It might be a tough weekend, I thought. O’Kelley and I were good together. Each of us knew what the other was capable of, what each of us needed to get out of the woods. Inviting someone else into that could make everything different, screw up the rhythms we’d established, make the experience less than satisfying.
But what the hell? I thought. Any particular weekend happens only once in a lifetime and if we were unhappy, we would never be unhappy just like that again. I thought we should enjoy the misery, if any, in its uniqueness. I was going to bring it up to O’Kelley. Instead, I listened to him sleep as the miles of road to the North Fork of the White River fluttered under the canopy of my purple canoe. We drove at first on the interstate then state four lane. The road turned into a two-lane ribbon that wound up and down the Ozark hills.
We parked at a ford of the North Fork River at a small forest service campground that lay in a glade between bluffs and hills—a water pump, an outhouse, and a small gravel road through stubbly grass. A few picnic tables and Fiji rings stood next to the road down toward the back of the campground, away from the river. A line of hickory and ash stood between the river and the outhouse. Spring was three days old. In two months, hordes of float trippers and bait fishermen would descend on the place and make it circus. But now it was quiet and lonely in the afternoon sun.
Before we set up camp, O’Kelley and I grabbed our rods and forced our way through the thorny tangle to the river. It ran smooth and strong with spring rain. I stood on the rocks that jutted into the river from the steep wooded bank and caught nothing but branches. O’Kelley disappeared upstream in his waders, fishing in riffles and in eddies off rocky points.
Soon, forest shadows grew long and covered the spring-fed stream. Already standoffish, the trout became even less interested in our flies. I squinted into the evening sun falling between the hills. Mosquitoes and gnats, and larger knots of mayflies, rose in yellow clouds. Fishing would be good when the sun stood above the stream and promised a warm summer to those winter-starved trout.
I gave up fishing after the sun fell into a gap in the hills downstream. I sat on a rock to watch O’Kelley make his way back in the sunset glinting off the stream in gold and orange. The brown hills turned black against the dark blue sky. The stream soon faded to ink sparkling under a half moon. Stars popped out one after the other, then in groups, from the darkness. Soon we could see the comet that had been hanging in the sky for weeks, a godly checkmark on the northwest.
My Uncle Phil and the Arkansan named Darrell arrived just as O’Kelley and I made it back to the campground. They set to unloading Phil’s truck—tents, stoves, chairs, all nature of bait and fly tackles, coats, raincoats, boots, thermal clothes, light and heavy coats, waders, gloves, hats, even various kinds of rope, eating utensils, and pots and pans. They could have stocked a decent camping goods store. The pile dwarfed the bare necessities of sleep and fly fishing, and the canoe, O’Kelley and I had brought.
“Sorry we took so long,” Phil said. He looked up from the pile, sweating. “After I picked up Darrell, we packed and stopped for a bite to eat.”
“Good seeing you, Darrell,” I said. His hand was strong as his Arkansas Ozarks accent. “We drove straight through and made it in about four hours. We have been fishing a long time.”
“Get ‘nything?” Darrell asked.
“I caught a few teeny browns off some rocks upstream,” O’Kelley said.
“Not even a nibble,” I said. “Caught the shit out of some brambles, though.”
“Well, we stopped and picked up some worms, Power Bait, and salmon eggs in case flies don’t work right off,” Darrell said. “They will be good for us if we can get the canoe to deep water.” O’Kelley and I touched the small fly boxes we hung from our vests.
Darrell and Phil continued unpacking the truck, inventorying, rearranging goods. They flittered about like beetles. I sat on a stump and lit a cigar, watching smoky fingers curl up around the comet.
Darrell and Phil muttered to each other. O’Kelley soon had a bonfire lighting up the campground. Like a fire-worshipping zealot, he fed whole piles of branches he’d fetched from the winterfall and flood detritus along the stream. Each time he dumped another pile of sticks on, the fire paused, smoked, then erupted in hysterics.
After a time, O’Kelley tired. The fire died down, leaving a bomb-looking scorch in the grass around it. Darrell and Phil had stopped to rest and smoke. We talked, drank coffee I had cooked on my pack stove and told lies.
When the night grew cold, O’Kelley and I threw our sleeping bags out on the ground away from the outhouse. Darrell and Phil spent a long time trying to pitch a tent near the cars next to the road.
“Why don’t you guys just sleep out here?” I asked. The stars had multiplied into milky streaks.
“Nah, man, I can’t sleep outside,” Phil said, out of breath.
“Why not? There’s nothing around here—no folks, no monsters. There hasn’t been a bear around here since the Osages went West.”
“Just don’t want to,” he said.
Listening to their grunts, I remembered how it had had been years before when O’Kelley and I wandered around the Snowy Mountains in Wyoming. At first I only felt comfortable in the Forest Service campgrounds filled with humming generators, and where TVs in RVs took the place of alpenglow.
Over time and with O’Kelley’s direction, I progressed from tents by picnic tables to tents in the wilderness, to no tents at all. I carried a small canvas to set up against rain and a blanket for a ground cloth. Mostly, I slept under the stars. When I walked to Montana from Kansas City, I had made my bed in corn fields in Nebraska and town parks in Kansas. I have since laid out my sleeping gear in graveyards and open prairies in southern Missouri. I settled my un-tented head next to mountain streams in Wyoming, on sacred Indian ground in Colorado, and on the banks of the Missouri in Montana, North and South Dakota, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. It had been years since I needed a car to carry my things to a camping spot.
We had chosen the campground because of Phil and Darrell. O’Kelley was a master of recreational trespass and would take up residence on any piece of remote ground that pleased him no matter who it belonged to. I was happy with any open ground. But Darrell and Phil needed something that would make them feel a little more secure.
They cursed and pounded tent stakes. They looked at ropes on their tent, wondered what for and asked how come. They turned parts of parts over in the light of a flashlight. The comet hung above the trees. Its shape and direction indicated movement, but it was as still and quiet as a celestial librarian reading the spheres.
I wanted to help Darrell and Phil but let it go. Darrell and Phil did not want to camp, really. They wanted outdoors made easy, something sold in magazines and equipped with hookups.
But being there with them was better than staying at home.
When the rustle settled down, and O’Kelley, Phil and Darrell were making sleeping sounds, I took off my glasses. The world turned into a dark bowl filled with fluttering shapes. There was no wind. O’Kelley snored softly and I sighed. Our breath hung over us in clouds.
Without my glasses, the comet became a swatch of gold. I could hear the river behind the line of trees. It sounded like trout talking.
I was glad Phil and Darrell brought the store. They needed it to learn they didn’t need it. Trout fishing is like that. They didn’t realize yet that even if we didn’t catch any trout, we had already won the game we play with ourselves.