Fishermen, Norman Maclean once wrote, are adept at reading the waters. They’re men with questions about what’s under the surface, behind that rock, around the next bend.
What’s much more difficult, he went on, is reading the waters of our lives, understanding how our stories are coming together and taking shape. Deep, the Proverbs tell us, are the waters of a man’s own heart. Fly fishing, then, is a thinking man’s endeavor. It’s serious business, the stuff life is made of.
“All there is to thinking,” Maclean said, “is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”
“All there is to thinking…is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”
Seeing what isn’t visible.
In many ways that’s the art of living wisely—seeing what’s there but beneath the surface; reading the conditions, the bite, the hatch, and seeing how our lives are coming together to form stories.
Walking through the thick timber, over a forest floor littered with downed trees and river stones, the memories return. As I ascend the mountain and venture deeper into the canyon from which the river is born, everything gets steeper, darker, the air humidified by the ever flowing life of the river.
Browns is a creek, actually, but having been born in the heart of a six-year-old boy it will always live as a mighty river because of the way it has carved itself into my soul.
Mount Antero looms over me like Mount Doom, except it overshadows me with a holy dread and a healthy fear. It is as many others a mount of transfiguration, a Sinai, a place where God meets his people and changes the very fabric of who they are. Large as it is before the eyes and under the feet, it feels biggest in the memory where it haunts, calls and breathes into my bones. It is a living thing, like the river.
The deeper I go, the more I realize what’s true of this river is true of me—it runs its course for thousands of miles to the ocean, first becoming part of a larger network of rivers that carve through canyon and desert wasteland and then joining the great mass of waters, and though it ran as fast as it could from the place it began, the journey is always homeward. When it was an ocean it died and rose again to the sky, only to return, frozen and transported, to its home country.
I left these banks, first for college, then seminary, then a job. The world raised its voice and cried for all to come, so I came. Over time its promises rang hollow and left me barren. When nothing was left but my aloneness, the roar of the river raised a better cry, a deeper and truer one. So I returned. Like Odysseus the journey homeward was an epic battle of its own, not easily won but worth the fight.
In the mountains the heat of the sun did its work again, melting and transforming the snow, and it was born again in the highlands, fresh and pure. Through death, ascension and rebirth a trinitarian transformation, from water to vapor to ice, and back again.
Decades ago I walked these paths, along this creek. I fished its banks with my father and brother. We’d race each other over the prize of finding that next hole, a potential goldmine of Brookies and cutthroats. As I first hear the roar of water, this small but mighty force working its way through rock and soil, I remember the sight of that first hole of the day, a solemn pool behind a wall of rock. The place where fish like these love to hide.
Now that I’ve returned with them, as well as my own sons, I am no longer the same. I don’t regret that, because I’m home.
A living thing, the water brings life to living things. Within it are the trout, which give me life in an equally mysterious way. To find where they feed, feel them strike, hold them in your hand—even to put them back—they tell the story the busy world can’t hear. Won’t hear. Doesn’t have time to hear. You can’t put a numeric or monetary value on things like these, so the world ignores them. The hidden waters, in places where few wish to go, are their home, as they are mine.
As a child along these banks I never thought the sweetest moment of my adult life wouldn’t be running from these waters, but returning back to them. I never thought I’d be away so long that I’d crave for them like a lonely mourner craves for a true friend in a crowd of empty faces. I never realized that the greatest journey I’d ever take was the journey home.
‘I never realized that the greatest journey i’d ever take was the journey home.’
Like Odysseus, I left for the battle but couldn’t stay away forever. The tarrying created a longing for my country that I could have never appreciated before I left. Places are not, after all, insignificant, a fact we don’t appreciate until we’ve left them.
The song, “Down in the Valley,” by the Head and the Heart, plays in my mind, pulses in my heart as I walk these riverbanks:
I know there’s California, and Oklahoma
All of the places I ain’t ever been to but
Down in the valley with whiskey rivers
These are the places you will find me hidin’
These are the places I will always go
These are the places I will always go
I am on my way
I am on my way
I am on my way back to where I started.
“I am on my way back to where I started.”
Norman Maclean wrote that he was haunted by waters, capping his epic short story about a father, a lost brother and their lives through which ran the river. I am equally haunted by such places, especially this river. I cannot escape it, just as I cannot escape the blood that runs through my veins.
The inescapable nature of these rivers, as well as the mountains from which they spring, is why I couldn’t stay in the Midwest. It’s why I tried, as best I could, to tell corporate America to go to hell—which is where it belongs, though I cannot tell which has destroyed more souls, it or hell.
In a world that spends every dime trying to convince us what we have is not enough, the river is enough. The mountains are enough. They are all clothed in glory, as am I. The God who made them and calls me son, He is enough.
There’s a passage in Job that I love. When I think about it, I wonder that God didn’t put the soul of a wild ass (donkey) in some men, for it seems to capture the essence of my soul, both as a wilderness wanderer and an ass:
“Who hath sent out the wild ass free? or who hath loosed the bands of the wild ass? Whose house I have made the wilderness, and the barren land his dwellings. He scorneth the multitude of the city, neither regardeth he the crying of the driver. The range of the mountains is his pasture, and he searcheth after every green thing” (Job 38:5-8).
God has made some for wild places, those who cannot stand the masses of the city or the confinement of artificial spaces. They cannot abide the crackling whip of a slave master, a corporate boss, a carpeted cubicle or a life spent beneath superficial light. His range is the mountains, and he—by God’s decree—is most glorious when seeking the green pastures of the hills.
A man cannot be free and happy until he finds the pasture which he was made to inhabit, his home, his country, his people.
“You belong among the wildflowers
You belong in a boat out at sea
Sail away, kill off the hours
You belong somewhere you feel free.” — Tom Petty