The Shining Path

The Shining Path

Winner of the 2008 Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award.


In 1984, seven Shining Path rebels held up a busload of tourists on their way to Machu Picchu. Their haul proved modest—a handful of digital and other watches, some traveler’s checks, credit cards, a multitude of small denominations of various currencies and some simple rings. In one purse they might have found instructions, a key to a safebox and an address to a place they would never visit: Cle Elum, Washington.

That purse was Jennifer Robinaut’s, and she would gladly have given it up, if she had a little more time. She was in no hurry. Her pilgrimage to this place, like the wonders she had seen before—the Great Barrier Reef, Petra, Easter Island, Mount St. Helens—left her with a greater sense of omnipotence, youthfulness and vigor. She traveled light, two sets of shirts and two sets of slacks, interchangeable, and of muted duns, blacks and olives. What else? A small camera, a money belt, clean underclothes, a wetpack, some novels and her good sense.

Now gray and never married, she carried herself well and struck one of the bandits as elegant and most definitely rich, in part because she didn’t slouch or show fear. She was not afraid, and had long ago concluded these men—all men, really—were vessels, experiences and nothing more. Just minutes before the bandits’ attack, she’d admired the twilight of the southern solstice, itself a calming milestone. A moment during which she told herself again that travel broadened the mind and the heart, and leaving a place could be just as enlightening as finding someplace new. Here she was, far from the Yakima River, far from Cle Elum, her childhood home, on the roof of the Andes visiting a sacred place.

She found the bandits’ impulsivity intoxicating if not a little erotic. This was a most primal experience, perhaps only trumped by what her first and only boyfriend had done with her one afternoon on a runoff bank of virgin gravels, below a meadow on the banks of the Yakima.

One of the rebels saw her thrust chin, her squared shoulders and confident demeanor as insolence. Prone to poor judgment, and in need of close supervision, this bandit grew impatient. He barked commands at her, asked her to speed the emptying of her purse. She smiled at him.

Without the calming influence of his marginally brighter colleagues, the bandit drew his knife and moved it in an arc through the air. His arm blurred, a rainbow whirl of his striped cotton poncho, fast moving, and at the end of it, a new cut, a bad one, a fatal one, across her throat. The rapture Jennifer had learned of at Stonehenge, the Pyramids and the Holy Cities was finally about to come. And with it, she would move from her great loneliness to a world of the pure and young. She was not afraid, she would be led into the bright light, to green pastures, beside sapphire pools on mountain rivers, to the boy she once loved….

My Father and His Love for Cle Elum
When he learned of Jennifer Robinaut’s death, my father took me to the Yakima River, to his favorite stretch. I was maybe 14 or so; it’s where he taught me to fly-fish. In that low water, gentle cascades formed braids and pools, and cut-away banks were overhung with tangled woods. This was our version of the great wonders of the world, the Yakima not far from Cle Elum.

He sat on the gravel, his bamboo rod beside him, and never fished a minute. Head hung, yet still encouraging when I showed him the fish I brought to hand. These were solid, young rainbows, confident in their strikes and precise in their fighting. These were my favorite Cle Elum things—the mountains, this great river, him, the pools and runs, the fish with all their brilliant colors.

After I was done, he told me the story of Jennifer Robinaut, in part because he was once her boyfriend, the one who made a move some 30 years earlier on the banks of the Yakima. In part because he needed someone other than my mom to confide in, that he lost a friend he cared deeply for, although he hadn’t seen or heard from her in years. And in part because he hoped I would never take such journeys.“Follies” he called them.

“All you need to know about the world can be found within 50 miles of Cle Elum, or up here.” He would tap on his head with his index finger, and make a clicking noise when he did it.

Time often heals, but the revulsion of Jennifer Robinaut’s passing became a long preoccupation of my father’s. He was careful about it, my mom never saw it. But certain sights and sounds triggered his melancholy. The tumble of waters, the gravel popping underneath his truck, the cottonwoods going to seed, the irrigation shifts in the river, the shrieks of summer kids tubing down the canyon. Some days I’d fish and he’d just wander the banks, looking at the stones, the river rocks, sometimes picking one up, the ones with the big lines of quartz, the veins of unknown ores, maybe agates, pocketing them, bringing them home to his small garden. Years later you’d see that look, just for a moment, when the tour buses rolled through, on their way to Roslyn, on pilgrimage to where they filmed a TV show called Northern Exposure. I guess that’s the second wonder of the Cle Elum world…

Shropshire Lads Deliver Justice
Back to Peru, to 1984 for a minute, the story there is not done. On that tour bus were three members of a British SAS team on leave from a Falkland Island town, Port Stanley. These men were killers and had watched with some slight amusement the clumsy antics of the Peruvian rebels. They sat at the back of the bus and while not entirely calm, were certainly confident. They were armed, by habit, with knives of Sheffield steel lashed to their legs, and each of them was a little bit drunk and each was now handling his blade and waiting. Signs were passed just as they had learned on Salisbury Plain, and later in combat—Goose Green, Mt. Tumbledown and the bogs and tidal marshes outside Port Stanley two years prior. Semaphored intentions, warrior signs.

The rebels made their way closer to the back of the bus, clumsily pocketing the gems and loot when the shrieks of the passenger beside Jennifer Robinaut alerted all of them to a fundamental shift in matters and intents. The screams that accompanied the exsanguinating Robinaut proved a perfect diversion. During that general confusion, the soldiers rushed the bandits and three minutes later seven peasant rebels were dead, their throats slit similarly to Ms. Robinaut’s. Justice was swift. There was an end to these Shining Path fools.

Two weeks later a small package was sent from Stanley to the only address in the small purse of Jennifer Robinaut. In that smudged envelope was the key and instructions to the lockbox and a letter describing the events of that miserable day with the clumsy poetic detail of a former Shropshire constable turned mercenary:

“The perpetrators wore smocks of many colors similar to the natives of the area….”

“The small clasp knife severed the carotid artery in a jagged zed pattern….”

“They were dispatched with precision and a minimum of fuss.”

“All goods were accounted for, excepting of course these possessions, presumably those of one Ms. Jennifer Robinaut….”

“She died in the twilight, with the sun setting….”

“We are terribly sorry for your loss….”

The package was sent to my father. I saw him read it, once, twice and so on. I read it too, when he wasn’t around. I knew what those words meant, what the day looked like. I looked up Machu Picchu in the library and saw pictures of that place and thought at least she died in the mountains, near the ruins, near those magic stones. Closer to wherever she wanted to go. It looked like the wilderness near Chikamin and Lemah, where the Teanaway forms from snowmelt and springs and makes its way to the Yak.

A Brief, Disturbing Introduction to the Pan Flute Leprechauns
There’s a lot of water between 1984 and now. I have brought my father to specialists in the big cities, miles from Cle Elum. I have asked for their help and they have run their studies. You might think that Jennifer Robinaut broke his heart, but no, she didn’t. My dad wasn’t a weak sapling, he had reason and kindness all around him, my mother too, and he knew the dangers of nostalgia, prolonged mourning and imagined sentiment. He did well enough. He fished the big waters, walked the high Cascades.

What’s got him now is his mind’s going. He doesn’t remember much anymore, he can’t tell his legs and arms to move fast. He remembers way back, when I was a kid, when he was a kid. He remembers the great holes that held the big trout. He remembers when steelhead and kings were common in the Yakima. He knows why Salmon La Sac is called that. He can tie a fly on a leader with one hand. And he knows how the hills around Cle Elum have everything, gold, gems, coal, granite, basalt, fossils and hill people. He’ll tell you how to smelt cinnabar down to mercury and how mercury vapor can make you mad-hatter crazy and set your teeth loose. He can, on a rare day, find an agate, a small Ellensburg Blue, in the river gravel, and he’ll tell you how to tickle a trout, though he never showed me how. He’ll tell all this to you more than once, maybe a hundred times, and sometimes now they’ll get mixed up in a jumbled mess. What he won’t tell you is what day of the week it is or the season anymore.

He sees things, he hallucinates. Small and non-threatening things mostly. When we watch the Mariner’s game he tells me about the guys in the corner. The pan-flute guys, how they’re playing“Danny Boy.” At first I laughed, there he would be, humming along. He says the pan-flute guys sometimes carry fly rods, and they’re on the way to the water. Apparently they are bamboo purists.
“The fellas are fishing again, good luck little guys….”
“At least they don’t mime. They mime, Dad?” (In my mind there is a hierarchy of lousy entertainment capped by mimes, pan flutists, clowns, TV preachers and so on.)
“Mime, you know, white-face stuck in a box?” I showed him.
“No, they don’t do that, why would anyone do that…Nothing interesting about being stuck in a box….”
“Can’t argue with you there.”

It was the third specialist who put the name to it, Lewy-Body Dementia. A slow, indolent, irreversible decline into further stiffness, limited mobility, memory loss and hallucinations. He would die of it ultimately, the doc said that, right there, out in the open with Dad in the room. I wanted to punch him, but Dad didn’t seem to care, shrugged his shoulders, he had no fears. We tried some medications, dopamines, phenothiazines. But those things didn’t make much difference so I didn’t push them.

You know what happens when you fill those kinds of prescriptions? Some jerk gets your address and sells it to a company and six weeks later you’re on a mailing list for a magazine called The Dementia Caregiver. It’s scrape-your-heart-out depressing. They give you prices for bedpans, restraints, chair lifts, Velcro-closed orthopedic shoes, bulk diapers, chux wipes. And to kick you in the nuts? Articles about learning how to balance your care-giving with your social life. Not that I had one. With his band of invisible benevolent midget pan flutists who fished and kept him company, Dad didn’t need me. There’s a depressing thought.

I was jealous of them, those little flute-playing f—ers. On a bad night when I’d eat too much chocolate, drink too much, smoke one too many, my dreams would turn up strange. These little bastards would march like the dwarves in Snow White, tooting their pan flutes, down switchbacks to the best fishing hole, wearing their ponchos and singing:

Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling/
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side/
The summer’s gone, and all the flowers are dying/
’Tis you,’tis you must go and I must bide.

Then one by one, in great precise macroscopic detail, they disassemble their flutes, fit the pipes onto the ends of one another, male to female, and make giant bamboo rods or long wooden knives, and instead of fish, they’d whip and cut the crap out of me. I would wake with a headache and soaked sheets.

(They don’t write anything about that in The Dementia Caregiver trust me, I look every month the new copy comes. Nothing about nightmares. Nothing about pan flutes, nothing about fishing, waters, gemstones, mountains, youth or beauty. Just things like“Top Ten Tips to Cope With Death and Loss.” Sad thing is, I read that magazine cover to cover, and I get antsy when it’s not there when it should be.)

I realize I gave these Andean leprechauns way too much thought, they hijacked my mind. But here’s my take on them—maybe Dad’s Zamfirian brothers were a spin on those rebels, some mental trick to infantilize, dehumanize and neutralize imagined memory. Although he knew her when she was most vulnerable, he wasn’t there, he didn’t see Jennifer Robinaut in her proudest, strongest and bravest final moments. But he knew demons destroyed her, and there was a time, years ago, when they haunted him too. Surely these pan-flute guys were related, maybe it was their karmic duty to heal him, maybe they were pied pipers, leading his rotten memories away? The thing that bothered me though, that I couldn’t trump with better reason, was why’d they lead him away from me?

I took him one fall day to the Yakima, just above the canyon, one of my favorite stretches. We went to a place I knew, where we wouldn’t have to walk far. I pitched a lawn chair on a small beach near a good hole that came out when the irrigation flows finally ended. I’d fished there many times before, never with him though. It was always a prime spot. I walked him out and wrapped him in one of those Mexican space-invader blankets, poured him two fingers of Scotch, and worked the waters while he watched.

There was one fish rising upstream, over and over, a big fat healthy nugget. If I went for him I would no longer be in view of my father. I turned back, looked at him, all wrapped and comfortable in that chair. He waved at me, pushing the air forward, as if to say,“Go for him son, you go get’em.” A paternal wave that right then meant everything and was timeless.

So I did, I cast, I got him to strike, a rainbow whirl, played him to hand, on this great jewel of the river, and released him. Threw a few more times thinking there might be more but there were none…. And then thoughts of my old man back on the beach and that wind coming downstream from the pass and the mountains with winter on it now the equinox had passed, and the old man bitching and moaning about how a cotton blanket is a bad idea.

But when I got back, there he was, humming, not“Danny Boy” anymore, but some tuneless sounds, happy, maybe he was drunk, who knows.

In this last year I put my dad in a nursing home and I miss him more than he will ever know. I’m ready for him to go, I could no longer do him justice, I was regularly ordering from The Dementia Caregiver and I caught myself in the mirror now and then and I saw him in me, looking like he did on the river back in those bad times. I couldn’t keep doing this and promised myself, when he died, I would leave Cle Elum. I would not be stuck there.

After he left our place, I went through his stuff slowly, room by room. I liberated his flies, Deceivers and Stimulators, from his flimsy box and put them in my wallet. I cleaned his reels, rewrapped the bindings on his bamboo rods, threw out his rubber waders. And reset the clasps of some of his favorite caps to fit me.

And in the last room I came across that letter, that envelope, those instructions. I re-read them, weighed the skeleton key in my hand. And wondered about what was in the lockbox. In a small inspiration, as though that box contained some amazing chunk of history, of his history, Jennifer’s too, I made my way to the bank.
Armed with the key, the letter, the obits he’d saved. I passed them all on to the cashier and asked for her help. She checked with her manager, and the box was opened, inside it a smaller box. The manager didn’t even open that one, he wasn’t the least bit curious, he handed it over and said not to worry about returning it, he needed more lockboxes and he’d never found a relative of Ms. Robinaut’s who wanted to claim her belongings.

I took the box to the nursing home. And after what passed for conversation, me doing all the talking, brought it over to Dad. His head was hung like it used to when he was in a mood. But it was his strength failing now. He didn’t seem to have the firepower for moods or muscles anymore. He propped his eyelids open with his fingers when I shouted at him.

“Dad, look at this, we’re going to look inside Jennifer’s lockbox….”

He shifted in his seat and sat up some. And with both of us looking on, I opened the lid.

A shimmer of bright blue light from inside, rays of it shining out, and there was the most beautiful Ellensburg Blue I ever saw, and with it, my father, first incredulous and then smiling, a great big beam of a smile. I swear he could recognize it from long ago and, in that moment, all was good again.

Michael Doherty, the 2008 winner of the Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award, lives in Seattle.