I can’t tell you it firsthand. But as a dependable second, like a well-worn cotton tee that’s held up over years of washing, passed down from your big sis. A friend of a friend used to fish with John Gierach. Watched him put eggshells in camp coffee, the whole shebang. I think he secretly hoped he’d make it into one of Gierach’s essays. After all, if you fish with a writer long enough, it’s bound to happen… you’ll be quoted, described, used in some way or another “for art.” It’s a dangerous thing, keeping company with someone who packs paper and pen in their pocket at all times.
But it never happened for this guy. As he liked to tell it, they’d get back to the truck and Gierach would say, “Well, that one’s not making it into the book.” In other words, they had some great days of fishing. Everything went as planned: the truck started, coffee brewed, fish bit when bugs hatched and no one was worse for the wear on the way out.
Good days aren’t fodder for stories. For they require tension: the gray that gives black and white any sense or meaning at all. If you can always see the top of the mountain, you know the trail. So false summits, and storms, and low clouds that never clear are useful, if you want to tell a story.
On this point writers are always torn. You want a good day but hope against yourself that something “interesting” happens. The sort of “interesting” my mother uses to mean weird, odd, even bad. Car loses a tire on the highway? Well… that’s interesting.
The bad, difficult times are where we find tales, meaning, lore. We don’t read for true love and happy endings, not even as kids—we read for the broken hearts and failed marriages, the ghosts and bullies and trolls under bridges—for the lonely souls and odd couples and stuff that doesn’t ever work out. Stories take our fears and scars and show there are matching marks out there in the world. For we’re never alone in our joy, or sadness.
Lately, I’ve been fishing a golf course. A friend manages operations there, so obviously he’s a good guy to know. Fishing quickly teaches you that life’s all about connections. Who you know and when you know them. This summer’s Sunday evenings, as players in pastel polos straggle back into the clubhouse, we drive carts to water hazards. #2, #9, #12 and so on. All mapped out on the golf cart’s steering wheel.
Each Sunday evening I look for a story. In every cast, conversation, catch. But I haven’t found one because the fishing has been fantastic. The evenings have all been great fun. And writing about having free-range access to private ponds that rarely get fished is just bragging. It’s like getting a high ranking job in a company where your daddy’s the CEO. No one wants to hear it.
Monsoon season has started here in Colorado, bringing predictable afternoon storms that build as they roar over peaks and onto the plains. And a recent Sunday was unsettled, storm after storm like unending jam band songs, which are only good if you’re high.
This was sure to be good, that’s what we all thought. Fish bite well when it thunders and after it rains, and all the rest of those Wive’s Tales printed in The Old Farmer’s Almanac, repeated as religion by your grandpa. But they didn’t. Things never turned on and we all came up with excuses why: they’d gorged before the storm and now just weren’t hungry; the moon’s cycle was throwing them off; the water had dropped in temperature after the front moved through. We explained away the bad with good stories until we felt better and could go our separate ways without feeling that we failed. That’s the way it goes with most things.
But I did find something to say about that night, there in all our rationale and justification. Because that old, tired adage is true—for good days, there are no words. And for everything else, there’s stories.