Journeys
February 2
5, 2009

By Roger Emile Stouff

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Ė Lao-tzu

There is, just beyond the demarcation of winter and spring, an undiscovered country awaiting.

Hamlet pondered death as his undiscovered country; Gen. Chang dubbed it the future. It can be both, and it can be a land never set eyes upon.

Yeah. I know. Here we go againÖ

My need for wild, open spaces has reached its seasonal crescendo and with it, a sort of dénouement: Thereíre no such places left in Louisiana, really, except to some extent maybe the basin. Much as I love that watery expanse, itís not what I need right now. I need earth and rock under my feet, I need fast water and tall windswept hills. I know: "Catch a grip, Stouff, go sit in a park and feed the squirrels." You just donít understand, but I donít blame you. Itís hard to understand how it feels to be suffocating within concrete walls, withering under fluorescent lights, crippling myself on hard, hot asphalt and inhaling death at traffic-jammed intersections.

So the conversations began with the brother of my soul last fall. It began as an inkling, a notion toyed with over a cold one. Before long, idle chatter became earnest longing, and not long after that, the rudiments of a plan.

"Better do it now," I said dismally.

"Before weíre in our wheelchairs," my brother agreed.

Possibly, to some of you, the notion of two forty-somethings discussing approaching immobility is funny. And it probably is. But there are, likely, fewer years ahead than there are behind, and when I think of that for too long, I get daredevil, something Iíve never been prone to before. I want to fish the Horseshoe on Abrams Creek, what a park service staffer said was "the most dangerous mile of fishing in the entire Smokey Mountain National Park." Such declarations, two decades ago, would have sent me scrambling for cover. At forty-something, it makes my eyes glassy and my breath shallow.

But thatís later. For now, my brother and I share the need for wilds, and the only place we can get a facsimile of that is far from here. We talk about it across telephone lines between here and Jena, our need for wildness dancing instantly across the miles back and forth between us. We each study our maps, and we make notations and we both realize that the district of the national forest just northwest of Alexandria is only about 30 miles square, and the recreation areas and campgrounds abound with tourists and locals when the spring comesÖbut there are expanses out there where there are no trails, no roads, and hopefully, no other human beings for just a small niche of time and place.

It started as just an inkling. Wouldnít it be nice ifÖ? How it began to have a life of its own is not so mysterious. It was inevitable. Slowly it gathered its body around itself: A new compass, though I already have three; endless scouring of the ĎNet in search of the perfect daypack for hiking and fishing; a package arriving in the mail containing the blank to build a seven-piece fly rod, packing down to 15 inches, perfect for travel. These manifested and found cohesion to each other, and before I knew it, a "plan" had materialized both in my mind and in my little piddling room where I keep my fishing and outdoors gear.

I bought some hiking pants. Itís hard for me to find cargo-type pants because at five-four and with a ridiculously short 28-inch inseam, I usually end up looking like Bozo the Clown in cargo pants. Searched high and low until I found a couple that were, at least, not so baloonish, though not as well-fitting was I would like.

But I tried them on, stood looking in the mirror, at the widowís peak above my forehead, rapidly disappearing itself, and the puff in my midsection. Forty-something. Fine, forty-four, dangit. Not so bad. But the knees are going. Donít even mention the eyes. Whatís forty-four? Half a lifetime, really. More than likely, by the family history.

What to do with the rest? If I lived elsewhere Iíd have a house with a porch facing the Tetons, or Smokeys or Sierras. But I donít. What I have is the basin and those rolling, low-slung hills northwest of here.

I donít know what it is within me that longs so achingly for places devoid of people except those I choose to be with there. Some say itís my Indian blood boiling, and maybe it is, as my father and I spent almost all our free time in a little wooden boat at the back end of black-water canals, alone. I donít know. I spent a decade or so trying to fit in: Married with kids, responsible, well-dressed, a little home where the neighbors were scarcely twenty feet on either side of me. Failing heartily at this, I retreated to the basin and found solace.

When you are on the river, ocean or in the woods, you are the closest to the truth you'll ever get. Ė Jack Leonard

What is it? This stirring, this unquenchable need to be far and away. Where does it come from? Itís not that I donít like people, heck, some of them are good friends of mine. Itís not that I donít appreciate my creature comforts. But itís a thirst, a hunger. Itís a little spark that begins deep down in my solar plexus and burns hotter and wilder until I swear it will consume me, that Iíll burst into flames here in my office chair, if I donít flee to some place wild.

I wish it could be satisfied by, say, football. Or golf or the gym or joining a health spa. But it canít, so I donít bother with them. God save my rotten little soul, Iím addicted to water and hills and stone. It used to just be water. Leave it to me. Now itís hills and water and rock and spotted bass like little survivors in their cold, moving water out there in the forests. Spotted bass, like wild trout, require certain conditions to prosper, to even survive. They are habitants of moving water mostly, preferring rocks and sand to mud. Take them away from this, or bring urban sprawl too close, and they do not flourish. Doomed. Doomed, I tell you, and they canít survive civilization any more than I can.

Those streams are jewels. I love my stillwater bayous and canals here at home. But those snaking, white-shouldered streams, rolling over sandstone terraces, chortling and chanting, those are the finest of gems.

Oh, how I envy you, you who can survive in cities and great seething convergences of people! Admire your courage, to confront all this, day after day after day, without faltering. I mean that genuinely! For I canít do it for long. I falter. I fail, and I am injured by it all. If there were no journeys to wilds, I would die here, old before my time, stricken with despair.

I sat there and forgot and forgot, until what remained was the river that went by and I who watched. On the river the heat mirages danced with each other and then they danced through each other and then they joined hands and danced around each other. Eventually the watcher joined the river, and there was only one of us. I believe it was the river. Ė Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It.