“I’m gonna lay down my burden
down by the riverside, down by the riverside…”
Once a year at the end of summer, the men of my church turn their backs on the trappings of modern civilization — the technology, the comforts, the noise, the polite manners — and get themselves into the woods for several nights up north along the South Fork of the Stillaguamish River. Actually, they drive computerized SUVs, sleep on REI inflatable pads within twelve steps of restrooms with showers, and keep the game on the radio in at least one of the vehicles. But the spirit of the thing is getting away from the city and from their various other roles (husband, pastor, father, employee, as the case may be) to bond and get know each other.
At least, that is what is printed in the church bulletin when the Men’s Retreat is announced every year. But ask any of them — ask Pastor Mick, even — and he will tell you that there is really one overarching reason why they make this trip. It’s because awaiting every participant in this annual migration to the riverside is a barbecued steak so tasty, so tender, so mouth-wateringly delicious that the partakers thereof feel as though they have been elevated to some sublime gustatory plane. They go for the New York or tri-tip cut that Joe and Jim prepare with a secret rub of spices on Joe’s smoker-barbecue grill, which they take up with them. One member of the church told me that he’d been a little depressed last year, and the only time he came out of his funk that whole season was the fifteen minutes he was eating that steak.
I am not a big red-meat eater. I am also ignorant with regard to sports, and I am historically not a joiner. The last is a trait I’ve been trying to address, but this work takes time. Every year for the twelve or so years I have worshipped with this small and close-knit congregation I have been cheerfully and hopefully asked whether I was going on the Men’s Retreat, and every year I have sleezed out of it. They would tell me that I could come up Saturday just for the steak dinner — many did just that. But I always declined, or said I’d think about it and then didn’t get back to them. It’s an odd thing: my craving for community compels me to fantasize about it in anachronistic and romanticized ways (several friends stop by with their banjo and fiddle while I happen to be sipping julep and playing my concertina on my broad wooden porch, and we get to layin’ down a spontaneous hootenanny that in turn causes an ad hoc pot-luck and driveway dance, where the whole town is turned out at my place, people show up with pies, and the kids get to stay up late) and yet I shy away from community in its real forms.
This year no one even bothered to forward me the email, but I heard about it from my wife, who has always encouraged me to go and run with the wolfpack, make some friends. I decided I’d ask if it was too late to go , at least for the Saturday evening steak-fest. It was not too late. Ted, Ken and Curtis were all going up for the afternoon and I could join them. My church does not proselytize, not even about the Men’s Retreat. No one showed surprised or made a big deal of the fact that I was finally coming along. They just said, “You won’t believe the steak.”
Ted, an elder of the church in several senses of the word, doesn’t drive anymore — his eyes have been playing tricks on him — but he has a nice roomy rig (a Kia), so I drove him and his friend Curtis, who is about 70 and can and will talk a blue streak about how he views things, and we picked up Ken on the way north. I’ve known Ted and Ken for years. My daughter plays with Ted’s grandson, and Ken, a contractor, helped us fix up our first house before we moved into it. Curtis is recreating Ted and Carolyn’s kitchen, and has been coming to the church for at least a year now.
We listened to the game on the way up — the Huskies were on their way to beating USC, their second win after a losing streak of 15 games spanning three seasons. Where we could get no reception we talked about how messed up current society is and how it got that way, one of my favorite topics. We all agreed that buying local and supporting independent businesses was the least we could do to forestall living in a world where our choices are decided by the board of directors of Walgreens and Home Depot and Starbucks. Accordingly, we stopped for lunch at Ike’s Cafe in Granite Falls. Ted had the egg-salad sandwich, Ken and Curtis both had the club, I think, and I had eggs and bacon and french toast.
We found Joe and Mick huddled up in warm coats under a portable rain cover, the kind you erect over a picnic table. It was not then raining, but it was cold and the trees were dripping. The others who had overnighted Friday — Jim, Scott, Eric, Jeff, Dale, Paul and his son Jared, Brett and his sons Micah and Toby — had all gone on a damp hike for the afternoon. Bob arrived by motorcycle and set up his tent near some of the others. The game was on everyone’s minds, and Ted kept going and sitting in the car to listen. The campers had not brought enough wood to keep a campfire going during the day, which I thought was a situation that needed a remedy, so I went out to the river to see about some wood. It had been raining for a few days, but otherwise we’d had a drought for six months. Still there wasn’t a speck of lignous matter within a mile, other than old snags piled up on each other, and no one had brought a bow saw. I could see the list starting in my head of what to bring next year. 1) Bow saw.
Presently I became distracted by the overwhelming variety of rock types on the river shore. It seemed impossible that so many different rocks of so many different textures and colors could all be lying around next to each other. Granite, gabbro, diorite, I tried to recall from my geology classes. What were the rose-colored ones, and the crystally white ones? The tumbling force of the river in higher-water times was evident, as were the great distances downriver that these rounded fragments had travelled from their original rockbeds. I found some slate that would make a good arrowhead — obsidian would have been optimal — which I took back to the camp and chipped away at the way I’ve seen in documentaries about aboriginal Americans. My thought was, when the three young boys were back from their hike, I’d show them the arrowhead and say “what do you boys make of this? I found it on the beach,” and watch their eyes bug out.
Later, when the campfire had been made and the hikers were back and Jim was heating up the barbecue, I casually showed Micah, Jared and Toby the slate piece I had been working on. I had found it remarkably easy to shape, even made notches for bindings next to the haft, without which it wouldn’t be much use. “What do you boys make of this?” They said it looked like an arrowhead, but none of them flipped out. Toby was too young to understand the significance of an archaeological find like that, and Jared was too busy with a biscuit that he and his dad were trying to make over the fire to take much notice. Micah, the oldest of the three, wasn’t initially impressed either, but when it was revealed that I had fashioned it that very afternoon he was keen to make one himself and put in a good shift whittling away at some other pieces of slate I had brought up. I brought my arrowhead home for Mara, then realized that it was too sharp for a four-year-old to play with, so I’ve stashed it away to give her later.
Joe didn’t let me take photos of him rubbing the steaks, and I didn’t dare get too close to Jim at the barby, either. When the steaks were done, we lined up like grateful hajis or unbelievably lucky orphans and held out our plates. Jim put a slab of New York steak on my plate that I couldn’t believe I was about to eat all of, and an ear of corn in the husk. Allow me to testify: I am ruined for any other steak. There is no point in my ordering a steak in any restaurant anywhere. Nothing could even come close to this. I won’t eat steak again until next year, riverside. It was better than even the twelve years of superlatives had led me to anticipate. Even the rain dripping down off of the firs and cedars didn’t diminish the experience and couldn’t ruin the flavor. It was simply the best steak I’d ever eaten.
The Huskies won 16-13, the meal was legendary (there was even pumpkin pie dessert for those who eat pumpkin pie — I don’t) and the drive back down the valley was lit by a sunset on shreds of sherbet sky. It was a trip I thoroughly enjoyed, and I suddenly couldn’t remember why I hadn’t made it sooner.