Sentimental Junk by Mark Usyk
It’s been a while since I wrote anything about my time living on the road climbing cell towers for a living, fishing nearly every day on a different water somewhere. It’s just that I think I’ve told the best stories, and talked about the best fishing from those years. Enough so that I feel like I was starting to sound like a broken record. And it was only four years, it’s not like I did it my entire life. I started to realize that no one will ever want to hear the stories as many times as you want to repeat them, and I was on the cusp of becoming that old guy reliving the days of his youth all the time, except that I wasn’t old, and the tower days weren’t in my youth. You know the guy. That “the older I get the better I was” guy that people roll their eyes at.
So I tried to curb the stories the best I could. I still find myself from time to time, like say, a month ago as we drove south on I-81, pointing out to my kids the nine-hundred foot broadcast tower and the little three hundred footer that I climbed next to it on a cold fall day. The one where I lost all feeling and movement in my fingers, climbing down the foot pegs using my wrists and the crotches of my elbows. It was a long, slow climb down, and… See that’s what I mean. I could just ramble on about those times. I have to stop myself, or someday I’m going to end up like Napoleon Dynamites uncle, living in a van, reliving my glory days, wishing they weren’t over.
But this morning I came across some pictures from up on the towers, and it lead to me thinking about things that I took away from my short time in that industry. Mostly fly fishing, and a pair of old friends. In the picture I’m looking down past my boots at the featureless landscape four-hundred and fifty some odd feet below. But it wasn’t the height, and it wasn’t the memory of that specific job that made the picture special. It was my boots supporting me up on the narrow, cold steel up in the wind. They’re my wading boots.
I bought these cheap insulated pack boots one winter because steel toe boots, while keeping your toes from being crushed or broken, tend to do nothing more than suck all the heat out of them. And the only thing worse than frozen fingers is frozen toes. As a bonus, they had an extremely aggressive tread, which made them great winter climbing boots. The deep knobs and lugs made them hold on to the hard edges of angle iron as well as I could have ever wanted for a pair of boots for sixty-nine bucks. And they were warm, just an outer leather shell with a hard rubber toe cap, but with those heavy quilt like insulated sock like inserts they were great for that job in the northeast winters. I found them at the beginning of my last winter on the towers, wishing I’d found them a couple years earlier.
Then the following spring I bought my first pair of good waders. I’d gone through one or two pairs of cheap sixty dollar waders, and as I was about to buy another pair, Holly spoke true words of wisdom, telling me just to buy a good set. The money I was about to spend on yet another pair of waders that were going to last me one season was about to equal what I would’ve spent if I’d just bought a good pair of Simms to begin with. So I tried on a pair of Simms, which I immediately discovered felt more like a pair of jeans rather than competing in a potato sack race, and was reminded yet again why women will always control our destinies. I would’ve just bought another cheap and uncomfortable pair of waders if it wasn’t for the wisdom and foresight of my wife. But I still wasn’t spending any money on good boots. I bought the store brand twenty-five dollar flats wading boots and called it good enough. For the next year I slipped and stumbled my way up and down Adirondack streams, stubbing my toes on stream bottom cobblestones and tree roots on the trails, in boots with no treads made for sand flats, with just enough money invested in their construction that may have equaled the cost of a soda out of a vending machine.
Then one day as I was grabbing my Simms out of the garage and realizing that those twenty-five dollar flats boots were trashed and just about unwearable, my eyes fell on my old winter tower boots, that cheap pair of packs. I pulled the quilted insulated inserts out and a pair of size ten boots suddenly became more like size thirteens, and they fit over my Simms stocking feet perfectly. I remember being so proud, feeling so damn smart a half hour later as I pushed my way through a patch of tall grass and cattails to get to the edge of a shallow pond that held some bass and pickerel. I’ve been using them as wading boots ever since. Two years now.
They’ve taken me to fish everywhere, in all kinds of conditions. Up and down remote Adirondack streams, through swamps, hiked me in on muddy trails without complaints. I’ve waded the shorelines of too many lakes and ponds to count in them. They saw a lot of firsts. First pickerel on the fly, first, smallmouth on my 7wt, first of many lost northern pikes on the fly. Plenty of good fish, and some of my favorite memories are of trout resting and recovering, tucked between my boots on the river bottom before gliding off back into the currents. They’re probably the best cheap money I ever spent on something other than fly fishing that became super important fly fishing gear. But nothing lasts forever. They’ve helped me make more memories of fish and skunks than I can remember, which resonates with another one of those old guy clichés I’ve always tried to avoid, I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever remember.
After soaking up water and drying out just too many times, the leather has shrunk enough that they’re now hard to get on, and the stitched seems have begun to give out. The opening of trout season is upon us, which really means the real beginning of spring for fisherman and the constant chasing of any and all fish in general. I’ll be looking to replace the boots, and I wonder if I could ever find another pair of boots that have seen so much for so little cash. I keep looking at the Korkers and the Simms, and I’m sure they’re great wading boots. For the coin I’ll have to drop on them, they better be. But they’ll never be able to hold a candle next to the boots that were both at home in subzero temperatures hundreds of feet in the air on narrow steel, and then just as at home submerged in a river as my rod was bent to a life form on the other end doing its best to beat me. That’s sentimental stuff, nothing proven through testing and research mind you.
Parents used to get their baby’s first pair of shoes bronzed, which I always thought of as a little odd. But now I’m wondering how much it would cost to have a pair of winter pack boots done to sit on a shelf in my writing and tying room alongside the rest of the junk connected to good memories on the water. But they’d probably weigh thirty pounds and bring down the shelf. So on second thought, it may be time to build a little funeral pyre, about boot size, and crack open a beer to a pair of old friends.