Philip Caputo Remembers Jim Harrison
An Unexpected Night in the Wild
Jim Harrison’s voice, as unique as the man himself, sounds as though his vocal cords are made of coarse-grained sandpaper. “Phil, my brain-pan hurts,” he says over the phone. “Get your dog. We’ll do a quick hunt before dinner. It won’t take more than an hour.”
The time: late on a cold January afternoon in 2002—or thereabouts. The place: Patagonia, Arizona, an old mining and cow town where we spend our winters. We and our wives, Linda (Jim’s) and Leslie (mine), are to leave for dinner at a local cafe at precisely 6pm (Harrison is fiendishly punctual). Although I am not in a mood to go quail hunting, I persuade myself that that is what I’ve been yearning for all day. Harrison’s friends call him “The General” because of his uncanny ability to get you to do what he wants to do.
I reflect on this as I wait for Jim to pick me up. There was the day, some years before, when we were at his cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where he was working on a novel whose protagonist jumps naked into a river intending to float downstream into Lake Superior. Jim wondered how that would feel, but admitted that he lacked the nerve for such hands-on research. Would I be his guinea pig and report the physical sensations to him? I saluted, stripped, and dove in, informing him upon my return that I had suffered near cardiac arrest, felt as if someone had driven icepicks into my temples, and experienced a shrinkage of you-know-what so severe that I could have won the title “Mr. Grape Nuts.”
Shortly after the summons to go hunting, Jim arrives at my house. I load my English Setter, Sage, into the back of his Land Cruiser, where Sage’s aunt, Jim’s beloved Rose, is nestled. We drive out toward Temporal Canyon, in the foothills of the Santa Rita mountains, a labyrinth of canyons and draws as complicated as the human vascular system. The trip takes half an hour, during which Jim smokes half a pack of cigarettes while we talk about food, sex, and money. The food topic-du-jour is, if I remember correctly, oysters. I boast that I set my personal record in New Orleans, consuming three dozen. Jim, whose motto could be “Nothing Succeeds Like Excess,” scoffs. He’d once gone mano-a-mano with twelve dozen and survived.
We come to the area The General has chosen. He tucks the Land Cruiser into a turnout off Temporal Road, and we head into a side canyon, the dogs ranging out ahead.
“We’ll hit a ranch road, and follow it back to the main road,” he rasps confidently.
Usually, I carry basic survival gear while hunting: compass, waterproof matches, flashlight, water bottles, and a foil-like “space blanket.” Because this is a short jaunt, I am free of such encumbrances.
Sage and Rose point a covey. I shoot one bird, Jim another. The dogs pursue the single birds. We follow them, winding up in a corridor between 100-foot walls. It is now approaching 5 pm. I ask, “Where is this (expletive) ranch road?” Harrison scratches his stocking cap, screws up his face, and says, “I don’t know.”
The light fades. It grows colder (turns out the temperature dipped to 16 degrees). We trudge down one canyon after another. Night falls, and I do mean falls, like a shroud. A moonless black. The General commands me to climb a snowy ridge to get an approximate fix on our location. Scaling this ridge is beyond him, because he is a dedicated adversary of physical fitness.
Up I go, down I come with the news: I have no idea where the hell we are. We do know that these canyons are pitted with old mine shafts. To go on would be to risk falling into one, so we resign ourselves to spending a miserable night, if we live.
This is when Harrison’s nicotine addiction rescues us—he has a pocketful of Bic lighters. We gather brush for tinder, I drag a fallen tree trunk to the pile, Jim flicks his Bic, and pretty soon, half the tree is ablaze. Now the danger is that we will start a forest fire. We solve this by clearing everything burnable within a ten-yard radius.
Fairly soon, we are comfortable, cuddled up with our dogs.
“We’ll need something to eat,” rumbles Harrison, the famed trencherman who once devoured a 37-course lunch lasting 11 hours “We’ll roast the quail.”
After a prolonged discussion, we decide to save the quail till daylight, and share a root-beer candy that Jim has stored in a pocket.
The dogs suddenly grow alert. A few seconds later, a nearby mountain lion emits a half-cough, half-retch.
“It’s only throwing up fur balls,” The General proclaims. “Just like a housecat.” I clutch my shotgun in one arm and embrace Sage with the other.
Some hours later, we hear the throb of a helicopter.
“Are they looking for us?” Harrison asks.
“It’s probably Border Patrol after drug smugglers,” I say, gloomily.
But then the chopper begins to circle overhead. Our wives have called everyone but the Coast Guard, we will find out later; a psychic has been consulted to determine our whereabouts (she was wrong); bloodhounds are sniffing; friends and sheriff’s deputies are combing the hills. Our fire is easily visible to the chopper’s pilot. A spotlight sweeps over the canyon bottom—the pilot is looking for a safe landing zone, of which there is none.
“Phil! Run out there and fire your shotgun at them so they’ll know we’re here!”
It is now time for the Private to disobey The General. “You idiot! If that is Border Patrol and I shoot at them, they’ll hose us down with machine-gun fire!”
The helicopter lands on a ridge high above us. Two young Arizona state troopers descend on foot.
“Are you Philip Caputo and James Harrison?” asks one.
“We are,” comes my sheepish reply.
The trooper informs us about the search parties, and that he and his fellow officer have radioed our location to an Arizona Fish and Game ranger seeking us in a jeep. He can follow a web of trails to our impromptu campsite.
“You can wait for him or climb the ridge and we can fly you out,” he adds.
The General looks at the steep ridge, rising in the blackness, and lights up an American Spirit.
“We’ll wait for the jeep,” he says.
Watch: A few months before Jim Harrison’s death, Grove Atlantic associate publisher Judy Hottensen was able to spend the day with the award-winning writer.