My 1999 Honda CRV got broken into in front of my apartment in Eureka, California. The robber broke my window and crawled in, unlocking the door and taking all my possessions. I had just returned from a weekend backpacking trip. I lazily put off unloading the car until the next day, full of camera, backpacking, and fly fishing equipment. Among the items were an Abel 3 reel and a R.L. Winston 7”6” three weight. In total, all was estimated to be around 4500$ worth of gear. 

I quickly bought a replacement window from a junkyard, but the damage was done and the hits just kept coming. I was driving about 90 miles a day, and my high mileage CRV was beginning to shut down. Broke, I swallowed my pride and called my parents to not only help with a down payment for another, better vehicle, but to also open their doors in Bozeman, Montana to help me get back on my feet. I was 29 years old.

I made it the 18 hours to Montana where my dad was happy to take the CRV and turn it into his drive around town car. In the meantime, I selected a 2010 Subaru Forester AWD with a 5-speed manual that I would make my own.

Summer was about to break and I needed a job. A quick craigslist search boasted landscaping positions for as far as the eye could see. With a quick offer, my summer schedule blessed me working four, ten-hour days and having three days off. Once that was settled, the focus shifted to my Subaru and my plans to explore the Blue Ribbon Trout streams of the state that I grew up learning to fish on, while slowly building out my car to live out of and quickly move out of my parents threshold. 

Monday through Thursday I was out moving dirt around with a skid steer, planting flowers, and getting cooked in the Montana summer sun. Then 530 Thursday afternoons, my three-day window opened to disappear into the wilds of Montana’s backcountry. 

Shifting one gear at a time, I ended up calling my Subaru, Cruella, from the 101 Dalmatians because inside the driver side door, next to the door handle were huge gouges clearly made from a woman’s ring finger. The dealer told me it was a retired elderly woman who sold the car, and the name seemed appropriate. That summer, Cruella and I explored each fishable body of water, every trailhead, and showed up every Thursday night to campgrounds to ensure my spot for the weekend. 

When winter hit, things changed. Alcohol abuse showed up without warning. I had always been a drinker, but never thought it was a problem until Labor Day, ending my summer explorations with the first snowfall of the season. 

I got a job working on a snowplow where I was able to sneak away to the coast between snowstorms and chase steelhead from Washington to California. But I’d return and not only come back to depression and drinking, but still back to my parents house, whose support is still grateful but not healthy for a 30 year old. 

I began my process of becoming sober, but relapsed constantly for over a year. Returning to my landscaping and snowplowing job during this time until I got fired from the first and only job ever to do so. Drinking may have been the reason for the dismissal, but with each sober streak in the future meant binge drinking after the relapse to make up for it. And the keys were always in my pocket. 

I was never someone to show up at a bar to consume. I was someone who stopped at the gas station and filled up on beer and wine and hit the river or a quiet place in nature. Free from judgment of family or strangers and nothing but my drunken thoughts and beautiful scenery to keep me company. And Montana wasn’t the only place I practiced this.

With trips to the coast, I drank and drove from Bozeman to Portland as well as had an open container for the length of California’s treacherous Highway One. All with Cruella, almost driving and shifting on her own with a drunk, depressed lunatic behind the wheel. 

That next October, it all fell into place. My parents kicked me out over a year previous, and I successfully finished a season working as a guide in Yellowstone National Park. I finally found rhythm in the riffles, and the only liquid I needed was the one that held trout that I casted out to. I loaded up my built-out Cruella, and hit the road. With my tip money from summer, I used it to explore new places, new rivers, and new coastlines up to Washington in time for the winter steelhead season. 

Realizing the money spent on booze could now be used on gas money and gear, it fuelled me to stay sober and keep exploring. I had a small built out platform in the back that I could sleep on, and a simple pull-out-drawer system that had a mini stove. On top of that, I could put my Yeti cooler that held enough food for a weeks worth of fishing. 

With a clear head and vision for what was up ahead, my recovery was fueled not necessarily by the gas pump filling up Cruella, but by time on the water, casting to my pleasure at each season that allowed me to do so. Winter was brutal in that I still crashed at a family friends place to hide form the frost and darkness of the snowy Montana winters, but there was light in my disappearance to the coast to swing for steelhead. In the spring, summer and fall, I would delve into the trailhead parking lots, boat ramps, and campgrounds, casting out under the big sky and waiting and watching with each hatch that erupted on the water.

The campfires inspired the imagination and the countless dirt roads to nowhere kept me wandering what was up ahead. Overtime, Cruella began to take some injuries, and first was the infamous head gasket that Subaru’s are notorious for. The next, she limped from California back to Montana not wanting to shift into fifth gear. She underwent surgery a few times, but like many of us post-op, she continued wagging her tail pursuing those dirt roads next to bodies of water that she loved so much. 

Over time, as we both grew older, she began to show sluggish signs. She still loved to hit the road, but there was mileage, over 200,000 to be exact. Many of those were dirt roads, some that even trucks and jeeps driving around town have never seen before. 

She began to show signs while I also began to be restless. I loved my lifestyle of guiding in the park while living out of a car so I could disappear and fish other areas during my off-season. But at 6’0” and 190 pounds, I was desperately wanting something bigger to hold my frame comfortably. 

An opportunity at work offered an old work van and the price was too irresistible to pass. I remember handing the cash to my boss, and a weird feeling of almost like I cheated on my girl grabbed hold of my gut. Considering she was parked in the parking lot, it was a hard pill to swallow. Like having an old dog that was more attached to its bed than the puppy jumping up and down your leg. So I left Cruella to her dog bed in storage and grabbed my new puppy to hit the water with. 

The memories have always been there and will never be forgotten. I am considering not selling her in case one day I have land that I can park her on and use for a little town car. But even now, building out my new van and turning it into the ultimate fishing rig for my desires, it still isn’t as convenient and versatile as Cruella. She got great gas mileage, was small and compact, easily fit into the most annoying grocery store parking lots, and inconspicuous. No one thought I was living in her. Her all-wheel-drive was incredible; handling the ice covered Montana roads, the washboard dirt roads of Baja leading me to roosterfish, and even had enough clearance to ford some high water floods that have hit the Yellowstone region the past few years.

I’ll never forget the past of drinking and driving and my regrets of those actions, but somehow Cruella kept me safe and got me to my destination. While most importantly, not hurting anyone in the process. She literally helped me get sober, offering me a place to stay to work on myself and focus on healing with each cast on a stream she drove me to. I’ll never forget the tinder date where we rolled around in the back of Cruella, all for me to pick my date up and land her on one of my new fly rods and breaking the tip. And she drove me to the coast, consistently for five years, and pointed me in the direction of my first wild steelhead on a swung fly.

Even now, sitting in my van where I built a desk writing this article, I cant help but reflect on how many stories she has been part of. How many photos she has been published in and how many times she has helped me get to where I am, confident enough to write about my past with her. Even articles with Flylords that I have been so fortunate to consistently write for, she has starred in many of them. 

She is now the old dog on her dog bed, but like any old dog, she is a joy to come home to and snuggle up on the couch. The puppy will inevitably be up to no good in the kitchen or chewing on some other idea ready to pounce when the opportunity arises, but the old dog and I can look back and smile, knowing that what we went through will be a great lesson for the new pup to discover on her own.

Article written by Sean Jansen @jansen_journals. Sean Jansen is a freelance writer for Flylords Magazine, and spends his time in Bozeman, Montana where he guides tours through Yellowstone National Park.

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