Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Vested Interest

When I cannot find a certain piece of my gear, anything able to be toted in one hand, there is one place I begin my search.  Actually they are many, many small places, but they're all bundled up in the same area.  On the coat hooks near the back door here hang vests.  Fishing and hunting vests abound, with a couple more street-wise (read: clean, not full of fish goo and partridge feathers) fleece items for staying in town.  Those two have red W's on them instead of camouflage patterns and duck blood.

There were so many vests cluttering up the joint, I handed this classic down to Spanky.

I don't know how all these vests took over, but there they are, no room left for coats or hats.  They have become permanent residents on the landing, and show no signs of leaving.  I suppose that makes it a vest rack, not a coat rack then.  I do try to clean them out after a trip, but some relics are always left behind in the many tiny pockets it seems.

So, when a headlamp or gaiter comes up missing, for example, I make like a Leakey, and commence with the digging.  There are as many pockets per cubic foot of space hanging from those coat hooks as anywhere else on the planet, and some interesting finds can sometimes be made.  Often, I find the odd bits of detritus that fit together to weave the story of the last hunt or wade.  Food crumbs and wrappers.  One of those cheapo multi-tools you sometimes get for signing up with another outdoor magazine or organization.  A wader repair kit, years past usefulness. An exploded tube of sunscreen.  A discarded fly, stuck mysteriously to the inside of the collar.  I once found a perfectly preserved little mushroom in the chest pocket of a fishing vest where I normally keep my camera.  As far as I know, it grew there.  I have no recollection of how it might have gotten there otherwise.

Another time I found a scrap of folded paper containing a two-word note in my own jerky scrawl.  It said, "Cat library," and to this very moment I have no idea on earth what I was writing about.

 This vest is a testament to organization.  It also proved that a granola bar is still edible after a year inside it.

It's always an enjoyable time going through Pandora's Pockets, almost like looking at an old journal.  There's more than a couple dessicated planks of forgotten jerky in there.  The vests are filled with memories.  As I walked by them the other day, I saw the tag end of a wadded-up leader hanging out of one of the pockets.  I'd jammed it in there weeks ago after it snapped off on a big fish, retying a new one mid-current in a huff.  It seems silly now, to get enraged on a perfectly good stream because a nice fish broke you off, and that wad of balled up monofilament reminded me in passing, once again, that fishing is supposed to be fun. 

This all started for me with a vintage Eddie Bauer down vest.

Actually, it wasn't vintage then, it was just a vest.  Come to think of it, even if it had been, we didn't call things "vintage" then, we called them "old" or "hand-me-downs," and didn't really think about them much after that.  My dad gave it to me after years of faithful service from his own closet, rusty ocher over burnt clay.  Or I bet that's what the blurb under the heavily bearded model in the catalog said.  It was the chromatic equivalent of walking around as a giant cat turd, and I loved every minute I ever spent in it.  I dare say, I might have felt sexy as hell for the first time in my life, peacocking around the woodlot in that vest as a teen, no audience other than my velcro Vizsla, Happy.  We didn't call them "rescue dogs" back then either, but that's what Happy was, and seldom has there been a more fitting name for a canine companion.

We outdoorsy folk don't do much down and nylon in the vest realm anymore.  Some city people do, but they call them vintage or retro now, and that's not my gig, really.  When you've shredded the front off the original number hauling firewood with your brother, wearing its clone over a $90 flannel to the bars as a token of style just seems disrespectful.  I don't know to what or whom (lumberjacks, hipsters, Mr. Bauer?), but I know it ain't right.

I am still, however, a practicing vest aficionado to this day.  What can I say?  They make me happy.

I also transfer the little sticker off every apple I eat onto the last one in the group, until the final survivor is sporting a full, apple-y chest of badges in memory of his fallen brethren.  Sometimes I whistle "Taps" as I peel them off to eat that one.  I love truly awful sci-fi movies.  Stuck at a stoplight, I'll close one eye, line up a bug splat on the windshield with random objects and people, and make pew! pew! pew! laser gun sounds as I fire away in a valiant effort to save the galaxy.   What we're driving at here, is that vest love rests among the least concerning of my idiosyncrasies, I believe.

I go fleece over down now, in a layering vest, mostly because down sucks when it gets wet and I'm not stuck in a John Hughes movie.  And because Windstopper fleece is one of the greatest inventions of man, as far as I can tell.  The Donner Party would've been gorging on San Francisco sourdough come spring, had they been armed with vestments of the breeze killing polyester pile.  And some more food, I guess.

It's important to know what makes good vest food.  While I love my step-mother's secret recipe for deviled eggs (it's all in the horseradish and shallots, I think), I would never carry them around in a vest.  Disaster waiting to happen.  You need something firm and compact, something that will stand up to a little battering.  I stow jerky and mini candy bars in my vest for much needed bursts of energy.  I've probably devoted hundreds of hours to perfecting vest sandwich construction.  Not so much ingredients as architecture.  Things have to be assembled in such a way that the tomato doesn't get the bread mushy and the home smoked chicken thigh meat doesn't squirt out the side into the baggie.

The choice of the bread itself is integral in the construction of a solid pocket sangwich.  Too crusty and it will quickly be rendered dust around roast beef in the gyrating machinations of scrambling through blackberry brush after a fast flushing dog.  Soft white bread will often be mashed back into a doughy consistency through the same action.  Toasting can also make a difference to structure of the vest hoagie.  It may help keep the bread free of the effects of a gloopy aioli, but it can also make things too tough to chew on the wrong loaf.

As far as the perfect pocket sandwich goes, I prefer foccacia or ciabatta for the foundation.  They're already flat and bring flavor to the game, so I don't have to spread too much more on.  Fillings vary, but I always like some roasted red pepper in there, maybe some pesto if I have basil or have recently gathered sorrel.  And any good melty cheese.  I don't own a panini press, but if I have time, I do like to toast and smush between a couple cast iron grill pans before I toss my lunch in the vest.  You're almost guaranteed an indestructibly delicious slab of game pouch grinder at that point.

Superstitiously speaking, I do not like to have the meat of the fish or game I'm chasing in there.  That just seems like asking for karmic kick to the jewels.

Aside from the world of outdoor Dagwoods, I have two go-to vest lunches in my arsenal.  These are the ones that get used most often.  Firstly, the simple combination of an apple and a slab of cheese.  The apples because I do the majority of my vest wearing in the fall when the apples are plentiful, fresh, and snappy delicious.  The cheese because, well... it's cheese.  I don't care if it's ear-curling 18 year cheddar or my old pal, creamy mellow muenster, if I can hack it up with a pocket knife and pop it in with a slab of Honeycrisp, I'm in.

Next, a less universal choice.  For me, kipper snacks are the ideal vest food.  I love smoked fish, and they're already in a tin perfectly sized for vest carry.  It's a match made in heaven.  Although, I have discovered you can break a tin open with your ribs of you fall hard enough while crossing a creek, and nobody wants to smell like smoked herring the rest of the day, so be careful out there.

Lunch in bird season: lamb stew and reloads of kippered herring tins for the vest.

Of course, it also depends on what you can fit in your vest of choice.  Like fish and people, vests come in all shapes and sizes.  

As a fly fisherman, I'm often guilty of serious over-gearing on the stream.  I don't know if it's the product of the huge vest I often wear, or if I bought that vest because I knew I'd be carrying the kitchen sink.  Either way, in the age of demure little chest packs and tech savvy lumbar bags, I still slip into a hoss of a flyfishng vest, and I like it that way.  I fish what are considered huge ugly (in the good way) flies for fat fish, and I want to have a lot of them at my disposal.  The Camelback with room yet remaining for rain gear and lunch may be extraneous, but I can barely stand the thought of separating from them now.

I am able to pare things down to a chest pack when using a spinning rod for some reason.

They vary in size and carrying capacity, all these gear carriers.  The turkey hunting vest with the cushy stadium seat, is the most spacious of all.  Festooned with pockets on every possible surface and a game pouch seemingly large enough to carry a small antelope, this is the big mama of the local vest population.  I even used it to hunt turkeys once.  Most of the time it does double duty squirrel and coyote hunting.  That wonderful seat may have lent itself to a few too many woods naps, but I hold no ill will toward it.  Sometimes a man has to fall asleep under a tree for a while or life stops making sense.  

I lost a coyote call for over year in one of the million pockets on that turkey vest, then it floated back to the surface like a buoy lost in a sea of camo as I sat down to watch for squirrels one day.  It felt even better than finding cash in last season's coat pocket.

At the other end of the vest demographic, we have my favorite.  It's the classic, minimalist strap vest from Filson.  Two pockets in the front, one game pouch in the back.  That's all she wrote, folks.  It's light enough to wear all weekend through the thickets without a second thought, and spacious enough to carry all the shells I need, along with an apple or some fortifying smoked fish.  And it does double duty for me.  I intentionally bought the one without orange so I can wear it when I just want to amble down the bank of a creek, and collect a quick wood duck dinner.

It's the barely there vest.

Someday I will be organized enough that as each trip afield winds down, I'll take the time to clean out my vest when I hang it on it's designated hook.  I don't know in which universe this miracle is going to take place, but until then, I will continue to enjoy the treasure hunt and archeological dig that is trying to find the damn range finder in all those acres of pockets hanging on the wall.

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