When I was seven years old, my father put me in a beat-up Ford Explorer and drove me out of town. My family had moved to Missoula, Montana a year prior to this excursion, and it was there that I started to develop hobbies of my own. Despite my affection for jump roping and roller skating on our driveway, I agreed to broaden my scope, to make use of the landscape that was unfamiliar just a year before in Los Angeles.
We were to go fishing on Clearwater River, a narrow ribbon of water I’d only passed on the way to my aunt and uncle’s cabin. The very thought made me wiggle like the trout we would attempt to catch. But even at a young age I could see the plea in my father’s eyes – he needed me to do this with him. It was something he had done with his father over thirty years before, and a rare instance where tradition entered my family’s vocabulary.
The morning of our trip, as my mother packed a cooler full of peanut butter sandwiches, soda, and snack cakes, I concerned myself with what outfit would go best with a river backdrop. In the privacy of my room, the trip began to feel like an adventure of the size Disney characters took in my VHS’s. But before getting caught up in the pending activity, there were certain factors to take into account while going through my closet: the beating sun on my Irish skin, water running around my ankles, and bugs. I opted for an oversized yellow parka and blue jeans (figuring it would make me stand out among the camouflage waders of the elder fishermen), purple Converse sneakers, and a Yankees hat.
However wrong this outfit would end up being for fishing, I managed to make it to the car without any alterations from my father. My mother, on the other hand, lathered me with sunscreen that made my pale skin even whiter, before I slipped from her grip and ran across my skating rink pavement to enter the shuttle to the unknown.
From my co-pilot position of the passenger’s seat, I watched familiar benchmarks pass as we parted from civilization. There was the McDonalds where I got breakfast whenever my parents saved me from the school bus. There was the gas station that always resulted in a new Archie comic. And then there were trees. Too many trees. Los Angeles road trips included bumper-to-bumper traffic, and being voyeur to people picking their noses in cars creeping alongside my family. In Montana all I could be voyeur to was a family of deer.
As annoyance set in, my feet kicked at the glove compartment in an attempt to keep my calves from sticking to the leather seats. Each time I turned my head to look up at my father, my gaze was interrupted by a thin black pole with string that looked like dental floss running the length of it. I still wasn’t sure how I was going to toss it in and catch anything. The only fishing I’d done prior to this was with a little plastic pole over a rotating collection of magnetized fish. And even that was too outdoorsy.
All of the materials in our car felt more like props in my ongoing production of “The Life of Matt,” than tools to be used outdoors. The two-person tent resting against my seat only had meaning to me as a backyard amphitheater that played host to an attack of action figures. Normally after a few hours of tossing around inside, I became bored and ran back to the comfort of my own bed. Sitting in the car, I wondered how I would be able to survive the night without my trusty picture of Bernadette Peters that was taped to my headboard (result of another hobby of mine: using a disposable camera to take photos of her on TV). The thought of crickets and bears replacing her started to send my over-stimulated brain into frenzy.
Before I had time to fret over details that would be sorted out in the coming hours, we pulled off the main road and the terrain changed. Smooth pavement was replaced by a collection of dirt and rock that had been leveled off to create a makeshift parking lot for aspiring fishermen.
My father jumped out of the car in his vest, adorned with custom-made flies, which he had taken to tying in our garage while smoking cigarettes. He looked picturesque, hauling equipment boxes out of the car, as other fathers and sons did the same from cars behind us. I, on the other hand, jumped out and scanned the perimeter for somewhere to plug in our boombox, which I’d loaded with my roller skating anthems of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” soundtrack.
What hadn’t been made clear to me during the hour-long ride was the desolate nature of the river at which we had just arrived. I assumed there would be a campground of sorts (which in my mind included at least one McDonalds with the promise of a Happy Meal toy). But what I saw was a collection of looming RVs with plush accommodations that put our tent to shame. While most people would be enjoying the day, sitting around compact dining tables that converted into beds, my dad and I would be roughing it.
We slid down a small hill leading to the riverbank to get the excursion underway, carrying two rods and a plastic equipment box. The plastic box looked like a Caboodle’s makeup case of my sister’s, only in subdued earth tones rather than eye-popping neon. As my father opened it to attach a clear plastic bubble to my rod, I realized there were no press-on nails or lipstick like I was used to when going through my sister’s things. Instead I got gnarly flies, spun out of colored string and hair.
After a quick demonstration where my dad did his best to look like a postcard for Montana tourism (he was an actor after all), I inched my way toward the bank while trying to keep my purple shoes in pristine condition. I’d spent most of my young life doing imitations of my sister’s and mother’s dancing, so with a light toss of my wrist I did my best imitation of my father. My fishing line made it a few feet out into the water, and all I could do now was wait.
I turned to my right and watched my father standing in the middle of the river as water flowed around his calves. The sun beat down on me, and just as I was beginning to lose interest in the solitary act of fishing, I felt a nibble at my line; there was movement. For all I knew, I had caught a dolphin, as the weight tugging at the end of my pole was strong enough that my dad abandoned his post and ran over to help me reel it in.
What emerged was barely the size of my forearm and slimy enough that I thought the water was actually phlegm. Even more puzzling was the fact that I had caught it. My first attempt and I’d already progressed past my father. (I’d never had such immediate success when trying new jump-roping tricks.) For a moment I thought I was destined to be a fisherman.
Then a mosquito bit me on the neck. I remembered that I was outdoors, and as quickly as I had reeled in the fish, I tossed it back. All of my accomplishments were suddenly negated, as I was standing exactly as I had been five minutes before…annoyed and fishless. Every time I turned my head I found a new creature creeping past. There were bees in front of my face, water bugs around my feet, and mosquitos feeding on my skin like maggots on a carcass.
The excitement of my prodigious success wore off immediately. All I wanted was to be in my bed at home under the watchful eye of Saint Bernadette. But as the afternoon progressed, all I could do was relive my glory moment with no subsequent success.
By the time we packed up our gear and returned to the campground, my words (delivered in a piercing upper register) had turned into one giant sentence lamenting the state of my world. The performance was a building monologue that reached an emotional turning point when it came time to erect the tent.
A tangled mess of green nylon, the tent represented every fear I had about staying overnight in this foreign place where bears and deer had replaced my mother and sister. As my dad unfolded it, I stood holding stakes that he would use to mount our portable house to the ground. Fortunately, the makeshift parking lot that was to be our campground was on my side.
For each attempt my father made to drill the stakes into the ground he muttered an instinctual, “fuck.” Each “fuck” made my whining shriller as I secretly hoped the combination would put us on a straight path back to civilization. After thirty minutes of perseverance on his part, he threw the stakes to the rocky ground and gave me a look that granted all my wishes.
I helped gather all of the objects, in a rush of energy, that only moments before had been the bane of my existence. Light spilled out from fellow campers’ RV windows, and as the sun went down we turned on our headlights and rode back to the smooth pavement. We wove along the road that followed the path of the river, listening to Marc Cohn, and my eyes began to feel heavy. The comfort of the leather seats enveloped me as we made our way back home.