My girlfriend, M’Rae, accuses me of collecting seventy-five-year-old men. The first time she said this, it stung, but I have to admit she’s right. (And isn’t part of a modern relationship being able to see yourself through the other person’s eyes?) In my fifties I have sought out and befriended many older guys, men who hail from another, more literary, world, a fabled land of failed marriages, bankruptcies, and plantar fasciitis.
Right now I’m in Loreto, Mexico, with a few hours to kill before I meet my septuagenarian friend Rich at the airport. Rich and I both write fishing stories, which we try to sell to the few remaining print journals where we still have contacts. As soon as he found out I wanted company in Mexico, he bought a plane ticket and began tying flies — intricate, boutique patterns he painstakingly creates at his vise. That’s something I like about guys Rich’s age: they’re talented in unexpected and extraordinary ways. Plus they are more or less fierce. And they won’t steal your girlfriend.
Loreto is on the Baja California peninsula. I stand in a sunny courtyard and admire the Sea of Cortez: so flat and still that a single mullet leaping and falling back to the water leaves an endless ripple. To think, not twenty-four hours ago I was in Wyoming waiting for the snowplows to open the roads. January is the offseason here, but a cruise ship lurks on the horizon, and runabouts sprint back and forth, bringing its passengers to shore. Pairs of American tourists read the specials board outside the taco stand. Unable to resist, I order three street tacos for one hundred pesos, however much that is. I can’t seem to figure out the money, which is one of the pleasures of travel. I also buy three tortillas to go. Perhaps I could offset the cost of this trip by writing a “Five Best Street Tacos in Baja” article.
Rich is arriving on the Alaska Airlines flight from LAX. A few days ago he left his home in Homer, Alaska, and drove up the Kenai Peninsula to Anchorage. Just after midnight he boarded a gray jet headed south. A longtime sufferer of claustrophobia, my friend paid the hideously expensive first-class fare for the extra seat room and pounded vodka at thirty-five thousand feet to calm his nerves. At each layover — Seattle, Salt Lake City, LA — he’s been texting me updates on his southerly progress.
Neither Rich nor I make enough on our writing to get by. I teach English 101 at a community college in an oil town, where enrollment has been in steep decline for more than a decade. Now retired, Rich made his living as a wallpaper guy, landing contracts for high-end hotels and convention centers in Anchorage. Then he went to college at thirty-nine and, despite being warned, gravitated toward the English department. Each of us holds an MFA in creative writing, which in this economy is like going into the Battle of Okinawa with a squirt gun.
In the summer I travel to Alaska, where Rich and I fish for salmon on the Kenai River, shoulder to shoulder with the other fly-fishing enthusiasts. While everyone else is talking about sockeye and bears, Rich and I discuss freelancing: Say, did so-and-so ever pay you for that piece on fly patterns for steelhead? Rich has gotten into food writing. In Alaska he’s like a celebrity chef: he’ll cook for a crowd, then give a reading after. We sometimes discuss interesting cheeses and how one might sous-vide a caribou steak. But lately he claims his writing days are behind him. He’s giving up. My career is on pause, too. My go-to editors are all saying the same thing: there’s no space for long-form narratives. They’re looking for something in the six-hundred-word range. Can I come up with a bullet-point list? How about gear reviews?
I have done many things in my life for which I am ashamed, but I’ve never written a gear review.
As I said, I have other seventy-something friends besides Rich. Generally happy sorts, they stand on the edge of oblivion, waggling a fly rod at death. There’s Bill Mixer, who teaches a fly-fishing class in my hometown. Recently Bill attended a Foo Fighters concert and permanently damaged his hearing. Then there’s sea captain David Ferreira, who hasn’t been able to get his boat running since 2019. There was the late Herb Waterman, a retired geologist who introduced me to the fishing in the canyons just outside of Casper, Wyoming. On one side of the canyon road the rocks were one hundred million years old; on the other, a billion. Herb was too infirm to get down to the river, so he sipped beer in the cab of my truck while I fished.
Men in their seventies remind me of the future that awaits, of popping knees and Percocet. I’ve sat in their chilly garages while they showed me treasures from their time on earth: a sun-bleached beaver skull; a mason jar of natural jade collected over a span of fifty years; a yellowed, possibly authentic photograph of General Custer, taken three weeks before his demise in Montana. They carry their scars with grace and mystery. In Rich’s case it’s his daughter’s death from cervical cancer in 2003. Only now is he beginning to write about it. I figure maybe, if I listen to men like Rich, I can absorb some of their wisdom — and avoid some of their colossal mistakes.
It’s such a beautiful day that, instead of taking a cab to the airport, I decide to walk there — a little over two miles through a broad arroyo. I stop at a tienda and buy a Diet Coke for my journey. Cardon cactuses and flowering ocotillo bushes crowd the landscape, and elephantine mountains surge up in the distance. This part of Loreto is too far from shore for the cruise-ship crowd. Residents live in palm-roofed palapas and keep a few goats and chickens. A man hoes the dry earth to plant a corn patch.
I walk until the pavement ends, then cut down a steep dirt path, where my boots slip, and I tumble. I come out of the fall into a roll and hop up, as if nothing has happened. Two men painting a fence pause and look at me. My knee is bleeding, and the tortillas are probably ruined, but the soda is still cold, so I take a sip. Buzzards and caracaras take flight from some dead thing lying in a ditch. Six California quail panic and scatter as I start walking again. Rich, an amateur birder, is going to love it here.
At the airport my friend is spat out through a portal into the Mexican sunshine. Sicilian by way of Upstate New York and gnomish in countenance, Rich is overburdened by several travel fishing-rod cases and all the ridiculous accoutrements of international fly-fishing. I take one of his bags and tell him that, as he predicted, we are being screwed by the rental-car company: they don’t have the sedan I reserved but will rent us a huge SUV for three times the price.
“It’s only money,” he says. “You’ve got to understand, Dave, I just left a place where it was raining on top of three feet of snow. Even the moose were having difficulty.”
He’s wearing shorts, a black knee brace from a recent surgery, and the sort of high-end sunglasses preferred by Caribbean fishing guides. He fumbles with an envelope of colorful pesos. The two of us — with our T-shirts advertising fishing gear and our clunky hiking boots — scream, “American tourists.”
Windows down and sunlight pouring into the rented SUV, we head back to Loreto. I produce the tortillas from my pocket and offer them to Rich, who admits they are better than any we can get in the U.S., even if they have been pulverized by my fall. He has Neosporin for my bloody knee, and band-aids, and diarrhea pills if things get rough. And painkillers. And a sewing kit. And sunblock. He even has a straw you can thrust into a mud puddle and be rewarded with purified water.
Later, walking the streets, we pass stray dogs and drooping bougainvillea. Joyful music pumps from the gas station near our hotel, and people stand and wait at the tortilleria, where ancient-looking machines press out their orders. The curbs are crumbling, and two out of every three utility panels are missing their lids. Someone (the city?) has placed thin scraps of plywood over a few, but most are left open. I wince every time Rich steps near one of these death traps, but he can’t be bothered. “I just feel better in the lower latitudes,” he says. Injuries from forty years of climbing ladders still haunt him, and the hot, dry climate is a balm.
At the marina the fishing boats called pangas are returning to the docks with loads of yellowtail. The roosterfish are not running, but the yellowtail — great schools of them — can be found just an hour’s ride through the chop. They usually arrive in February but have shown up six weeks early this year: a miracle no one can explain. Not to be confused with yellowfin tuna, yellowtail are in the jack family and prized among connoisseurs of sushi. The flesh goes for eight dollars an ounce.
Knots of sea captains and bait makers ask if we’d like to go out tomorrow morning, but we have plans to fly-fish over on the Pacific side of the peninsula, in Puerto San Carlos, where we’ve hired a guide to take us into the estuaries for snook and corvina.
“I really hope it’s as good as last year,” I tell Rich over a plate of chocolate clams — named for their deep-brown color, not their flavor. Rich and I order them grilled with garlic and butter or lime and chili. Above us, a thrush settles in for the night on the thatched roof.
Rich sees my optimism as foolishness. He’s known for his stories of fishing trips where no fish are caught. Now he launches into a favorite about an outing with his brother Marty on Alaska’s Kanektok River: To pay for it, they worked a year wallpapering and painting in Anchorage. They saved their money. They stayed out of the bars. They ate sandwiches from brown-paper sacks while dreaming of gigantic rainbow trout and streams choked with Chinook. By the time their departure day arrived, it had been raining for fifteen days. Their sodden raft bumped over khaki-colored river water. There wasn’t any dry wood for a campfire. With nowhere to pitch a tent, they slept in the raft. They’d planned on eating fish, but they couldn’t catch any. After six days of misery, they met the bush plane at the extraction point and flew back to Anchorage, where they dragged themselves soggily into a pho restaurant and consumed huge quantities of pork broth.
“After the Kanektok, I learned to abandon all expectations,” Rich says. He suggests I do the same. I know he’s not just talking about fishing. He means my stalled teaching career, my fizzling relationship with M’Rae, my infrequent freelance writing, my perennially put-off plans for world travel, and my ever-so-vague ideas of becoming a better person. According to Rich, only by abandoning expectations can you live a better life. He is essentially saying the opposite of what the modern world is constantly telling us through ads for boner pills and investment schemes.
Rich takes out a notebook and records a few thoughts on the clams. That confirms it: he’s working on a food piece, taking the gourmand angle on the trip, hoping to sell it to the one or two remaining editors who will entertain such an article.
Darkness falls over the little town. The cruise ship slips away. Rich produces a head lamp, and we follow its beam through the palm-lined streets and past the stray dogs, letting the aromas of the tortilleria lead us back to our hotel. It’s the same place M’Rae and I stayed around this time last year. Over a plate of chocolate clams she called Loreto “charming” but said she would never come back. She was looking for something more exotic. After our trip, she was headed to the Seychelles, Rome, Ecuador, then a six-day “Groove Cruise” featuring DJ Joshwa. I wasn’t invited.
“Meet me in Haifa,” she might say out of nowhere, as if she didn’t know I teach at a community college and haven’t had a raise in ten years.
When I tell Rich this, hoping for some of his hard-won wisdom, he advises me to be nice to her.
As we pass the ancient tortilla-making machines, their motors slow, then cease. The final sack of tortillas is sold to a tall man standing in the shadows.
Rich is right about expectations. Denny Infante, our guide in Puerto San Carlos, says that commercial fishers have been setting their nets in the estuaries, and fishing has been “low.” For hours we cast and cast, changing flies and losing many, personally tied by Rich, to the roots of mangroves. Leaving the estuary, we venture into the open Pacific, but the swells are towering, and we aren’t courageous enough to stand on the deck and cast flies between lobster pots and reefs. Trolling along a rocky coastline, we see a skiff with three commercial fishermen pulling in nets loaded with prized game fish — thousands of them. Denny waves to them enthusiastically. I grumble that they are taking more than their share.
“I never criticize commercial fishermen doing their jobs,” Rich says. “We’re just here on vacation.”
“Fuck them,” I reply, a bit seasick.
To say we’ve caught nothing would be incorrect. We hauled in bay bass, sculpins, bumphead parrotfish (almost too cute to keep), and needlefish. In the fly-fishing community these are considered trash species, part of a growing list of slimy, toothy deplorables, but Denny says they are underappreciated sources of white meat. We keep enough for dinner. Denny fillets them and drops them off at his aunt’s restaurant, Tortas Lore, where they are breaded and fried. Homemade tortillas, rice, and refried beans make the meal noteworthy. Rich takes notes.
Back at our hotel, young men gather across the street to play soccer. The players are quick, their passes and shots incredibly accurate. The game ends when the streetlights flicker on. Rich thumbs through his fly box and cleans his reels in the sink. Dressed in a nightshirt that looks like a temple garment, he futzes and fiddles with his gear and confesses that if he had to choose between fishing and fly-tying, he would choose fly-tying. Nothing else brings him such joy — except maybe writing short stories.
Growing up, both of us shared rooms with older brothers, and after we’ve turned out the lights, we continue talking like kids. He says he and Marty have drifted apart. Things were never the same after the Kanektok River trip. When he gets home, though, he might call Marty and ask what’s up. My brother, too, has become a stranger to me. A lifelong math teacher in the public schools, he wonders if he has spent his time wisely.
“It’s like he’s unable to accept things the way they are,” I say to the darkness. And I realize that I’m describing myself. I say I’m going to call my brother, too, when we get back to the States, but Rich doesn’t hear me. He begins to snore.
I think of my house back in Casper. Recently the door latch failed. Some windy nights, the door blows open, and snow accumulates on the battered hardwood floors. I could fix the latch, but I won’t. It’s the closest thing I have in my life to mystery.
“Jeez, a guy would come down here just to see the ospreys,” Rich says as we head back across the peninsula to Loreto. He begins counting the large hawks, then scribbling in his notebook. I call myself a writer. Maybe I should be taking notes. Rich can get three paragraphs just on the ospreys. They will be the opening hook of his story, or maybe the grand finale. Between the clams and the birds, he is halfway home.
The ospreys slump in their nests like humorless monks. “There’s a breeding pair,” I say, attempting to be quotable, but the truth is, I don’t know for sure.
As we wind through the Sierra de la Giganta, I tell Rich how M’Rae has been drifting away. She sees me as filler, someone to spend time with until the love of her life comes along. He listens, then finally speaks.
“I’ve been with the same woman for more than forty years,” he says. “What do I know about women?”
Everything, I think.
I remember a time, six years back, when I asked Rich for relationship advice: We were sitting in a pizza restaurant overlooking Homer’s harbor. Salmon season was opening, and the set-netters were gearing up in the drizzle. One crewman was AWOL, so the captain ordered the others to check the bars. I told Rich about the woman I was dating then. She worked as a librarian, had a young son, and had been hinting that I should move in with them.
“That’s great, Dave,” he said. “You could have a normal life.”
I was a little insulted that my friend didn’t view my life as “normal.” How many other people had I failed to convince? I tried to play it off with a joke about how I wouldn’t know what to do with normalcy.
Perhaps reading my feelings on my face, Rich replied: “There’s only one thing any of us would do with normalcy, Dave: fuck it up.”
And we went back to watching the salmon set-netters.
Rich is pessimistic about the fishing trip he has organized for us in Loreto, but I tell him he can’t do any worse than I just did. When we get back, he calls the company that is taking us out in the morning, and Pamela, the co-owner, says the roosterfish are not around. She gently suggests it would be better to leave our fly rods at the hotel and go after the yellowtail on the San Bruno bank. Her husband, Francisco, will gladly take us there early. Rich agrees.
We hit the restaurants, then the cantinas, shattering our self-imposed 7 PM curfew. Everywhere we go, we are surrounded by our countrymen, all burdened with bags of gaudy ceramic knickknacks for the grandkids, who will be unimpressed. I say something optimistic about how at least the cruise ships are stimulating the economy.
“Are you kidding?” Rich replies. “Cruise-ship people are the cheapest sons of bitches in the world.”
In the wee morning hours, after too little sleep, we head to the waterfront to meet Pamela, who is easy to spot: a blonde in a half-ton Chevy pulling a rusty boat trailer. She’s nearly certain we will be successful. Her unchecked optimism worries Rich — and me, by this point.
Captain Francisco goes by Cuervo — “Crow” — and has a corvid painted on the bow of his battered panga. In the darkness we fill our live well with bait as big as anything we caught in Puerto San Carlos — if we don’t catch any yellowtail, we can always eat the bait, Rich jokes — then rattle at great speed over the dark water. As the sun peeks up over the Sea of Cortez, I notice that the boat lacks electronics. There are rusty lacunae where once were radios, fish-finders, and other gadgets. The tackle our guide has provided looks old and not up to the task. I’m beginning to regret everything, but Captain Cuervo throttles into the open sea as if he knows what he’s doing. The sea spray drenches us, and the swells shake our teeth. We’re the only boat out this far; the others are still struggling to make it through the chop closer to shore.
Without GPS, our captain seems to navigate by comparing a point off of Isla del Carmen with the mainland. Then, satisfied that we have arrived, he leaps into action, baiting Rich’s rod with a lively mackerel. Rich drops a line and sinks the bait until he feels its weight thump the seafloor. Before I can even get my bait down, Rich’s rod buckles, and he is pulled from his seat and almost over the stern. As the line peels from the reel, Cuervo helps Rich back to his seat, and the battle ensues. It seems unlikely Rich, with his back and knee braces, will land this fish — or, if he does, he will be so thoroughly destroyed in the process that he will wonder what made him come here. I recall him doubling up on the painkillers this morning. Only by the marvels of modern medicine is he able to do this, but he doesn’t complain. Here he is, being dragged across the fiberglass seats, falling to the wet floor of the panga, trying to break the undeniable will of a yellowtail. He chuckles. Cuervo laughs, too. And why not?
The fish is now thrashing at the surface. Unlike every other captain I have seen, Cuervo uses a net, not a gaff, to bring it aboard. He has enough experience to know that, by the time a full-grown yellowtail is brought to the boat, it has essentially fought itself to death. Rich lets the captain take over, and Cuervo handles the marvelous creature with a tenderness that has been missing from most of my charter-fishing experiences. A modern editor could learn a lot from this man.
“Incredible,” says Rich. When I offer to take his photo with his catch, he declines.
Struck by the first beams of sunrise, the yellowtail is beyond beautiful. My line suddenly peels out, too, but I ignore it, noting the pride in the captain’s face as he places Rich’s hands into the gills of the enormous yellowtail. I’m in awe of all of it: the fish, the Sea of Cortez, Captain Cuervo, the dry foothills framing the scene, la Giganta in the distance. If I were a real writer, one who carried a notebook, I would stop everything to jot down a few words about how mismatched fisherman and fish are: a wallpaper guy from Alaska and a giant wild creature from another world.
“Everything always works out for you,” I say to Rich, who grins.
Before the rest of the fishing boats have arrived, we have run out of bait. Eleven giant yellowtail rest on ice as we head back to the marina. Kicked back in his seat, Rich says his left arm isn’t working, so he’ll have to drink right-handed tonight when we celebrate. We discuss how we’ll buy coolers and ship these fish back home, no matter the cost or the red tape.
At the wharf we are the first boat of the morning to return from the San Bruno bank, and little boys with serious eyes swarm to see our catch. We stroll through the sunny avenues like conquering heroes, waiters calling to us as we go. Even they note the remarkable change that has come over us.
All that’s left is the processing of the fish, the packing of gear for our departure, and the final meal, where we dine on grouper cooked two ways. Rich phones his wife. I can hear Lin’s voice — her booming laughter, her questions. They are already beginning to make a guest list for a great feast when Rich gets home. To give him some privacy, I call M’Rae from the courtyard. Looking up, I spy a pair of women having wine on the balcony of our old room. They put a Cat Power song on the radio. They kiss profoundly.
“That could be us,” I say, “if things were different.”
She doesn’t take the bait.
The trip is over. In the morning we will head back to our icy lives up north. I call my brother and get his answering machine. Rich reads from a story collection by Alice Munro, then turns in early. He has a deadline for a short-story collection looming, and he wants to work on it at the airport. His notebook lies splayed on the nightstand, open to a page where he’s doodled a caracara. It would be easy to pick it up and read the contents, see what angle he’s taking — the words flow out of him, and the grants flow in — but instead I borrow his head lamp and wander the deserted streets. Even the stray dogs have gone to sleep.
Down at the seawall I watch the bait makers haul in mackerel in preparation for another day of sportfishing. They operate in the dark, with only lamplight to see by. January has been good to them. February will bring more yellowtail and maybe roosterfish. And who knows what will turn up after that on the spring currents?
Back home in Wyoming, the door has come open again. The empty room is filling with snow.