In the morning it had been raining, and they had gotten in behind a senior citizens caravan, all in big recreational vehicles, all from Washington. Jon Dunham had been whipping down the road, heading south, sliding in and out between the campers, and every time he passed he glanced over at his wife, Deborah, who apparently expected them to get hit by one of the big mining trucks that were rumbling north. Every time Dunham pulled out to pass, Deborah clutched the dashboard and tapped the floor with her foot, searching for a brake pedal. There were 64 campers in all, big and small, and Dunham knew they must all be together because of the big red decals that each vehicle had on its rear. Once they got past Whitehorse, though, the rain stopped and traffic seemed to let up, and Deborah was able to relax and stop gripping the dashboard and tapping at her brake. She fell asleep.
She awoke sometime later as Dunham pulled off the road, a small cloud of white dust blowing up and around them. As it cleared Dunham could make out an overflowing red litter barrel, and, beyond that, a valley. A range of mountains rose on the other side of the valley, shaded by clouds. A motor home and a mining truck went by, heading west, north, blowing in more dust. Everything seemed much drier.
Deborah put her hands over her face, still half asleep. She asked, “Are we there yet?”
“Those are the Cassiars over there, I think,” Dunham said. “And that river, I guess, is the Rancheria.”
Deborah sat up and looked away at the mountains. “How much farther to Fort St. John?” They had stayed in a motel in Fort St. John on the way to Alaska: hot showers, firm mattresses, cable tv, telephones, air conditioning.
“Fort St. John?” Dunham shrugged. “I don’t know—maybe 900 miles. We might make it by tomorrow if we push it.”
Deborah sat back rested her head against the window of the truck. The weak sunlight cast a shadow across her face.
“Then let’s push it.”
Dunham waited a moment. “You’re not getting out?”
“No.” She sounded serious.
Dunham shrugged and opened the truck door. He collected five bottles—three Labatt’s and two Cokes—and a wad of the Fairbanks newspaper from under the seat and carried it all over to the trash barrel. The turnout was at a bend in the road at the top of a bluff. Below, the Rancheria River twisted through a wide marshy valley and disappeared off to the northwest. Cloud shadows scudded over the valley. The Cassiars were light gray. Between the turnout and the mountains a single cloud was dropping rain, dark gray streaks that settled into the haze. A car with its headlights on went by, blowing dust, heading north to Whitehorse. Yukon plates. Dunham walked back to the truck and leaned in.
“I have to pee.”
Deborah said, “That’s great.”
The slope of the bluff was steep and somewhat slippery. It was damp but not muddy, covered with hard pale gravels that rolled out from under Dunham’s feet. Dunham rested against a burnt-out stump and caught his breath before sliding the rest of the way down the slope. At the bottom there was a fire ring made of gathered wild stones. Ashes, some beer bottles, and a half-burned throwaway diaper were in the ring. Logs had been rolled up close for seats. A path led down to the river.
Dunham stood up close to a pale green bush and urinated. A big truck of some sort headed south on the highway, and dust swirled at the top of the bluff.
In the silence that followed the truck Dunham heard the river. He buttoned his jeans and followed the path, scrambling over a deadfall and splashing across a little creek coming from the north. The creek disappeared into a thicket, but further ahead he caught a glimpse of open water. He climbed over another dead fall, ducked under some alders, and came out on the banks of the river.
The Rancheria came out of the southeast, headed toward the bluff, and turned suddenly to the west. It flowed past Dunham’s feet and turned on into the south, dropped into a riffle, and disappeared behind some brush. At the base of the bluff, where it turned, there was a logjam and an eddy. The creek seemed to come in there. The water below Dunham was shallow and clear with a sandy bottom. Two smallish grayling cruised the base of the pool.
Pretty water, Dunham thought. Wild fish.
Those grayling have never seen a fly.
I am the first man to see them.
Dunham ducked back under the alders and re-crossed the dead¬fall. He turned and followed the creek, splashing through its dark tunnel until he came out at the logjam.
Deborah was sitting in the front seat staring off into space when Dunham opened the back of the truck. He got a beer out of the cooler and walked around to the driver’s side and got in.
“You must’ve had to go pretty bad.”
“I was looking at the river.” Dunham twisted the top off the bottle and took a long drink. His pants were wet from the knee down and there was a scratch on his face.
“I was looking at those stupid old people,” Deborah said. “All those campers from Washington—they all passed us.”
“I saw this huge grayling,” Dunham said. “I want to see if I can catch it.”
“Those old people from Seattle just passed us,” Deborah said. “Most of them—maybe all of them. They blew dust on me.”
“We’ll pass ’em again,” Dunham said. “They drive slow.”
“Yeah, and they’ll slow us down.”
“I’ll go catch that fish and let ’em get way ahead of us.” Dunham smiled, but his smile faded when she just stared at him.
Deborah said, “You’ve caught enough fish already. Okay?”
Dunham looked away and began sorting through the pile of maps on the seat between them. “Okay?”
“No….” Dunham found their battered copy of the Yukon guidebook and started thumbing through it. He looked up. “No, really, hon, this grayling is enormous—he’s never seen a fly before. Nobody’s seen him before. It’s like a whole new world down there.”
“Sure. Right off the road.”
“Yeah—isn’t that great?”
Deborah sighed and looked out the window. Two more clouds were dumping rain somewhere near the mountains.
Dunham found his place and started to read. “’DC 663.4…’ hey, I was wrong. We’re only about 600 miles from Fort St. John. Six-sixty-three from Dawson Creek.”
Deborah laughed, exasperated. “Well, hell, then, let’s get going.”
“No, wait….” Dunham began reading again. “’DC 667—”
“Shit, four more miles already?”
“’DC 667…Litter barrel with view of the Rancheria River to south.’ That’s us.”
“Great, so now we know where we are. So let’s go, okay?”
“No, wait…’Rancheria River, fishing for bull trout and grayling.’ Well, I guess. The grayling are there, at least.” Dunham looked up. “You should see this grayling I saw, hon, it was huge.”
“There’s no such thing as a huge grayling,” Deborah said.
“It’s bigger than any we saw in Alaska. Over 18 inches, easy.”
“That’s not a huge fish.” Deborah shifted in her seat, turned to face Dunham. He was looking back at the guidebook again, squinting, sunburned skin flaking off his nose. Deborah reached for his beer and took a sip.
“It’s warm,” he told her. “We’re out of ice.”
“Jon,” Deborah said, and then paused. Then she started again. “Jon. I’m really tired. I’m even tired of looking at—trees. You know? Everything looks the same. We’ve driven something like eight thousand miles in the last—”
Dunham looked up form the guidebook. He said, “More like about six thousand, hon.”
“Okay! So it’s six thousand. I don’t really care—I just want to get to wherever it is we’re going today, and I want that to be just a little closer to home than we are now. I mean, I guess—I just wish you’d have a little more respect for my feelings. You know?”
Dunham smiled at her and reached over and squeezed her hand. “Baby, hang on, it’ll just be a few minutes. This fish has never seen a fly before.”
“You don’t even keep the damn things!”
He got out of the truck, shut the door, and leaned in the window.
“You want to get out and watch?”
“Yes, I’m damn well sure.”
Dunham took a step back. She was angry. He thought of the trip out: prairies, plains, grasses, rivers, badlands, rivers, mountains, rivers, trees, rivers, trees, bridges, trucks, mountains, glaciers, more trees, more rivers, good roads, bad roads, old people in RVs—ten days from Dallas to Anchorage, two weeks in Alaska, and now they were still at least a week away from home.
She doesn’t get it, he thought. This is—everything.
“You know,” Deborah said, “it would’ve been a lot easier if you’d just left me back in Whitehorse—then I could’ve caught a flight home and you could dick around in the woods and play Lewis and Clark all you wanted.”
“No.” Dunham took another step back and shook his head. She could be so damn stubborn. “I mean, it’ll be just a few minutes. Then I’ll come back and drive like hell. We’ll pass the old people. We’ll make it fine.”
“I don’t think so,” Deborah said. Dunham ignored her and walked around to the back of the truck. Dunham could see her twist rearview mirror around so that she could watch him, but he still ignored her and got busy digging in his fishing gear, pulling out a rod, a fly box, some gadgets. When he looked up again he saw her pour the rest of the warm beer out the window.
The river came straight at Dunham and then turned, the main current curving toward the south and back into the east. In front of him was the eddy, a small current circling around and around, out of the main river, against the bank, along the little sandbar the creek had deposited under the logjam, and back out into the river. Pretty water, clear and cold, reflecting the sky, the trees, Dunham.
The water here was deep. Dunham looked through the reflective surface and could see down into green shadows. This was probably where the fish in this section wintered over. The ice would come, and the snow, and the fish would hold near the bottom in the dark, locked in, waiting quietly for breakup.
A big grayling came up out of the green—getting bigger and bigger—and took a bug, a grayish-tan caddis fly of some sort. It made a little slurping noise and settled back a foot or so in the water. Two other, smaller grayling appeared and hovered off to the left. They all could stay in the eddy as long as they wanted and food would always be swirled right up to them.
Grayling look up, he thought. They like to take flies. Dry flies. Good, good. He doesn’t know I’m here—he doesn’t know what I am if he did know I was here. Very good.
Dunham’s rod was already rigged, a size 14 Adams at the end of his leader. He stepped to the side to put more of the bush between him and the fish. There wasn’t much room to cast, but he didn’t need to cast far. He worked out a little line and slop-rolled a cast into the eddy. The leader straightened out just enough and the fly dropped softly onto the water.
It was very easy. The eddy brought the fly to the big grayling, who spotted it, rose, looked at it for a second, finning back in the water, and sucked it down.
Dunham set the hook and smiled. The shocked grayling jumped, bored out to the main river, quickly jumped twice more, then again, and then tried to go deep. The leader was heavy, though, and Dunham pressured the fish, keeping him near the surface of the eddy. One more jump. Then Dunham, out from behind the bush, was leading him up onto the sandbar. It was very easy.
Dunham knelt over the surprised-looking fish and picked it up. The grayling was slick and iridescent, gleaming in the sun¬light, green and bronze, heavy and fat. It gasped in the air, trying to breathe. The big dorsal fin was swept down but Dunham ran his finger along it, pulling it up. A big, big fin. He measured the fish against his rod, and it covered the writing right up to where it said “5 Weight”—maybe 18, maybe 19 inch¬es, easy 16 or 17, 20 when he would feel like lying.
Dunham removed the fly and got the fish back in the water, holding it by the tail. In a minute or so the fish wiggled and Dunham let go. The grayling shot back into the eddy and went deep.
It was then that Dunham heard his truck’s horn. Back up on the bluff Deborah was really leaning on it. He stood up.
Dunham found Deborah standing by the tailgate of the pickup, her big green flight bag beside her. She was saying something to a stout middle-aged woman with short-cropped gray-streaked hair. She flashed a quick, distracted smile. The woman was starting to say something to Deborah when she noticed Dunham and stopped, eyeing him curiously. Two blond children, a boy and a girl, stood next to an old station wagon with Alberta plates. The boy was throwing rocks at the red litter barrel but the little girl was watching Dunham. The headlights of the station wagon were turned on and it was parked headed north.
“Yeah, it’s about time you got here,” Deborah said. “I’m leaving.”
She picked up the green flight bag but the short woman reached over and took it from her, saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll take it.”
Dunham stared at them dumbly for a moment while he felt the bottom fall out of his stomach—his life—with a confusing, almost dizzying rush.
“Are you crazy?” Dunham finally asked. “You can’t just go off and leave.”
The blocky woman turned around and looked at him angrily. “Hey, listen, don’t you tell her what to do, okay?”
“Oh, shut up,” Dunham said.
The blocky woman dropped the flight bag and marched over toward Dunham. He watched her—march, that was the word—stepping stiffly like in a dream, and then she was there in front of him and she wound up and punched him square in the chest. Bam. Dunham stumbled back, lost his balance on the gravel, and fell hard on his butt. The little boy pointed at him and laughed.
“You don’t tell her what to do, okay?”
“Better leave it alone, Jon,” Deborah said. “We’ve been talking.”
The little woman, Sally, kicked gravel at Dunham, and he guarded his face with a raised forearm. Now both the children were laughing.
Dunham said, “Hey, stop it!”
“You stop it, Jon!” Deborah said. “This is all your fault. Don’t you know that?”
The blocky woman opened her mouth to say something but Deborah touched her on the arm and said, “It’s okay. He won’t do anything.”
For some reason that bothered Dunham more than anything—He won’t do anything. What the hell. Nothing? Nothing? Dunham thought of their first nights, lying twined together on wet sheets watching the sun come up, planning trips, trips they actually had gone on—to Yellowstone, Alberta, Colorado, Idaho, now Alaska. How he had worked hard to have time to travel, to do what he loved, to take her with him, and how she had liked it. Well, she’d said she’d liked it, he thought. Now, though, Dunham only looked at Deborah and squinted. He said, “You can’t just leave.”
“Well, I am.” Deborah watched the other woman pick up the flight bag and carry it over to the station wagon. The little boy helped her fit it into the back. The little girl folded her arms across her chest and stared at him, frowning.
Dunham asked, “What happened?”
“Sally here stopped to let her kids go to the bathroom, and after I talked to her she said she could give me a ride back to Whitehorse. I can catch a flight home from there.”
“No, I know that. I mean, what happened? I mean—”
Sally leaned around the car and said, “She doesn’t care what you mean.”
“This has been going on for a long time,” Deborah said. “You know that.”
Dunham didn’t say anything. He looked at the angry woman, Sally, and back at Deborah. He sat there on the gravel, rubbing his chest—his heart—with his right hand. His pants were muddy and wet from the river.
“I’m taking some of the travelers’ checks,” Deborah said. “I left you enough, I think. And I know you’ve got a lot of room left on your Visa.”
“Oh, c’mon, Deb,” Dunham said. “You can’t just go like this….”
“You said that already.” Deborah bent down and touched his face. “Give me a call when you get to Fort St. John, huh?”
Dunham sat on the tailgate of the truck drinking warm beer. After a while he put his feet up and took off his boots. He looked around the back of the truck for a moment, until he found his waders, hidden beneath Deborah’s sleeping bag. She’d left most of her gear in the truck—the sleeping bag, her books, her cameras. Two ticking alarm clocks. Dunham frowned and looked away. He slipped into his waders, and put on his wading boots. More rain clouds were building up over the valley. An RV went north on the highway. It went around a bend in the road and soon the sound drifted away. Everything was very quiet. Dunham locked the back of the truck, picked up his fly rod, and headed down the face of the bluff to the river.
Lowell Mick White has published numerous stories, most notably in Gray’s Sporting Journal, Dominion Review, and Antietam Review. In 1998 he was awarded the Dobie-Paisano Fellowship by the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Institute of Letters. He is currently a graduate student at Texas A&M University, where he specializes in creative writing, works on the staff of the journal Callaloo, and co-edits Big Tex[t] (http://bigtext.tamu.edu/).