American Fly Fishing

Larger-than-Life Visual Bard, Bohemian, and Boulder Rat
By Don Roberts

There’s something disconcerting about watching a very big man make himself exceedingly small. Imagine for a moment the unmistakable countenance of a 250-pound hulk, dressed head to toe in black and cloaked in a black cape, his battered black fedora, with brim crumpled upward fore and aft, pushed slightly back on his brow—the dark, bearish figure crouched excruciatingly low to the ground and inchworming across the green-felt expanse of a highly manicured suburban lawn.
   A vignette misappropriated from Alice in Wonderland? No—but close. What you’re being asked to envision here is an episode that had its roots in 52 pages of ink-stained paper, a bottle of decent Scotch, and two pot roasts.
   Sometime in 1976 or ’77 (the exact dates are muddled), a large manila envelope came over the transom to Frank Amato’s desk in Portland. As the editor/publisher of the burgeoning Salmon Trout Steelheader magazine, Amato was on the lookout for promising material. But nothing could have prepared him for the outlandish, hilarious, yet eminently practical illustrated treatise—essentially a comic book—that had reached him from the fog-shrouded streets of San Francisco. There was no hesitation, no agonizing. Upon first laying eyes on the Xeroxed sample pages from The Curtis Creek Manifesto, Amato thought, “Wow, I’ve got to call this guy immediately.”
   Mere days later, Amato—in those days a self-confessed homebody—blithely hopped a plane to San Francisco. Upon meeting Sheridan Andreas Mulholland Anderson at the airport and repairing to a restaurant for breaking bread and broaching business, the first thing Amato asked was whether Anderson had submitted his manuscript anyplace else. “Yeah,” replied Anderson. “I sent it to a couple of Eastern publishers who rejected it because it wasn’t ‘sophisticated enough’ for them.” Perhaps fearing the possibility of another publishing house getting its mitts on the manuscript—and sans further ceremony or hand-wringing—Amato pushed a book contract across the table right then and there. And without further ado, the two men began hashing out the details amid dirty plates and rumpled napkins and ongoing splashes of wine.
   “My immediate impression,” said Amato, “was that Sheridan looked the perfect ringer for Long John Silver. He was tall, 6-foot-2 or -3, barrel chest, dark shaggy hair, wore all black, and had a slightly gruff manner, a kind of challenging air about him. But underneath he was all artist and also all perfectionist. When we talked about doing the book, he wanted it done precisely his way, including all the copy and cover art, with highly stylized hand-lettering throughout.
   “We hit it just right,” Amato observed. “Six months later the book came out, and it took off like wildfire.”
   Remember that through the ages fly-fishing literature had largely been held hostage by a strong sense of propriety and Eastern establishment airs, characterized, if not literally, then at least figuratively, by button-down tweed and leather elbow patches. Fly fishing as a subject, as opposed to an act—actually being out in the field and getting dirty—had been taken so seriously as to appear shackled by Puritanism. Now here came Anderson’s Manifesto, a lavishly, often outlandishly, illustrated primer that, yes, preached a strict credo of angling dogma, but the credo was aberrantly proffered with a sly wink and an overriding glint of mischief and madness: the trout on the title page sports a wing-shaped dorsal fin; the “Preamble and Opening Salvos” on the following page point out that in most textbooks “the beginner is assaulted with . . . text he must translate into visual images.” Such books, he continues, serve “only to confuse the issue.”
   Appearing throughout the work, the “hero”—bearded and wearing a crumpled fedora—stares intently past his long, bulbous nose at the waters ahead as he wanders among countless illustrations of streams, insects, tackle, and wildlife, some overtly cartoonish, some beautifully realistic.


The Pirate and the Pot Roast
A year or two after the work was published (again, the dates are hazy), Anderson made a pilgrimage north to Portland to meet with his publisher. Of course, he was invited over to Frank and Gayle Amato’s house for dinner. Amato described the events: “While Gayle was preparing the table, I suggested to Sheridan that we go up to my study where I had stashed a bottle of aged Scotch . . . thinking we could relax and sip a shot or two. Well, as it turned out, Sheridan wasn’t one for just sipping.” Frank laughed, “Before we sat down to dinner, he pretty much managed to polish off the whole bottle.” 
   Dinner then proceeded apace, marked by both gusto and civility, one large pot roast disappearing amid animated conversation. That is, up until Gayle went to clear the serving tray upon which perched the remaining pot roast, deemed ample for another meal. Anderson had other designs. While barking out pirate lingo—Aaaarrrrggghhh, matey, whar be hornswagglin’ yon booty (or something to that effect)—he brandished his fork like a cutlass and, per the prerogative of any starving seadog, impaled the roast and commenced to devour it with a fixed squinty-eyed glare and much attendant gnawing and growling.
   And then, as Amato recalls, during the after-dinner quiet, “Sheridan said to me, ‘Frank, you want me to demonstrate some of the maneuvers in the book?’ ” Given that Kellogg Creek ran through Amato’s oversize backyard, Anderson’s proposal was not all that capricious. “So, Sheridan borrowed a fly rod from me, and with his long black coat dragging and his black hat low on his brow, this big fellow starts crawling across our lawn. It was uncanny,” said Amato. “He literally became the book.” Imagining the scene doesn’t require a great deal of mental exertion; indeed, all you have to do is turn to pages seven and eight in The Curtis Creek Manifesto, where along with other approaches Anderson depicts “The Upstream Crawl.”
   The experience still resonates in the Amato household. Frank noted that his two young, almost clinically hyper boys, Nick and Tony, were riveted by the “Sheridan sneak”—stunned into stillness. That’s saying something.


The Pirate and the Persona
Anderson’s pirate persona probably started taking shape well before pubescence. It was clear from an early age that Sheridan wasn’t quite like the other kids on the block. As his younger brother Michael wryly observed, “He always had to do things his way.” Michael elaborated, “My side of our [shared] bedroom was always straightened up, neat as a pin. Sheridan’s side was littered with Sports Afield and Outdoor Life, oil paintings, drawings, books on local flora and fauna. He had his vise over there and tied flies, and he had his creel and some other damn things.” Taking brotherly exception, but doubling down in the process, Sheridan shot back, “Mike was a fastidious little bastard. When he wasn’t outside fielding grounders, he could usually be found lying on his bed staring with big calf-eyes at Yvonne De Carlo or seated thereon rubbing some kind of mysterious goo into his baseball mitt.”
   As perhaps can be inferred from their rough-hewn language and less-than-saccharine sentiments, the Anderson boys were raised in a stormy environment. In a matter-of-fact tone, Mike observed that their parents didn’t exactly emulate Ozzie and Harriet. While the parents got into frequent altercations, “fueled by alcohol”—a constant dynamic in the Anderson clan—the boys developed strategies for maintaining an even keel, including highly honed extracurricular interests and activities. Mike had his team sports, baseball and football—“everything but fishing”—while Sheridan veered toward solitary pursuits, particularly an abiding passion for fly fishing and a flourishing aptitude for art.
   Sheridan Anderson was born in Southern California in 1936, though he didn’t live there long enough to form even a vague memory of the place. In the early 1940s, his father, having completed a stint in the Army, took a job as a used-car salesman, which entailed frequent moves between Los Angeles and Hawaii before he finally settled the family in Salt Lake City. Eventually he acquired the wherewithal to establish and manage his own car lot, with a sign proudly declaring “BATTLE FATIGUE ANDERSON’S,” thus becoming something of a local landmark. Despite the fact that it’s hard to imagine Anderson embracing much of the lifestyle, not to mention the theistic rigors, of the area’s engulfing Mormonism, it’s not so hard to see the fledgling angler being inexorably drawn to the rugged drainages of the Wasatch and Uinta mountains. With wild backcountry looming at the city’s edge—decades before the carcinogenic spread of urban sprawl—Anderson could escape to the forest and highlands at will. Michael recalls, “We lived close to the mountains, and he knew these wonderful places that no one else knew. He’d bushwhack into these tiny creeks in the canyons.”
   Art was not something Anderson dabbled in: he drenched himself in it—a tidal disarray of cartoons, sketches, oil paintings ,and, with the right audience in tow, humorous, over-the-top impersonations. He was fiercely unconstrained and free-spirited, attested to by the fact that when his parents and brother moved back to Southern California, Anderson, still in high school, elected to stay in Salt Lake City. No doubt his decision was more than partly influenced by Utah’s famously dry climate, an acknowledgement and half-surrender to his chronic asthma, a condition he had been diagnosed with at an early age.
   Although as a callow teenager Anderson accepted a scholarship to a prestigious art school, he failed to habituate himself to its conservative atmosphere. The hallowed halls proved too musty and far too orthodox for his unfettered, if not anarchic, artistic leanings. He enrolled at the University of Utah down the road and, after again bristling at the conventional restraints of college art classes, he dropped out long before the need for gown, cap, and tassel. 
   Lest he seem heedlessly fractious and reckless, keep in mind that, even as a mere tadpole, Anderson possessed a stubborn and slightly pugnacious streak. Neither hostility nor rebellion had anything to do with it. Instead, his gruff disposition acted as a kind of force field surrounding the core of his artistic and intellectual independence. At the risk of being accused of understatement, Michael observed, “He was pretty opinionated in his youth.”
   One thing’s certain: Anderson’s rocky relationship with formal education rewarded him with more time for sauntering into the boonies—the one and only place where The Curtis Creek Manifesto could have taken root in his brainpan. Grant Wootton, his favorite uncle, lived nearby in Salt Lake City, and later in Montana, and was there to help provide care and watering for the fledgling Anderson’s angling skills and for his creative inclinations. “Uncle Grant was a bullshitter’s bullshitter and a great fly fisherman,” Michael fondly recalled. What better epistemological style for ensnaring young Sheridan’s attention?
   When his uncle Grant and aunt Sadie moved to West Yellowstone to manage the Alpine Lodge, Anderson took every opportunity to visit and hang out. Under Wootton’s wing, he learned to ply the waters of the Madison, Yellowstone, Snake, Firehole, and a host of other waters within a gas tank’s reach. The tutelage he received on these rivers would later imbue The Manifesto with pure, indelible, and, yes, hilarious wisdom, wisdom that thumbed its nose at pretense—with allowances, of course, for a quota of pirate’s swagger.


The Pirate and the Pinnacle
One’s teenage years are often recorded in a litany of damage control. During our mid- to late 20s, most of us turn sharp corners, make the big decisions. Normally this is the crucial period for building a stable life: a promising career, a steady partner, a first mortgage on a fixer-upper, and a growing array of kitchenware. In his 20s, Anderson became a man of the mountains, finding his emotional and psychic center in the higher elevations. He was happy with what he could fit in his backpack. But there was a problem.
   Always on the move from mountain range to mountain range, from state to state, he met and fell in with the hardest of the hardnosed rock climbers—literal rock stars such as Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robbins, Roger Keckeissen, and Joe Kelsey. The vertical walls at Yosemite emerged as the epicenter of the world of rock climbing, and Camp 4 (the birthplace of modern rock climbing, that is) famously served as the bivouac, the place where spider men, scroungers, and scoundrels kicked up their heels and laid down their heads at night. Being accepted into the boulder-rat pack is one thing; keeping up with them is quite another. While his cohorts were chalking up “impossible” routes on El Capitan, Sentinel, and Half Dome, Anderson, a decent amateur at best, was stymied by the likes of Lurking Fear, a so-called beginner’s wall. Here’s the rub: über-climbers are composed of pure muscle, their skin mere ornamentation and their bones mere trusses and struts. Endowed with a build more closely resembling a water buffalo than the lithe lizard somatotype of a rock climber, Sheridan was prevented by genetics—betrayed by his own body—from ever being an accomplished “ascensionist.”
   That was all right, actually serendipitous, because Anderson had a more important role to play. Among other things, he was there to keep egos from overinflating and to keep heads screwed on tight. Although Camp 4 was by turns party hearty and blissed-out mellow, climbing itself is serious business—gravitas versus gravity. The atmosphere was not always an arm-in-arm bro-fest. Besides being innately competitive, climbing is ruthlessly goal oriented. Steely resolve—and nerve—is required. The personality and character traits of the best climbers could be perceived as self-absorbed, if not downright self-aggrandizing. (“Peel off? Nah, not me.”)
   While his daring comrades were out scouting an approach or attempting to execute their next slick-rock maneuver, Anderson wandered the alpine meadows and tarns, fishing, drinking, and drawing. As Kelsey noted, “Unflattering caricature was one more obstacle at the end of an arduous epic (a difficult and/or dangerous climb), but . . . a returning Rock God could drink beer with Sheridan and be himself.” On one occasion, when Chouinard was out attempting to bag a big wall, Anderson took it upon himself to repaint Chouinard’s trusty old van—with nothing less than Grumbacher oils.
   “At one Camp 4 party, Chuck Pratt was too drunk to stand up, and he passed out on the ground, curled up with my golden retriever,” recalled Kelsey. “The party went on around him, and Sheridan grabbed his pad and sketched them. The caption was ‘I knew there would be someone at this party I could talk to.’ ”
   Though Anderson was never hesitant to use a sharpened pencil to puncture a bloated ego, his character sketches were never hateful, mean-spirited, or tinged with even the slightest drop of venom. His humor instead veered more toward the gentle poke in the ribs, sometimes coming off so droll, so classically rendered, as to seem blue-blood British in context. Robbins became one of the frequent targets of “Sherry’s” cartoon harpoons. As an ardent climber of ever-increasing fame, Robbins was a figure Anderson couldn’t resist depicting in the guise of a glowing Superman or a Tyrolean aristocrat-cum-mountaineer wearing his trademark glasses and English driving cap. Many years later, Robbins wrote, “He was one of the chief chroniclers of the vanities and pretensions of many stars of that period. Sheridan had a double talent: the ability to read character, and the skill to render it with precise, satirical strokes.”
   In all-too-comfortable suburban middle-class America—its culture hungry for adventure, the more dangerous the better—there was a market for climbing lore, not to mention an athletic subculture clamoring for its own identity. Sheridan Anderson provided one, contributing illustrated features to a host of periodicals, including Summit, Mountain, Ascent, Mountain Gazette, and, last but not least, The Vulgarian Digest, to which he appointed himself artistic director (AD of V.D.) while insisting that he contribute under the nom de plume E. Lovejoy Wolfinger III, so that his publishers at Summit, the highest-circulation, best-paying climbing journal of the lot, wouldn’t know. Fat chance, given his rather irrepressible style.
   But that was not all that he provided. Besides drawing their images for posterity, Anderson was provisioning his fellow tribesmen with freshly caught fish. In fact, the idea for The Curtis Creek Manifesto first coalesced around a frying pan at Camp 4. In Anderson’s own words, he got in the habit of “supplying a half-dozen fellow pirates with fresh trout. . . . Lazing over Red Mountain Burgandy [sic] and sloe-eyed maids by the crystalline pools of the Merced, I was often admonished to harness my expertise for posterity in order to maintain my orthodoxy in a more lavish manner.”
   Fortunately for the far less athletic—but certainly no less devoted—angling community, he took that admonishment to heart—and to his drawing pad.


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