Normalcy lingers beyond the horizon

I long for the world of 2019, before COVID-19 upended everything. I want to walk into a semi-seedy watering hole, sit down at a crowded bar and throw back a few pints, without worrying whether I, or my fellow bar patrons, are safe without masks or vaccines.

It just isn’t much fun drinking a cold one when you’re more concerned about the safety of your server than the taste of what’s served. 

Alas, the disruption continues. The results of the Outdoor Writers Association of America’s Excellence in Craft contest, for work published in 2020 were just announced — and it’s practically 2022. It takes a while to do anything these days, and the awards ceremony was delayed until just this week. It’s usually a summer operation.

The good news is that the “Out of Bounds” column I write for the Flathead Beacon took first place. I’ve lost track of the number of journalism awards I’ve picked up on the state level, but this is the first time I’ve won in a national competition. 

Considering all we’ve been through the last 18 months or so, I suppose it’s fitting that the three columns that made up my winning entry were all produced during the spring 2020 lockdown. 

“River Revisited” is the first of the trio. With all that time on my hands I decided to rewatch the film “A River Runs Through It.” Unlike the book, written by Norman Maclean, which I consider one of the greatest pieces of fly fishing literature of all time, I’ve never been a huge fan of the cinematic version. 

This fresh look turned out to be just that. And with a less jaded eye, I realized I rather enjoyed the film.

I always find it harrowing to reread my stuff. All I see are the things I want to fix. But I sucked it up and reread all three columns this week. I’m mostly good with “River” as published, though I continue to question this one line: And every one of the magnificent fly fishing scenes rings true.

They are magnificent, but “true?” I’m not quite sure about that.

The challenges of writing a newspaper column include a strict word count and inflexible deadlines. Furthering the challenge is that I’ve always been the sort of writer who needs that impending deadline to focus on finishing. The result is I don’t always make perfect decisions in the rush before I press send.

In that line about fishing, I suppose what I meant was that within the context of the film, the fishing scenes ring true. But in the context of fly fishing, not so much. Maclean’s shadow casting technique is nonsense. When trout detect fly lines scything through the sky above them, they don’t think “Oh, there must be a hatch coming on.” 

Instead, they bolt for cover, assuming it’s actually an osprey hatch coming on.

And then there’s the penultimate fishing scene, when Paul Maclean (played by Brad Pitt) hooks into a monster of a trout that races downstream so quickly Paul is forced swim after it, through rapids, in order to tame the fish.

I’ve done enough fly fishing and whitewater rafting to know that about the best possible outcome of such a scenario is a lost fish and broken rod tip. Drowning is a far more likely outcome than netting that trout.

On the other hand, the more recent revelations that Maclean played loose with some of the facts about his doomed younger brother don’t trouble me. While Paul’s death wasn’t nearly so dramatic as it’s depicted in the book and movie, I suppose I never read the story as journalism or memoir. I always took it as the kind of autobiographical fiction Hemingway dabbled in for the duration of his career.

There’s a more important reason than even fly fishing which accounts for the way “River,” in both its forms, continues to resonate. We’ve all been in that place Norman finds himself: struggling to help someone he loves, yet finding himself powerless to do so.

At least “River” reminds us we’re not alone in our futility.

My second entry was “The Montana of my Dreams.” In it, I took a look back at “Dale Burk’s Montana,” the legendary Stevensville writer’s story of the Montana of a bygone age. “Montana”  was first published in 1970s, but I didn’t read it until 2020. Burk gave me a copy five or six years ago, the last time I saw him. He was still with us when I wrote the column, but later I learned he has since passed. I was able to share the column with his daughter, Rachel, who reached out after Dale died, just wanting to make sure I knew.

Burk is a deserving member of the Montana Outdoors Hall of Fame. His heroic reporting for the Missoulian newspaper in the early 70s helped quash Forest Service plans to turn the Bitterroot National Forest into a terraced, clear-cut tree farm. He was still writing when I arrived in the Bitterroot in the 1990s, but by then he had mostly trained his focus on Stoneydale Press, the book publishing company he ran in Stevi.

Dale was one of those journalists who always made you feel a little inadequate, but that’s not because he was the sort of person to lord his accomplishments over those of us trying to measure up. He was always generous with his time and support for young writers, but he set the bar so high, you felt compelled to be better than you might otherwise be.

Is there any greater gift one writer can give another than compelling them to be as good a writer as they can possibly be? I think you know the answer to that question.  

The final column is “The Wait,” my tribute to the joys of fly fishing for bass and the lust the 17-year-old version of me felt when I heard Chrissie Hynde sing the song of the same title on The Pretenders’ brilliant, self-titled debut album. When Hynde’s primal womanness oozed out of my stereo speakers, I realized there was much for me to learn about the feminine gender.

Here are links to the columns, if you’re so inclined. I appreciate the support of all of you, my friends and readers, as well as the great folks at the Flathead Beacon who have kept me around for nearly a decade — it will be 10 years in March. The Beacon is the best newspaper in Montana, by some margin. That’s something that still matters, as far as I’m concerned. 

Keep it up, Kellyn and company.

River Revisited

The Montana of my Dreams

The Wait

Also, here's a link to the OWAA Excellence in Craft award results. Congrats to all.

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