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A good hat is hard to find

| June 18, 2020 1:00 AM

Ron Meek and I stood on the banks of Boulder River near Big Timber and watched a jet boat the size of a Florida shrimper power up the roiling water that dumped from the Absaroka Range into the Yellowstone.

The Boulder is a rocky stream with silver water pounding large, washed stones, and the boat’s gunwales could have notched the trees on both sides.

On her bow was a bikini blond in Farrah sunglasses and the man behind the wheel had gelled hair and a serious “uh-oh” look, like maybe he had taken a wrong turn in his quest for the Yellowstone Club.

Meek, a lanky fly fishing guide in his mid-50s with a beard going gray and eyes that said he’s seen his share of asininities, looked at me and smiled.

Holding his 9-foot, 5-weight fly rod, he mouthed something but the words were lost in the weight of the engine’s roar.

Afterward the boat came back down.

When its noise disappeared, we settled in for some nymphing and he told a story of guiding Sandra Day O’Connor in Mongolia, and how the then-Supreme Court justice took him to task for misidentifying a taimen.

“That’s a rainbow, Ron,” she told him. “I have caught a lot of fish and I know a rainbow when I see one.”

Meek, who falls asleep counting trout of all makes and models, agreed with her.

There was no reason not to.

“I’m a humble man,” he said.

He gave me a yellow hat with the name of the guide school on it that prompted me to drive that far east over the Great Divide to fish for trout.

He taught me how to make indicators out of yarn and small rubber bands, how a river ticket was something you couldn’t use twice and how, when it comes to fishing, ignorance can sometimes be the mother of keen invention.

We caught rainbow trout that day as shiny as a cutlass.

I have used what he showed on several rivers for several years, often while wearing the yellow hat, which became nicely sun faded and form fitted.

Last week on the interstate, heading to a new trout haunt (one that I was assured was severely under fished and little known), the yellow hat leapt from my head and spun behind me on the asphalt.

Several semi-trucks and the usual vacationing throng of traveling families in minivans, SUVs and Winnebagos bore down on it.

I watched it disappear in the rear view. I wanted to stop, but danger said no.

There were other reasons.

My instincts told me to keep driving. It was time to let go. To move on. To wear one of the other hats that I keep in a backpack and don’t wear for reasons I’ve never addressed.

Despite the fishing at the new spot, which required a long trek on a two-track over federal land that seemed ideal for the cacti that grew there, I couldn’t stop thinking about the hat.

“It’s just a hat,” someone said. “I’ll buy you another.”

It’s true, but I looked for it anyhow on the way back without sighting it.

It’s just a hat, I told myself. A material thing. Who cares?

It was identical to one that Tracy Peterson of the Umpqua school wore on the Yellowstone when he told me to run the drift boat straight through a gauntlet of rocks that had a rainbow of spray on the other side and a wall of foam for an encore.

“I came through that once,” he said after we made it to soft water. “I stuck the nose of the boat straight down and capsized.”

He grinned.

Memories like that, the love of the sport and that particular summer, prodded me to go back looking for the sun-bleached cover.

Next day as dew kept down the dust and the sun barely crested a butte, I rolled up the highway and instead of heading home I took a detour.

I counted antelope above what’s become a familiar river. And I saw my hat kicked in the sage and I stopped.

I walked across the four-lane highway and listened to a meadowlark. Saw the flickering tail of a deer. I picked up the hat and set it on.

Good hats are hard to find, I said aloud to no one.

Then I went back to the pickup truck, cut across the grassy median and trundled west to home.

Bartholdt writes at the Coeur d’Alene Press. He can be reached at rbartholdt@cdapress.com