Loss of an Old Friend I Never Met

Jim Harrison has long been my favorite writer

By Rob Breeding

I was standing in the river Saturday when the Professor waded up and shared the news that Jim Harrison had died. Harrison has long been my favorite writer, and “Dalva,” is a contender for my favorite novel.

I never met Harrison, though we had a few mutual acquaintances. Meeting him was a bucket list thing for me, though I never put much effort into it. If you force things, no matter how earnest your devotion, the encounter is invariably awkward.

You may have been to one of those events where some notable author reads a bit from their latest work, then stands before a procession of followers, each of whom tries to impress upon the scribe, in 30 seconds or less, how the writer’s words have changed their life. Most writers face this business politely, usually with a word or two of gratitude. Writers, of course, aren’t really writers without readers, just diarists, so readers predicate our existence. But this procession business must be dreadful if repeated too often.

Harrison and I loved many of the same places. The Big Hole down around Melrose was one of them. Mearns quail country in Arizona near the Mexican border is another. Possibly more than his skills as a writer, I admired the way Harrison organized his annual migrations. In the winter he lived in Patagonia, Arizona, the epicenter of Mearns country. In the summer it was either his native Michigan or Livingston, prowling for brown trout on the Yellowstone River.

I hope to someday migrate in much the same way. For me it’ll be Polebridge in the summer and Sonoita (just down the highway from Patagonia) during quail season.

Harrison wasn’t an outdoor writer, at least in the traditional sense, but the outdoors permeated his work like the smell of kerosene does an oil worker’s coveralls. A recent essay in “Anglers Journal,” by writer Chris Dombroski, described a day floating the Big Hole with Harrison. I laughed when I read Harrison’s take on the cursed San Juan worm. He compared fishing that fly to a film director flashing a little gratuitous nudity when the plot begins to drag.

For a moment after the news flash we considered replacing the worms that dangled from our leaders, then thought the better of it. We were on the river to catch fish, not create a Sundance entry.

So we cracked beers, toasted Jim, and flashed the trout some skin. They graciously obliged.

More than once since that day I’ve found myself forcing back tears. It seems an odd thing, crying over the death of someone I’ve never met. But that’s how it is with those writers who speak to you. Their words tangle with the boilerplate of life — lost loves, days on the water, the perfect bourbon on the rocks in some seedy bar hours from civilization — so that words and life become one. We don’t really celebrate their words so much as that the words of great writers inspire us to celebrate the structure of our own existence.

By that measure, I’m not getting weepy about a stranger anyway.

The closest I came to meeting Harrison was watching the episode of Anthony Bourdain’s now defunct television program “No Reservations,” when he travelled to Livingston to meet the writer. As they dined at the 2nd Street Bistro in the Murray Hotel, along with artist Russell Chatham, and as the fourth or fifth over-the-top course arrived, Harrison exclaimed, “Hey, I’m on a diet!” in a hilariously high-pitched, nasally voice that reminded me of actor Wallace Shawn (“My Dinner with Andre.”) But once the plate was set, Harrison dug right in.

That scene summed up the philosophy his words have fused with my existence. Live with gusto. Be present. Eat so that you’ll have to start a diet next week.

Then ignore it.

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