In the summer of 1969, Mike Magee and I embarked upon a fishing trip for steelhead — the great ocean-going trout — deep into the Trinity Alps of Northern California. This was to be a transformative trip for many reasons, but one incident particularly stands out in memory:
We had arrived at our chosen evening camp spot just as the sky was beginning to cloud up, and it appeared that some rain was imminent. We tried our luck at the river (Trinity River), fishing for our dinner, but had to settle on a back-up meal of canned Dinty Moore Beef Stew before it got too dark. We had built a small campfire just before the first rains began to softly fall around us, and as we gazed into the warming flames we both fell uncharacteristically quiet, and the hush seemed to gather power, a power that transcended the usual campfire reveries, and indeed it seemed as if we had somehow been lured by this “place” out of time and into a realm beyond our reckoning.
Directly above us, a full moon shone down brightly, as if through a portal in the dark and raining night skies. All around the perimeter of the campfire, the steady rain poured down, but within our small fire circle we were somehow kept dry.
As the night progressed, the situation did not alter — rain surrounded us, but not a drop came into the circle, though we were out in the open, unsheltered by any tree or rock ledge. Moreover, the blaze of the fire continued on, hour after hour, with no discernible change in intensity, although we added no wood besides what we had originally used to build the fire. It maintained itself without us adding any additional fuel, and the night deepened, yet we said not a word.
The silence of that night was so deep, deeper than any night I had ever encountered. Actually, it seemed as if time itself had literally stopped, and suddenly we were looking at each other in astonishment as the light of day began to dawn, and we realized that we had sat there without moving for over 9 hours, nor had the flame altered in any way, but now that the morning had arrived, the rain began washing over us, telling us it was time to pack up and move along.
In a kind of daze we gathered our gear into the car trunk of my 1960 Ford Falcon and set out back on the road — both of us too confounded to say a word. After about 5 minutes on the road, we passed an incredible scene — a house was burning out of control, and an Indian family was standing mutely off to the side, watching their home burn fiercely in the rain. It was such a stunning image that we just kept driving on for a mile or so in a numbed daze until we sort of snapped back to attention and turned the car around to go back and see if we could help.
We spent the next hour driving back and forth, unable to locate either the burning house, or the spot where we thought we had camped. Neither “place” seemed to exist at all! Believe me, we covered and re-covered every inch of road, again and again, and yet were flabbergasted that we could now not find any trace of the Indians, nor of the pull-off where we had spent the night.
At last, we gave up, and headed off to more strange and unusual adventures, following the steelhead as they themselves followed the spawning salmon up-river and into the Mystery.