Ahead of the Curve

Casting before it was cool. 

I think it happened in late July, 1980.

Carl drove. We were high-school buddies, pals who grew up together breathing the scent of rain on sagebrush and living for things like elk and trout and Western skies.

We had beer in a cooler and a couple of good cigars between us. Our fly rods were stashed in the back and we were headed out to fish the Gallatin. I may have even been wearing Carhartt pants.

I didn’t know it then, but I know it now. At that exact moment, I was at the crest, at the peak, the pinnacle. I was cutting-edge.

The vehicle we rode in was a ‘69 Bronco, the original sport-utility vehicle, a four-wheel-drive invented before the term SUV. A true utility vehicle made for use in the rough country. No frills and who cares about the spills? At that very moment, Carl and I were pioneers: we had the SUV, we had the cigars, the beer, the clothing, the gear.

Today, of course, the trend-wave has passed me by. But for a moment there, we were it.

I’m still fly fishing, but not the Gallatin any more. In 1980, the river was famous, but not overrun. Plus the last time I was there, I definitely felt underdressed with my patched-up waders, ten-year-old fly rod, and ratty vest. Unless one has a brand-new outfit with all the geegaws, a fancy new rod made of the latest graphite composite, and wrap-around polarized sunglasses, one should stay away from such rivers.

Then there are the rigs in the parking lot. Carl’s old Ford was what a four-wheel-drive should be. You could hear the highway humming away beneath your tires and you had to shift the thing with a lever on the steering column. It had two speeds: crawling and shouting. Crawling was for the big boulders you eased over on your way up some so-called jeep trail, heading to a small stream where you could smell the snow above timberline in the downstream wind. Shouting was a highway speed: you had to shout to make yourself heard over the whistling wind, humming tires, and growling engine. Today’s four-wheel-drives are more like luxury-cars… at luxury-car prices. There’s power-everything, tilt-everything, and should you—heaven forbid—spill a cup of coffee on the carpeting, you’ll have to find yourself another fishing partner.

Cigars, well, everyone and his mother smokes a cigar nowadays. There’s a cigar shop in most upscale mountain trout towns and a whole slew of cigar etiquette, just like there’s a wrong way and a right way to taste wine. For years, I have been lighting stogies, but I ran across something last month—a day-by-day cigar calendar, no less—that told me I had been doing it all wrong. Now I’m not even sure I know how to light the darn things.

Then there’s beer. You used to be able to quaff down whatever kind of beer you could get your hands on and feel pretty good about it. It didn’t matter as long as it came in some kind of container and tasted good. Today, my friends turn their noses up at my beverage of choice. They prefer the new microbrews made with ancient (five-year-old) recipes in funky little mountain towns all over the West. Stout, amber, bock, lager… the choices boggle your mind. Whatever happened to the two different kinds of beer I used to drink: cold and starting to get warm?

Don’t get me wrong. There have been many improvements in my quality of life since 1980. I enjoy a good microbrew and the economies that microbreweries have spurred into towns that were dying back in 1980. I like a nice cigar grown somewhere other than a mini-mart. I’m dying to get my hands on the latest introduction from Orvis and I’ve ridden (careful not to spill my coffee) in a big fancy shiny new four-by-four. But every once in a while, I pine for that day in 1980 when Carl and I were tooling along enjoying the good life and not even knowing that we were leading the pack instead of following behind with our tongues hanging out.