The View from Coal Creek
PLOWS scrape time off my night’s sleep before the alarm can get to it. Slow going up the grade, mounds of snow against gravity take their toll on the mailbox, hundreds of pounds storm after storm, bending its sides in with a microcosmic example of glacial power. The mailbox door no longer closes, but it can’t be replaced, not yet—until spring thaw which will come around in late May if we’re lucky. But then again, it snowed the evening of Memorial Day last year, so you just never know.
Looking out a torn screen window, fog veils the moon waiting for another night to shine; patience in these things, patience (the virtue you are told to have, often by a person in the midst of losing theirs), and I turn on the deck light to see what I’ll be dealing with. Only a small bit, four inches maybe. No big deal. Funny, how living up here has changed my perspective of what is and what is not “a snow.” Less than five inches barely warrants shoveling the driveway. And with no laws enforcing snow removal deadlines—there are no sidewalks up here—I can do as I please as long as I can get out. And that is why I have an all-wheel drive. With enough speed, it’s all downhill from here.
The snow has fallen evenly in no wind, as if a dump truck cloud has parked over the opening of pines above the cabin and evenly distributed its contents. A blanket on a bed with no lumps. No forgotten books, socks, or stocking hats. Smoothly pressed, tucked and trimmed as a bed always should be and mine never is.
Standing sentinel in my fortress, eyeing for marks of night visitors—this morning, I see evidence. Snow, as the CSI blue light of the natural world, makes prints visible. Revealing who went where, and when, and sometimes why—to eat, court, to fight, mate, and die in the end as we all do. Things become clear upon this canvas of white. Snow on snow falls, holding and compressing evidence until spring, when all will be forgiven and melt away. But right now I see them, the paw prints of a fox. Coming down the game trail leading through the draw, straight to the front door, down the stairs, and off and back up behind the woodpile, bypassing the neighbor’s house entirely. I wonder if these tracks are the vixen’s I hear from time to time, calling for her mate in hoarse desperation that makes my heart ache.
As I leave for the day, I notice a yellow spot in the snow at the foundation of the cabin. I’ve been marked. Set apart. Viewed and sniffed out. Accepted into the forest, marked as its own, having at last passed a test I knew all the while I was taking, while remaining unsure of whether it was multiple choice or essay. I guess, maybe, it was the latter. Perhaps some people wouldn’t view fox urine on their home as a good thing, but I do: my house is not only a home now, but a den. Snow packed roads lead north to Estes Park, where I’ll begin wrapping my rod at Frank’s condo, warmer and lighter than the back of the fly shop. I get studs put on my tires every winter for precisely this reason—assurance. Yet still I go slowly, following behind a sand truck until the climbs after Lyons, when I’m more confident than the plow driver to go over 15 mph, and so I pass.
Holding my rod (still, feeling pretty alright) while mentally checking that I have remembered the guides and thread (although at this point, it’s too late to do anything have I not), I stand outside ringing the doorbell while looking at the Twin Sisters ridgeline.
Soon I hear footsteps. And a familiar voice, “come on in.”
At the kitchen table, wooden wrapping frames are set. But first, we go out to the garage to mark spacing of the guides (which of course involves math, so I check and double check my work). Numbers and their derivatives have never come easily for me, and even when they do come, I’m still left confused, having never been left-brained. During my schooling, math textbooks ended the year salty and tear stained; and I deemed memorizing multiplication tables to be one of the hardest things I had yet done in life. At the time, I prayed for an act of nature, even should it cause me harm, to be kicked by a horse, knocked into a coma, and then miraculously woken up years later having learned the sums by osmosis. This was my daily plea, not one of bread, debts, trespasses and redemption; mine was of being put out of my mathematical misery by a hind hoof. Although nowhere could I find it in books of prayers—common or un—and so remained skeptical of its power to work. Yet kept on praying, even so. Eventually, my father found my weakness: green olives. There was no punishment worse. It was a genius fix, really. For every wrong answer, into my mouth went a green olive. “And you have to chew,” that was the rule. Swallowing whole was cheating, and my dad would have none of that. Thus I learned my multiplication tables, and only in the last few years have been able to stomach (let alone enjoy) green olives.
Garrison, however, was numerically sound and extremely precise, and despite my math skills I am trying to be precise, too.
“Done?” Frank asks.
I lay down a white grease pencil, “Yes.”
Now, it is a truth widely acknowledged and universally demonstrated that hype builds up around firsts. Rides without training wheels, kisses, weddings, casts. You will be scared, you’ll very well be scarred, and it will be difficult, you’re told. And at some point, all of that anticipatory tension, all of that adrenaline that’s been sustaining you, will crash— and then yes—yes, you will fail. Failing, however also proving in the end that you were giving your all for whatever you’ve gotten back: scraped knees, forty dollars at a pawn shop, or a five inch rainbow. But still, there are treasures to be found (remember, they are always buried under dirt in children’s tales) and there are things to learn. And so if you aren’t digging through dirt, if you aren’t failing, if you don’t need to practice…you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough. For that, is how we grow, in matters physical, and of the heart.
If there was anything I’d heard about rod making, it was that wrapping is dreadful. A horrible, tedious, monotonous business; but so are most things which are beautiful in the end. As I’ve come to see it, life is made up of singular, spaced moments of beauty, strung together by continuance of cooking, working, and dirty dishes. We live—I live—for those moments out of line.
And so as I stand at the table, looking over Frank’s shoulder as he wraps the first guide foot on, listening—cross the thread over on the apex, keep it taught, watch the end, make both sides even…and use this ruler. I’m nervous. Nervous to begin. Nervous to fail. All the while knowing I’m in one of those moments out of line.
Frank turns around in his chair, “Ready?”
I take the thread out from the holding coil and immediately it springs back, out of my pinch. “No big deal,” Frank says, showing me how to re-thread the series of eyelets maintaining tension on the thread, he has a way of making you feel that even had you’d just broken off the tip, it’s ok…it’s fixable. Because it’s handmade, and thus can be made again.
“There you go…now all set.”
I begin again, this time with a firmer grip on the small things.
Firm, perhaps, but not fast. Yet even so, after a few wraps I feel more confident, and the thread begins lying down line after line until there is no separation, looking almost as though I’ve painted it on, making me feel like an artist. I smile, having always wanted to be one—one whose medium is pencil, paints, pastels, or ink. My mother is an artist, my uncle is an artist, my sister is an artist. I, however, am not. I realized this one sunny afternoon in early high school. The basswoods, cottonwoods and willows were just beginning to bud with that early spring green you can see growing, and clouds piled up into what was sure to be the evening’s thunderstorm. In the back of our ‘74 Ford, we had art class. It was goldenrod yellow, that truck, the color my mother always called goat kid poop—pure, healthy, beautiful milk fed, she’d say—also taking the time to remark that breast fed babies are the same way, and that my sister and I once had beautiful poop, too. I always sensed she took pride in that. But there, sitting in the back of that goat-kid-poop pickup truck, sketching the Nishnabotna River flood plain which had been turned into soybean and cornfields, alternated year-by-year by farmer Bob Hopp, I realized: I am not an artist, and there is no hope that I ever will be. My proportions are all off, my colors clumpy like they’ve been mixed in a dying blender, and my detail leaves much to the imagination. And that is only a good thing when intentional. My art is of the kind people look at and think, “Well, bless her heart at least she’s trying.” It’s the kind of art that my grandmother hangs in the bathroom, not the living room.
When I was living in San Francisco, there were artists and easels tucked into every eucalyptus grove nook in City Park, right along with the homeless, the picnickers, the dead, and the couples doing what God knows and unfortunately, what you see. Lots of things are partaken of, made, and created in parks.
My roommate Val and I would, on occasion, lug our instruments down 19th Street by bus (the 28 or 28L if we were lucky), or if we had the time, would walk the less busy 18th Street to find a grove of our own, to study, to practice, and to lay beached in the sun layered up, pretending we were warm. However, when you’re playing guitar or violin, everyone knows where you are and what you’re doing. And that kind of takes away the fun of being in a grove, now doesn’t it. Sounds wafted out above the foliage partitioned rooms: Bartok’s Romanian folk dances, Leisner’s Dances in the Madhouse, Christmas carols, hymns, and bluegrass. As a musician, one can never truly be alone. I envied the artists their silence.
And so now, illogically, I write every thought I have out loud. But somehow that’s different in my mind, because I don’t see the heads turn or the eyes reading. I don’t see gaits slow down and linger until the last measure is played, or the last sentence typed. I don’t always make sense but I know why I don’t, and that, is a large part of the battle.
I write here in my own little pine grove on the side of a mountain. It smells divine.
Sitting opposite me, Frank watches, and waits, coming in and out of the garage where he’s working on sanding a blank. “You know…I’ve never wrapped a rod on this table before,” he interjects between munching on almonds. “No…no wait, I have. My first.”
While I am not a superstitious person, for some reason, that makes me feel good. “You’ll see people stand the tips up side-by-side on their ends….like this,” Frank demonstrates, warning, “they’re looking for the wraps to be even with one another.” I look down to the pile of tools I’ve amassed for the ruler. “But there’s only one person I know who can really get it perfect…Kathy Shulkin- Jensen at Mike Clark’s shop…everyone else’s are only just about.”
I stop for a blink, exaggerated, like theatre makeup, my eyes lingering closed. Finally wetted and ready for the next act, I look up, and out to Twin Sisters. “Sometimes,” Frank says, watching my eye’s path, pointing to the long windows above, “I close the patio door curtains…so you only see that panorama up there.” It’s perfect, I think. As if he has measured, matted, and framed the ridge. I climbed it a few years ago, while in a much different state of mind and body than my current contented 120 pounds, wrapping a rod. And I look at them, those places I’ve been—now as if they’re a dream, dimly remembered in the minutes before I woke.
We talk of maple syrup, craigslist, and foam bugs; of futons, parking tickets, and tapers. “What’s your favorite?” I ask.
Frank pauses and looks down, placing his hand on the finished butt section of my rod, “One just like this…for small streams.”
I smile and blink my dry eyes again, long enough that I can almost see those streams, “My favorite kind of fishing…”
It’s late when I finish wrapping for the day— the butt and one tip section completed—and as I walk to the door, I smile to myself. A smile that might actually be visible through the back of my head, I don’t know. But I do know that my eyes are bloodshot, and that I’ve pushed myself hard; I know that today was one of those moments of beauty, and that there will once again be dishes to do in the morning. I know that I’m tired. So even though it’s well below freezing I keep the heater turned down, and Dylan turned up. And when I pull up the driveway pushing midnight, the porch light is on and there is popcorn warm and waiting in the den.