A visit to western Montana

I’ve been to Yoknapatawpha County, been baptized in the Southern Gothic, smelt the stench of Addie Bundren, and felt the passion of Atticus Finch. I saw Golding’s boys speak into the Conch and watched as Piggy was erased from time with the passing of the waves. Still, nothing had touched me so closely to the core as Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, until I discovered that a river ran through it.


In the year of our bicentennial celebration, Norman Maclean presented us with a gift – a 


treasure. He wrote a dad burn masterpiece, and I’ve read it a half a dozen times since.

“Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.”

Over the decades, Maclean has garnered somewhat of a cult following among die-hard fly fisherman – rightfully so – but Norman Maclean wrote about so much more than a bug floating upon big trout waters.

“Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to giveor, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them – we can love completely without complete understanding.”

I spent this week wading the rivers of western Montana. I stood hip-deep in awe of the majesty of the Rocky Mountains and Maclean’s words penetrated me.

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.

“My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him all good things-trout as well as eternal salvation-come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”

I’d like to say that I waded the same rivers as Norman Maclean, but Heraclitus taught me otherwise. No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. Thus, my week on the Big Blackfoot, Bitterroot, and Clark Fork are forever memories, washed downstream through the currents of time – never to be repeated. I’ll cherish them and the words that haunt me.

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.”