The seven men formed a shadowy circle amid the dense pine trees in the Idaho high country, faces profiled by the campfire, minds lulled by the rushing waters of nearby Moose Creek. Big Bill Stephens hunched over like a black bear as he recited a short story from his youth. The fragrant aroma of popping pine needles mixed with the pungent, earthy smoke of Montecristo No. 2s and Avo Pyramids.
The group welcomed the descending cold as the temperature dropped to the high 30s, a chilling change from the sapping 100°F heat of the south Texas summer day we had left only that morning.
Seven tents stood among the Douglas firs; as many fly rods leaned against the tree trunks, ready for use at daybreak. A row of gleaming Harley Davidson motorcycles were corralled nearby, their custom paint jobs reflecting the brilliant light of the star-filled sky.
Appreciative applause greeted Stephens as he concluded his reading, and then the talk turned to cigars. A 1963 Dow Port, decanted earlier, made the rounds. Avos, one of the men asserted, might be the best cigars made today, and the most consistently rewarding non-Cuban. The Montecristos, another declared, were a robust, complex smoke that would never be mistaken for a Dominican cigar. Wasn't it time to lift the embargo? someone asked, passing the Port.
Later, as I crawled into my tent, I asked myself: Why doesn't everyone just go fishing?
Premium Cuban and Dominican cigars and vintage Port? Fly rods, Harleys, and a fiction reading in the great Western wilderness? Who are these guys?
Their leather jackets identify them as members of Los Compadres, a group of hardcore Harley riders from San Antonio. Most of them also belong to Cigar Solamente, a small smoking club tucked into a former art gallery a few blocks from the historic Alamo.
Actually, the men around the campfire are some of San Antonio's most successful businessmen: the head of the nation's 12th largest grocery store chain, the owner of Texas-based brake repair stores, the publisher of the San Antonio Express-News, the second-largest newspaper in the Hearst chain, a lawyer/real estate developer, a noted ophthalmologist. And there was Stephens, the Express-News' wine critic, and myself, an Express-News editor. Seven boys, aged 40-something to 60-something.
Money was no object for most in the group, but forget posh Caribbean cruises, golf pilgrimages to Scotland, or tours of Europe. The boys wanted fun and adventure.
That's why we decided this year's foray would start in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for some of the best fly-fishing in the West, and then proceed to Sturgis, South Dakota, for the annual Black Hills Harley rally, a gathering of tens of thousands of hog riders from far and wide.
With the journey still weeks away, anticipation grew. Practice casting sessions were held, endless trips were taken to San Antonio's Tackle Box Outfitters to talk fishing and buy flies. The Harleys and camp supplies were loaded aboard the chase truck and trailer and sent ahead to Jackson Hole. Fully Clingman, the grocery store executive, simply couldn't wait. Pleading a business trip, he snuck off to Idaho and spent several days with a fishing guide, fine-tuning his presentation, seeking an edge.
Stephens handled the packing of 10 cases of wine. I handled the cigars, carefully packing nearly 200 smokes into our "travel humidor"--the largest Tupperware container I could filch from my kitchen.
We brought plenty of Avos; a pricey smoke, for sure, but favored by many club members for their consistency, quality workmanship and good flavor. We took finely rolled pyramids, No. 3s, No. 5s, and No. 7s, and plenty of Petit Belicosos, which for the money are about the best "morning cigar" available: short, smooth and flavorful.
We also included some excellent Zino Veritas, my favorite big smoke of the trip, and a few other assorted Zinos. Another flavorful, yet mild, small cigar, the Macanudo Vintage No. 3, represented the only Jamaican smoke to make the cut. Best of all, we brought Cuban-made Montecristo No. 1s and No. 2s, Cohiba Robustos, and Hoyo de Monterrey Epicures.
"Those Hoyos were the best of the bunch, hands down," said publisher Larry Walker. Who argues with the boss? Anyway, the guys smoked them all before I could get one.
Cigars in hand, we turned to the next order of business. Fly-fishing friends suggested Bressler Outfitters, a blue-ribbon guide service based at the Orvis shop in Jackson. Dave Miller was the best, they said. He proved to be a friend as well as a guide, working tirelessly to make our trip a memorable one.
One day we fished the spring creeks in Star Valley, Wyoming, on property owned by Lee Perkins, who built Orvis into the world's premier retail fly-fishing outfitter. High grasses and still waters made sight casting a singular challenge. Fish on hook were few, but each was a story.
John Peveto, who owns the brake shop empire, outfought and then released a brook trout that easily topped two pounds. Stephens, fishing with an heirloom bamboo rod, landed a 21-inch cutthroat.
Later that day, it must be reported, I landed a slightly larger cutthroat while fishing with my delicate 7-foot Hardy packrod. It was one of the best trout I've ever landed, and the first time I've gone splashing and galloping down a spring creek in pursuit of a big trout.
The high point was a two-day trip down the South Fork of the Snake River. Everyone caught and released their share of trout, but this was more than just fishing. Save for the occasional passing strangers, we were alone as we moved in drift boats downriver, each boat separated by a mile or so of water and manned by a guide with two men casting.
Overhead, a pair of bald eagles stood sentinel in the tall cottonwood groves that grow along the riverbanks. An immature baldie struggled to the rim of its deep nest to peer down. Red-tailed hawks and vultures soared above, and cedar waxwings swooped through the air, feeding on swarming mayflies. A juvenile beaver swam alongside our boat, then somersaulted away.
We stopped to fish trout-rich gravel bars, and then moved on, floating silently through narrow, vertical canyon walls, past dark caves and layers of limestone, shale, sandstone and volcanic lava formed tens of millions of years ago. Miller peeled back each layer with quiet, informed discourse, a primer on the region's geology and history.
That evening we floated into Bressler's walled-tent camp. Gathering around the campfire after sunset, we lit our cigars and uncorked a fine blue agave tequila. Under a brilliant night sky, we went toe-to-toe with our guides, most of whom by now had accepted our offer of a cigar. Each person told a story or joke, each speaker finishing with a tipple from the bottle.
I'd give the edge to the visitors, especially two unprintable jokes told by Walker and Stephens, each honed by years of telling. None, however, could top Art Medina, the eye doctor, and his memories as a young Mexican-American boy living near the border. He recalled watching his elders wrap a severed cow head in burlap and bury it in an underground mesquite fire, smothered by dirt, to make delicious smoked barbacoa.
There were other fishing experiences, but after five days the bikers had to push on toward Sturgis. Miller led us north through Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, and up to Chico Hot Springs, Montana. There we celebrated five glorious days of fishing by renting a mountain view cabin, soaking in hot mineral waters and enjoying the legendary cuisine at Chico Hot Springs Lodge.
The ride east through Little Big Horn Monument, the site of Custer's ill-fated last stand, was every bit as dramatic as we had hoped, even after passage through the national parks and Montana's Bear Tooth Mountains.
By now the roads and highways were thickening with other Harley riders, all converging on Sturgis. Dressed in leathers and bandannas, unshaven and roadworn, the boys from San Antonio blended in, just another bunch of hard-core bikers. Only one detail suggested they were different: This was the first time I ever saw men ride Harleys while smoking premium cigars.
Boys will be boys.
Bob Rivard is the managing editor of the San Antonio Express-News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.