The following essay was written after a day spent contemplating the course of one’s life, the boulders we run by, and the songs in between.
I’m going fishing today. I went fishing yesterday. And the day before that. Maybe the day before that one. I can’t remember. Fishing is the only thing I know to do, like hunting and writing. And making a mess of things; mainly by doing what I’m not supposed to do, like holding down a real job. My dad told me once that he never wanted to do what he was supposed to do. But what the hell are we supposed to do? And who decides this? Our parents? Our God? Our government? Our spouse? Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Parents neglect children. Spouses cheat. Governments do both. And gods? They’re mysteriously ambiguous, like the rainbows that won’t take my fly. I tied it just for them. I know they’re there. I can see their outlines. At least I think I can. Maybe it’s the clouds.
So, I go fly fishing and listen to the river. The more I walk and the closer the sound gets, the more I forget about the civilized world that scares me into lethargy. If I sit indoors long enough, I’ll believe there’s a grizzly around every tree. There isn’t. There are only dog tracks and sneaker prints. I walk until both are gone.
Then the river, finally in my view, bigger than I anticipated, a long slow stretch. A fish rises, and I forget about the email that’s probably in my inbox - the one telling me my account is overdrawn. I tried to blame my wife but it wasn’t her fault. We needed groceries. The kids eat like wild hyena’s. Like I did at their age. Now, I scour my Chik-Fil-A app, waiting for free treats like a crackhead on the corner of what used to be and what is. There was a time I never looked at my bank account. That was years ago. It was full of money. I was a consultant. Telecommunications and enough acronyms to make a Silicon Valley lifer reach for a shot of tequila. The money flowed like the river I fish now. The river I couldn’t touch because of time. The time I traded for money.
“The life of every river sings its own song.”
Now it’s all I have. Time to worry about making this month’s mortgage payment. Time to figure out which gun I’m going to sell to pay the hospital bill. But not today. Today there is only the thought of Salmonflies - those wonderful big bastards that bring accented Alabamans to Idaho. I talked to two of them on the water. They said they “slayed em.” I never saw them catch a damn thing. John Gierach was right. All fisherman are liars. Especially strangers from Alabama.
I should explain. I gave my life to writing. Jim Harrison told me to, so I did. This was in a book, not in person. He died after I read the words; before I could thank him for them. It cost me. I quit my job. Almost quit my marriage. But the hell with all that. This is supposed to be a fishing story.
The Stoneflies don’t erupt. Just a handful of scattered showers. I catch a 14-inch brown that feels four inches bigger than he is, bigger because of the current and because he’s the first fish of the year - an embarrassing but glaring fact. Some days I only hear the noise of regret, like heavy metal music. Somedays I throw line in the water, but my heart isn’t in it, enthralled instead, in debt. Somedays I only stand and watch the churning run-off. This winter’s record snowfall is really putting a pisser on my spring fishing.
I catch two more rainbows and two more whitefish, all small but rejoiceful in hand. Three boats float by, all guides with clients, some jovial and interacting, some apart and rigid, the guide apparently hungover and the client not yet allowing himself to be instructed by the pimple-faced twenty-something with skin darker and younger than his own.
The world is a float trip down the river to hell and we can only choose to be the guide or the client.
Maybe that’s a little grim. Maybe that’s the overdrawn bank account talking.
Still, it doesn’t bother me as much as not catching fish. When I go fishing and don’t catch fish, I am an angry and inconsolable lout, usually quick to drink and always quick to quibble. But when the fish rise, I am lifted. I find myself singing. There is hope again. Maybe the manuscript will get picked up after all. Maybe the kids will go to college. Maybe we won’t have to sell the house and downsize. Maybe I won’t have to go back to flame retardant blue jeans and safety glasses, a balefully uncomfortable combo. Or maybe I’ll sink everything I’ve earned or been given into this dream. That’s what they call it. But a dream is something you wake up from. This is a fire. It’s forever been burning in my gut and I can’t snuff it out. Every time I move a little closer, it enlarges, consumes me. I try to run away, but you can’t outrun your stomach lining.
“We are all fishermen casting into foam. We catch one or the other.”
I stop when the fish stop. I sit awhile on the bank. I’m the only one in the canyon which is rare on this river, especially during the Salmonfly hatch. But this spot isn’t on any map. It’s off the main road, can’t see it from the center line. That’s where I try to put my fly. On the center line of foam twisting south. The foam carries bugs and hope.
We are all fishermen casting into foam. We catch one or the other.
There. That’s a little less apocalyptic.
I sit on the bank and watch the forest sun work its way over the west side. I pull out A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. He tells me that “The life of every river sings its own song.” I understand this and agree. I can hear the notes swimming by. I can hear the buzzing Salmonflies too, what few and terrible fliers there are. I hear the song known only to this river and this canyon. I don’t know it as well as some. I haven’t been raised alongside it. But I can hear it nonetheless.
Then Aldo reveals: “But in most the song is long since marred by the discords of misuse.”
I look down and see the beer can, flattened and faded by time, far from erased. It will be here forever unless I pick it up, which I do. The mark of man is here, littered throughout the topography, and there’s little I can do about it. What a day it must have been to hike this trail when it wasn’t one, to cast to these fish when they had never seen mockery, to watch this river flow for hours and never see thrust upon its shoulders a litany of ballooned vessels - all filled with the bureaucracy of money and imaginary lines. The men that float it want to take something from it. I guess I do too. And although we both use numbers to measure the day, I can’t help but feel that I am here for purer reasons. I like to think the fish I catch are more appreciated, more reveled. But that’s only the vainness within myself. Maybe I don’t want to admit the sad truth – that I’m the problem. My boots leave tracks just as impressionable as the ones I try so hard to avoid.
“I am an eagle standing on top of boulders listening to music…”
I make a few last casts at the bend, my backpack laborious on my shoulders, the bear spray unreachable, my fear evaporated by small mayfly shadows and trout wishes. I stand on a boulder the size of a small camper, the kind pulled behind almost every Subaru Outback and Toyota Tundra zipping up and down this National Forest. But I can’t hear the noise anymore. I can only hear the river song. I move my arm and hand and sorrows and feel the melody of the monofilament. I watch my backcast, and behind the thin green strand, I see the canyon water. The sunlight trickles down and the water trickles on. The rocks push it one way and gravity moves it another. The trout dodge somewhere underneath, waiting for morsels. I step to the last perch, my torso and body leaning over a deep pocket. What a good bath and swim it would it be. But the tremors are gone. I am an eagle standing on top of boulders listening to music, the rhythms of the casts, the cadence of the currents, the notes of lips breaking surface bars. The fly lands where it does, and no fish takes it, but something watches it go by and thinks about striking. I pick up and reel in. I step off the boulder and my feet hit the trail. Back to emails and debt. Away from music.