Way Up North
In December of 1964, the year my father died, the Salmon River overran the narrow confines of its banks, and washed away the old Langford’s Store, near Somes Bar, along with the low-lying cabins Mrs. Langford had rented over the years to folks like my grandparents, and my parents, people who found fly-fishing for steelhead sufficiently compelling to persuade them to drive for a day and a night from the Bay Area into the wilds of the Marble Mountains, roughly midway between Mt. Shasta and the Pacific Ocean. I was a Senior in high school at the time of the above-mentioned catastrophe, and had fallen under the spell of a beautiful redhead from San Rafael. Given the nature of the events in that period of my life, I was glad for the distraction, and if I noticed the flood story that December, 40 years ago, I forgot about it almost at once.
I’d first gone to Somes Bar when I was four. My father had bought a 1947 Cadillac as a “birthday present,” for me, I was told. (I’m not sure how many other fathers may have made similar shopping decisions, but I’m fairly certain the idea never really caught on. Especially among four-year-olds.) In October of 1951 my sister, who had just entered first grade at Burkhalter School, was excused from class for a couple of weeks, so the family could all go “Up North.” Those two words—”Up North”—carried so much power, conveyed such strong feelings, called up such unsettling associations, and unleashed such primitive energy in our house over the years. It was almost like some Shamanic incantation; the effect was mind-altering. The name Somes Bar never measured up, when I was a kid. (Though, now, I think, because that name connects it to the rest of the English-speaking, map-reading world, Somes Bar carries, for me, all that “Up North” did, and more.) I’m not sure I knew the actual place name until long after my first trip, at four, and I never thought of it as Somes Bar until after my father’s death.
On that first trip we left Oakland in the early evening, after my father returned from the office where he worked. He was the Credit Manager for General Mills Oakland office, at the time. My sister liked to eat Cheerios for breakfast, in those days, but I bet he never got a deal on them. (No little brother in his right mind likes to eat the same cereal as the big sister who torments him, so I was a Rice Krispies guy. ) When the car was all packed up we drove off toward Richmond, there to catch the ferry to San Rafael, from where we’d begin the drive north on the “Redwood Highway.” Only three of us rode out in the light-green Cadillac that evening; my mother would join us, a few days later, riding up with my grandfather, in his cream-colored ’47 Packard.
As we began the journey, I remember feeling a tremendous sense of adventure; we were heading off into THE GREAT UNKNOWN! The ferryboat magnified that sense. We drove onto it as darkness fell, and made our way upstairs, where there was a bar, lit by brightly colored lights, and there were pinball machines, the smell of cigarettes being smoked, and liquor being drunk, and constant laughter. My sister had a ginger ale, and I had a Seven-Up! I remember the urinal in the Men’s room rose from the floor up to my eyes! (hey—I was four!)
When we drove onto the highway in San Rafael, the basic idea was that my sister and I would fall asleep in the back seat, and my father would drive all night. Now that I’m nearly 57, I can apprehend a kind of logic behind that, but there is no way you could begin to successfully rationalize a plan like that to a reasonably normal four-year-old boy. So, what I remember, after the ferryboat, was that it seemed like I was going to be riding in a car through utter darkness, with the occasional interruption of the reflection of a passing vehicle’s headlights migrating across the ceiling inside that Cadillac, until I was dead. It was torture. At some point, God knows when, I slept.
I awoke to find myself being tucked into a bed in an unfamiliar room in a cabin made of pine, out in the woods. There was daylight, of a grey, cloudy sort. We’d made it; we were “Up North.” Then, again, I was fast asleep.
And then, again, I awoke. In the same nice-smelling room in the pine cabin. After a minute I realized I was completely alone. I called out for my father, then for my sister, but not a sound came in reply. I got up and put on my shoes (I’d been tucked in fully-dressed, in my father’s effort not to awaken me.) and went outside calling out: “Daddy!” at the top of my lungs. Maybe they were in the car! I ran to the car, and opened the door. Nope, not in there.
Amateur detective that I was, I figured: if the car’s here, they must be here, too! And so I climbed into the car, determined to wait until they returned, so I could be certain they wouldn’t drive off without me. After a short time, somewhere between thirty seconds, and two minutes, I began to worry they might never come back.
So I climbed back out of the car, and began to walk toward the sound of the river. I was pretty sure I could hear voices, one of which sounded like it could be my sister. There was a stand of trees in front of me, with an opening, through which I could see the river, and could make out the figures of two people standing on its banks. They were far enough away that I wasn’t convinced that I recognized them, so I began to move in their direction for a closer look. At four, I hadn’t yet really learned the importance of paths and trails, so that, advancing in a straight line toward the figures at the riverside, I suddenly found myself in the midst of a blackberry thicket, the bushes up over my knees, my clothes caught at dozens of places, and every effort I made to disentangle myself just made things worse. I began to scream when my hands started bleeding from the thorns.
Somehow, my father heard me, above the sound of the river, and was able, as I recall, to calm me down effectively enough to get me out of the stickers without any further harm. He told me he’d awakened me to let me know he and my sister were going down to the river, and did I want to come, too, or would I rather stay and sleep? And I’d told him I wanted to sleep. I was not comforted a bit by this story; it completely failed to quiet the fear I’d felt when I woke up and didn’t find them with me. But I think he did realize what a distressed state I was in, and after that, he was able to reassure me that he’d keep me safe.
A few days later my sister and my father and I were at a fishing spot, and while my father was trying to propitiate the steelhead gods, I was throwing rocks in the river because I loved the sound they made as they broke the surface of the water, and I loved the way it looked as the water leapt into the air around the place the rock hit. My father kept asking me to stop, because it would scare off all the fish. He told my sister and me we had to keep our voices low, so as not to scare them, too. Some fun.
A while later small rocks started to sail over our shoulders from behind us, and bounce off the massive rocks at the river’s edge. I turned to find my mother and my grandfather, some thirty feet behind us, laughing like naughty children.
It was ten years before we returned “Up North,” and, at age fourteen, I’d lived most of my entire life between visits. Plenty had gone wrong in the interval, but somehow the opportunity to be there again seemed to offer us a small window into grace in our lives, and I remember that vacation as perhaps the happiest two weeks in my young life.
It was August, 1961. John Kennedy was President. Maris and Mantle were closing in on 50 home runs. My dad taught me to cast with one of our ancient split-bamboo flyrods, and I found it came to me easily. I hooked a ten-inch Rainbow after only a few minutes, and proudly decided I had to eat it. The problem was, I had to kill it first. After a couple of completely unconvincing attempts to bash its head in with a rock, I not only didn’t want to eat it, I’ve never managed to go fly-fishing again.
But I loved that river. The sound of it stirred me, in a way nothing else ever had. I’d found, even on the first visit, at age four, that I loved to sit, and do nothing more than just to watch, and to listen to that water move. At fourteen it was no less captivating, and I spent hours, contentedly, at its edge, and in it, as well.
The Salmon is one of the last undammed scenic rivers in Northern California, and it’s still the most beautiful I’ve seen. I found my way back, briefly, at age twenty-four, with my first wife, when we were expecting our first child. We took a dip in the North Fork of the Salmon with some friends from the small town of Fort Jones. Someone in the group snapped a photo of four of us, naked as the day we were born, standing knee-deep, arm-in-arm. I had hair down to my shoulders. I was holding a bottle of Spanada in my left hand. That was two months before I got into the wine business.
This Summer I’ve found my way back again. We’re spending a week eight miles below Somes Bar, on the Klamath River, and making day trips back upriver to where the Salmon flows into the Klamath, and further back up the Salmon in search of quiet places to swim. The river is nearly luminous.
I’d forgotten how difficult it is to walk barefoot over the smooth, rounded rocks in the fast-rushing water. But I hadn’t forgotten how lovely the water feels, enveloping this old, white fish of a body.
I’ve been checking my answering machine now and again while I’m here, knowing harvest will be early, and I fielded a bulletin from El Dorado County yesterday about Gamay. It’s not ready yet, but it won’t be long, I’m afraid. This will be the 20th harvest for Edmunds St. John, and likely the earliest of the bunch, so, in more ways than one, this trip “Up North” was a matter of trying to get back up here before it’s too late.
I’ve got a home in your eyes
Where the wild bird flies,
And I hear the deepest water running there…
(Flowers Of The Heart, August, 2004)