Thursday, October 23, 2008

The last, best apple

For breakfast this morning I had a cup of Dannon vanilla yogurt and two apples. By all accounts it was a disgustingly wholesome meal lacking the most essential element in the food pyramid—chocolate. I don’t normally eat this healthy but I’m trying to kick my sugar intake, a ridiculously ill-timed adventure with Halloween just weeks away. So far I’ve managed to shun Brach’s candy corn, my bane, but my admittedly spineless will is being tested in ways I never imagined. The last time we visited Wally World I picked up a one-pound bag of autumn mix candy corn with the intention of putting it in the grocery cart, an act both simple and complex, and salivant, too, my taste buds rioting in anticipation. 

I hadn’t expected guilt to rear its ugly head. You’ve done so good, came a whispered voice. Don’t give up now.

Another voice, darker, laughed. You’ll be worm food soon enough. You deserve it.

The other shoppers stepping around me never could have guessed the ordeal I was undergoing. Practically drooling, I hefted the bag and squeezed one kernel to test for freshness. When it effortlessly flattened, my determination wilted like a blister beetle nailed with Sevin. Perhaps a groan escaped my lips to mark me a tormented soul. It’s entirely probable that parents drew their children back in horror as bloody sweat dotted my brow and my sightless eyes glazed over. 

Do it, the voice hissed.

Don’t, said the other.

“What are you doing?” asked Lori, who’d drawn beside me.

“Nothing!” I screamed, hurling the bag as if it were toxic. 

Yesterday I had two cups of yogurt and one apple for breakfast, and another apple in the afternoon for a snack. The day before that was much the same.

We’ve been eating a lot of apples lately. They’re as fresh as they come—picked just minutes before from the tree in our yard, out behind the thicket—crisp, juicy and in the early morning surprisingly cold. 

I am not, however, a big apple fan. In fact, in order for me to eat an apple two criteria must be met: it must be crunchy and it must be red. Green apples twist my face into pretzels, an altogether disagreeable experience, and soggy apples remind me of a dead pig I had to repeatedly step on at a rendering plant in Denver. That I made the unfortunate mistake of wolfing down a deviled egg shortly thereafter is not lost on me now, an equation of spongy mass meeting palate with the end result seriously putting me off my feed.

These Kansas apples are another matter. They’re ours, grown in our own soil, pesticide- and chemical-free, bountiful, invigoratingly sweet, gifts I am constantly thankful for. And I’d like to say they’re the most exquisite apples I’ve ever tasted, though they’re not. I’ve tasted better.

But only once, and in a place far away.

As rivers go, the St. Vrain never amounted to much, not even after two forks combined near the west end of the small foothills town of Lyons, Colo. It was mostly shallow, flowing fast over colored gravel with little of the town visible behind a screen of narrow-leafed cottonwoods, junipers and a few pines. From the mouth of the narrow canyon upstream for about two miles Trout Unlimited had restructured the river’s habitat, stocked it with wild browns and rainbows, and posted it catch-and-release. It was hardly a pristine river but the trout quickly developed graduate degrees in artificial fly identification. 

It was my river. From ice-out to late autumn I fished it for five or six hours a day, three times a week. In spring the trout could only be enticed with tiny gnats, size 20 or smaller, which meant fine tippets and perfect presentation. After runoff they settled down to a steady cycle of hatches, mayflies and caddisflies, with some hellgrammites thrown in for size. My favorite fly was a barbless #14 Adams with white wings, a particular favorite as well to the one-eyed monster rainbow who lived under a fallen tree. When it cut the surface of the pool there was a momentary hiss before the surface exploded, a sound sure to turn the knees to jelly. 

In autumn the river dropped. The trout moved deeper into pools or undercut banks or worked the riffles when the hatch was on. I’d park near the gravel pit and make my way upstream, unsure what to expect. One time I encountered a furtive bait fisherman who skulked through the brush ahead of me, and another time I came upon a young girl sunning topless. Mostly I had the river to myself and the dippers who bobbed on rounded boulders before plunging in to fly underwater.

Autumn was my favorite time, with the river settling down to a slow slide toward stillness and the shadows long in the early afternoons, the high ridges of the Indian Peaks dusted with snow. At the end of each season I’d select a flat stone to mark the date and river, a record of another year’s adventures, and the last cast was always special, always anticipated with sorrow and something approaching ecstasy, and then the line was retrieved, the fly hooked in the keeper, and I’d turn and make my way back to the car where a cooler filled with Indian Pale Ale was my bittersweet reward.

One year I walked back a different way, skirting a long heavily-wooded island to scout a tiny creek that moved sluggishly beneath shadows. It ran close to the road so I’d avoided it in the past, but now I found in its quietude an apt finale. Near where it joined the main stream the canopy opened and an errant shaft of sunlight impaled a single red apple hanging above the water. For a moment I was taken aback—an apple, here?—but only for a moment. I swatted the fruit until it dropped into my hand, and that first taste was of all the seasons of the river, a gift I would taste in every apple to follow and a memory to cherish long after the river was dewatered and the wild trout lost, and us lost too, in a place without mountains or trout but, thankfully, not without apples.

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