He hadn’t said a word all evening, the small, frail man in threadbare jeans and a faded fishing shirt two sizes too large. Slumped-shouldered and sunken-eyed, he’d arrived alone and had settled into the sparest chair in the lodge’s common room, the one near the window, and extended a thousand-mile stare out onto the plain, across the river, over the foothills that rose to our west. To where the sun would soon set.
The others showed up in pairs, loud and jovial, as sports tend to be at the beginning of an adventure. And while the frail man would acknowledge their entry with a glance, a weak smile, and a handshake (if it was forced upon him), his gaze always returned to the window. He was there, with us, and he wasn’t.
The dinner bell rang and the contingent moved towards the dining room. I dawdled too long at the beer fridge and hors d’oeuvres trays and, arriving at the tail end of things, found that the table had filled like church, from the back. The single empty chair sat at the head, imparting a certain patriarchal responsibility to address and engage everyone in attendance. Out of my element, I sat and started the introductions to my right.
Fortunately, congregation around a fishing lodge’s dinner spread has a ready and basic conversation topic. After name and hometown, the logical progression is to the questions of what the angling is like at home and where else has one traveled in pursuit of The Tug. Only then might other common interests be explored, but those are not long pursued until later. The focus should keep shifting around the table.
The nephew and uncle pairing to my right hailed from Chicago and we touched on Great Lakes fishing, urban and otherwise, and a bit of the blues music that holds sway in that town. The couple from Texas was fairly new to the sport and we were all charmed by their fresh enthusiasm for the endeavor. The man and his wife from Colorado were, in fact, just passing through on a mystery anniversary adventure concocted by the husband. In the morning they’d be heading north, or maybe west, the exact direction was understandably guarded. There was also a trio of outdoor writers present, with their handler (for writers most assuredly need such things), visiting the location to help bring its virtues to the public.
Finally, on my left, in the out-of-the-way seat I would normally have chosen, sat the frail man who had, during the introductions, simply stared into his soup as if it were a mile deep. New Jersey, he hailed from, and when asked about his fishing travels he sighed and said only, “I haven’t been anywhere in six years.” The room fell silent, an awkward, heart-wrenching silence, relieved quickly by the arrival of the main course.
No further explanation was made, but loss has an unmistakable visage; especially loss long in the making. All he would add was that, with nothing left to do, he had chosen to come to this place by simply closing his eyes and sticking a pin in the map.
I found the frail man later that evening and I sat beside him on the comfortable back porch of the lodge. His gaze still reached out to the foothills, but had softened, and I could see the weight upon him beginning to slip away, if only by the ounce.
We were quiet for a while, I being unwilling to break into his meditation, and we simply contemplated our surroundings together. “The silence” he finally said without relinquishing his stare. I nodded, understanding that he didn’t just mean the absence of noisy New Jersey traffic. We in the east know little of this quiet and we with busy and “productive” lives know none of it. In a while he added, “Without God I wouldn’t have made it through the last year.”
We all have our anchors; those things that hold us in place when the storms come. His, then, was his faith. And that faith, that blind faith, that giving into the will of a simple pin in the map, had brought him here. Despite myself, I smiled, thinking that his god had finally cut him a break.
For here was the place to start again. Here where half-a-million people took their own first steps towards new lives along the great western trails. Where old oil and new commerce are mixing to create a new and vibrant community. Where he could float forever along uncluttered waterways and feel life crackle up his fly line like telegraph pulses along the transcontinental wires of the past. Here, where under big skies he could survey panoramas that would remind him that creation, and thereby re-creation, is real and possible. Here he could begin to breathe again and here he might just be able to start, once again, to live.
The pin had landed in Wyoming.
Casper, to be exact.