I always had the crazy notion that I would live forever, but now, as I quickly reach the age of 50 and my body finds it increasingly necessary to fail me, it is most likely that I won’t. Therefore, it was decided by me, that I needed to revisit a place that I have long held dear to my heart, a place that I recall with great fondness, when I felt most alive, the wild trout streams of my boyhood home in Northern California.
So, with my gear packed and my expectations held high, I headed out West to see some old friends of mine.
The two-hour drive to the mountains was quite uneventful, however I did take some time to stop along the road to fully appreciate the beauty of my surroundings, something that I rarely did in my youth.
On the evening of the first day, I made camp on a river flat near the crumbling foundations of an old sawmill.
The mill had once boasted of having over one hundred workers in its employment, but that was a long time ago and there is no one left to dispute that claim. To the casual observer, even one blessed with the noblest of intentions , looking at this empty place now, one could scarcely believe such a thing possible. However, with careful considerations applied to the imagination, one may catch glimpse of a once bustling and glorious scene. A long lost monument to mans triumph over the land, reduced to rusty old derelict machinery and passive weathered boards rising up through the tall thistle that nearly consumed the entire mill flat.
Oldtimers used to say that some time around the late 1920s the mill had fallen under new management and apparently the new owner refused to spend a dime on the required everyday maintenance. Unsafe and shoddy repairs lead to a noticeable decline in productivity but the mill somehow maintained enough profitability to continue the practice and shoo away all naysayers, but everyone knew the mill’s days were numbered.
By the time the great depression hit in 1929, it was to be the final nail in the coffin for the sawmill.
With a crooked mill owner at the helm, it came as little surprise to anyone when workers returned to work one Monday morning only to find that the owner had skipped town, leaving the workers unemployed and worst of all, unpaid. As the hours ticked away and with no word of a possible reprieve, the workers’ dispositions understandably disintegrated into mob mentality.
Arming themselves with the usual “mob” type weaponry, the fevered workers took out their rage on the mill property, if for nothing more than to satisfy their lust for vengeance. They busted into the mill’s company store and began to loot its contents. Others were encouraged to find compensation for their lost wages in the piles of valuable lumber. So as the day progressed the men went about their labors to make such sensible ideas a reality.
That evening a huge rainstorm hit the area that was like no other storm before or since. Non-stop rain and torrential downpours led to a great flood that caused the once docile little creek to leave its banks and wash away everything on the flat. All the trucks and wagons loaded with lumber were turned upside down. Thousands of boards floated away in the ever-growing flood water currents.
Throughout the night the workers tried desperately to save anything of value, but by 4am the next morning everything was gone, even the company store, which was the largest of the mill site structures. Someone once told me that many years later, when they were trout fishing about five miles below the old mill site, they found what they believed to be the last remnants of what was once the old sawmill. Old rusty bed frames with the springs still attached, chunks of locally manufactured bricks and even a bottle of Burgermister Beer, still full of beer. Not much when one considers the size of the mill and the large amount of goods that the company store would have had in stock at the time of the great flood.
I guess only the workers’ ghosts know the final results of their frantic desperation on that horrible day and night.
My hike into the mill site was way more difficult then I remembered it being. Some sections of the road were completely gone and the sections that hadn’t slid away were mostly unrecognizable.
Large washouts, entangled broken trees and rock slides pushed me to the narrow deer trails around the cliff edges. I had to double back numerous times, but I finally arrived at the old mill site with just enough usable daylight left to forage for firewood. I built a small cook fire around some stones I collected, turned on my little transistor AM radio to an old Jack Benny radio program then retrieved the small cooking pot and a can of chili beans from my backpack. After a small battle with a rusty can opener I emptied the chili beans into the pot that I had carefully positioned on two hot stones. I hovered over the fire and took in the warmth of the flames. With a hot steaming pot of chili beans bubbling for my dinner, I leaned back against an old log and enjoyed every spoonful of the chili. My thoughts began to wander, undisciplined, but quite focused when given room to do so.
The radio yielded enough reception to hear the Jack Benny program which occasionally brought forth an audible laugh from deep in my belly. I enjoyed this moment immensely and to this day I look back on it as one of my fondest of memories.
With the dancing flames casting eerie shadows on the tree limbs and grasses around my makeshift camp I tossed the last big piece of wood onto the fire. My eyelids grew heavy, so I made my way to where I had laid out my sleeping bag. Everything I had brought with me on this trip to give me some sort of reasonable comfort I had foolishly left out exposed to the elements. The dewpoint hit the flat sometime while I was feasting on my chili beans and I hadn’t noticed. Now everything was hopelessly damp, but how can anyone be blamed for such negligence with the powerful distraction of a steaming hot pot of camp cooked chili beans? It’s a known fact that camp food tastes better than anything else on earth, especially after a long day of hiking for someone my age.
Fatigue laid heavy on my body and I felt it get the better of me, but it was an easy victory for I did not resist its influence. The last thing I remember was the fire’s final moments, when flames gave way to glowing embers and the voices coming through my little AM radio speaker slowly were fading away into the darkness of night.
Though I cannot prove it, I am quite certain I fell asleep with a smile on my face. I thought how I hadn’t felt that happy in years. I drifted away into a pleasant slumber.
That night I dreamed of fishing the cold clear waters of the stream near my camp, hungry trout rising to take the hand-tied fly I presented to them. The little creek that ran past my campsite had always yielded some great trout fishing. What wonderful memories I have of that place.
I woke to a frosty cold morning and the night's darkness giving way to first light. The sun was just about to creep over the horizon but it had yet to capture the dawn. Small birds stirred in the trees above my Camp and they began singing their joyful songs of morning’s arrival. “I must hurry myself, I thought, before that sun breaks over the hills and shines into the small waters of the creek because everyone knows that trout, especially wild trout, despise the sun. A wild trout that has taken to retreating into the shadows is a very formidable opponent indeed. I imagined a great day ahead of me and I couldn’t wait to get started living every moment of it.