TIME ROLLED BACKWARD as my wheels rolled north. When I left my home down south, it was earliest spring. Turkeys blasted the woods with their gobbles, searching each other out on a carpet of May apples, the dogwoods above them bursting with white flowers. But not here, not in Ohio. As the abandoned coal stacks of Cleveland pricked the horizon over my dashboard, all remained winter-dead. I was bound for the pebbled shores of Lake Erie, in the midst of its decaying metal works, but in search of a different kind of steel.
They still call this the Rust Belt, but in truth, rust is by its nature transitory. It is a kind of chemical fire by which oxygen slowly burns away metal, so patiently we can barely see the decay. And then one day the metal is just gone. Glass is more permanent. It is represented by the bottle-green pebbles and old disks of opaque white, rolled downriver for a century or more, which now form as much as half the riverbed in areas nearest the great, vast lake. Metal: transitional, its solidity a false promise of permanence. Glass: persistent, its fragility actually a ruse.
These were the thoughts that provided the backbeat to my two-handed rod’s familiar pattern as I plied the river near its north-facing mouth, a prospector panning for chrome.
Swing the tip upstream, then flick. Pause for the splash, then swoop. I recited the rules in my mind, my Spey rod swaying like a young tree, long enough to be more trunk than branch. Form up the D-loop, wait to feel the tension. Now, the kinetic thrust forward and the cathartic release; the rod’s vibration dampening to nil as the fat, wet fly surged across the river, bellyflopping the water against the opposite bank.
Atop that bank I could just make out a fence, like something out of a dystopian Japanese cartoon. Signs blazed its gates—this is a no-go zone, they said. Words like Environmental Protection Agency and Superfund remained legible, though the signs themselves were also giving way to rust. In the middle distance stood old towers, their purpose indiscernible. Oil derricks turning to red powder maintained their lonely sentry duty. All of this conveyed a clear message: Bad things, man, bad things had happened here. And yet, I thought, the rust now reveals its purpose. You have to scab over before you can heal.
The fly swung, recapturing my attention, representing a fleeing something, then it suddenly disappeared as a teal torpedo engulfed it from behind. The steelhead surged, jumped; its chrome sides flashed metallic, brightening the dismal bank where once-shiny metal had been the norm. I fought it to hand, released it to return to its business. These fish were a marker of health; the patient’s prognosis, once seemingly terminal, was now, surprisingly, improving. The riverbed here may have been littered with debris, but the waters above ran clean. Eventually, I understood, the debris itself would dissolve, the rust cycle complete, with only the glass pebbles remaining to mark how close a call this river had.
As I skirted the edge of the fence on my way back to my car, my mind on the long drive south, I noticed a dogwood. It was scraggly, almost engulfed in old vines, its roots tangled in discarded chain link. But it was in bloom.