My uncle, Grant Rember, spent his last 40 years hunting and fishing in the Wood River Valley. He was good enough that other hunters and fishermen suggested he'd sold his soul to Satan. One of them, Jack Hemingway, thought he was Satan—in hip boots, carrying a banged-up fly rod or an old Remington shotgun.
Jack had dared to write a column on fishing for a local weekly. Grant immediately pronounced him a phony. He started taunting Jack whenever he saw him out on Silver Creek, criticizing his casting technique and writing style and calling him Bumby, the hated nickname that Jack's father, Ernest, had given him. My uncle had a nose for vulnerability.
But aside from his competitiveness as a hunter and fisherman, Grant was generous and kind. He delivered strings of trout and packages of venison to the aged widows in Hailey, and shoveled their walks in the winter, and did home repairs when asked. He kept people in their homes and out of assisted living with these small kindnesses.
As I grow older, I get more impressed with the good he did. It was the positive side of his sensitivity to weakness. He knew when people needed help, even when they were trying to hide it, and he helped them.
One of the ways he helped my working parents was to get me out of the house. From the time I was 6 or so, he taught me how to fly cast, how to spot trout in deep holes, how to catch and clean them and keep them fresh. When we hunted pheasants or sagehen, he would wait until I took the first shots before killing the birds I missed. When we hunted deer, he would send me into aspen-lit draws where he knew a buck was hanging out.
By the time I was 12, I would occasionally catch the biggest fish of the day, or make a hard shot on a pheasant, or kill the buck we were hunting.
For Grant, these events marked the end of my childhood. He became my competitor, and after a year or so of having him catch all the fish and shoot all the birds and kill all the deer more or less before I got out of the pickup, I found excuses not to go with him.
He still had people to fish and hunt with. He never had children of his own, and his wife preferred staying at home to getting out in the world, but there were lots of single mothers in Hailey then. Some of them had young sons, and he knew these boys badly needed a man—and the outdoors—in their lives. He would loan them rifles and fly rods and, over two or three years, teach them to use them.
I still have men come up to me and tell me that Grant was the most important man in their childhoods.
"He did more for me than my own dad," is what they say. Underneath their hunting and fishing stories are lives saved from the tangible darkness of a father's absence.
I stopped by his house one day when I was in my early 30s and he was nearing 70. He waved a newspaper at me. One of the single mothers in town had accused her boyfriend of molesting her children, and the boyfriend—innocent or not—had been judged a sex offender in the court of public opinion. The couple eventually reconciled. The charges were dropped, but the damage had been done.
"I can't take kids fishing anymore," he said. "You can lose everything you ever worked for, everything good you ever did."
Grant fished and hunted into his 80s. He still supplied food to Hailey's widows, but he went out alone.
Hunting pheasants with him had become painful, because he'd kill his limit and then kill yours. If you killed an elk and he didn't, he'd sulk. He got cagey about where the fish were.
My own father, who was deeply and happily present in my childhood, told me Grant was what happened when you got so obsessed with one thing that it began to blot out the people in your life.
"He can't think of anything else," he said. "When he can't fish or hunt anymore, he'll die."
Which is what happened. When Grant's wife had a stroke and couldn't take care of herself, he moved with her into a nursing home. Their room, with two hospital beds, was a cacophony of television noise. The lights were fluorescent tubes, and the few photos on the concrete walls, most of them of Grant in the mountains or knee-deep in rivers, gave no relief from the dreariness.
But I picked him up one day and drove him west of Hailey, into the gulches and hills. He wasn't feeling good. A chronic leukemia had kicked up and was making him weak and miserable. I could generally get a rise out of him by bringing up Jack Hemingway, but that day he smiled and said that Jack, dead for years, could rest in peace.
In a few hours of driving the old mining roads, we saw 21 sagehen and 21 elk.
"They're sending a delegation," I said.
"Makes you wonder what they're planning," he said.
He died a few weeks later. When I heard the news, I drove again out west of Hailey, through snow deep enough to get me stuck if I wasn't careful. The elk and sagehen were gone. There was a bright, diamond-hard light on the sage and aspen and snow.
It seemed merciless and joyful at once, and I knew I was, for the moment, seeing the bare world through Grant's eyes.