Men, fire and steak

“I’m gonna lay down my burden
down by the riverside, down by the riverside…”

–Traditional folksong

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.

Jim gets the pit ready while Joe preps the steaks. The men of the tribe have been waiting a year for this.

Jim gets the pit ready while Joe preps the steaks. The men of the tribe have been waiting a year for this.

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.”

Waiting for the hiking party to return. Ken, Mick, Curtis and Eric.

Waiting for the hiking party to return. A fuzzy picture of Ken, Mick, Curtis and Eric.

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.

It probably would have impressed the boys more if there had been a dinosaur bone stuck to it.

It probably would have impressed the boys more if there had been a dinosaur bone stuck to it.

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.

The delicious agony of anticipation...

The delicious agony of anticipation...

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.


The end of a good day, any way you slice it.

The end of a good day, any way you slice it.


12 Responses to “Men, fire and steak”

  1. 1 Louis September 22, 2009 at 09:25

    “…aaand when exactly is the next retreat?” he asked salivatingly..

    Seeing the name Stillaguamish reminds me of the countless times I have traversed the bridge across that river on I-5 on my way to and from Bellevue..always shouting out upon seeing the road sign, “Stillaguamish – HO!!”

    Thanks for sharing your outing with us, Matt.

  2. 2 Marni September 22, 2009 at 09:58

    The steak sounds mouth-wateringly delicious – not good enough to miss the INCREDIBLE WIN (hanging my head because clearly I have neglected you in a Husky kind of way), but worthy of skipping out on anything else. What a lovely day you had, glad you are working on that “joining thing” Matthew – keep on whittling!

  3. 3 Jeni September 22, 2009 at 11:52

    Randy (my hubby)always says, ‘well, it’s still a guamish! haha!’ every time we drive over that bridge….It got old fast!

    • 4 Marni September 22, 2009 at 20:11

      Really??? I would think you could just listen to that over and over again and have it seem fresh and new each and every time. Wouldn’t get on my nerves one little bit. Wouldn’t even be searching for a blunt weapon. Or earplugs…

  4. 5 jstwndrng September 22, 2009 at 20:58

    Louis, Jeni, seems like the Stillaguamish River inspires a lot of interesting vocal traditions in those whose fortunes require them to cross it.

    Marni, I thought about you Saturday several times, because you had filled me in about the Huskies coach being the apprentice (or whatever) of the USC coach, the Skywalker to USC’s Vader, and how you thought that might give us (“us”…listen to me) an edge we could win with. Curtis was saying that the whole way up the highway. “If anyone can beat USC, he can!”

    I thought about Kip, too, because that home-boy would have been ALL OVER that steak.

  5. 6 Ben F September 22, 2009 at 21:41

    Good on you, brother.

  6. 7 Louis September 23, 2009 at 08:28

    Although I visited the campus many times, I never attended the University of Washington. Yet I too refer to them as “us”. They´re the home team. Before the Seahawks, the Sonics, the Mariners, even the Pilots! Heck, even before the 1917 Stanley Cup champion Seattle Metropolitans!…on the shores of Lake Washington..the purple and gold…Bow down to Washington…

    Jeni, I don´t think I would ever tire of: ‘well, it’s still a guamish! haha!’ Gotta be a guy thing.

  7. 8 Kip September 23, 2009 at 18:25

    I have been trying to comment all day to comment, but I have been interrupted by either work duties or children requiring attention. I am hoping for enough time to make…..well, an almost one year old is crying, I’ll try later!

  8. 9 Kip September 23, 2009 at 19:29

    OK, Ami is home, and I think the kids will let me do this.

    Matt, I seem to have the same issues with joining. It always seems like a great thing….until it’s time to actually join! When I DO actually join, or take part, I have a great time. I wonder what my problem was. As for the steak….ALL OVER IT! I am beginning to think that the simpler, the better when it comes to a good steak. Oh, and as Ami points out, the cut IS important! A spice rub is really all it needs, along with a good, slow cook over hot coals. I have a very hard time with the coals, though. There are times I can get it right, but I have actually had to start the gas grill to finish a nice hunk because I messed up the coals.

    I have never carved an arrowhead.

    I hope a year from now, we hear about the second trip to the South Fork of the Stillaguamish River.

    • 10 jstwndrng September 24, 2009 at 09:09

      I definitely will be going back next year, although I may see if the tribe will allow me to eat only a half-serving. Really, that much red meat makes me feel sluggish for a day or two, like I have a plastic bag over my head. I may stay overnight, too, but if so I’m taking a bow saw.

  1. 1 In search of trains « Just Wondering Trackback on October 25, 2009 at 00:03
  2. 2 Several kinds of quiet « Just Wondering Trackback on July 30, 2010 at 11:55

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