I’m certain I was the only angler in the remote Forest Service campground in the shadow of Lemhi Range. Labor Day had come and gone, and the backcountry now belonged bow hunters chasing elk.
I’d parked my little camper under the tall pines, and, with fire restrictions lifted just in time for hunting season, I imbibed of woodsmoke and the last of the clear liquor season. Cheap vodka poured over ice and seasoned with a diet Sprite—it’s my backwoods cocktail of choice. A “spritzer” as I and my summer drinking buddies jokingly call it, pinky fingers protruding defiantly as we drink.
It might sound like it would be better served at a baby shower, but it’ll mess you up right.
I was alone, save for Phoebe, my old rescue mutt. It’s coming on a decade since I started “babysitting” her for a young couple who defied their landlord and got a dog, anyway. When the landlord showed up asking for a $300 pet deposit, they brought the untrained wire-hair mix over to my house.
“Just watch her until September, when we can afford to buy a house,” the newlywed husband said. It was March. Six months? You want me watch this rangey puppy for six damn months?
“Dude,” I said. “You’re flunking out of college and your wife still works for her father. You’re years away from a down payment, let alone a decent credit score. Why don’t I just pay the pet deposit for you? Call it wedding gift.”
I really didn’t want another dog, particularly not this one. No manners. Completely coddled. Still pissed on the floor. And she had this horrible habit of jumping up and putting her nose on your nose—sometimes so hard that it made you see stars and left you grabbing for something to keep yourself upright.
I hated her. But I was still married at the time, and I still had two kids at home. I was outnumbered. I’ve been babysitting this dog for 9 years.
Today, Phoebe is easily my best fishing buddy. And she’s housebroken. And that nose-to-nose thing? One knee to the chest all those years ago, and she hasn’t done it since. That was an expensive dog-training bill, and I think I’m the one who got trained, honestly. For the most part, she’s mine. She’ll go to the ex’s house now and then when I travel, but it seems I got her in the divorce a few years back.
And I’m OK with that.
She walks rivers with me here in Idaho, and she, like me, loves summer and a righteous campfire.
So there we sat, kicked back in a camp chair, seasoned firewood blazing under suddenly cloudy September skies. I stared into the flames licking around the wrist-thick logs and patted the old dog on the head. We’d had one of those days, where everyone else was glassing ridges and hiking high, while we wandered along the Little Lost tossing ‘hoppers under willows and releasing 15-inch, tailwalking rainbows pretty much at will.
But I wasn’t thinking much about fishing. The night air had taken on that September chill, and the aspens along the road were definitely ready for fall. As much fun as fishing can be in autumn, it’s still a season of finality for me. I live for summer, and I’ll push the season as early as I can. I’m usually out on the carp flats after a couple of nice days in late April, pretending it’s actually early enough to camp out.
But, as the aspens shed their leaves come cooler weather, Phoebe and I shed our desire to get out and go as much. I can sense hibernation. The switch to brown liquor. Morose, gray skies. Effing snow. It’s not far off—it’ll fly within the month, and it’ll put me into a full funk. Always does. I give up on summer early. Sometimes without a fight.
I drained that first cocktail pretty quickly—it’s a smooth concoction and perfect for a guy trying to shed weight by ditching carbs. By the time I’d settled back into the camp chair with Drink No. 2, and retreated a little further into my heavy hoody, the cloudy sky that hid the brilliant September stars opened up with a light but steady drizzle. The warm day had fallen back, and the chill of a high-country night made the rain even more melancholy. There would be snow on the high peaks by morning, and that just pissed me off.
I scooted the chair under the camper awning, and Phoebe dutifully took her spot next to me. A bit farther off in the night, I could hear the laughter from the big hunting party a few campsites away. The drizzle sizzled as it hit the fire, and the awning thrummed with the steady beat of the rain. The second drink might have been a bit stronger—I’d poured by feel in the dark.
Sunken as far into it as the big camp chair would allow, I steadily drank. I drank to the end of summer, the saddest of farewells. I drank to the end the leafy, green sweet willows along high, mountain brooks, and to the bright green quakies that had shifted to a stunning, but painfully temporary gold. I drank to 1-weight fly rods, rising backcountry cutthroats, fat and happy mayflies and puffy white clouds cruising over impossibly blue summer skies.
I drank to the buck pronghorn I’d seen on the drive in. He’d assembled a nice little harem, and he guided them with such grace and precision as they glided across the sage on the desert floor. I emptied the tumbler for that guy—he thinks he has it all, with all those ladies on the chain. But that’s a lot of work. He’ll learn. If he doesn’t take a bullet soon.
The rain kept up as I poured Drink No. 3. I opened a new can of soda for this one, and was a bit surprised at how light the vodka bottle felt as I ran it over a fresh handful of ice from the cooler. Retreating back to the chair, Phoebe gave me a puzzled look, as if I’d forgotten something. I looked around and noticed that my once-perfect campfire was crapping out under the steady rain. I grabbed another dry log and poked at the coals. I wasn’t done yet. It wouldn’t be done, either, rain or otherwise. More wood. More sizzling flames.
More gulps of the drink. I was feeling it. It’s what I was after, that heavy buzz, that thickness that provides both focus and a slight delirium. I was drinking. Alone. Tipping crappy, bottom-shelf booze to the end of another glorious Idaho summer.
The rain kept coming, washing away the last brilliant day of the season. Washing away warm July and August days and letting me know that fall, whether I was ready or not, was actually happening. I have a love-hate relationship with summer in the Rockies. By the time it finally gets here, it’s almost over. Others might argue, but I’ll take long, sunny high-country days over the kitschy “cool and crisp” days of fall any day. If I rabidly hunted, perhaps I’d feel differently. But I don’t. Summer is our most-perfect season in the mountains. It’s also our shortest. Its days are precious. They are to be savored.
Fall? A lot of folks love fall. I hate it. For me, it’s a season of foreshadowing. It snows a little in the fall, letting me know that winter, when it snows a lot, isn’t too far away. Things die in the fall. Things are dead in the winter. Days get shorter in the fall. Winter starts on the year’s shortest day.
One more baby-shower drink—that’s four, but I’m the only one drinking so who really gives a rat’s ass? More wood. Phoebe looks at me. It’s a look of sympathy. She knows. She gets it. Fall is like the waiting room at the dentist’s office. Yeah, there might be some good reading material and some comfortable furniture, but eventually, you’re going to have sit in that chair, and that’s no fun.
You love fall, huh? Well, good for you. You go get your elk. You go chase your deer. You freeze your ass off in the duck blind and have fun breaking through the skim ice to put the decoys out.
Screw fall. I don’t need the preview.
But I’ll take another baby-shower cocktail. Here’s to spring.