Gray Gumbo

Monday, July 15, 2013

The clay flat at Locomotive Springs on the desolate northern tip of the Great Salt Lake is made of gray gumbo, a clay in which only dog sage will grow, and bitter-leaved weed, which is a dun green and ugly and which no animal can eat. A million of these tenacious plants spread to every horizon and create a breathtaking eye trick that makes you worry that you may have landed on the vacuum planet, a world of clay and bush and sky and nothing nothing for miles on every side.

The desolation is multiplied by the fact that you can only get to the springs on one road, twenty miles of gravel in and the same twenty miles of gravel out. Gray gumbo is always wet, even in August, and the dirt track to the springs is also always wet, because it is nothing more than a berm of the clay bladed up to look like a real road. When it rains, as it started to rain early on the October morning that we were hunting ducks, the clay turns to a gray grease that is a remarkable element in its similarity to lard. The first turn your tires make on the wet clay road clogs every tread regardless of the clever manufacture of the depth or angle of the grooves, and all four tires become ridiculous greasy cylinders, throwing clay and picking it up at the same speed, applying for a purchase that will never come. The roadways there are all gouged gorgeously with the grand fishtailing sweeps of the last vehicle to pass, as well as great dramatic slashes of mud down onto the flat where vehicles for decades have slid off the road.

It was always a remarkable sensation to drive in such a place on such roads. There weren’t ten cars a month that made the gambit, and they were all, as were we, hunters of flying fowl, geese and ducks, on that significant American flyway where the birds cross from Idaho into the great wetlands atop the massive dead sea, and the few summer fishermen who came to fly fish the springs, where the freshwater burbles up and meanders in the flatland half a mile before merging into the mineral salt edges of the Great Salt Lake. The spring pond is a pretty, reed-lined pool maybe two acres and perfectly pellucid so that you can see the swaying tropical grasses on the bottom, twenty and thirty feet deep as it flows into the wasteland sloughs spreading south in fingers like wandering green parkways of pussywillow and the hardy jointed reeds of sedgelike growth sometimes called Mormon tea.

Marcus and I had driven out before dawn to catch the first flights of mallards as they came through, and in the first light we had had some shooting, taking just four birds, and we were lucky enough to find them all. If you dropped one over the water, there was no way to cross. We talked about that a great deal walking out where the green weeds grew tall between the path bank and the water, and how we would shoot judiciously when they swung west and when they swung north, but what we did when the first flocks winged heavily past was we stood and just shot and the four birds we took from the three flights fell luckily where we could claim them. It was luck.

We’d given it until midmorning, when the rain stopped, and then we’d walked back to the old maroon station wagon. Putting the shotguns away in their leather cases, we again saw the fishing poles that had been in the back of my car all summer along with my old tent, the bivouac bags, two blankets, a cardboard box of my cooking kit, a large cellophane bag of salted-in-the-shell peanuts left over from some trip, a yellow plastic siphon, a jar of water-purifying tablets, a yardstick, three gloves, my old green canvas tarp, a coil of orange tent cord, random striped dishcloths, et cetera, all kinds of stuff that should have properly been stowed on the shelving on the back wall of my garage but that now was part of the traveling shuffle along which was my life. On the few dates I ever managed, if I took a corner just a touch fast, the whole caravansary slid and clattered in the back and I explained that it was all going to be put away safely tomorrow. But it always scared the girls, and the mystery and threat of all that junk dissipated any small threads of charm I could assemble. My car had been filling with my stuff for three years now. There were three or four loose propane canisters for the stove and my two big hunting knives loose in the mix, including the beautiful antler-handled bowie knife my father gave me years ago. I love all my gear despite how I treat it. I sort of like having it with me all the time. It was an outdoorsman’s paradise, though I only got out of town three times a year. That’s what I had said that morning to Marcus as we’d opened the tailgate and looked in, “Outdoorsman’s Paradise.”

This is beginning to sound like a series of excuses, and it may be a series of excuses, but it is also the way it happened. Now, we slid the guns into the mix in the back of the car, and Marcus picked out my fishing pole, still geared with the spinning gear, a red-jeweled gold coin made by Mepps. It’s hard to behold a fishing pole and not pick it up. It is for us anyway. The angler’s aisle at Gearman’s Outdoor Emporium is an hour ordeal, minimum. Then Marcus turned and threw a cast sweetly out onto the flat and retrieved it, bouncing the lure in the greasy mud.

We had four great ducks and we should have cleaned them there in the wasteland edge of the universe and thrown them in my Coolrite, and we should have shot some clay pigeons for a while in the vacant noon day the way we always did. I had a hand thrower in the stuff somewhere. We were both good shots and no disc went unbroken. We’d both been hunting since kids. Marcus and I used the late mornings sometimes to shoot clay pigeons and let the day tip over so we could crack a can of Fisher beer, so salty that the first one made you drink the second.

But no, now that Marcus had cast that line and we’d both heard the reel sizzle and we’d both watched the shiny lure bounce back along the packed gumbo, we wanted to fish. There is undeniably something about being in a place like Locomotive Springs, and it is one of the things I have loved deeply about my life on the surface of the earth. That is: it looks like the surface of the earth. There isn’t anybody for twenty miles, no one, and maybe thirty miles depending on the traffic on I-15 as it leans into Idaho. In town, walking down Frontier Avenue to the art shop where I sell oil paints and brushes and frames all day, and even on Fridays when I drive to the small villages, Crest and Toolah and Rashville, where I demonstrate for their art leagues, meaning the two or three women who can get away for an hour to see me try a new color of oil and give them samples, it’s lovely and busy, as they say, but where am I? Here I watched Marcus cross back over the dirt road and cast the Mepps out into the open pond of the spring. There was nothing in the world anywhere and the red station wagon looked like the spaceship that had brought us to this unknown place, and the feeling of isolation was so complete I felt it as the old high happiness in my chest.

I went back into my stash of equipment, and I sorted out the pieces of my other fishing pole and screwed on the spinning reel and threaded the six-pound test out through the eyelets and tied on a brass swivel. In my old canvas creel I found a sheaf of snelled hooks and a crushed Styrofoam carton of night crawlers; which trip were they from? Though listless and desiccated, they were still alive somehow. I bit a sinker on the line and baited up and walked over beside Marcus. “They’re in here,” he said. He pointed out fifteen yards to the faint circles rippling the water, which may have been tentative rises by the spring-fed trout. “What is that, a worm?”

“Most of one,” I told him.

“You got your fly kit?” he asked.

I pointed at the open rear gate of the vehicle. “The flies are in the manila envelope with my diploma.” Somehow the wax envelope of flies was now kept in the thin package I got from the college three years ago.

Marcus reeled in and crossed back to the car. Behind him to world’s end were the great companies of dog sage in the mud, holding up the sky. It had become a rich October day, and the sun was warm on my arms.

I cast my line into the far edge of the pond and let it sink, and Marcus came back with a twist of blue feathers pinched between his finger and thumb, and he showed me the thing, which I had made and named the Rigamarole. Sometimes in the winter, you get weary of the fine work of tying perfect tiny fishing flies over the workbench with the light and the magnifier lens, and you just make something that would attract attention if the trout were some bored teenager. On the Rigamarole I think I used a size four hook.

“You’re only going for the big fish,” I said.

“Exactly.” He threw the device over the water entirely and was lucky to snake it off the reeds. “It’s heavy,” he said, setting it this time at eleven o’clock over the center. 

From the moment you have both lines in the water, it usually takes about one minute, give or take a minute, to ask about the beer. Something like: You ready? Or: Anything missing from this picture? Or: I’m thinking about something. Or: Who’s going across to the vehicle to retrieve our rich reward. Or: That beer’s cold by now.

Before I volunteered to retrieve a couple beers, we heard that weird high friction you sometimes hear in such a place, and we looked up to see a two huge V’s of Canada geese working south along the upper stratosphere. They were probably at five thousand feet.

We admired the powerful display for a moment and then Marcus said, “Word got back to Manitoba that we were out hunting today and they adjusted their elevation.”

We both stood still in that desert place looking up. I wouldn’t see such a thing in town. “They’ll be at that dry lake by Delta by four o’clock.” I said.

“Those geese will make you thirsty,” Marcus said.

“Fishing makes you thirsty,” I said. “Hunting. Just seeing so much of the world at once. I am fully thirsty and will return.”

I lay my pole on the ground and went over to the car and hauled back a couple bright cold cans of Fisher.

“Poaching too,” Marcus said.

“What do you mean? What day is it?”

“It is no longer September, which is the critical fact.”

“Oh yes,” I said. Fishing season had expired. “Have we ever poached before?” I asked him.

“Not really. We took thirteen trout that time out of Mirror Lake and the limit was eight. One of us has got to study further on the Fish and Game proclamation.”

“You can see why people poach in the lonely places,” I said to Marcus. “Look around. Where are the rules posted?”

“All sportsmen are expected to know the rules of the hunt,” Marcus said. 

“Here we are without a single sign of civilization,” I said. “Except for yonder car. What if we were here for weeks; we’d have to take a fish to survive.”

“That is an excellent point,” Marcus said. “Except for that road leading to Snowville, the fact that we’re going back before dark, and we brought those Bomber Roast beef sandwiches from Butch’s along with pickles and two kinds of chips.”

“What kind?”

“Those stiff double-salted ones that want to crack your teeth and the blue ones with the straw in them or whatever it is.”

“You want some now?”

“No, let’s drink beer and poach, like the outlaws we’ve become.”

I said, “Is it poaching if you don’t catch anything?”

“It’s fishing if you don’t catch anything, otherwise we’ve made at least four trips to the Uintas for reasons we don’t understand. So it is probably the same with poaching.”

It was sweet to stand there with my friend before the ancient pool of water, a spring that predated everything, spreading freshwater in a labyrinthine maze south to be finally subsumed by the mineral bath of the great lake. The beer was good and Marcus was about to retrieve another when my pole skittered and jumped and I grabbed it up before it could vanish into the water.

“We are unquestionably poaching now,” Marcus said. “I do hope he is a worthy fish.”

My own emotions were mixed. I didn’t want to catch a fish out of season, but I’ve never in my life, not even that time at Mirror Lake, been able to resist the thrilling rush of that fish working hard at the other end of my line. This fish wanted to tour the pond, and so I walked the bank around above the reeds and along that way.

When I was up on the bank something appeared at the edge of the marsh, and I saw the white top of a pickup truck a mile off on one of the dike roads. “Marcus,” I called. “Grab the glasses.”

He trotted to the car and came back with my father’s navy binoculars. I knew what it was. “It’s Carbon,” he said.

“Is that the Fish and Game truck?”

“Yes it is.”

“What’s he doing?

“He’s standing in the tailgate looking this way with his forest service binoculars.


“Hell’s bells!” I said. “Those are superlative glasses. He can read our lips.”

“Then say something about us not poaching and how innocent we are and responsible as sportsmen in the wilderness.” Marcus still held the glasses to his face. “Wait a minute. Wait wait. There is further news about the warden!” he said.

“What?” I had sat down to hide a bit and was holding the tugging fishing pole in my lap. Now it would have been all right with me if this fine fish escaped, but I could tell we’d fought long enough that he was probably done for.

“There is sure enough somebody with our friend Deputy Kenneth Carbon.” I saw Marcus’s mouth open. “Hell’s bells and hell’s whistles,” he said.

“What is it, Marcus?”

“Listen to me: it is Theodora.”

The name had one meaning in our world, and it went back into prehistory like this natural spring and the expanse of blistered wasteland beyond our knowing. Theodora Elt was through all the years of our growing up the paragon of pulchritude, an untouchable beauty who had gone off to college in Minnesota and returned last year as director of our town’s museum, and surprised no one by becoming then—and now—the mayor’s fiancée.

“Theodora is with Kenny Carbon.”

Marcus was at attention with the glasses affixed to his face. In the manner of the certified observers through the strife of the ages, he was not breathing.

“What, Marcus?”

Now he lowered the binoculars from his face for the first time; there were red circles around each of his eyes. He looked otherwise a little pale. “I have seen, albeit through the assistance of these magnifying glasses, the white bare breasts of Theodora Elt.”

I stood and took the binoculars from him.

“You are too late. She has swaddled them again in her brassiere.”

I had a quick burning thought about how some folks use the vast loneliness to be off from others, and Kenny Carbon taking Theo into the void burned me good. 

In the wavering light circle of the binoculars I could see Theodora standing beside the Forest Service pickup buttoning her blouse. To her side Deputy Kenneth Carbon, who had been one year behind us in the high schoo,l stood still glassing us intently and now pointing our way and waving his clipboard as if to say this is where we write the name of evil poachers.

“Here,” I said to Marcus, handing him the binoculars. “Watch him.” It was my turn to jump, and I did jump up and down and I pointed fiercely in the deputy’s direction, making the international sign for big boobs with both my hands and pointing again. “We saw you,” I yelled. “We’ll tell the mayor!”

“He’s a mile off,” Marcus said. “He probably can’t hear you.”

“He can see me. He knows to leave off. What’s he doing now?”

“He’s are in the truck and he’s doing a J turn on the levee and he is in fact driving this way.”

“Sorrow and all its cousins,” I said. “I don’t want to be nabbed as a poacher and called forevermore an enemy of the natural world.”

“Where is Theodora?”

“I cannot see her. She’s gone into hiding.”

We both looked at my fishing pole, which now lay inert in the weeds. I picked it up and reeled in, hauling I could tell some kind of load. It turned out to be a beautiful fourteen-inch rainbow trout, expired, and I took him and put him in the game cooler in the car, where we quickly stuffed our fishing poles. Our guns were already stowed and secure.

“How can he get us for fishing out of season if we don’t have that fish?” Marcus said.

“Could you ever throw away a fish regardless of the time of year, waste God’s bounty?”

“You know I cannot.” Marcus turned to me. “What do you propose?”

We sat in the front seat and I started the engine of the old Malibu. It had been my father’s car. “I propose driving the dike road opposite the authorities and mudding our way back to town before he intercepts us to arrest us.” 

“Could he arrest us?

“He’s always bragging about arresting people. It’s the only pleasure he takes from working for the government.”

“There’d probably be a fine as well.”

“Insult and injury. We want to outrun this character.”

We could see the white Forest Service truck approaching on the far levee behind the thriving wall of reeds. “He’s alone,” I said.

“He’s left her back where they were parked as part of a subterfuge.”

“But we saw her, right?” I asked him.

“I’ll never in this lifetime forget it, Harmon. I can see her now when I close my eyes.”

“What were they like?”

“I don’t know. They were monumental.” He thought a moment and then added, “It was like Mount Rushmore with only Washington and Jefferson, chins up.”

We were moving on a narrow road between the pond and the canal, which dropped in a quarter-mile onto the gumbo flat and then circled to the long road back to Snowville. All of my sporting equipment was sloshing noisily from side to side.

“Oooh, he is upset with us,” Marcus said, and I cast a look back to see the deputy had focused on the object of his chase and was speeding along the frontage road throwing greasy mud in twin fantails. 

We dropped onto the flats and the gumbo filled our tires immediately, but I slowed and kept traction, easing along the way a person walks out onto an icy lake. Kenneth Carbon had closed the gap considerably, and we could see the reeds disturbed as he plowed through. I was still creeping through the gumbo.

“I guess this is as fast as we can go,” Marcus said. He was turned fully around and could see the front end of the federal truck approaching. I could see Kenneth Carbon’s expression in the rear view mirror.

We were moving steadily at twenty-five miles per hour. “Yes,” I said. “This is it. I don’t want to lose traction. I should have not had those fishing poles in the car. That’s probably a violation right there. I look like I’m a well-equipped poacher. Oh, Marcus, I’m so sorry to drag you into this criminal activity.”

He did not respond as we both watched the white Fish and Game truck come up within a yard of our bumper. He was running his blue and red light rack now, and his headlights were also flashing left, right, left, right, a weird feature for any vehicle. I was unsure of our next move.

Then Kenneth made his own move. We saw suddenly his truck go sideways behind us and then slip off the mounded roadway and sink to its axles in the gray gumbo and describe a big loopy circle in the muck, like some kind of sloppy finale that left him mired securely against the greasy surface of planet earth.

Meanwhile we were now going twenty-eight and then thirty. We mounted the gravel spit onto the main road two hundred yards later. Deputy Kenneth Carbon had not exited his vehicle. I wasn’t sure he could open the door.

“The gumbo has claimed him,” Marcus said.

I stopped the car and we got out and looked back at his predicament.

“It’s almost three o’clock on the last Sunday in October,” I said. The days in this bare empty world turned noticeably. We could see forty miles in each of the cardinal directions.

“Daylight is precious,” Marcus said. “And slipping rapidly away.”

“I wouldn’t want to walk twenty miles with the mayor’s fiancé,” I said. “Unless the mayor gave his approval and there was a lunch.”

“Twenty miles would take five hours, at least.” Marcus said.

“At least,” I said. “Marcus if we negotiate with him, will you do the talking? You’re the one saw Mount Rushmore.”

“It falls properly to me,” Marcus said. “And I think anyone axle-deep in gumbo will have an open mind.”

Monday, July 1, 2013