Excerpts: Jamie’s Nine Fingers

Preface: I’ve got a lot of notes, drafts, and chapters of projects that never really saw the light of day. This is part of one of them. An exercise I had done recently reminded me of Jamie’s fingers. 

It took me three months to remember that his name was Jamie. I never forgot that he only had nine fingers. He used the tenth one as a cautionary tale about checking for black widows before using the latrines in the backcountry.

Thinking back on it, I doubt it was a black widow that took Jamie’s finger. Or that his name was Jamie. I just knew that he was the kind of asshole I could probably grow up to become. A few years later I would be back and doing Jamie’s job.

I was 16 then, and my part of the family vacation was strapping on 45 pounds and taking off into a semi-wild area with a handful of strangers. Jamie was our guide – the one that would keep us off the threat of bears and mountain lions and blisters and black widows. It was also July, the peak of that year’s drought and fire season, and a campfire ban was in place all over the backcountry.

That day we had hiked 9 miles over a ridge and down into the valley we would be spending the night. On that descent, a strong rainstorm and moved in and saturated everything – leaving everything cooler, cleaner, greener. We checked in at the Fish Camp cabin, situated at the end of the box canyon near the river. The night was coming quick, the residents of Fish Camp pointed us in the general direction of our camp – another quarter mile down the trail, and sent us back into the rain.

Jamie started a fire in a ring in our campsite – for warmth or to dry things out or to just improve the moral before we all shuffled off to our damp sleeping bags for the night. The clouds moved out as nightfall settled in. The stars glittered above as the temperatures plummeted into the low 40s. Around the fire, Jamie sat with his headlamp reading the top page of a well-worn paperback.

Jamie, a college student somewhere in the Midwest. The book, Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – the pocket-sized version with the purple cover, paged through a million times by a thousand curious souls. A book he had thrown a few lines from earlier in the week. Tonight, he read the top page and the next page after that. The first page again, then the next, until it had all been committed to memory. From the spine, he tore the top page off and fed it into the fire. One less page he had to carry the next day. Moments later another page committed to memory, then fed to the fire. The flicker of flames wrapping around the damp text, evaporating into smoke that dissipated up into the dark night sky.

Sun woke us the next morning. The meadow we camped near glittered with dew on a million blades of grass. A chill had settled on the valley, all of the gear was damp, but the teapot did what it could to warm us up. The river by Fish Camp rushed faster and higher with the previous night’s rain. Standing mid-creek was the resident who had checked us in the night before, waist deep in waders in the river, fly rod glancing overhead. My fishing experience at that point had been a mess of cheap tackle scattered across the beach of a wind-blown reservoir, I didn’t know it could be something as peaceful as standing in a river on a silent dawn.