Sometimes, what you can walk to is all you need.
by Reid Bryant
First published in Gray’s Sporting Journal May/June 2013
We stopped between Missoula and Craig at a little place just outside Lincoln everyone said made a good breakfast. By the time we reached the cafe, a high sun was shining through a door left open to the mild April morning, streaking light across the linoleum. We took seats at the counter.
We’d come to Montana to escape a New England spring that hung heavy as a rain-soaked sweater, and to catch fish we couldn’t catch back home. Kim and I were still a little ragged after the long flight from Boston. A couple of runaround nights at Charlie D’s with our old friend Breuer hadn’t improved our condition. Breuer was no stranger to last calls at the Missoula bars, and yet he somehow managed to look and sound as fresh as ever on the morning ride over the pass. Too bleary to be forewarned, we let Breuer order breakfast.
“Three egg sandwiches with bacon, three cinnamon buns, and three double Bloody Marys, real spicy. Wait. Can you replace the sandwich bread with the cinnamon buns?”
The lady behind the counter just looked at him.
“Okay, keep them separate, but we don’t want any celery taking up space in those drinks.” He flashed a smile, pushed back from the counter, and disappeared behind a swinging door marked Cowpokes
The place was all but empty. What attention remained was on us. There’s no mistaking out-of-towners.
One crusty cowboy with a wandering eye and a slouch Stetson leered at us from the end of the counter. I tried to navigate his gaze, which I assumed was all over Kim, though with the fallout from last night it was hard to tell exactly. Our cinnamon buns arrived from the microwave, dripping white goo and flanked by blobs of melting butter.
With the lady behind the counter still staring, I felt duty-bound to prove my mettle, and hacked through the butter and sugar and a wave of nausea. I swallowed forcibly and held down the mess with effort, thinking I’d make few friends in a little place that made a good breakfast by puking across the counter.
The sweat soaking through my cotton shirt was easily 70 proof.
We made the Missouri by late morning, and got the dope at Headhunters and another Bloody Mary across the street. It was a typical scene at the put-in, but we got away from the ramp and headed out for our first drop, the car sounds fading into a high-desert symphony of wind and water and a sky so agape and empty it seemed to roar.
On the water, those whirring gears of travel thunked into place, as the rhythms around us caught up with themselves and fixed us firmly into the landscape. The day turned perfect, holding all the things we’d come for: epic trout that didn’t come too easily, and blistering sunburns. We drifted casually but fished with intent, throwing Hail-Mary nymph rigs into a parched prairie wind. It was one of those days so high and bright it made us feel like we were doing something big, really covering ground, even though we drifted only a few short miles from the dam back to town. That feeling alone wore us out, aided by the laughter and the beers and the accumulation of way-too-late nights.
We took the last and best fish of the day on dries as the wind died, and we pulled the boat into Craig with a couple hours of daylight left for the drive. Breuer stashed the oars and dumped the ice and took down the rods, shoved a wad of cash in our hands and sent us back across the street for a round of six-o’clocktails. “Get ’em in to-go cups,” he hollered.
We stopped in Lincoln for the second time that day under a star-filled sky, sunburned and worn down and happy. The morning’s hangover had long ago evaporated like the morning fog, and Kim and I were nearly as brazen as Breuer as we spilled back into our breakfast joint, which had matured into the honky-tonk bar it had aspired to be 12 hours prior. Our crusty, amblyopic cowboy hadn’t moved from his seat, and the only stools available were the three right next to him. Breuer’s desire to hold court between me and Kim, and my desire to keep her as far as possible from the cowboy’s wandering gaze, left few options, and I plunked down onto the stool to his left.
He radiated a sour smell, an old man’s smell of sweat and cheap aftershave and stale cigarettes, and I glanced at him sideways, trying to take him all in on the sly. With barely a move, he tipped his hat at me, or more likely at Kim. Breuer ordered a round of beers for us all, and the cowboy tipped his hat again.
“You ain’t from around here, are you?” I could barely hear him over the jukebox thrum of Johnny Cash.
“Huh?” I turned nervously to face him.
“I said you ain’t from around here.” He was telling me, now. I scooched my stool closer to Breuer.
“Naw. From out east. Massachusetts. Just here in Montana for a few days.” I gripped my beer with both hands.
“Massachusetts, huh?” He pushed back his stool and looked at me, and pulled a pack of Reds from his shirt pocket. “I thought about taking college out there for a while, out in Cambridge, but I stayed here instead.” I couldn’t tell if he was joking. “They got elk out there?”
“Nope.” We were warming to each other. Tons to talk about.
“Some. Brookies mainly, but some decent tailwater fishing for rainbows and browns.”
“But tell me this.” He leaned in close and locked me down with his rheumy eyes. “What kind of fishing you got within walking distance?” He pushed his hat back, drained half his beer, and leaned back to survey me.
I sat there a minute thinking. Maybe I misunderstood. “What do you mean, walking distance?” Was this the kind of unanswerable question that would land me at the ass-end of some uncomfortable joke? Some senior-citizen ass-kicking? “You mean, like, what kind of fishing do I have right out my back door?”
He struck a wooden match on the knee of his Wranglers, lit a Red, and surveyed me through a cloud of smoke.
“That’s exactly what I mean. What kind of fishing you got back East that you can walk to and from, without spending the whole day at it?”
A pretty good question, really, and as I was putting together my answer, I realized that it painted a fair picture of where I live.
“Well, we got a pond just out front, beside the hayfield, but that’s all weed-choked and dead. Just some sunfish and bullheads and snakes in there. There’s a little spring-fed brook at the bottom of the hill, not a half-mile from my door. It’s got native brook trout in it, mostly behind the beaver dams, and the odd stocked brown. It gets warmish come summer, though, so we only fish the spring holes. There’s a pond not far off with some decent largemouths, and they’ll whack a popping bug all day long if you chug it just right, up against the lilies. There’s the big river in the valley that’s a bit of a hike; it holds hatchery browns and rainbows up to 20 inches, but they get snaky and thin by August. There’s a coldwater pond with lake trout and smallmouths, another with pike, pickerel, and perch, and even a dam at the power station that will hold some eels, if you’re crazy enough to want to catch them.” I paused and thought it over. “Yeah, that’s about it within walking distance, and it sounds like a lot, but I’ll tell you what, it’s nothing compared to what you guys got out here. I mean this place, these rivers . . . You should’ve seen the day we had on the Missouri!”
I’d spoken too quickly and nervously and I knew it. I took a long pull of my beer and waited for the reply.
The old cowboy had returned his gaze to the mirror behind the counter, where his reflected face was half-hidden by a plume of smoke. He took another drag, exhaled, and turned back toward me, grinding the butt to a stub in the ashtray between us. He leaned in close.
“So you’re tellin’ me . . . you’re tellin’ me that you got all of that fishing within walking distance of your back door?”
I nodded sheepishly.
“You’re telling me that inside of a day’s walk you can catch trout and bass and whatever all else you just said, right there where you live in Massachusetts?”
I nodded again and shrugged. “But you’ve got to understand, the fish are small, or hatchery-raised, and the streams are all in sight of people’s houses, and the water’s dirty. It’s nowhere near what it’s like out here. I mean, look where you live.” I gestured out the door toward the inky black beyond the neon lights. Miles and miles of trackless mountains, lions, wolves, huge rivers. “I mean, what you’ve got here in Montana is about the best fishing the world has to offer.”
He’d followed my gesture toward the door, and held his swimming gaze there for a while, looking out into the night. Beside me, Breuer had Kim giggling at something like a schoolgirl. The barmaid set out four fresh beers, and I took hold of mine and turned back to the cowboy.
“Yep,” he said, looking back at me with a gap-toothed grin. “Yep, we got it pretty good I guess.” He lit another smoke, and turned back to me. “But you know what? It sounds like you ain’t doing so bad yourself.”
He stood up, wobbled a bit, and took a long pull at his beer. He gripped the counter with both hands, and bent over to make sure I heard him. “Just remember this, son. What’s in walking distance should always be good enough for you. Sometimes, what’s in walking distance, whatever’s in walking distance, is all you really need in this damned world.
With that he turned, wove to the door, and disappeared into the cool Montana night.