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I’m not a because-it’s-there hiker. I hike trails for a reason—fishing.
Some trails are old friends, and I know every bend and rise. Others are infrequently traveled, and, occasionally, some are new and exciting. I like the confidence of a new trailhead, before the uncertainty of the hike and the fatigue at its conclusion.
Tracks on the trail tell me all I need to know, like who’s here, who’s been here, what the weather’s been like, and which way to go at the fork—the other way. Smooth footprints belong to fly-fishers—old-timers still bitterly clinging to their felt-soled waders. Patagonia’s distinctive tread belongs to wet waders, and road apples and hoofprints are left by elk hunters scouting the fall hunt.
Sometimes a trail is blocked by downed trees or rockslides, forcing you to blaze a new trail. You think about going back for the axe in the bed of the truck and wonder if it’s worth the hump. It usually isn’t.
Some trails peter out on hillsides leaving you ledged up with no way to go but straight down. And some vanish on scree-strewn slopes and you have to decide if the destination is worth the risk—it usually is.
I bet I’m a real pain in the ass to hike and fish with now; I’ve heard rumors it wasn’t all that in the first place. I can’t push to the top like I used to. I sometimes have to stop, take aspirin, and wait for the pain in my chest to subside. I haven’t used the nitroglycerin pills yet. I’m too far from civilization to use them, as I’m unable to follow the second step of the instructions for their use—dial 911.
On steep climbs I have to stop every five minutes to get my breath and let my heartrate go down. I don’t mind. It gives me a chance to look around. I see in greater detail now. I’ve already seen a chipmunk and lizard that I’d’ve missed last year. The lizard bobs, checking the world out with a high-low visual.
I approach nature with more thought and patience, but only because I have to. Otherwise I’d still be moving fast, head down, ass up, face set in a determined grimace. I no longer observe the yearly ritual of keeping a few fish to remind myself of the original purpose of fly-fishing. (In some circles, that alone plants me firmly in camp with the highly condensed Pains in the ass.) Anyway, I’m not sure I have time to be screwing around like that. You Know. I don’t want to show up at my next gig with shit on my hat.
When I finally get to the creek, I spend as much time resting as I do fishing. But that has its rewards—I catch fewer but bigger fish now that I’m not churning up the creek in a mad dash to nowhere. I doubt I’ll be able to sell anybody on my new modus operandi, though.
It’s mid-summer, and long grasses are turning brown. Some wildflowers have gone to seed, others are just starting to bloom. The aquamarine slopes are covered in blue sage, and the smoky tree line is a mix of the soft green of aspen and the hard green of pine. I stop, pull leaves off sage, roll them in my hands, hold them to my nose; it’s the freshest smell in nature. I rub some on sunburned lips. (It’s not good for sunburned lips—I just want to taste it.)
A robin hops along in front of me keeping 10- to 15-yards ahead. When I stop to lean on my stick and get my breath, he waits for me. He stays with me for over a mile until we reach a fork in the trail where I head downstream and he heads up. He stops and looks back, waiting on me. I wave to him and thank him for his company. I’ve hiked with less companionable trail mates. I’m sorry our paths diverged. I hope I’ll see him again on the way out. Thanks to him I’ll remember this trail.
Trails are memorable for any number of reasons. Once remembered they’re mine, and I travel them anytime I want . . . in my mind. Next winter, when rumors of remote-cabin ax murders are whispered through the frozen valley, I’ll hike this sun-bathed summer trail again with my friendly escort.
I can see the creek below me now. This stretch looks promising—sun sparkled riffs, shadowy, mysterious bend pools. I’m breathing hard from the climb and wonder if I’ll be like Moses—allowed to see the Promised Land . . . but not allowed to get there. I’m down with it. I don’t have a choice, having reached an age where early-morning hours are spent trying to do yourself a solid—there’s the way things should be, then there’s the way things are. Most of the time they’re not the same.
I scan the sky for thunderheads and the water ahead to judge flow. The deep snowbanks that highlighted the ridges until the fourth of July are gone, and the water runs clear after the melt. I read the fast water for feeding lanes and study a beaver pond, hoping for the ring of a rise. I’ve been accused of watching for a rise in mud puddles. What can I say? I’m a fly-fisherman: in deception lies victory; in rhythm, harmony; in water, life. I’ll check the beaver dam for hiking sticks on the way out. I give them away. People genuinely seem to like them. The beaver cuts have chew marks on the big ends and are always the perfect length. How do they know?
The creek reflects a cloudless sky before plunging into a narrow canyon, a deep cut with sheer cliffs on each side. I can see whitewater below, leaping, frothing, and boiling into a glittering wall of sound. I’ll make a crossing to the trail that bypasses the rocky walls of the gorge and skirt the rim of the little narrows to the waterfall . . . there’s a trail I remember there.
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