Early last spring, on a morning that any Montana fly-fishing guide would commit minor crimes to duplicate—minimal wind, gin-clear water, a slight chill in the air from last night’s rain, and a consistent hatch of adult mayflies that caused the trout to rise in pods, or “boil,” on the river’s surface, gorging their breakfast—one of my clients for the day asked a question that I have come to loathe:
“So,” he said, hauling an IGLOO packed with White Claws into the boat, “how long will we have cell service?”
My spirits sank. The tone had been set. As a thirty-something, late-to-the-table guide, I am no stranger to drudgery, having found the career after a failed stint in copyediting, eventually trading cinder-block office walls for a backdrop of sage flats and majestic stands of cottonwoods. Ultimately, the river gave me refuge from the desk, and for that I am thankful, but the gig is not wholly absent of dread. By fielding the cell-service question, I knew: It was a day that was going to feel a lot more like work than fishing.
As far as client types go, the gentleman in question – let’s call him Adam – was not a particularly outstanding individual. He was a financial advisor from Texas (as many of them seem to be) and had booked the trip at the request of his father-in-law, a retired farmer and avid sportsman from the Midwest with perfect teeth and massive, calloused paws for hands. Recently wed, Adam had arranged the day, I suppose, to impress his new bride’s father, to bond en plein air with the man, and to appeal to that notion romanticized by generations of American media mythmaking: the illustrious and genteel brotherhood of the outdoors.
Adam, however, was not the type to take joyously to woods and water. Before we embarked on the 8-hour trip down a tailwater stretch of the Missouri River known worldwide for its healthy, hard-fighting populations of wild trout, he made it clear that he’d be counting the minutes until we were back among civilization:
“I just want you to know,” he said, “that this is not my idea of a good time. I’ve got some work calls to make, so I’ll be taking care of that along the way.”
Preparing for the worst, I relegated Adam to the stern seat and shoved off. Less than a mile downriver, iPhone glued to his ear, Adam had already negotiated monumental exchanges of money in stocks, secured a rental car for his next business trip, and executed what sounded like a swift and emotionless termination of an underling. Adam was on a roll, and he hadn’t once looked up to admire the view. Meanwhile, I did my best to usher the gregarious farmer seated up front – I’ll call him Bruce – through the most productive runs and riffles, tending to his line when it tangled, swapping his flies when conditions dictated, and engaging him in the kind of charming yet sterile banter that guides are known to master; no politics, no religion, and absolutely no mention of ex-wives.
By lunchtime we’d netted and safely released several fish of good size, including Adam, who even hooked a few dim-witted rainbow trout while on the phone closing deals. Bruce guffawed at the acrobatic leaps of each fish, then regaled me with gripping tales of his primitive archery hunts for caribou and black bear in the Alaskan bush. As we sat and ate lunch in the shade, I even caught Adam regarding the flight of a golden eagle while polishing off his ham sandwich. Between a fury of email dispatches, I watched him lean back to take in the canyon walls that engulfed us, a crescent of sunlight cast across his face.
“It’s kinda nice,” he said, smiling a little, then curled back over his device.
Both the social and physical confines of a guided fly-fishing trip in Montana are intimate, and a day on the water can bring out the best and worst in any angler. My boat is small (for maneuverability’s sake) and has no motor, but rather a set of anachronous yet fashionable oars hewn from a single slat of Douglas fir, reminiscent of something the Spartans may have stroked through the Saronic Gulf to defeat Xerxes in the Battle of Salamis, circa 480 BC.
By nature of such close proximity, tensions can and do rise. True identities often bubble to the surface. For these reasons, the work of a guide frequently transcends the task of a simple fisherman and bleeds into that of a therapist, a confidant, an entertainer, a teacher, and – in the most extraordinary cases – a student. I delight in this aspect of the job, the opportunity to juggle so many identities for a revolving audience of wealthy strangers. I do my best to approach each day and every set of clients with an open mind, but doing so repeatedly presents an arduous emotional task. Despite my best efforts, I fall into lazy rhythms of judgement. I typecast and file away personalities in the database of my own mind: The rowdy frat bro bachelor trips; the doctor/lawyer duos; the outdoorsy couples draped in Patagonia and Arc’teryx; the brusque fathers with their uninterested teens; the reluctant and ungrateful businessmen, and on and on. As someone who sought his profession for its association with the free-spirited wilds of the West, driven by the democratic allure of fishing in the mountains, I’m ashamed of this impulse. It’s boring and obtuse, yet I submit to it all too readily.
While I pushed us off the sandy beach and rowed us into the afternoon, I considered my impressions of Adam and the false duality of our worlds. I was upset with Adam for his inability to “unplug,” but I was more upset with my readiness to hate Adam for the canned ideals I had thrust upon him, the relative ease with which I had written him off as an out-of-touch, capitalist dweeb. It was my job, after all, to meet him in the middle, to bring him into the experience on his own terms. To be sure, there is no better example of a guide’s responsibility, and I’d briefly lost sight of that role.
For the rest of the day, effectively out of cell range, Adam morphed into a pleasant guest, asking questions about the river and the land, adjusting his cast when I prompted him, and even tossing out some unsolicited gems of financial advice that I’ve since employed. He spoke sincerely about his joy of joining a new family by way of his marriage, and a new camaraderie seemed to blossom between him and Bruce. They caught more fish and teased each other’s mistakes. It was perhaps not the biggest step in their relationship to come, but not the smallest either.
After trailering the boat in the waning light, we shared the last three seltzers from Adam’s cooler beside the boat ramp. Bruce’s earnest Iowan smile beamed in the golden Montana evening.
“Thanks for putting up with me,” Adam said, reaching out to shake my hand.
In his palm I felt the crinkle of bills. It was a cash tip: not the biggest I’d receive that season, but not the smallest.
The greatest gift – and burden – of modern existence is the freedom to choose where you spend your attention. There is a war going on for our attention, and some are better than others at navigating the conflict. Some drift from stimulant to stimulant indiscriminately, while others have shut off their sensors entirely, incapable of awe, humility, and grace in the face of this planet’s strange beauty. Where do you spend the precious resource of your attention? I enjoy my time on the river not because it represents an escape from the “developed” world, but because my time in each setting lends a greater appreciation for the other. I delight in the contrast among the technological and the wild, the refined and rugged, the primitive and modern. I am terrible at straddling this line, as most are, but it is my life’s goal to get better at directing my gaze at the things that matter.
In her essay on the transformative power of looking, the writer Annie Dillard reflects on a euphoric experience in nature, urging us to be open to such moments of transcendence, however they arrive: “It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance . . . I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”
I live for the sensation of being struck. I wonder, too, how I might usher people into those moments. Adam had gotten close, and that was enough for now.
As we drove back to where Adam and Bruce’s vehicle was parked upstream, I pondered the arc of the day and felt the familiar soreness creep into my shoulders. The Missouri River traced a slick, green ribbon through the canyon beside us, shining in the sunset. When we crossed the invisible boundary of cell reception, I noticed a faint glow from Adam’s chest pocket, his phone waking up to a frenzy of alerts. It stayed there in its buttoned enclosure, and Adam sat relaxed in the passenger seat. He stared wistfully out the window, like a tired, dreamy child. Perhaps he was just drunk, or sunstruck, or bored. It didn’t matter. We had the earthy stench of fish and algae on our hands, and the cool gust of the A/C felt good.