:: 2018 “THIS LAND IS…” WRITING CONTEST FINALIST ::
Biological imperatives, chessboards, Old Faithful, dry streams, killdeer, fishing rods, taxidermy, buffalo trails, shed antlers, fatherhood,
dream geese, badlands & the Black Hills.
Our son was conceived on a trip out to Montana on a mound of cracked dirt under a badland sky. We had spent the night in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, out near the oil fields of North Dakota. She smiled and told me she was ovulating. I looked around nervously even though I was sure we were the only human beings for miles. There was a bison herd in the distance, small dark-brown shapes clustered on the plain we had just trekked across. My mind lingered back to the large bull sleeping on the trail that we had to circumnavigate. I turned my head back to my wife. Her tan legs and bare shoulders looked good to me. We fulfilled our biological imperative out in the open under a blazing sun. The circumstances were neither comfortable nor romantic, but I, at least, finished relieved of the tension of a nine-hour car ride the day before. I stood and hurriedly hitched my pants up, surveying the countryside again as Emily got herself together.
Whenever we had sex now, I wondered if we had made a baby. I was ready for it, or at least I thought so, as ready as I was ever going to be. Living for just ourselves had become boring. We enjoyed having the freedom and money to travel and eat in nice restaurants whenever we felt like it. But I think we had reached the point where it had become somehow unfulfilling. I didn’t want to become one of those people who get bitter as they near the end because they’ve given their lives to meaningless jobs and are leaving nothing behind besides the material. My wife wanted a baby and I wanted to give her one.
We climbed up an eroded bank and found ourselves looking at a vast prairie. We followed the trail along a ridge. Emily stopped and picked up a shed deer antler from the ground. She held it to the side of her head and I snapped a picture. The trail took us into a field of windswept grass and soon began to fork into multiple trails that fanned out in front of us. I chose the widest trail in the center of them to follow. The hoof prints of the buffalo were visible in the hard clay.
Pillars of steam rose from the land, hanging there in the morning light like smoke over a battlefield.
“Are you sure this is the trail?” Emily asked. She was behind me and I could tell from her tone that she was perturbed by my leadership.
“It looks like a trail,” I said.
“But is it the right one?”
“They all seem to go in the same general direction.”
“Which is nowhere.”
I could tell that she was tired and hungry. I took the map out of my pocket. It was pretty lacking in detail—just a small diagram in a pamphlet I had obtained upon our arrival. We were hiking a ten-mile loop. Finding it hard to make decisions when someone was staring at me with this look in her eyes that said I was an idiot, I replaced the map in my pocket.
“Yeah, it looks like these might just be buffalo trails,” I said. “I guess we should go back.”
“This trail isn’t very well marked for a national park,” Emily complained.
“It’s remote. I don’t think many people come out here.”
We made it back to the ridge. I scanned the horizon. The land was rimmed by banded domes of sedimentary rock that were capped with grass. It was a more verdant sort of badland than the one I had known in South Dakota. Roosevelt had hunted mule deer here in his formative years.
I began to speak but checked myself. I kept my hands at ten and two and told myself to just keep it on the road.
“Well, what do you want to do?” Emily asked impatiently.
“I think we should try going this way,” I said, pointing.
“The trail doesn’t go that way.”
I shrugged. “What do you want to do?”
“We’re lost. I think we should go back the way we came.”
“We are not lost. That will take forever and I want to finish this loop. Look, we should just follow this ridge and see if the trail picks up again somewhere.”
“But there’s no trail that way.”
“Let’s just try it. If we stay by the ridge, then we know where we are. It’s logical that the trail would follow the ridge. Trust me.”
We started off again through the grass. I watched the patterns the wind made rolling like waves across a sea. I was pissed at my wife. She always made decisions so difficult. Why couldn’t she just believe in me and stop undermining my faith in myself?
We hiked a half-mile before spying a small sign with an orange arrow. To our common relief we could see a clear trail that paralleled the winding course of a dry stream. We scrambled down the embankment and followed the trail all the way back to the campground. Our campsite had been assigned a number and we slept that night under stars that had been ordered into constellations and given names. We existed on a map of human understanding. But none of that was real and we numbered things and named them as much to feel safe as to understand. In the morning, we sat at a picnic table sipping our coffee. I watched redheaded woodpeckers hammer at the trunks of the cottonwoods and nothing felt any different.
Five years later we were headed west again, this time to Yellowstone, and everything was different. Our son was in the backseat screaming.
“We’ll be there soon,” I said for the hundredth time.
Emily encouraged me to stop if we saw a restaurant.
“Look at the trees,” I said to my son. “See how dark they make the hills look. That’s why they call them the Black Hills.”
Unimpressed by this change in the landscape or my lame description of it, he continued to protest. The Sturgis rally was in full swing and our packed Subaru was forever being passed by a roaring phalanx of bikers. I exited at the sight of a TGI Fridays. We ate lunch and pressed on into Wyoming. I expressed a desire to see Devils Tower.
“Maybe on the way back,” Emily said.
We made it to the town of Buffalo, where we checked into an Old West hotel called The Occidental. The nineteenth-century hotel was furnished entirely with antiques. Old photographs and Western-landscape paintings hung from the walls of the lobby along with a massive taxidermy of an elk. Our son seemed endlessly fascinated by a fancy braided rope that hooked across the entrance of our room, presumably for use when it was being cleaned. He would hook and unhook it, going in and out of the room as Emily and I lay spread-eagled on the bed in exhaustion.
The land was rimmed by banded domes of sedimentary rock that were capped with grass. It was a more verdant sort of badland than the one I had known in South Dakota.
That evening, we took a stroll through the town and visited a museum that housed a lot of Indian artifacts and documented the historic battles that had taken place long ago. After dinner, we hung out in the lobby and inspected the various novelties. A chessboard was set up at one table. Emily photographed us as Miles moved an oversized piece and I pantomimed deep thought across from him. Someday, when the boy was a bit older, I would teach him the game as my father had taught me.
My father still haunted my thoughts. He had become more alive to me in death than in his last twenty years. We had spent long hours at the chessboard when I was young. I liked the game very much—the beauty and elegance of the carved pieces and the dizzying mathematical complexity whereby one choice could forever alter the course of the game and exclude so many others. We started keeping track of our wins and losses against one another. It wasn’t long before I had learned the rudiments of the game enough to checkmate him at least half the time. Sometimes a long endgame would conclude in a stalemate, which always seemed worse than losing. After about a year, I got to the point where he couldn’t beat me anymore. He stopped concentrating and would just give up pieces through careless mistakes. I became angry with him and we stopped playing altogether. My superiority became an embarrassment to the both of us. I was always very competitive with him and I never knew why.
I felt bad for not being in the moment with my own son, to have all these morbid thoughts in my head. Was my own father thinking about his father when he was with me? Someday my son would have a son of his own and think of me. That’s why I tried to make things as special as I could for him. He was getting old enough to remember now. We would be spending an eternity together—generations looking backward in a hallway of mirrors.
Miles spent the night on a Victorian loveseat that afforded his height perfectly. We were always so grateful for that respite from his demands provided by that interval between his sleep and our own. I lay next to Emily and thumbed through a copy of The Virginian, a western novel written by a friend of Teddy Roosevelt.
I maneuvered the car up and down the twisting Beartooth Highway. My son’s protests were unrelenting. With the landscape falling away on one side and rising on the other, I felt as if I were teetering on the edge of the planet.
My mind drifted to the trout rivers that awaited me: Gibbon, Firehole, Soda Butte Creek, Madison and Yellowstone. The names seemed like poetry. I glanced into the backseat and hoped that I would be able to tear myself away from the family long enough to enjoy at least a couple of them.
The creek began to occupy my dreams. A fish on my line would leap onto the bank and morph into other creatures in front of me—velvety, furred seals sometimes or even women and then back into fish.
I thought about other things while I drove. My wife wanted another baby. I knew that. The oncologist had told her to wait two years. The chances of her cancer returning were less than one percent. That wasn’t really an issue anymore. We wouldn’t be conceiving another baby on this trip. Our first son would see to that. But when we got back? We weren’t talking about it, but I knew she was thinking about it. Resenting me, because she knew how I felt.
My father had two sons four years apart, exactly the age difference of my own if we had another. I did not want to be my father or re-create the house I grew up in. I just didn’t want another kid. I had spent enough time in hospitals.
I looked over at my wife, who was staring sullenly into the void. The boy had fallen mercifully asleep in back. I began to speak but checked myself. I kept my hands at ten and two and told myself to just keep it on the road.
I learned to fish before I learned to remember. Skunk Creek flowed less than a mile from the trailer park I grew up in. Despite its name and the fact that it originated not far from the city landfill, it was a place of magic and wonder to me. My father took me there and we would fish for bullheads using night crawlers. When I got older I started to go there without him, sometimes with a friend but most often by myself.
I had to cross a large field of hay to get there. I loved the creek, especially in the spring when the water was clear and the current strong. So much has changed in that area today. The farm is gone and the hayfield is now a complex of houses each alike except for their color. A park with softball diamonds stands in what once was a cornfield. Near where the creek enters the Big Sioux River, a hotel has sprung up along with a movie theater and a Wal-Mart. I visited the spot I had fished so often not long after getting married and the creek wasn’t more than an inch deep, silted in by all the construction.
I saw a lot of wildlife there as a boy in that edge space where the town met the country. One summer a litter of foxes peered curiously at me every day as I approached, their den a hole dug into the side of a dike. Killdeer would shriek at me as I fished for carp on the flats of gravel. In the spring the sky would be full of ducks and geese returning from their southerly migration. One on occasion, I saw what must have been a mink running away from me across a cow pasture. The animal was long and white with a body that undulated, seeming to hover like something supernatural over the ground.
The water was pristine, slipping over rocks and forming small pools with swimming walleyes that I could scoop out with my hand.
I can recall catching my first pike in the creek. I was with another boy, named Marshall. It was summer and the water was shallow. We could see the fish near us beside the shore. I dragged my baited hook by it and it struck. It was hammer-handle size, skinny and beautiful. The other boy was jealous and claimed I snagged it even though it was hooked in the side of its mouth. I was ever so proud when I brought it home and showed it to my father. I didn’t want to fish for bullheads anymore after that and started casting with lures almost exclusively.
As I matured into puberty the creek began to occupy my dreams. A fish on my line would leap onto the bank and morph into other creatures in front of me—velvety, furred seals sometimes or even women and then back into fish. Then I would look down at it bleeding and dying in the grass, waking up in a panic of confusion over what I had done. In another variation of the dream, the same thing would happen with geese that I would shoot out of the sky at fantastic range with a shotgun or sometimes just a pointed finger. In one recurring dream I experienced well into adulthood, I would begin fishing the creek near a familiar bridge, following it upstream to find its source. It would then become something more like what you might find in the mountains, narrowing until you could jump across. The water was pristine, slipping over rocks and forming small pools with swimming walleyes that I could scoop out with my hand. This river of my dreams seemed so real to me that I was sure it must exist somewhere in the world, awaiting my discovery.
When I was fishing I seemed only to be fishing. I could gaze past my reflection into another realm so different from my own, losing myself in the flowing water. The creek became an escape for me, a place I went to get away from my parents. One evening at dinner, a snowmobile roared through our backyard, enraging my father.
“What if you boys had been out there playing football?” he said. “You could have been killed!”
My superiority became an embarrassment to the both of us. I was always very competitive with him and I never knew why.
I always felt like he blamed me when these things happened to set him off. I lived my life as carefully as possible to avoid these outbursts. That night he got drunk. His ranting culminated with him thrusting a fillet knife into the air in front of him in a stabbing motion. Our living room was poorly lit and full of shadows. I watched him laughing hysterically like some deranged hyena. He called the knife his “pig sticker,” bragging how he would disembowel the trespasser and spell “KEEP OUT” in the snow with his entrails. I witnessed this all rather calmly, waiting for it to be over.
When I came home from school the next day, I saw that he had posted signs around the yard that read, “IF YOU RIDE A SNOWMOBILE THRU THIS LOT, YOU WILL BE SHOT.” I was mortified with embarrassment at his poetic accomplishment.
A couple of weeks before this happened, my mother had taken me to the mall to buy shoes. From the interstate bridge that spanned the creek, I had seen that the water was open even though it was mid-January. So that Sunday, I layered myself in my warmest clothing and marched across the frozen field with my fishing rod. It was a bit treacherous in places to reach the creek with all the accumulated snow. A lip of ice ran along each shore, forming crystalline patterns at the edges. I began casting with a Rapala minnow, making it wiggle in the current. The shore was lined with riprap, so I began to work my lure along the ice sheet. Every so often I would have to shake my rod tip in the water to keep it from freezing. It wasn’t long before I was catching pike between four and seven pounds. It was very exciting because in the clear water I could see the pike go after the lure before they actually hit. They seemed voracious, attacking with abandon. I kept a couple, tossing them in the snow where they froze in solid arcs of protest.
I carried my catch home, looking down at the tracks in the snow I had made on the way there. I paused again to examine the sign my father had made. It was written in crayon on a piece of cardboard. The word “SHOT” had been underlined three times. My father was passed out on the couch. I spread newspaper on the kitchen floor and filleted the pike with my father’s “pig sticker.” Their bellies were full of bright-yellow eggs.
Yellowstone National Park is a caldera, the collapsed dome of an ancient volcano—a depression in the earth fissured by rivers and ringed by mountains, a place of once-cataclysmic destruction that has healed over millennia to become a home of rugged beauty to the bison, elk, grizzly, trout, osprey and tourist that populate it.
Now that we had finally reached our destination, our son became animated. The road we were on was surrounded by dense pine forest.
“These trees are so beautiful,” the boy declared from the backseat. “Now let’s cut ’em down!”
My wife and I laughed. “Oh no, son. Those trees are for the animals.”
“Chop ’em down,” he insisted, and began making buzz-saw noises, no doubt in his mind felling the entire forest with his “super ax-hacker.”
I had been reading The Lorax by Dr. Seuss to him regularly, but apparently, he had missed the book’s environmental message. I began to mentally formulate my next dad chat.
We pulled off the road to look at some mud pots. “Gluppity-glupp and schloppity-schlopp,” he exclaimed with joy, another Lorax reference. I had never seen him so excited. He ended up puking from inhaling so much sulfur.
One summer a litter of foxes peered curiously at me every day as I approached, their den a hole dug into the side of a dike. Killdeer would shriek at me as I fished for carp on the flats of gravel.
Miles woke up screaming at 2 a.m. the first three nights we camped. The sleeping bag and the tent seemed to make him claustrophobic. Inconsolable, it would take well over an hour to settle him back to sleep. In the morning, the both of us shivering and tired, I would walk him to the bathroom, filled with shame at awakening hundreds of campers.
“It’s pitch dark,” Emily assured me. “No one could possibly know whose tent the noise is coming from. This place is filled with kids.”
On the third night of it, I cupped my hand over his mouth in frustration, begging him to shut up. I could hear a wolf howling plaintively from Yellowstone Canyon. I could picture the beast perfectly out there in the moonlight, responding to my son’s feral cries.
The next morning at Old Faithful, Emily and I started arguing with each other while the geyser counted down toward eruption. Our squabbles had become about as predictable. She had been giving me the silent treatment and, like always, it was up to me to break the tension. We were travel weary, and the accumulated nights of interrupted sleep had taken their toll on our patience. The geyser blew to the applause of the gathered crowd, showering us all in a foul-smelling mist. I wiped off the lens of the camera while my wife held our son in our arms. We quickly forgave each other and went off to tour the other thermal features. Miles made it about fifty yards before he started complaining about his legs being tired. I loaded him once again into the backpack carrier and we hiked off together as a family. Pillars of steam rose from the land, hanging there in the morning light like smoke over a battlefield.
Emily dropped me off on the Madison River about four miles downstream. Our new campground was located a short distance from where the Gibbon, Firehole and Madison rivers converged. The lower elevation made it less cold in the mornings. Our son had always been a kicker and we figured out that if he and I shared my unzipped sleeping bag as a blanket he wouldn’t wake up claustrophobic. He always seemed to work himself perpendicular to me, digging his feet into my lower back until I was forced to abandon the air mattress entirely. But at least now we could sleep through the night, however uncomfortably.
He was getting old enough to remember now. We would be spending an eternity together—generations looking backward in a hallway of mirrors.
We said our goodbyes as Miles protested. He wanted to be out there with me with his Spiderman rod. I watched the car pull away, finding myself alone at last in paradise. I walked through the tall grass where we had watched an elk herd graze the evening before. Grasshoppers jumped everywhere. It was August and it wasn’t hard to know which fly to use. I slipped my wading boots into the river, making a few practice casts before allowing the fly to settle into a drift as the trout rose sporadically. I had been studying a guidebook of the Yellowstone rivers for months. Of course, all the fish pictured were trophies. I tried to remain calm, my feet in the “holy water,” as the guidebook called it. I worked my way upstream, but my skills were a bit rusty and I snagged a tall weed on the back cast. Fishing was like anything else in life: a combination of luck and perseverance. I hiked to the next bend in the river. There was a partially submerged log on the opposite shore that seemed to guarantee a decent-sized trout. Some overhanging bushes just upstream of the log made the cast a bit tricky. I landed the fly perfectly on the second attempt, bursting with anticipation as the hopper rode the current. The water exploded as a trout sucked in the fly and I yanked back to set the hook. Gone! It was a decent-sized splash. I should have waded out farther. There had been too much line out between me and the fish. It was a mistake I often made, getting too enamored with the length of my casts. I continued to fish, wishing I could have that moment back, my hopes of catching the big one dwindling as the sun climbed the sky. I removed my fleece and decided it was time to start working my way upriver back to the campground. I looked up and for the first time noticed the osprey nest in a dead tree on the opposite bank. No wonder I wasn’t catching any fish. The only trout I landed that day was an eight-inch brown that inhaled my fly as I messed with some backlash in my reel. It wasn’t even a cast. The line had just been floating in the water. I took a picture of the fish’s pretty spots before releasing it back into the river. I felt a bit defeated, but at least I had caught something. Sometimes you were better off not trying.
I left my family at the campground to fish the Gibbon River at sunset. It was our last night of camping and I felt frustrated that I had caught so few fish. I hiked across a meadow toward a bridge. The clouds were starting to turn pink. I turned around to see that Emily and Miles were following me.
“It’s so beautiful,” Emily called to me. “I just want to take some pictures.”
I kept a couple, tossing them in the snow where they froze in solid arcs of protest.
I was perturbed by their presence. Why couldn’t they just leave me alone? I asked for so little. I regretted all the miles of streams I would never fish, the bends in the river I would never see. I accelerated my pace to put some distance between us. I crossed the road at the bridge. The river snaked its way calm and lazy through the blonde grass. I stood at the river’s edge with the sky reflected perfectly on the surface of the water. I looked up at a great billowing cloud that appeared like a snow-covered Himalayan peak just lopped off by the sword of some mythical giant. The trout were rising all over the place as they fed on some swarming insect that I couldn’t identify. I tried the hopper pattern again, but they completely ignored it. I started trying different flies—an elk-hair caddis first, then an Adams, different sizes—but nothing worked. It took time to get to know a river and I didn’t have it. As the sun sank behind the trees, I turned to see my wife and boy. Emily was holding Miles back as he struggled to be near me. I told her it was all right.
As the land dimmed I stopped casting, surrendering to it on one knee with my son standing beside me. We would come back, and the trout would still be here, rising at twilight. I could show him how it was done. Or he could show me. Since I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing.
On the long trip home, we camped overnight at Devils Tower. It made me think of my father, who seemed to think Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a documentary. As the tower grew larger on the horizon, I kept looking for dead cattle along the road. I fought the urge to swerve into the ditch, bust through the barbed wire and take us bouncing across the hayfields like Richard Dreyfuss. Instead, we simply pulled over and took pictures. Emily held our son with the tower in the background. She looked as happy and youthful as I had ever seen her. That night there was a severe thunderstorm that Emily and Miles slept through. I lay awake terrified, nothing but a thin layer of nylon between us and the storm. I unzipped the entrance flap of the tent and watched jagged claws of lightning lash across the sky.
W hen we made it back to Minneapolis, the fridge was empty, so I ran out to get groceries. I saw a group of men brawling at a bus stop. One was swinging a crutch through the air like a pickaxe at another’s head. I was freaked out to be back in the city anyway, and witnessing this act of urban violence sent my adrenaline surging. I pulled into the parking lot of the grocery store and dialed 911 on my cell phone. When I told the operator my location, she interrupted me.
“Are you seeing men fighting with crutches?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Officers are on the way. We have received numerous calls.”
I hung up and stuck the phone in my pocket. They should be there soon, I thought. The fight was practically in the shadow of the third-precinct police station. I pushed the grocery cart down the fluorescent aisles, home again in the wilderness.
Justin Florey lives in Minneapolis, where he has worked as a letter carrier for the last twelve years. His memoir, City of Crows, was named a 2017 Many Voices Project finalist by New Rivers Press. His stories have appeared in Junto Magazine and Beach Reads: Lost and Found. More of his writing can be found at crowcity.blog.
Lead image: nurturingwellbeing