EARLY IN THE MORNING ON THE FIFTH OF AUGUST, I start north out of Casper up the east flank of the Big Horn Range. The prairie is green on account of a wet spring and a storm in late July. My course will take me passed Sheridan up to the town of Ranchester, where I catch a route through the mountains. Once I’m over the summit, I plan to head north one more time, across the Montana border, and onto a dirt road that leads to a canyon with Ram’s Horn Creek stirring at the bottom.
While I’m driving I take note of the hawks perched on fence posts and telephone poles. Hawk number seven swoops toward the ground, but I lose sight of him as he drops into the sagebrush. I assume he found a field mouse or a prairie dog. It makes me wonder what hawks think about when they spot their prey from above. Do they see tender leg muscles? Do they begin to imagine the taste of a heart? I bet they do. Why wouldn’t they?
I ask myself, “Why don’t I think along those lines?” I do not think of food when I see animals. Sometimes I skip breakfast when I’m on a fishing trip. Even with hunger pulling at my attention, when I catch a trout I do not see fillets. I admire the form and the colors. Then I put the fish back in the water. When I flush pheasants from the brush beside a creek, I do not think of drumsticks as they fly away, and when I see cattle in a pasture I don’t picture them as cheeseburgers. We are not the same as other animals.
My friend Beck believes that we are driven to fly fish by the forces of biology. He claims that we are no different from any other predator. In his mind, it is an inborn lust for blood that drives us to lakes and rivers. For years, I sat in the passenger seat of his pickup, listening to stories about how our choices are determined by nature. Finally, I said, “Beck. I do what I want. I do things when I want and how I want. I’m not driven by anything.”
He didn’t like that. He appreciates the thought that his fly-fishing habit comes to him as a primordial instinct. I am sympathetic. I want an explanation for why I spend so much time up to my waist in moving water, and the biological explanation is easy, but I know it’s not the truth.
I take a left onto the road that meanders over the Big Horns. The climb to the top is drawn out over 20 miles. I take my time on the switchbacks. The views get longer as I twist up the east slope. When I reach the summit, the road straightens and tracks off to the west.
I make a stop. Before the road bends down toward the lower elevations, it runs within two miles of the Medicine Wheel. The site has been preserved by the managers of the Bighorn National Forest. Curious travelers park their cars and hike to the edge of a butte where native people placed stones on the ground in the shape of a circle. The form is 65 feet in diameter. A second circle marks the center of the wheel, and the center is connected to the rim by 28 “spokes” or lines made with rocks set into the soil.
Historians and anthropologists have spent generations trying to assess the meaning of the wheel. The spokes align with astrophysical patterns over the course of a year. There are spokes that point toward the rising and setting sun during the solstices. The total number of spokes corresponds to the lunar cycle, and there are spokes that line up with stars like Rigel and Sirius.
Even so, the intent of the wheel’s creators has been a source of contention. No one knows who built the circles and their motivation is unclear. Crow elders can only offer that the site was built by people, “who had no iron.” It turns out there is a chance that the Medicine Wheel exists in its place and shape because the builders liked its looks. “Aesthetic reasons” has been offered as a rationale for its size and location. Standing alongside the stones — staring 200 miles into the distance — that speculation feels on target. It is hard to imagine that people built the wheel because they were biologically driven to place rocks in circles at the edge of scenic overlooks. It’s even tougher to see how instincts could have played a role in producing any of the meaningful things that we created over the course of humanity — music, philosophy, or the great works of literature. Through art we transcend our biology.
Last year I served as a member of a panel convened to discuss the subject of writing about fly fishing. I sat at one end of a table. To my right sat a hero of mine, Ted Leeson, well-known for The Habit of Rivers. To his right sat another hero, John Gierach, famous for Trout Bum and a dozen other well-regarded books. When the presentation started, each of us talked for 10 minutes about the process we go through when we write stories or essays. As the low ranking member on the panel, I spoke first. Then Leeson addressed the group, and Gierach finished the presentation. We left 30 minutes for questions.
The first person to raise a hand directed his comment to Gierach. A man in the front row asked, “Why fly fishing?” I sat there thinking, “Thank you.” I imagined that I was going to hear our guru address the fundamental issue that we face.
Gierach stared at the ceiling for a second. A room full of fly fishers waited with anticipation. He looked back at the audience. Gierach turned his gaze to the person who posed the question. Then he said, “It’s pretty.”
I wasn’t the only one thinking, “What?” I could see it on the faces in the crowd. Fly fishing is “pretty?” While I pondered the answer, Gierach talked about the first time he saw someone cast a fly rod. I thought about the first time I watched somebody casting, knee-deep in a mountain stream. The beauty struck me, too.
Fly fishing is not the most effective way to catch a trout. If you just want to put a fish in your net — you carry a carton of worms to a local waterway. Everyone knows that live bait works the best. But here we were, a crowd full of people who had disavowed the most effective way to catch a fish, because a fly line looks better. The Navajo are fond of the saying, “Go in beauty,” and Gierach is right. Fly fishing is at least one way that white people abide.
Leeson went next. He took the same question. He started with a story about waiting for a flight in the Portland, Oregon, airport. For five minutes no one understood his point. He painted a picture of the scene in the concourse. He described how he sat next to a woman, with a 2-year-old resting in a collapsible stroller. He explained that the child started crying when one of the airline employees barked an announcement through a microphone.
In response, the mother held up a quilt and stretched it in front of her face, hiding herself from the child. Every 10 seconds she pulled the blanket away. Then she stuck her face up toward the toddler and cooed, “Peek-a-boo!” Soon the kid was giggling and squirming.
It’s a scene we’ve all enacted. We have been behind the quilt, and we have been in the stroller. I wasn’t sure what that had to do with fly fishing, but then Leeson made a transition to talking about one of his trips to the Deschutes River. Once again he took care to describe the setting: swift water, peaks in the distance, a forest of larch and pine. He talked about flipping a blue-winged olive 40 feet upstream. He explained how he had to mend his line to make sure the fly found a sweet spot. He told us how the olive looked as it spun down the bank. As we listened to Leeson, we became children nestled in our seats.
Then he cooed, “Peek-a-boo!”
A redside trout attacked the olive. Trout don’t say “peek-a-boo” when they attempt to eat an artificial fly, but they might as well. We fly fish, in part, because we like surprises.
Gierach offered us beauty. Leeson gave us unresolved mystery and the pleasure that follows when something uncertain becomes clear. All I had to talk about was a modest childhood spent in central Minnesota. I grew up on a creek set in between a swamp and a hardwood forest. But I didn’t tell the crowd about the water or the woods, at least not in the beginning. I started out by asking the audience if they’d ever seen somebody look at a piece of scenery and say, “This reminds me of …”
Memories are uncanny. It is incredible what we can store and then conjure up in our minds, but the long record of people, places, and events creates a precedent, which we use to judge and then compare each moment we live through. For most of us, there are portions of our childhoods that are tough to follow. I spent summers wading and splashing in a stream beside my parent’s home. I took naps on the bank — me and the birds, fish, swamp grass and snapping turtles. No politics. No financial concerns. No knowledge of pollution, climate change or species extinction. Compared to adult life, our childhoods often shine like pure states of affairs, but they are gone. In the words of Jackson Brown, time is a “conqueror,” banishing the things we love into the past. We cannot get our youth back, but we can try, and I am not ashamed to admit that I do that with a fly rod in my hand.
I take one more moment to look at the Medicine Wheel. Then I hike back to the car and continue down the west slope of the range. After 20 minutes, I reach the road that ends at the mouth of Ram’s Horn Canyon. …
It takes a minute for my feet to grow accustomed to the water. The creek is freezing cold. It stings at first, but then I start to cast, and I forget that I have toes. Mayflies hatch on the surface, spread their wings and flutter in the air. The trout watch bugs from behind rocks and sunken logs. A splashing sound catches my ear. I look in time to see a brook trout arching back into the current on the downside of a leap.
I whip a cast along the bank. The rod arches and the bug lands upstream, but the fly does not have time to ride the current. It is hit by a brookie. His belly shines in the air as he rolls over, sweeping the fly underwater.
With my line in tow the fish makes a run toward a pool. He swims hard, but I pull him close despite his determination. Once I have the trout in hand I am quick with the hook, although, I take a moment to appreciate the colors on his sides. I ask the fish to forgive me for the intrusion. Even though I do not fully understand my desire to insert myself into the food chain of a stream, the compulsion is too strong to deny.
Two days before the trip to Ram’s Horn, I left the house at noon and rode my bicycle to a burrito stand. There were seven people waiting to place an order. At the counter, there stood four boys in their early teens. They looked like they had come from a soccer practice. Three men in business suits waited behind the boys.
The kids were wiggling all over. They were smacking each other and laughing for reasons that no one else could understand. The businessmen stood silent behind their neckties — faces resentful. As I thought about the distinction between the adults and the teenagers, it occurred to me that I was looking at the difference between wild and domestic human beings.
In the past, I have worn ties and worked 50 weeks out of the year. I know the effect that such a life has on a person. It’s debilitating, but it’s hard to stop. We yearn for homes and cars and clothes and sporting goods. Our desires trap us on the road to what we think of as success, and that road does not have an exit.
Sometimes, we drive into the weedy ditch beside the economic freeway of our lives. We do it because we know we gave up something when we became middle class. We know that something untamed still exists in the tall grass and sagebrush beyond the parking lots and close-cropped lawns. We fly fish, in part, because we all harbor a sense of loss.
We’ve seen fields of lupine bulldozed and paved into subdivisions. We’ve had to watch people we love grow old and pass away. We’ve read the reports that explain how pikas, marmots and polar bears are scheduled for oblivion. With all of the usual bad news on TV, we start to yearn. The feeling begins as a quiet longing, but it grows. We develop a need for sensual experience — the reality of moving water, jumping fish, tall peaks and quaking leaves.
We are the yearning creatures on this good green Earth. Hawks do not crave anything. Trout do not possess desires. Cats and coyotes long for nothing. We are different. We yearn our way into plastic, throw-away lives, and then we yearn for a way out. We yearn for beauty, for what is gone, for whatever waits around the next corner, unseen.
We might be kidding ourselves, with our vests full of gadgets, our brand-named waders, and our SUVs. We’re actors playing the parts available to us in our culture. Our society said, “Take a page from the screenplay of A River Runs Through It and head for a body of water.” When we can afford the costume and the props, some of us are happy to oblige.
Our actions are not forced on us by genetics, but there is a thirst that afflicts people that come of age in this country. For those of us with fly rod tubes in our closets, the longing appears as an urge to stand knee-deep in rivers, colorful rocks under our feet, birds chirping in the branches overhead, a light breeze carrying the seeds of cottonwoods — all of it thrumming to the rhythm of a stream.