when I notice some dust and scurrying upstream and I see my first grizzly scampering down a scree slope about 50 yards upstream of me. The wind turns and is at my back and it finally notices me, stops, stares, then tucks itself behind a few white pines where we watch each other for a bit. We have a nice conversation about our favorite Tom Petty songs (he loves “Even the Losers” while I love “Walls” and we both agree that Echoes is an incredibly underrated gem of an album) and then he turns and saunters upstream and I stumble back downstream where I fish for a few more minutes before putting my rod away, lacing up my boots, and hiking back to camp.
Guess what I did when I got back to camp? Yup. My daily ritual of swimming in the river behind camp. It’s cold, but damn does it feel good. I made some dinner, read for a little, then sat on my ledge looking over the river and wrote all through last light.
First light and last light, they are sacred times. I’ve been catching them every day.
This backcountry living is simple – tie something purple on, saunter up some streams, lose yourself in the deep woods, watch the light crawl its way over mountains, watch the mountains, cover yourself in river, repeat.
Days 7 & 8 – Friday & Saturday
The last couple days have been a blur, in a good way. They have just melted into each other. I’ve spent my time hiking, fishing, exploring around camp. I’ve caught some beautiful fish and have seen some beautiful mountains. I’m past the halfway point of this residency. It’s been wild. It’s been amazing. It’s been inspiring. It’s been hard. It’s been full of all the emotions – which I guess it should be for it to be a full experience – fear, self-doubt, contentment, wonder, gratitude, loneliness, sadness, joy. I’ve felt them all at various times and I will continue to do so. That’s life. To say I’m not looking forward to home would be a lie, but I’m trying to live deliberately here, now, while I can. I’m going to take the next few days to hike up a new mountain and explore some more water, and go back to some places I went the first week. I’m reminded of that A.R. Ammons line from Corsons Inlet –
“…but enjoying the freedom that
Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of
that I have perceived nothing completely,
that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.”
Each day I remind myself that this is all new – even the trail I’ve already hiked or the run I’ve already fished – there is just so much to see and notice and be part of it. I try to be present for as much of it as I can. I try.
This place will forever be with me.
Day 10 - Monday
Ah our first real rainstorm! Deep thunder! Relentless rain! All socked in, nowhere to go. Yes! I was hoping for a couple of days like this. The rain settled in Sunday night and stayed pretty steady throughout the night. I sat on the porch Sunday night and wrote and listened to the water falling. Lucy, the whitetail deer, came back through the meadow at dusk. We discussed our shared love of rain and how it pounds down the horseflies. We both lamented the moment it would stop and the mosquitoes that would follow, but we didn’t hover on that too long for we wanted to enjoy the rain as much as possible. I fell asleep to it and woke to a morning full of fog and clouds lolling around the valley. I made some coffee and sat in my chair on the ledge at the end of the meadow and for four or five hours, simply watched the fog cling to the tops of pine and fir before lifting skyward.
That evening the valley was still filled with fog so I did what I did earlier and sat on the ledge and watched as the river steamed and exhaled these long clouds that wrapped their way around the curves of the mountains. They seemed to linger much longer than the ones in the morning. Perhaps they didn’t want to go moonward, perhaps they liked it along the river, like I do.
That was my day. Watching fog and clouds drift off the river, sitting in the cool misty breeze of the remnants of the rain storm.
Yesterday, I found elk antlers cradled against a rock, crick water holding its tips submerged.
Today, my world grew smaller, but denser, submerged in a wet cold front.
Day 12 – Wednesday
It smelled like smoke all day today. There must be fires somewhere, though I haven’t gotten any news in almost two weeks. I listen to the radio almost all the time while I’m at camp. It feels good to be part of conversations even when I don’t know any of the people and never say anything other than my daily check-in at noon. One of the best stanzas I’ve heard was just last night –
“It just goes on and on and on with nothing
getting done but a bunch of hard work”
Yup. That’s life, isn’t it? Such a beautiful thing, this life we get to live. It just goes on and on and on with nothing getting done. Shit, that might be the epigraph for my next poetry collection.
Today, my nothing-that-got-done was hiking up Vinegar Mountain, which sits right behind camp. I’ve been looking at it since I got here. The trail meanders up through a couple of little ravines before hitting one last switchback which draws you out across the long face of the mountain. At one point, you hit a slight ridge that lets you peak over to the other side of the mountain down into Elk Lake. The wildfire haze was pretty thick so I couldn’t get too far of a view. I passed a few fresh signs of bear scat, but I didn’t see any bear.
The trail eventually hits a slight scree slop and you’ve got to watch your footing or else you’ll slip and slide for quite a while. The rock reminds me of shale – crumbling, breaking in long sheaths. I love when you get to the alpine point where trees start to get stouter and the flora changes. I wish I knew the names of all the plants and animals I see. There’s a Gary Snyder stanza about that… learning the plants…
Anyway, there is no clear trail up to the actual peak of Vinegar, the main trail circles around it before venturing further south towards Mt. Bradley or you can hit a junction and drop down into Elk Lake. I found the longest, slightest grade up to the peak through a ridge of mountain grass (I’ll have to find the proper term for the plant, but it looked like grass to me!) and picked my way slowly up to the highest point. Someone built a little cairn at the top. The peak had lightning charred logs strewn about it and the remnants of still-standing-dead-fir blanketed the northern slope. God, I love being at the top of mountains. I become undone, completely open to possibility, stitches unstitch, routines dissipate into rituals.
I ate a lunch (an everything bagel with almond butter and Nutella, an apple, some beef jerky) and leaned against my pack and dozed a bit as the smoke finally cleared and the flies found me. Since I was the only living thing up there, once the flies found me, they became relentless in their attachment. I decided to head back down, which I did. Going down was quicker, but I find that hiking down mountains is harder on my feet and knees than going up. Nothing that a nice long swim in the cold river couldn’t ease up. It did.
Three more nights. I’m going to make some burritos, lay in the hammock, and watch the last light slowly come.
Last night I woke to mice in the attic (it sounded like they were playing soccer) and went outside and saw a shooting start streak across The Milky Way.
Day 14 – Friday
I’ve spent the last two days fishing. It’s been spectacular. On Thursday, I took my 9’ 5 wt. upstream and fished a good few miles of the river, all the way up to a tributary near a dead elk carcass and back where I saw the first grizzly. All day I fished a purple hopper with a purple haze trailing it and all day I was picking up really nice Westlope Cutthroats. It was good, simple fishing. My favorite stretch was where the stream narrowed, with a bank of alders to my back and a giant piece of Belt Rock full of ripples and waves across the stream. How did this rock erode like this? Man, what a massive force of water and glacier and time it had to take to cut the stream like this. I stayed in the run for quite a long time – fishing, looking at the rock, trying to take it all in. I fished all the way up until I got hungry. I stopped and ate lunch and laid across a rock eddy for a bit and then put a streamer on to fish back down.
My favorite lunchtime/afternoon rest time along the stream game is “pick a rock across the river and see how many times you can hit it with rocks.” I’ve spent many hot afternoons playing this game. You have to find various ways to entertain yourself when you are solo in the backcountry for two weeks…
I haven’t been fishing the streamer much, but I felt like a change of pace and it felt like the right move with the wind coming up from downstream and me fishing back that way. There were also so incredibly deep pools I just had to gauge with it. Almost immediately I had cutthroat chase the streamer. I worked my way downstream like that - swinging the streamer, fighting cutthroats, the release. The simple motions of half circles and trout flicking out of your hand once unhooked.
On Friday I took my morning nice and slow, drinking coffee, watching the river, writing. I hiked down to the start of the Spruce Gorge and fished my way back with my 7’6” 4 weight glass rod. I tied on a purple hopper and fished that all day. In the first run I fished, I had a Bull Trout take the hopper. A nice one at that. You aren’t allowed to target Bulls on this river, which I wasn’t. It seems like it’s inevitable you’ll get into one here and there just while you are fishing for cutthroats. I was blessed to have a few nice encounters.
I am full. I am content. I am blessed and so incredibly grateful for this experience. I can’t even begin to fully know how much this has affected me. A few things I do know: I’m going away with no “I wish I had” statements – I fished, I wrote, I explored, I sunk in, I climbed mountains, I opened myself up to this wild place and let it shape me. I hope I can give back to it. I hope I can honor it.
These wild places, they are sacred. They are necessary. They are beautiful. They are intrinsic to our humanity. Without them, we lose all sense of our ecological past, present, and future.
I'm incredibly honored to be part of this great, in-depth feature on the Susquehanna River & Chesapeake Bay - Killing the Chesapeake.
You can hear the following poems read by me at the end of each article:
"Shad Flakes" - Damned if you dredge, damned if you don't
"Cleft Lip" - PA's Polluted Susquehanna River is Poisoning the Bay.
"Upon Hearing that Snakehead Catfish Passed through the Conowingo Dam Fish Ladder" - 3 Iconic Susquehanna Species Struggle to Survive
"Native, Wild, Invasive" - Fishing for Monsters 'Out of the Abyss'
"How to Run the Rapids at Shocks Mill Bridge" - The 444 Club: Boating the entire Susquehanna River propels paddlers into another world
"Dead Water Deities" - This 'dead creek' runs orange with acid mine discharge
Making mix tapes and playlists is a kind of metaphysical act for me. The pressing of the play and record button down at the same time, the click of the reels, the hiss of the tape, the sharing of a link, the finding of the perfect opening and closing songs, the tracking, the cover art, the mystery of just how this music will be received—it creates an ethereal bond between the artist and the listener and the giver and the receiver. A communion. A faith in Side B.
The poet Kim Addonizio invented the sonnenizio when she published "Sonnenizio on a Line from Drayton." Take a line from an existing sonnet, use it as the opening line for a new sonnet, repeat one word (in some form) from that first line in all the following lines, and then end with a rhyming couplet. There exists in this creation: something formal, but not too formal, and a dialogue with another work of poetry or a poet.
When Andrew reached out with his songenizio idea, I jumped at the chance to create a playlist for someone I had never met (what better way to introduce yourself?) and to discover new music. I’ve never really enjoyed writing formal poetry. I’m much more of a rambler. My poems take the shape of the rivers I wade, so I was a bit apprehensive about writing in a set form, but I went with it anyway, the excitement of sharing songs just too hard to pass up.
Sharing music has always been a way for me to share stories and experiences. Here, check this Cass McCombs track out, maybe that melody will catch you like it did me as a bat careened across a full moon silhouetting a dying campfire. Maybe you can feel that smoke smoldering in those Steve Gunn guitar licks. Maybe you can smell the honeysuckle along the river lifting that Woods chorus into a holy mantra.
The quarantine, which had just started when Andrew reached out, magnified the power of formal poetry and the experience of sharing music. All of a sudden, I lost almost all human interaction and the energy that I fed off of and my days lost their structure. It was my daily bike ride along the river and listening to Andrew’s playlist that gave me something to hold onto during those early days of the pandemic. It became a way of communicating with someone through song. Each one was a little piece of kindling we handed each other, waiting to see what kind of fire the other would create in their own isolation. A conversation centered on music and poetry. What a beautiful thing. Writing these poems in this form gave me a structure I needed during a time when all the structures I knew were disintegrating. Music and poetry have the power to give us something we never knew we needed.
All proceeds from this chapbook will directly go to the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund: sweetrelief.org
* None of the musical artists listed were involved in the production of these poems beyond their words serving as first line and inspiration.
To Purchase this Chapbook :
Digital - Bandcamp
Paper - Amazon
I am not here to lament all that we've supposedly lost due to the digital age. Nah. I love my Apple Music (though I wish streaming paid artists more) - I love how easy it is to FIND new music and to share that music and to listen to that music. I still buy records, occasionally, of my favorite albums. It's good to have a physical copy of something - there is a ritual to putting on a record. Just like there is a ritual to listening to all the Dylan bootlegs I have on cassette. Sure I could easily download them, but it's just not the same - I want that distant feeling like he is actually off on stage and I'm sitting in the grass of a general admissions show. BUT there is one thing I miss. The Hidden Track.
The Hidden Track was like a secret, shared moment you had with the others that found it. Back before we could Tweet out links to our favorite songs or share playlists, the ways to share music were much more direct, connected. You could listen, together, to a song in the car. You could make a mix tape and give it to the person (man do I miss mix tapes). You could go see it live and experience it that way. But for me, as a teenager without a car, the hidden track was a beautiful little gem that you found and held and hoped that others did as well.
Here are two of my favorite hidden tracks -
Live - "Horse" from Throwing Copper
My sisters and I shared a cassette tape of this album and whenever we were going someone, we made my parents put this into the tape deck of our Dodge Caravan Minivan. I was lucky and always got the middle bench seat to myself whereas my two older sisters had to share the back. Anyway. Live was a local band - they were from York, we lived in Lancaster just across the river. They were IT. They were OUR band and we knew every single word to that album. But I always loved the last song... which was really two songs. "White, Discussion" is a political song - I knew that then - but never really understood what it was about. I just loved that it was political - it spoke to my burgeoning rebellion (which eventually lead to an obsessive Rage Against the Machine/AIM/Free Leonard Peltier phase) against everything that the little suburban Christian conservative town I lived in represented - and especially the way he just yells and screams "Look where all this talking got us, baby!" over and over and over as it fades to black and the cassette, you can still hear the plastic cogs turning in the player and then "1,2,3,4" and an acoustic guitar and cymbal splash and this beautiful pedal steel guitar and now I'm along the river, sitting on a porch watching mayflies gather for their last hoorah around the one light and "Horses," "Horses" this perfect song, this hidden song, perfect for the cassette tape with that spinning plastic and crinkly tape added an ethereal layer to that song, another long lonesome whine of the pedal steel. And you listen to it hoping that someone else, somewhere also found this beautiful little nugget of music and a hidden track becomes a shared experience.
"Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - "Zero is Also a Number" - The X-Files Soundtrack
Oh man. Much like "Horses" was perfect for the cassette tape, "Zero is Also a Number" was perfect for the CD. It was MADE for the CD. It could only EXIST because of the CD. I was pretty obsessed with The X-Files as a 13-14 year old. I loved staying up for it every Friday night and the weirdness it projected into the mundane existence of 8th and 9th grade. They eventually released a soundtrack - Songs in the Key of X - an incredible collection of music that had the likes of Sheryl Crow next to Soul Coughing and Burroughs and R.E.M.
But what made this hidden song the, in my opinion, best hidden song ever, is that you needed to have a CD and needed to read the liner notes to catch that little blurb at the top that "Nick Cave and the Dirty Three would like you to know that '0' is also a number." Holy shit. HOLY SHIT. HOLY SHIT! Okay, so let me put the CD in and have it start on track one, then let's hold down the "back" button and HOLY SHIT NOW THE NUMBERS ARE GOING NEGATIVE HOLY SHIT HOW LONG IS THIS??? It went all the way back to like "-10:00" and then you let it ride and you hear what I think is one of the most beautiful, transcendent pieces of music from this group of artists.
You are transported into what feels like an actual X-Files episode - it's dark, it's dreamy, it's creepy, there are people flitting in and out like ghosts. Goddamn. The lyrics are sparse and the interplay between Cave's voice and Warren's violin tells its own story, a story within a story. But the story centers around "being called to the forest" and that image, that call to action, appears quite randomly throughout my days, still. The song seems to find itself as it develops, it's a story being told, that doesn't seem to be written down, but is finding itself as it is played - much like how you have to find the actual song. And that discovery is communal, a shared experience built on faith that others have also put the clues together.
John Prine's passing is devastating on many levels. It's hard to express just how much his music influenced me in a few lines or tweets or Youtube video shares on Facebook. So here are a few vignettes.
First Encounter - Pittsburgh
Back in Freshman year of college, 2001!, I would go to the Carnegie Library and check out Cds (!!) so I could burn them and listen to them on my portable CD Player (!!) as I walked around campus. Pittsburgh was the first big city I ever lived in and that freshman year was tough. That concrete watershed seemed to amplify every sound and every light. I was constantly overwhelmed by all the noise and traffic and people. But I loved it all the same, especially when I put on my headphones and just escaped into an inner world within the city. Headphones and my bike. Those were my escapes. Those were my tools for handling that transition. Back to the library. One day I came across Prine's album Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings. I had heard Prine before, even had his self-titled album on record and thoroughly enjoyed it. However, Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, produced by the late, great Howie Epstein (bass player for the Heartbreakers), was just so fucking beautiful. From that orchestral opening of "New Train" to that great slow blues bass line of "I Ain't Hurtin' Nobody" and then the epic, gorgeous "Lake Marie." What a fucking masterpiece. My Freshman year was defined by two albums that I played on repeat as I explored the steep city streets of Pittsburgh - Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Without Prine and Tweedy, I don't think I could have made it.
Pacific Crest Trail
A few years later I found myself living out of a backpacking doing trail work on the Pacific Crest Trail in California. We'd go into the backcountry for ten days, build trails, then spend four days off traveling to our next site, gorging on burritos and In-N-Out Burger, drinking beer. We were constantly haggard and smelly and it was a wonderful existence - never knowing exactly where you'd be setting up your tent, traversing the California mountains. One morning we woke up on the beach surrounded by gigantic Redwoods, a herd of elk, and seals playing in the water. One morning we woke up to the Santa Anna Winds tearing through our camp, literally ripping our tents. One morning we woke up to a blizzard up in the Siskiyou. One morning we woke up in the middle of the night because the full moon was so bright in the Mojave Desert it was impossible to sleep so we stayed up and watched the silhouettes of Joshua Trees slowly meander across the Desert floor. One morning we woke up in the Emigrant Wilderness to see only the eyes of coyotes circling us in our sleeping bags.
Anyway. We'd have these long drives between work sites (trailheads). California is big. And my tentmate Tom had this Cd-r (!) recording of Prine's 2005 Bonnaroo Concert. We played that show on repeat. It was such an incredible recording. Prine was in prime form, bringing out "Your Flag Decal" out of retirement (Iraq War) and dedicating "Some Humans Ain't Human" to Bush. "All the Best" - it's an emergency song! Good luck! And then ending with "Lake Marie" and "Paradise". That record took us up and down the coast of California. It was a soundtrack to a transformative time of my life.
And that's just a sliver of what Prine has meant to me. There's the concert in Pittsburgh that Steiner and I went to, years after graduating college. We rode through the dark city down to see Prine and then took the long way home along abandoned railroad tracks, finding places along the Allegheny to stop and drink and smoke and watch the slow river burn its way under those bridges.
There are all those countless nights of sitting around a fire in my back yard listening to Prine, helping me center myself in this big old goofy world. There are the countless singalongs to "Lake Marie" and the yelling of SHADOWS! SHADOWS! at random times during the day and immediately breaking out into reckless laughter. God damn. What does blood look like on a black & white TV? SHADOWS!!!
That’s the genius of Prine. Even the sad shit is hilarious. Just like life. Every time I’ve felt like complete shit in this life, I just put on Prine and everything slowly gets put back into place. I go back to when I was working trails in Maine and Dean and I would sing Prine songs while we worked, making the incessant black-fly bites tolerable. Thank you Mr. Prine, for not just making this world tolerable, but for making it beautiful, for being a soundtrack for so much of my life.
I've always loved fishing in the winter. It may be harder to catch anything, but there are far fewer people and with all the undergrowth dormant, you can really see the riverine landscape you're exploring. I started the year with a pretty beautiful brown trout and then began to fall in love with exploring post-industrial watersheds.
I took advantage of the high water we had throughout the spring and fished smaller streams for large brown trout. I also continued exploring streams throughout the Pennsylvania anthracite region that are in acid-mine recovery. Some of these streams have brookies and browns returning and thriving in their orange waters. I also landed what was probably my personal best wild brown trout while casting a black woolly bugger upstream and stripping it down through a riffle into a deep hole under a sycamore tree.
Summer was fun. I started it off up in Potter County for the annual #POCO trip and ended up finding some beautiful brook trout elders in small streams. Then, we took a few days in the Catskills before I ventured up to the West Branch of the Penobscot in Maine for a week of fishing. Maine was, as always, beautiful and inspiring. But this time the fishing was tough due to their long, wet spring and the black flies were mind-bogglingly torturous. Finally, I ended the summer with a ten day trip out to Yellowstone and the Bighorns with a good friend I hadn't seen in years. I ended up camping 4 out of the 12 weeks I had off. The only downside to this summer was the lack of good bass fishing on the Susquehanna River. Something is up with that waterway.
After my epic summer of traveling and camping, I slowed down quite a bit in the fall. I went back to work and fell into that routine. I didn't catch a ton of fish, but I did manage to land a few really nice ones. I was really hoping to finally get into some bass on the Susquehanna River, but the river never really seemed to wake up. I did manage to get into two of the most beautiful trout I've ever landed.
A former student surprised me with an incredibly gift of two prints for my poem, "How to Live Away from Home," she made for a final project in one of her college classes. I really love her design and the way she interpreted this piece.
I recently wrote two short essays - one on the inspiration and craft behind my poem, "Deer Mountain," and another recommended the great song "Old Strange" by Steve Gunn.
You can find them here: