Caress

Oct. 7, 2009

Sometimes, things just get entirely too tight. I get drawn taut, stretched thin, and I can’t quite determine where all my enthusiasm has gone, but I know it isn’t there anymore. The spring in my step is a drag, my feet shuffle rather than stride.
   Little by little, the sundry thorns of day-to-day life prick and sink through flesh into blood vessels, working their way to my heart. It’s funny how I don’t realize they are there. Like debt, the stumbling blocks and snags of life don’t hurt until you notice all the bruises and lacerations.
   It’s odd little things that make me realize I am teetering on collapse. All the rains a couple weeks ago sent water rushing along Teche Drive to the bayou, and the sight of it made me oddly happy. That’s when I knew
   There were obstacles, but by day’s end on a Saturday I knew I had vaulted them. Hasty phone calls, last-minute preparations. Early to bed, early to rise.
   The sun is ascending later…by dawn I was passing through Alexandria. Half an hour more and I turned off the sprawling concrete spine of interstate and before long found myself on Longleaf Vista Scenic By-way, surrounded by pine trees, rolling hills and spectacular views, by a flatlander’s standards.
   The road to the creek is ocher, long and unpaved. Recent rains left it rutted and in some spots soft. I couldn’t complain. Only because of the rains was this pilgrimage possible, and with hunting season near, it would be the last until spring.
   A total of an hour out from Alexandria, I  drove the remaining couple hundred yards to the parking lot. It’s not much of a complex, by park standards: A place to park cars, some picnic tables, grills, sidewalks, an outhouse and trash receptacles. But this is a national forest, not a park, so catering to the public is not priority.
   My fishing partner was there.
   “We got water?” was the first thing I asked.
   “Yep,” he grinned. The last time he was here, the creek  was nearly dry, though I believe it continues to flow under the sand and rock. “Looks good.”
   I hastily strung up a fly rod, threw my shoulder bag over my torso. There at the bluff, the creek sang.
   I’ve said that to you a millions times, I guess. But until you hear it, you don’t know what I mean. Even from the parking lot, I could hear it chortling, delicate music, a symphony of water, sand and stone, a melody old as the ancient hills the stream had cut through for so many millennia. Oh! The joy that sound brings me. I could stay there within hearing of its voice and its lilting melody for the rest of my days.
   There at the recreation area, the creek  hurls itself over sandstone terraces strewn with small boulders. It’s a more than twenty foot drop down the bluff from the rec area to the stream bed, and the creek  fans out over this remarkable emergence of rock with fingers of coppery, clear water.
   We worked our way upstream gingerly, and the cool water rushing over my shins had already begun to pull away the thorns, dislodge the bumps and stumbles garnered since spring, the last time I sank my sandaled feet into the creek's cleansing flows. I caught three pumpkinseed perch right at the rapids in a deep pool at the bottom of a small fall. The flow was fast, and fathomless.
   Walking the sandstone, with water rushing over my legs, is at once precarious and uplifting. There are three sets of terraces, with shallower runs between them, ending at a deep, wide pool where we each caught a couple of spotted bass. These cousins of the largemouth bass don’t grow large in small streams…a two-pound spot is a very nice bass. The largest I’ve heard of was three pounds. But they are saturated with a wildness I can feel through the fly rod, an unbridled passion for cool, running water and no hint of concrete and steel. Their powerful flanks fight with the essence of antiquity, they struggle against the tether with the passion of all things wild and unspoilt. They are in every way my favorite species to fish for.
   At the pool, when we were done there, we climbed the bluff at a feeder creek bed that’s only wet during significant rain. We followed the trail to the next bend and back down. There’s another short terrace there. Scott went upstream and I went down a bit, but we found no fish willing to take our flies.
   Though it takes far less time to write it than to do it, by then we were ready for an early lunch, after which we headed downstream. The other visitors to the rec area were starting to show up, and we were eager to get away from their chatter.
   Downstream the creek becomes less hasty, it’s flows slowing over white sand, and every turn of the stream has a wide beach. The rock is there, but mostly gravel, with the occasional suitcase-sized boulder visible. Scott caught the best spot of the day there, and we both landed a couple more and tons of pumpkinseeds.
   There is a gnarled old cypress in the center of the stream here; its root structure is two or three feet out of the streambed, though I’ve seen it covered to the trunk with sand on some visits. It reminds me how nothing is in stasis here. The creek is constantly changing, shifting sands, rolling rocks, pushing blow downs of tree trucks along its meandering transit south. We reached a deep pool we couldn’t find a way around, and the bluffs were too steep and wet from rains to climb, so we worked our way back upstream toward the recreation area.
   The recent arrivals had settled in with ice chests and folding chairs. We could hear them long before we neared the rapids. Whooping and hollering. I don’t understand it: Go to a pristine forest, with the steam composing symphonies from chords and notes older than time itself…to sit three feet from each other in a circle and yell at the top of your lungs.
   For as long as I live, I will never understand people. I will never understand the horrific little things at this creek  that I try to forget. Though they are few, the occasional beer bottle, foam ice chest, strand of monofilament fishing line a dozen feet long…all are reminders to me that people are incomprehensible. Scott and I walk out of it  with every bit of trash we might have thrown overboard: Broken leaders, cigar cellophanes, flies mangled by eager fish, empty water bottles…everything is in our pockets to be thrown into the trash receptacles at the recreation area. Once I waded up to my bellybutton when I snagged a tree limb on the opposite bluff and the entire nine-foot leader came off my fly line when I tried to break the fly free. The sand was shifting treacherously beneath my feet, but I would have suffered damnation if I had left that mono hanging there for some wildlife to become entangled in.
   We sat for a time, watching the river flow, listening to its song. The bluffs were high, high above our heads.
   “Can you imagine how long this little stream has flowed here?” I wondered aloud, more to myself than my fishing companion.
   “A long, long time,” he agreed, and we admired it, greatly, for its steadfast resistance to civilization, to hollering partiers and relentless lack of conscience.
   Later, we shook hands and pointed our trucks home. I breathed in as much of the pines and the hills as I could before I hit the concrete, then on to the interstate. That was it, until spring. Soon the hunters will flock to the hills, and the forest will be blasted by shotgun fire for squirrels, turkeys and rifle shots for deer. I don’t disdain them their use of the resource, so long as they take their waste out with them. I doubt many of them do, but perhaps a few will decide it’s worth the slight extra effort. To leave no trace, except a footprint.
   Then I am rolling down the concrete spine again, and the semi trucks roar past me, and the dashed line becomes a blur, but already I am dreaming of spring, when I can go back to that little river, a stream in the forest, and feel cool water cleanse the dead cells from my shins, feel the firm stone, the sand shift under my feet and the tug of a wild, unfettered fish in the grip of my rod.
   Rivers. I am happiest on rivers, and shall seek out their company – their gifts – to the end of my days.