MISERY LOVES COMPANY
My hunting and fishing pals are as maddening as I am
Y OLDEST FRIENDS are selfcentered whack jobs, shameless con artists, or six kinds of strange. If we didn’t hunt and fish together, I sometimes wonder whether we’d be friends at all. Don’t get me wrong. I love these guys. It’s just that I can’t stand them much of the time. I was telling some guy at a party about how bent they all are when he said, “Well, they’re your friends. Don’t you have to wonder what that says about you?” Actually, I decided, I didn’t. I asked if he thought the Patriots would win the Super Bowl again this year.
The best thing about long-standing friendships is that you stop thinking about them. Neither of you need pretend to be other than what you are. You think aloud without worrying about hurting the other guy’s feelings because you’ve learned he has no feelings. He feels exactly the same about you. But you’ve each put up with the other for so long that the habit is hard to break.
Like Evets (whose name I’ve spelled backward to protect his identity), a former New York marketing guy (the polite term for “con man”) who cashed out after the bubble burst. Now he’s an extroverted hermit who raises organic vegetables and livestock upstate on a mountainside at 2,100 feet. In other words, where the growing season lasts about 14 hours. You have to admire anybody that crazy. Last time I visited, Evets, who had nuisance tags, shot a doe in full view of my vegetarian daughter. It was beyond stupid, and as a dad, I was more than ready to tear him a new one. But it hadn’t been premeditated, and by the time his wife had worked
Mhim over, he’d been punished enough. One forgives one’s friends the occasional imbecility and hopes to be forgiven in turn.
Recently, needing a change of scene, I visited my old fishing buddy, Gerg (also spelled backward). For 20 years we covered the water all around D.C. in his aluminum Grumman canoe. We lost touch when I moved to Baltimore seven years ago. Gerg is a gifted artist whose work doesn’t sell and is so difficult that you almost feel like he doesn’t want it to sell. He’s the guy who was supposed to take me fishing on my 50th birthday and have me home by 6:30 for a surprise party. He dropped me off three hours late and, wisely, kept going. Gerg moved to rural Nova Scotia a few years back, built himself a house, and became a hermit, too—painting, sculpting, and growing ever more impossible in isolation. When I called, he warned me that the local waters were overpopulated with introduced smallmouths that had all but displaced the native trout. There were lots of fish but not many big ones. I told him it didn’t matter. I just needed to get out of town and feel something tugging back. I arrived to the news that his ’93 Jeep had thrown a cylinder. So we wouldn’t be using it to haul the canoe. And since my rental lacked four-wheel-drive, we couldn’t access the better shore-fishing spots. Ah, well, I thought, have to make the best of it.
The best of it was pretty thin. One day, we fished the dark, tannic stream along the highway, where Gerg caught a couple of dinks and I got skunked. The next, a friend of his took us out on a lake. But his 3-hp Evinrude was kind of light for a heavy boat. We actually lost ground heading into the wind. I managed to catch a dozen smallies, the biggest going 13 inches. O.K., 111⁄2 if you’re going to be that way about it. But at least it was something. And the country was clean and wild— classic Canadian Shield boulders and cliffs, all set about with cedar, spruce, and pine. I started to unclench a bit. The world of man buns, SmartWater, and artisanal bathroom tissue receded. This feeling lasted until we reached shore, where we came across four 20-somethings so absorbed in readying their quadcopter drone for flight that they wouldn’t have noticed a parade of lingerie models.
Such limited fishing options meant more time to annoy each other. Gerg was irked by my chronic inability to find my keys, phone, and wallet. Like I needed someone to point out that I’m disorganized. I was irked that he loved to talk but found listening almost impossible. On the last day we pounded another lake from shore. As the light grew long, I caught the lone fish of the day, a bruising 9-incher. And then it was over. No big fish, memorable moment, or great reunion. Just two cranky middle-aged guys and some mediocre fishing in the middle of nowhere. I’d come because I needed an escape from my life for a few days. And, while Gerg couldn’t come right out and say it, I sensed how much he’d needed to see somebody he knew from the old days. As I drove to the airport, I felt subtly buoyed by this. The years accumulate on old friendships like tree rings, during which time a kind of unspoken care and loyalty accrue between men. I’d been of use to an old friend. That felt pretty good.
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