Far & Away

It had been since May that I reached into the wild places.

The spring had passed into summer, the rains soaked the earth and brought bright greens to the horizons; the heat never really became oppressive, not like last year was, so I kept saying to myself that I needed to get away.

But the rains had not fallen on those low-slung hills north of here and I was sure that my beloved creeks suffered. This was verified in late September when a friend passed by one of these streams and sent me a cellphone photo of a mostly dry creek bed, only a few pools of still, dark water visible.

I had not even renewed my fishing license when it expired at the end of June. Lack of flow up north, weariness and a short supply of enthusiasm kept me too firmly rooted to my chair in my living room.

But a couple weeks ago the need for wildness won out. It was the last week of the government shutdown. My pal and I wanted to head up to a creek on federal land, but so far as we knew we might not have access. The shutdown ended on a Wednesday and we took off the next morning, he from the east and me from the south to converge on that beloved sliver of wildness, hoping it had revived with recent rains.

He called me when I was still about an hour out to tell me that the barricades and signs were still up; no entry allowed. I went on anyway, met him at the road leading down to the stream and we debated what to do. The barricade only sat on one side of the dirt road, so we decided to venture down and see what we might find.

We came to a closed gate on the end of the road, just fifty yards from the stream. We stood there with a laid out map on the tailgate of my truck, considering where else we might find access, before deciding that if the veterans could storm the World War II Memorial in D.C., well, we would follow their fine example and commit an act of civil disobedience ourselves and go fishing.

Deciding we would park the trucks in the pine trees, we were just about to embark on our rebellion when a government employee showed up to open the gate. Saved by the bell.

We drove in and parked, immediately saw what 16 days of shutdown had reaped. They hadn’t emptied the garbage containers when it happened, and there was a slight odor of decay. The camping area was covered with leaves, huge branches down and two trees fallen over campsites. It was absolutely silent save for the rustling breeze in the canopy of green above our heads and the sweet, welcome sound of water flowing just below the ridge. Not much water, just a fraction of its full health, but it was there, and we were grateful.

As we rigged fly rods, I looked around the expanse past the blacktop parking area and thought this would be how it would look if it returned to nature. If we quit coming here with our fly rods, others with their tents and ice chests, nature would eventually erase all sign that we human beings had ever been here. She would rust the metal into dust, cover the asphalt and cement with rich soil, tear down the wooden fencing with rot, eat the nails with the acidic soil beneath the pines, regrow herself until a passerby might not even know there had ever been anything back beyond the edge of the woods.

We never saw another soul that day. We fished nearly two miles down the creek, and we hardly saw any fish, either, but that was fine. This creek is a fickle mistress; lovely and tempestuous, flirting and deceitful; promises all but surrenders only the occasional peck of a kiss. I love it because it is unpredictable, and I continue to court it because it is irresistible; hidden in deep pine woods among hog-backed hills and smooth-shouldered ridges where gray stone peeks from the bones of the earth, and its blood is clear as diamond and cold as space.

Downstream there were no footprints and not a hint of trash; a mile later, picking up a few small fish here and there, I thought that if the parking lot where the trucks awaited our return was a glimpse of how nature might erase the futile efforts of mankind, this is how nature unfolds when left alone. In the nearly seven  years I have been going to these places, sand bars shift and relocate themselves, filling unfathomably deep pools and scouring out others; frustrating us by filling in gouges and undercuts that nearly always held a fish or two, or washing out a hundred yards that had once been only ankle deep. High above our heads, what first looked like birds’ nests in the trees, fifteen or twenty feet up, was in fact debris snagged by branches when the creek had been in flood stage over the winter.

My fishing bud and I sat on a fallen log, wet white sand in our shoes; we sipped a fine highlands from a silver flask and I let curls of Dominican tobacco waft around my head, swept downstream by the breeze. Our voices were the sole sound not contrived by wood and water, wings and four-legs. Our fly rods leaned against spindly shrubs, drying. We talked of things gone by since we had last spoken, last met on this magical creek, as old friends who have grown so much older still tend to do.

Five months gone by yet I felt as if I had never left; that’s because though nature is always changing, one thing about it remains constant: The belonging and the saturation.

I wish I were there right this minute. I’ll bet the leaves are turning now, drifting through the air, carpeting the forest floor, rafting up on the creeks, in shades of brown, red, orange and yellow. I’m sure the water’s raging now with last night’s deluge. There might be a few big branches fallen in the winds of the front that came through, and the dry, brown leaves already fallen might be tumbling along the sandbars and stones. I might look out over the creek to a pool of slack water and see the gentle rise of a little pumpkinseed perch or a small bass sip something off the surface, rings expanding like the universe spreads itself out into infinity.

Here I am fact rather than parenthesis, Roth Tewksbury told Harry Middleton of the Great Smokey Mountains. I understand. I understand what he meant so very, very well. My life, like Tewksbury’s outside the wild places, is a series of parenthesis. Brackets. Each set contains responsibility, duty, obligation, wishes, dreams, escapes, passions, pity and regret. Brackets of time. Out there, I am fact. The fact of the trees, the waters and the rocks reaffirm for me that I, too, am real, not a blurred dash from street to street, meeting to meeting, a hardly visible specter racing from the grocery store to the gas station to the bank and to the office.

My eye is on the prize, and I’ll get there, in time.

1 comment to Far & Away

  • Gary Flats Dude Henderson

    And you will….make it there. Nice stuff, Rog. I can see that place. With my heart and mind.

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