Illustrations by Jack Unruh
Knee-deep in a riffle on a pristine trout stream high in the Wind River Range, I’m getting ready to cast into the next pool. I’m three days into a five-day, pack-in-on-horseback fishing trip, and I’m feeling a little anxious. I’m not used to having this many things go right at the same time. There seem to be trout in every pool. I’m catching some of them. On a fly rod. But the real kicker? For the first time ever, I’m hooking more trout than trees. It’s great but also a little spooky.
I lay out a false cast, release the next, and the Royal Wulff drops right where I was aiming. Then comes a splash and a glimpse of a square tail. I’m still not over the shock and awe of consistently hooking more things with gills than growth rings. I stand there transfixed, with no more sense than a man at the yard sale taking place in his own navel who has just discovered the tool bin. The singing reel jolts me back. The fish darts around the pool like someone caught in a fire and frantically trying a series of locked doors. I bring it to hand. It’s a fat 12-inch brookie, nobody’s monster, but more than good enough for me.
Damn I’m glad Michelle and I decided to do this. And we wouldn’t have except that Jack Unruh, who’d already booked the trip for himself and his wife, Judy, invited us along. I first encountered Jack around 2002, courtesy of the aggressively insulting caricatures of me that he drew each month on the back page of this magazine. (Jack is a celebrated illustrator, revered by his peers, who has won every major illustrator’s award possible. In 2006, he was even installed in the Illustrators Hall of Fame. Next to the dryer in the men’s room, I believe.) For such an accomplished artist, he didn’t seem to have much range when it came to drawing me. I was always one of two things: clueless moron or depraved psycho. That’s not fair. He sometimes created hybrids of these, the depraved moron or clueless psycho. No matter which version of me showed up, I could count on several constants: yellow, bloodshot eyeballs, an oversize red nose, and way more blue mascara than I normally wear.
In 2003 or so, having had enough, I went to Dallas with the intent of telling Unruh exactly what I thought of him. I was disappointed that he wasn’t the jerk I’d hoped for. He was about 20 years older, a far nicer guy than I am, but also a whack job with a twisted sense of humor. We both loved to hunt and fish. We were both sons of military pilots. Anyway, I never did get around to telling him off. Instead, we went dove hunting on the lease of some wealthy friend of Jack’s. I remember that there weren’t many birds and that I lost my favorite Filson jacket. And somehow Jack and I became friends.
Ever since, once or twice a year, we’ve come to count on persuading the editors of this magazine to send us on some boondoggle of a hunting or fishing trip. It’s on these pursuits of birds and fish that our friendship has grown. Like most male friendships of consequence, ours remains studiously unacknowledged. As Jack’s friend, it’s my duty to help him overcome his inability to draw me accurately. On this trip, as on others, I’m doing that the only way I know, which is by helping myself to his fly box each day and to his flask of what tastes like really expensive bourbon each evening.
I look the Royal Wulff over. I know its name only because Jack called it that as he handed it to me this morning. It was new then and looked like a confused little bird in a red vest and fuzzy black shorts, wearing white tails. Jack described it as “a hairwing fly” and “a good prospector.” Having no idea what any of this meant, I nodded sagely and put it in my box. Now, repeatedly savaged by trout, the Royal Wulff is a shapeless lump of feather and fur. The only part that still looks O.K. is the hook. I remind myself to get more flies from Jack tonight.
The trip started when we flew to Lander, where we met up with George Hunker, a former National Outdoor Leadership School instructor and an unconscionably fit guy for a man my age. George runs the Orvis-endorsed Sweetwater Fishing Expeditions and has been guiding since 1977. His son, Hank, is assisting on the trip. They weighed our gear, editing it down to 50 pounds each to spare the horses on the five-and-a-half-hour ride. Jack’s wife, Judy, had to stay home after breaking her foot two weeks before the departure. The remaining slots were taken by a couple from Indiana, Mike and Carole Edwards.
I’d heard about the Winds all my life without ever knowing much about them. They’re a remote 100-mile range, stretching through Wyoming along the crest of the Continental Divide. The Winds have eight summits over 13,500 feet and get so much snow that the backcountry is usually only accessible from mid July to mid September. Our camp at about 9,500 feet sits near a stream that George has forbidden me from naming. He will permit me to say it’s on the eastern side of the range.
The stream is so overpopulated–brookies, rainbows, cutthroats, and hybrids–that you catch them even when you aren’t trying. Yesterday, one hit my fly trailing behind me as I waded through water I’d just fished. They aren’t monster trout. Most are 9 or 10 inches, and my biggest so far is probably no more than 13 inches. Catching fish consistently on a fly rod is so novel that size doesn’t matter. I’m just crazy for more, hoping to get some muscle memory of success.
At dinner that evening, as I sip Jack’s bourbon from a steel cup, George tells of bigger trout in the lakes above. It’s two hours’ walk and a 1,000-foot gain in elevation to the nearest. Mike is eager to get at bigger fish. So is Jack, which surprises me. I still haven’t completely adjusted to the altitude and find myself battling a frequent mild headache and lack of zip. Jack’s legs have been cramping up at night to the point that when he needs to pee, it’s easier for him to crawl a few feet out of his tent and do it than to try to stand. Last night, he peed a perfect P in the dirt, which he proudly shows to anyone who cares to see it. I help myself to another drink. “Take it easy, dammit,” Jack says. “I didn’t bring that much.”
“You can share mine when we run outta yours,” I tell him.
“You brought whiskey?” he asks. “Why aren’t you drinking yours?”
“I’m trying to broaden my tastes.”
“What’d you bring?”
“Rum,” I say.
“Never liked it.”
“You could learn. Hell, it’s not hard.”
We head out the next morning for the lake and bigger fish. It’s steep walking. After an hour, at 10,000 feet with another 500 to go, we stop for water. “Especially important to stay hydrated at altitude,” George tells us. “You get behind, it’s pretty hard to drink enough to catch up.” He and Hank scamper around like mountain goats, scouting the path ahead and waiting for us to catch up. My head hurts and I’m sucking air as if I get paid by the lungful. And then we top out and find ourselves looking over a huge bowl of a meadow with a picture-book lake set into the far end, at the base of a 1,000-foot rock wall. There are open spaces and belts of trees backing up to the wall and boulders the size of houses in the clear blue lake. It’s another 20-minute walk–flat ground, thankfully–to the fishy part of the lake, where we break out our rods.
As gorgeous as this place is, I don’t feel like doing much of anything. Jack looks a little weak as well. Nonetheless, he gamely puts his rod together and starts stalking the shore. I’m impressed at how well he’s holding up and wonder whether I’ll have the stamina for hikes at 10,000 feet in 20 years. I put my hat over my eyes and lie back in some brush to stay dry while I nap. I’m past pretending I feel good when I don’t. But I can’t sleep, so I get up, put my rod together, and start fishing. No doubt there are some big trout in this lake, but I don’t see any cruising, and the water’s so transparent that it feels like one false cast would spook anything within a quarter mile.
When I see Jack again, he’s 100 yards away, casting from atop one of the boulders. I can’t tell if he’s catching anything. Around 2 p.m., George says it’s time to start back. Jack and Hank have already left, hoping to pick up any fish cruising the shoreline before the rest of us spook them. We catch up with them at the lake’s outflow, where Jack happily reports catching four fish, all 16 or 17 inches. He’s smiling, but also looks tired.
It’s rougher going down than coming up. George admits he has lost the faint trail but says we should hit it soon. We’re slogging through a fair amount of downed timber and brush. At a certain moment, I hear an “Ooof!” behind me and turn to see Jack sprawled in the brush. Michelle, Hank, and I rush up to him. “Goddammit!” he says, more embarrassed than hurt. “There was a limb down there and for some reason I thought it would give way,” he says. “I don’t know why.” He huffs again. “But it didn’t.” We rest for a few minutes. Jack needs help getting up. “I never had my damn legs go out like this before,” he says. He sounds irritated. I offer to take his pack–we’re each carrying 10 pounds of extra layers and rain gear, and Jack has his big sketchbook–but he’s not buying it. “I’m fine.”
A half hour later, it’s clear that Jack is not fine. He hasn’t fallen, but his face is pale, his gait slower and less steady. Wordlessly, by exchanging glances, Michelle, Hank, and I arrive at an understanding: They’ll walk just far enough ahead to seem unconcerned and I’ll stick with Jack. Where the terrain allows, I walk beside him. If not, close behind. For 10 years, we’ve been tramping around together more or less as equals. But something has shifted. Suddenly I’m worried for Jack in a way I have never been before. My own weakness just stops mattering. I need to watch out for Jack now. “Hell, bud, lemme take that pack.”
“Nope,” he says. A little later, he stops to take off his Stetson and wipe his brow with a pink bandanna. Jack is the only fisherman I know who could combine a pink bandanna and a Stetson and not look silly. He’s drenched in sweat now and sucking wind. His skin is grayer. I’m past worried; I’m scared. He’s out of reserves, running on pure stubbornness. If he falls again, he might not be so lucky. And it’s a long ride out if anything goes wrong. “Whew,” he says, and his voice has gotten smaller. “I’m outta gas, bud.” I know he’s in bad shape, just not how bad, and whether it will lead to something worse.
“I’m getting pretty low myself,” I tell him. “But it can’t be much farther.” Meanwhile, without my permission, the fear that something might happen to this man cracks me open like an egg. My fear floods and overwhelms me. And what I slowly realize is that the fear stems from something I didn’t even know I was hiding from myself, which is how much I love this man, how much his friendship means to me. I don’t like these thoughts. I want to shrug them off, push them away. They leave me exposed and vulnerable, and that’s not a place I want to be.
I try to outthink my fear. You’re over-reacting, I tell myself. Jack, while exhausted, is in no immediate danger. The problem is that a threshold has been crossed. His momentary frailty forces me to confront a different kind of frailty, one not of the moment. Which is that at some point–whether now or in a year or in 25 years–Jack will die. No surprise there. I have days when my own immortality seems doubtful. The surprise is that I’m suddenly aware of how large a hole his passing will leave in my life. Shape up, dumbass. You’ve got a job here. The next thing I know, I hear myself ordering Jack to hold up a moment. I walk up to him and wordlessly unsling his pack from his back and put it atop my own. I find a suitable stick, break it to staff length against a rock, and put it into Jack’s right hand, cupping his fingers around it. I don’t look at him as I do these things. I don’t know how he’s taking them. It doesn’t matter how he’s taking them. “That stick’s a good idea,” he says, forcing the tiniest note of cheer into his voice. I’m not sure whether he has actually rallied a bit or is faking it for my bene-fit. I almost don’t want to know. I’m still flooded, staggered by my new knowledge. I can barely contain the guerrilla feelings–love, fear, and astonishment at being so split open–that have breached my perimeter. This, I tell myself, is exactly the kind of crap that happens when what you know in your head migrates south into your heart. I’m not the type who makes friends fast or easily. The truth, I realize, is I don’t really know how Jack and I became friends. I don’t know why he is so important to me. I know that I’m lucky to have him as a friend. At the same time, it hurts. Because I won’t always have him.
“Can’t be much farther, bud,” I tell him. “What idiot thought this was a good idea anyway?”
“Us,” Jack says. We keep walking.
At last, I see Michelle and Hank ahead of us. They say nothing, but both are waving and smiling. They’re at the stream. We’re back. All we have to do is cross the water. Michelle gets on one side of Jack and I get on the other. The three of us lock arms and wade across. The water, although fast, doesn’t even reach our knees. No one says a word about what has happened. George announces that dinner will be ready in a couple of hours. Jack sloughs off his boots and crawls into his tent. I sit down on a log with Michelle and hold her hand for several minutes.
Two hours later, Jack emerges. He’s tired–we all are–but his color is better and he’s in good spirits. He lifts his flask at me: “You earned a drink today, bud.”
“You’re running low there,” I tell him. “I’m drinking rum tonight.”
Jack squints. “You’re drinking your own stuff?” he asks. He shakes his head gravely. “Heavey, you sure you’re feeling O.K.?” Everybody laughs, including me. Jack’s back. Everything’s O.K.
From the August 2013 issue of Field & Stream