Time was a film run backward. Suns fled and ten million moons fled after them.
—Ray Bradbury, A Sound of Thunder
The sign on the wall caught my attention the way a Mepps silver spinner sometimes catches a trout’s:
Ignite Your Day With the Sunrise Burrito
My alternative was another Nature Valley Oats ’n Honey granola bar, just like the ones I’d had the day before and the day before that.
“Fire one of those babies up for me,” I told the guy behind the counter with the misaligned eyes and Green Bay Packers beanie clinging to the left side of his head.
“You betcha, Harold,” he replied, looking at both me and the day-old hot dog in the rotisserie broiler on the counter, which he must have named Harold. Shortly after the bell rang in the microwave, he handed over my prize with two three-gram packets of Tabasco pepper sauce. “Enjoy, eh?” he instructed and asked simultaneously.
The burrito was what I’d imagined prison food to be, although Tabasco pepper sauce sometimes serves as a sort of culinary Botox for rural, filling station cuisine, and it didn’t seem that bad.
This was my fourth day on the road and my fourth of listening to nothing but Jimmy Buffett’s latest release, Barometer Soup. Bill Clinton was President, Selena was murdered in the spring, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols blew up a building and killed 168 people in Oklahoma, Superman fell off his horse and was paralyzed from the neck down, Windows 95 was the hottest operating system on the planet, and I was a day from starting my fourth year of teaching at Michigan Tech. And in about two months, O. J. Simpson would be found not guilty of murdering his ex-wife and a restaurant waiter.
Follow in my wake, you’ve not that much at stake
For I have plowed the seas, and smoothed the troubled waters
It had been a rough summer in many ways, and this was my chance to put it behind me. I was a novice fly angler, and because the guys who were going to invent YouTube were still in college, I had to learn the craft the old-fashioned way: One mistake at a time. I had a copy of Bob Linsenman’s and Steve Nevala’s book, Michigan Trout Streams: A Fly-Angler’s Guide, on the passenger seat, right next to Delorme’s Michigan Atlas & Gazetteer. I’d never used a GPS, didn’t own a cell phone, and still used pay phones to check in at home.
Come along let’s have some fun, the hard work has been done
We’ll barrel roll into the sun, just for starters
This would be the biggest river I’d fished during the trip and the one with the most famous name. I drove to where the Michigan Trout Streams book said I should, but a modest pool of copper-colored water covered a dip in the dirt road. After giving it about as much thought as a mouse gives to a dollop of peanut butter atop the Victor label, I decided driving another fifty feet was worth the risk. So, I set the Blazer’s transmission to four-wheel drive and released the clutch. A sickness stirred in my stomach as the wheels sunk to the axles in the muck living below the pool.
Just for starters, barometer’s my soup
I’m descended from a deckhand on a sloop
I travel on the song lines that only dreamers see
Not known for predictability
I locked the truck and backtracked the path I’d driven into the woods. The highway was over a mile away, and the nearest town was seven miles from that. About a half mile into the walk, I saw a guy loading suitcases into a Ford F-150 outside his cabin.
“Hi. Do you have a phone I can use?”
“What do you need it for?”
“My truck is stuck on a two-track by the river. I’d like to call a tow truck to pull me out.”
“Today’s Sunday. No one around here is going to be open.”
“Well, I guess I can call my wife and have her come and get me.”
“Where do you live?”
“Shit, that’s a long way. I need to get back to Wisconsin, but I guess I can pull you out. Get in.”
As we drove down the road toward my Blazer, the guy shook his head in disgust when he saw what I’d tried to do.
“I know. Pretty stupid.”
We got out, and the guy hooked one end of his tow chain to a ring on the front of his truck, then handed the other end to me.
“Put this hook somewhere that won’t pull your bumper off, then get in your truck and give me a wave when you’re ready.”
I put the transmission in reverse, waved, and then released the clutch when I felt the backward pressure from the chain. Twice, it felt like we’d make it out, but the guy backed off to let the Blazer slide back into the puddle. On his third attempt, we both gave it hell on the accelerators, and the Blazer popped up and out just as a link on the tow chain gave way with a loud bang.
“Thank you, sir!” I told the guy, then offered him three twenties, accounting for all the money in my wallet.
“You don’t need to pay me.”
“No, I want you to use this to buy a new tow chain.”
Sail the main course, sail it in a simple, sturdy craft.
Keep her well stocked with short stories and long laughs
After he drove away, I parked in some brush on the safe side of the pool, pulled on my waders, and walked to where I believed the Michigan Trout Streams book said I’d catch some fish. I caught two small brook trout right away on a fly I knew as the Adams Humpy. I liked that one because it floated for a long time, and it would be years before I carried amadou patches to squeeze water from a fly and containers of desiccant powder to make it new again. Now, in my junior year at the School of Hard Knocks, when a fly started to sink, I cut it off and tied on another.
Among my many subconscious quirks is something I call travel constipation. When I hit the road, the computer in my mind calls a subroutine that shuts down my bowels until I’m back within easy walking distance of safe and comfortable facilities. Because of this, I didn’t worry much about having to crap in the woods, so I didn’t have a small roll of emergency toilet paper in my L. L. Bean vest. Remember, this was my junior year in the School of Hard Knocks.
Go fast enough to get there but slow enough to see
Moderation seems to be the key
About six hours had passed since my friend with the misaligned eyes invited me to Enjoy, eh?, the first hint of what would come gave me barely enough time to wade from the river, disrobe, and find a sturdy tree for a backrest. I tried to employ a handful of maple leaves for clean-up duty, but you don’t learn that particular skill until your senior year in the School of Hard Knocks. So I improvised and used my underwear.
At this point, I was completely naked and in urgent need of personal grooming. So, I took my clean undershirt as a towel of sorts and my unclean underwear as a washrag of sorts and waded back into the river like a Baptist seeking spiritual cleansing and rebirth. That’s when I first heard the voices. One male and one female.
The bow of the bright red canoe rounded the bend first, and with no chance of retreating to the woods along the shore, I sat down in the river so the water would hide everything below my ribs.
“Are you okay?” the bikini-clad girl in the front of the canoe asked.
“Sure, I’m just doing a little swimming.”
“Are those your waders and fly rod on the shore?” the shirtless, muscular guy in the stern said.
“Yeah, the fishing was a little slow, so I thought, What the hell? I’ll go for a swim.”
“Well, you better hurry. There’s a big thunderstorm coming through the valley, and you’ll want to have your clothes on when that gets here.”
“Thanks. Have a nice float,” I said as they paddled around the downstream bend.
“We’re hoping to get out before the sky turns loose.”
The sky was mostly blue above my head, and even though I couldn’t see much of it from my position in the wooded valley, I wrote the guy’s warning off as misinformation and went about the slow business of carefully washing and thoroughly rinsing. “I’d like to start this day over,” I thought, “Put all the chess pieces back and make different first and second moves.” I was still naked and in the river when I saw the flash of light and heard the foreshadowing boom. It was the sound of thunder.