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Fly-fishing is my excuse for getting into the high country and away from people. Antisocial? . . . Maybe. I prefer anti-bullshit.
In the high country, I don’t have to listen to it, watch it, and digest it to form bullshit opinions based on it. In the high country, nobody’s trying to sell me gold, insurance, reverse mortgages, or magic pills—telling me my life sucks because I don’t have two bathtubs and erectile dysfunction—while warning me to seek immediate medical attention should I get an erection that lasts longer than four hours . . . right. (I’d be calling The New York Times first.) In the high country, nobody’s trying to sell me blood-pressure medication with side effects: “Heart failure that could result in death. . . . And erectile dysfunction.” (I think I’ll just let the high blood pressure play out. Thank you very much.) In the high country, I don’t think about those poor bastards below who sell all they’ve worked for to buy $750.00-a-pill extended life. No thanks. As much as I’d like more time to enjoy cutthroat trout, fall colors, and mountain streams I refuse to prolong the process of bucking out in order to enrich some greedy flatlander.
In the high country, I can be where neither the bull nor I matter in the overall scheme, where my pathetic interpretations of the beauty around me fall short of reality, where the blank canvas of my mind as I stare at snowy peaks outlined against a hard blue sky with no thoughts invading the landscape is reason enough to have made the climb. And now that I’m a seven on a scale of one to dead, I regret not having come to the party sooner.
I regret wasting over nine years of my life on active-duty service to an ungrateful nation. I regret wasting my youth chasing the dollar, trying to conform in a society based on greed and stuff while wishing I was someplace else; I just wasn’t sure where that was until I came to the mountains, felt at home in their wild places, and learned to reap the reward of solitude’s solace. I regret wasting so much time chasing tail when the love I needed was better provided by a good retriever. I don’t hate people, I just prefer the company of a good dog. There’s no bluster or pretense to them, and unlike people, who put conditions on love—I’ll love you no shit till you get old, fat, and bald . . . or I run off with Mr. Buck Naked—they love you unconditionally . . . no matter what kind of an asshole you are. Oh, I’ve got human friends, but not many. My father told me I needed at least six friends, as it took six to carry your coffin. But I realized that I could be cremated and cut that number down to one—which took a lot of pressure off me. The mountains, retrievers, and trout give and ask nothing for their lessons on love, humility and unselfishness.
In the high country, I found something of spiritual value. At first it seemed to be always just on the other side of the creek, just on the other side of the mountain, just on the other side. But after making a few crossings and topping out on a few trails, I found it. It was humility. And I found that o-plenty.
I couldn’t be anything but humble while wondering how the hand of time formed mountains, watching a flash flood bear down on me in a burn-scared canyon, or holding the throbbing colors of a cutthroat trout in my hand. In the high country, I’m a passing shadow in a state of grace with no value other than compost, and I take comfort in that.
Why fly-fishing? Fly-fishing keeps me from becoming a mountain-top-monk in sackcloth and ashes. And treble-hook dredgers, corn soakers, and stink-bait aficionados were conceived without benefit of clergy—and my parents were married. That’s why.
Fly-fishing is honest; you have to do so many things right to catch an honest trout. Trout rise honestly to the fly, respond honestly to the set of the hook, fight honestly for their lives, and honestly haul ass when they’re released. When fly-fishing, I’m the deceiver. But it’s not the same as deceiving a trout with a gooey glob of stink bait. And although fly-fishing is based on deception, I find it a much more honest pursuit than most other human endeavors.
In the high country, there’s no cell service, and I make it a point not to tell people where I’m going (mostly because I never know myself). I usually go alone; the quiet beauty of the mountains is companion enough. I’m alone, but never lonely—there’s trout, birds, and ghosts for company, and laughing streams, whispering aspens, and distant echoes of lost loves for conversation.
I learned at an early age what I perceived as tangible, permanent, and necessary were shadows that flittered away in a moment, never to return, hard to remember once gone. But human beings are narcissistic. We think our shit matters when it doesn’t, not really. We all go out the same way we came in—with our ass hanging out (ask any funeral director). Nothing matters to the mountains, and that’s the point. That’s what I learned fishing mountain creeks and finding the rhythm of a handmade fly rod, a rhythm that seems in tune with the bubbling streams, pulsing cutthroats, and beating of my heart. I learned patience, as well, fishing for the mountain’s little creatures of color. I take time, close my eyes, listen to the sound of water, smell the bitter scent of pine, and feel a fresh cleansing deep inside. But it’s too much to ask for a clean soul at this point. . . . I’ve learned honesty, too, you see.
I learned to hate the flatlands with its loudmouth political pundits— “great Americans” who must be congratulated on their cheaply purchased patriotism. I learned to escape the guy who needs more fiber in his diet, the guy who tells me I’m uninformed and my money will soon be worthless and I need to buy gold from people who will gladly take my soon-to-be-worthless money in exchange for that gold. They care nothing for mountain streams that have no gold but the spawning colors of native cutthroat. They don’t care if trout have water to live as long as they have water to grow pistachios and brew beer, as long as they make enough flapping their jibs and selling gold to afford the next trophy wife. But they don’t understand me any better than I understand them.
I didn’t want to work, work, work until I dropped dead in harness—like my father. I got tired of doing labor that enriched others and left me living hand-to-mouth. I walked away, working just enough to finance my addiction to fly-fishing and high-country trout. And the rich got richer without me. Realizing I didn’t matter was liberating; I was free to turn my back on the well-worn path to mediocrity. Mediocrity seems an impossibility in the high country, where nothing is mediocre.
In the high country, I find no evil. Oh, bear will eat you, moose will stomp you, and unpredictable mountain weather will kill you—if you’ve got your head up your ass. But none of that is evil. Evil, as I understand it, is greed and must be manifested by people. And when I’m away from people, I’m not exposed to their evil, not exposed to those who worship the brass bull in New York City, or tithe at the big-box chain store. In the high country, I can still find places resource raiders haven’t pillaged, but that’s only because it isn’t cost-effective to do so, or they would. And they will.
I was never able to strike a balance between my spiritual needs and the requirements of society, so I chose solitude, trout, and mountain streams. But there’s more to that story. And I won’t bore you with it, or do injustice by presenting a one-sided version of events that led me to that choice. In short, I’d made a mess of human interactions and reached a point where I had to cut bait or bail. So I bailed.
Of course there are times when I wonder what my life would’ve been like had I stayed in play, cured a disease, built a pyramid, or developed a more destructive bomb. But I’m glad I didn’t.
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