Word count: 985
I stare at the painting—a mountain stream dressed in autumn colors— reading the water and planning a cast. My dog presses against my leg and I whisper to her of summer’s promise. The mountains have been silently filling up with snow for months, and the backcountry canyons that I love lie hush and dormant. The headwaters are frozen, in some places all the way across, and the trout are hugging the bottoms of the deep pools in a state of near suspended animation. My neighbors have taken down their Christmas lights, and the dumpsters overflowing with cardboard and colored paper have been dumped. The prospect of getting invited to a holiday meal is gone. Fly-lines have been cleaned, rods wiped down, leaders built, and flies tied. But the trailheads won’t open for another month.
On clear days, cottony clouds hang close on the mountain tops, and I can’t tell where cloud stops and snow begins. The khaki cliffs have reddish brown streaks, but I’m not sure if I see them or just remember them. On the benches, snow and cedar create a black and white landscape. The closer ridges are aviation green, the fields by the house, subzero brown. But snow storms can hide the mountains from view for days on end.
During the perpetual twilight of winter, I look each morning to the mountain’s slopes to gage the depth of snow, and in the mirror to gage the depth of sanity. Come Spring the snows will recede and sunny days will return, but the return of sanity is always a crapshoot.
The wind moans, blasting snow against the window above my desk, rattling loose panes, muffling the ringing in my ears. I can’t sleep and have a four pill headache. The distance between the clock’s chimes seems endless, and the short, dark days go on forever. Afternoon shadows creep toward me from the corners of the room, whispering black laced memories that threaten my mind. The chemicals that balance are thin.
When the days are dreary and short, the dark thoughts come, floating just under the surface. Life’s digestive juices tug at my thighs as I cast waterlogged flies that sink into their murky depths. Out of season anglers who fish the dun waters of the mind must avoid creeling what they catch there and hold the digested fragments of their minds at arm’s length before tossing them, like worn out flies, back into the dark currents to be swept away. Maybe that’s why I’m a dry-fly fisherman: the dry-fly holds my attention on the surface and keeps me from looking too deep and getting pulled under.
Some would say that my obsession with fly-fishing is at the root of this state of mind (clinically known as seasonal affective disorder) that I call the shithouse blues, but fly-fishing actually healed my broken mind and saved my life.
When I told my ex that I wanted to move west to good fly-fishing country, she told me that she didn’t want to leave her friends. It turned out that it was just this one friend that she didn’t want to leave.
One night I was sitting on the edge of my bed staring at the forty-five that was lying on the nightstand. Beside the pistol was a book about a life devoted to fly-fishing, bright mountains, and clear waters. I was only half way through it and decided to finish reading the book. By the time I finished reading, I determined that my soul needed an enema, and that a life dedicated to fly-fishing was preferable to an eternity of cosmic dust. I hand carried the paperwork through the court system, turned everything that wouldn’t fit into the back of my eighteen-year-old pickup into cash, loaded up, and headed west.
I drove straight through, stopping only to gas up and grab cups of coffee. My ex said that I ran away from our troubles, but she wasn’t there that morning the snow covered peaks of the Front Range rose from the prairie floor and I first locked eyes on them, when I leaned forward and gripped the steering wheel with both hands and had to remember to blink and breathe, when I was afraid it was all a dream and the mountains would vanish and I’d wake up back in that urban hell next to her. I wasn’t running from anything, I was running to something—life.
The closer the mountains got the faster I drove. I couldn’t wait to start living that life I had read about. By noon of the second day, I was camped on a creek in Utah, a hundred miles from nowhere, a thousand miles from trouble. Deep in that Rocky Mountain backcountry my flatlander problems vanished. I could breathe again. It felt like home.
Some look on fly-fishing as a metaphysical exercise, as if salvation may be found in its rhythms. I do hope that is true. But I suspect that the sport’s redemptive powers lie in the places it takes you and how they are received and remembered. So, I tuck those colors, scents, and sounds into the pink undigested folds of my brain. They are the floatant that keep my phantom flies of winter dancing on the surface.
When the days are short and dark, and mood is indistinguishable from sky, the puddle of light from my desk-lamp and my memories of shining mountains, sparkling water, and glistening trout hold back the shadows and keep the demons banished to the corners of the room. I stare at the painting on the wall, and Phantom flies tightly wound with hackles of hope dance on sunny streams of memory. I catch and hold shocking colors, feel the sun on aching shoulders, hear living water, and smell mountain air. The gloomy days melt away with the high country snow, and the season cycles.
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