16 Feb The Lake
THEY SAY NEVER BEGIN A STORY with weather, but as the snow outside the window closes around like a shell shielding an egg, I think of the summers on the lake, and my old friend. “Old” performs in two senses of both aged and longtime, though when we first met he was several years younger than I am today. Raymond — let’s call him that for the sake of his and his family’s privacy — was not the first friend I made in Wyoming, but he may have been the best. Before we met him, Elaine, Bryan, and I, and the two dogs, lived here for half a dozen years after moving up from Los Angeles in the wake of the last riots (leaving the city not a noteworthy act of courage). Knowing Raymond, though, went back to the Salinas Valley and a father and two sons who hunted wild boar on their ranch in the brown hills of the Temblor Range above the valley.
I hunted with them for many years before moving, and when I returned one September for boar and mourning dove, I mentioned the town in Wyoming. You should meet our friend Raymond, said one of the brothers, who wore a King’s Ropes hat. Raymond had come down from Wyoming many times to hunt boar, which were somewhat thin on the ground around his home.
It still took me a few more years before I got around to meeting him. He lived just south of me, in a little place with a funny name that wasn’t even a town, under rocky cliffs and above a fast clear creek. This was where, in the time before the Little Bighorn, Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Northern Arapahoe fought and defeated the United States of America. Though not formally educated beyond high school, Raymond was an ardent reader who knew all the history.
Along with books, Raymond’s two-story house held the memories of hunts in Canada, Alaska, the desert Southwest, Africa, and of course Wyoming. He was good for an elk and an antelope every season, mostly for meat in later years; but he would not turn his back on a fine set of antlers or horns. Around the floor-to-ceiling windows of the kitchen, heated by an old black coal stove also used for cooking and baking, hummingbirds oscillated between the red plastic feeders hanging from the low branches of the lodgepoles, and the buffaloberries on the tall bank above the creek.
I remember meeting him with my family at a summer party among the apple trees in his backyard, the brothers and father having made the introduction. Raymond was tall and Western, under his straw hat a fringe of white hair and mutton chops that ran into a mustache. He sat in a folding chair near the drinks cooler so he could pass them out. When we told him we were going to Africa in a month, he told my son, who was 10 or 11, to get himself a jackrabbit call and a coaxer and see if he could bring in a hyena by the dark of the moon. A hundred yards away was the tall wooden backstop for his rifle targets, which he shot at from the window of a second-floor room where he did his reloading; matching bullet, powder, and primer produced trefoil groups, duly recorded in a ruled ledger in tenths of inches, because that was the way of doing things.
Raymond and I “rolled our own,” for years in that room, firing hundreds of rounds through the open window, tweaking loads, having to hold up whenever a deer, or wild turkey, or once a 300-pound black bear, wandered in front of the target, oblivious to the reports of gunfire. Raymond noticed with humor that whenever I adjusted elevation or windage on a scope, I tapped the turret with an empty brass cartridge to make sure the springs were set, definitely an old-school shooter’s move obviated by modern technology, yet a habit of his own that he could not break.
Also in that room was where we examined new optics on behalf of the articles I would write about them, trying to read the lettering on the targets with binoculars, box testing riflescopes (turning the turrets on the scope, we shot groups at each corner of a precise square around the bullseye), looking at the yellow flowers high up on the cliffs with spotting scopes. To some it may sound like mundanity, but that is what so much of decent friendship is.
In the summer, we camped under the big cottonwoods in Wind River Canyon and used the fading light to check the brightness of the optics, hearing the whoosh of the bullbats diving at the ground. Raymond would be up before dawn, scattering mule-deer does from around the tent in the half light, wading into the Wind to cast a line as the sun and trout rose. Then he’d hike up from the river and fold his long legs and frame into the camp chair, changing into his buckaroo boots before lighting the fire and putting the coffee pot and the skillet on. We had Raymond’s boat with us, and as we ate bacon strips and the runny yokes of fried eggs, the toast a little burnt and the coffee a bit crunchy, we thought about where we would trailer the outboard that day.
There were winter trips, too. We decided to float the Yellowstone between Laurel and the I-90 bridge in an overgrown drift boat when the river was no deeper than a pie pan, and ended up having to call the sheriff to bring the jet boat and pull us off a gravel bar. Other times we went looking for chukar or just drove the backcountry over by Thermop between the snows. Raymond wore his faded, boot-cut Levi’s, black Stetson, well-stitched-over Filson vest, and a black silk bandana around his neck. Seeing a big golden eagle perched on a slope just off a winding gravel road, he stopped the truck and studied on it.
“Too much traffic,” he concluded, unreconstructed sheepman still running through his veins.
Raymond was not always politically correct, saying some things in front of my son that caused me to take the boy aside and talk to him, so he knew it was not acceptable. After a certain age, though, you take your friends as they are, and Raymond was never less than what is called emotionally correct. He was a churchgoer. He was inveterately kind. He was always doing for others. He was my friend.
For 10 seasons we ran a pronghorn camp together on his land near the national grasslands. We put up a big pyramid tent for sleeping and a wall tent for cooking. Hunters who were our friends came out from California, New York, and the Dakotas. Our cook was a Beverly Hills attorney of Sicilian extraction, follower of a certain 12-step program, who did not hunt and prepared the meals pro bono because he had learned to love being in hunting camps, away from concrete sidewalks lined with fan palms, free to smoke his cigars and watch the hunters bring in their bucks and skin them out, hanging them from the rafters in the outbuilding that was taking on a lean, the horned heads gazing upward, the musky antelope smell filling the dusty shadowy air. Then there was the lake. I wrote no notes about it or kept a journal, so all I have left is memory.
Both the largest lake in the state and the largest lake above 7,000 feet in North America, it’s what Raymond and I crossed first in his old Lund Runabout. We started early, before the winds came up, the small boat piled with gear. Raymond knew where to land, in a small sheltered backcountry bay with a dock to tie up at and unload. When we had the tent up and the food in the bear box, it was time to rig up and be out on the water before dark.
We used fly rods, sinking line, and single-hook streamers, trolling them behind the boat. On the best evening, morning, or afternoon, every few hundred yards there would be a strike then a set, a fast run and reeling in, another run, and another, a lash of gilded fish above the water in the evening light, and the slow retrieve to the net. Removing the barbless hook, we’d hold up 3 pounds of gaping fish, a stroke of red along the lower jaw, the purest of pure native lacustrine cutthroat, feeling the power in the slick body down to the truncate caudal fin behind the black spots clustered at the wrist of the tail. Feeding the trout back into the cold water, we washed them back and forth until the fish slid away, swimming from sight, then turn around and troll in the other direction. At night we barbecued on the grill on the fire ring, then stared at the impossible stars in the sky, before bedding down on the thick foamies, awakened more than once by the bugling of park elk.
Early in the day, we would head out past the big timbered island across from camp, bringing lunch, and fish the two southern arms of the lake, Raymond pointing out along the shore the elk thistle that kept a lost explorer alive for 37 days in the 1870s, in case I ever needed to know. Always, it seemed, when we turned back for camp the weather blew up, the swells climbing as the lake water sloshed like a basin that was overfilled, being carried too fast. In the Lund, we felt like foredoomed Japanese Imperial Navy aviators riding the divine wind. Later, Raymond bought a larger Alumacraft, which made the crossing merely quite the adventure. Still, when we broke camp, we wanted to do it in the morning and be off the lake with our precarious load before the waves mounted.
I used to keep his voicemails on my cell phone, long, discursive, stream-of-consciousness monologues that began, “Tom, Tom, Tom,” in that Wyoming accent you have to live here to recognize. They were just too perfect, and I thought I always would have them, and that there would be years more. Then I lost the phone and the messages, and there will be no new ones.
How do you measure a life, in monumental things or in cartridges loaded and prairie dogs shot, the number of coyotes called in, lines cast and fish landed, driving up to Point Barrow just to see it and turning around, stories about flights over the mountain meadows in the rear of light aircraft, or bringing a watermelon up the trail, artfully hitched to the top of a sawbuck packsaddle? Is it in recollection of love and children and friends? How do you measure your life when the memories vanish?
It’s a peculiar infectious disorder, named for German doctors, with a one-in-a-million chance of contraction. There is no virus, bacteria, parasite, or even any DNA involved. Just a protein that folds over in a misshapen way and passes on its artful misfolding to other proteins and destroys the brain. Maybe the good part is that it is relatively quick.
Divorced a long time, Raymond knew a woman almost 15 years. They married last summer, before his mind began to go and he started falling and was unable to walk. Within a few months he was in long-term care — that’s how fast the course of the disease runs. It’s a good place he’s in; he seems comfortable. I visit.
The last time I went, Elaine came with me, and we met his wife there. He was in a wheelchair, wearing a ballcap and sunglasses, and I pushed him around the buildings on a walkway. The air was cold and bright. We went past a reed pond with muskrats, and he spoke in disjointed phrases that seemed to jump around like a phonograph needle placed down on random lyrics on a vinyl record. I had to put a hand on his shoulder when he tried to rise out of the wheelchair. We spent most of an hour with him, and when we got up to go, he took his wife’s hand.
“I recognize him,” he said to her, nodding toward me, his eyes both near and faraway. He is the last good friend I am likely to make in this life.
The sun is trying to come through the snow clouds, like a candle held to the shell of an egg. It’s been a while since I visited. I will go, soon, to have something more to remember.