Berdon was his name. He was called “Birdie” for short by Tracy, his wisp-of-a-redhead owner who made his 14-hand frame seem like that of a draft horse. Tracy taught my sister and me how to ride; or rather, Birdie did on his bare back, thick with a bay winter coat. The first lesson began with no saddle, which should have seemed strange.
But the wonderful thing about being a kid is that you have few preconceived notions and you don’t realize when something isn’t going according to Normal. Things just happen and you go along for the ride because, well, there are usually snacks involved. Tracy’s philosophy, she explained later, was that learning to feel the gaits, to move with the horse instead of against, and to develop a sense of balance without the artificial assist of a saddle, would make us much better riders in the long run. And she was right, it did. We had to earn those stirrups.
Ten years later in a musty conservatory room lined with mirrors, as if to catch glimpses of the child-ghosts said to haunt the former orphanage, my classical guitar professor ordered, “Don’t use your right hand. Play scales using only the left.”
“You can do it,” Marc winked, making me feel like I could. It wasn’t that I had bad habits, per se—just not exceptional ones.
And that’s what we were aiming for at the conservatory—perfection—which came with heavy doses of neuroses mixed in, stirred to livable-levels with alcohol, drugs, beta blockers and bananas before a performance to calm the nerves. For weeks I concentrated on making the notes sound with the power and accuracy of each finger against the fret board, like the hammers under a piano’s hood, Marc explained. Capiche? It was supposed to stop my right hand’s antsy pants and the obnoxious buzzing that resulted. So I practiced hours and hours a day and my right hand got bored, but it did learn to wait, on that split-second that made all the difference (like pausing for a dry fly hook-set: so easily flubbed).
Now after ten more years, I find myself on high country streams rather than arenas and performance halls. Quick-dry pants and a notebook in my pocket rather than boots and britches or concert black (as if classical music was indeed something to mourn).
The small streams didn’t settle down until late June this year in Colorado’s high country, the snowpack was so high. I walked along them anyway though, up drainages and down, runoff roaring in my ears like the sea in a shell. Once the torrent of whitewater cleared to defined pockets and pools, and bugs started to hatch on the surface and I saw cutthroats rise to eat them, I smiled. Yet I didn’t start packing my fly rod.
I wondered why, but just kept walking.
I thought I might be having a crisis of faith; those pesky questions that sometime cause you to lose something (or someone) you love. So I went back to the original text, which in this case means I observed. Just like with saddles and left-handed scales, I did what I was taught: remove complications. Slow down—that’s how we learn—especially, how we remember. Take things away. It can be a dangerous road, but it often gets you where you want to go, even when you can’t see the horizon.
I learned more this summer than in my others spent on streams. Because I wasn’t concentrating on keeping my balance, casting into tight pocketed water, and not breaking my fly rod while moving upstream through tangles of willow and pine deadfall, I became more familiar with the land, with my homewaters. If I had a GPS and someone was mapping my waypoints, they’d have thought I’d gone berserk on a mushroom like a Viking, or was lost like a liability (those folks who head into the alpine at midday… with no water). But I was just wandering. Watching. Well-prepared. Looking into another world through surface film I didn’t reach through to cross. For that’s the magic, isn’t it. Mule deer snort and bound across trail, dusky grouse flush and moose come to a lake to drink. We see them; we interact without trying. Trout, however, are in another world entirely; we don’t interact unless we make the move. And mankind can be quite pushy. Hey girl what’s your number? Again and again, shut down.
However, there are a few places where we can see in without touching. Just like walking through an art museum. In the wilderness though, there are no guards to tell you to keep your distance. Ma’am, step away from the painting! You’re lucky if you get a please. The cutthroats and brookies; the Bierstadts and Sargents, Renoirs and Monets. There are small streams where you can spot them holding in back eddies of pools, and glacial-cut lakes where trout cruise in water so clear it looks like they’re flying.
It’s easy to get cocky in the high country, with all those naïve trout. But while they enable confidence, they’re just as capable at taking it away. Can’t cheat the mountains. When the weather turns and wind kicks up; when chill mornings lag into noon and bugs are late to the party moving upstream into colder and thinner air—they bring you down a peg or two or three.
After a few weeks, gazing into a pool I could jump across without a running start, I broke a tuft of pine needles off a low nearby branch, fluffed it as I would a stimulator, and threw my “fly” to the head of the pool. It eddied downstream, right to where there should have been a trout holding, hungry. Whhlaaap.
And so I started to do this regularly on my hikes. When my angler’s curiosity crept up, I “caught” trout on arnica leaves, frayed grass and pine buds, breaking through the wormhole surface to see. A reminder of why I was out walking drainages in the first place.
I knew the trout were there, even as I do in winter when they’re under feet of snow and ice, and for a while this summer that was enough. Just to know—there’s peace in that. But what I realized is that fly fishing is about interaction—not about how many or how big or even any fish at all. Rather, it’s immersion with water and weather, topography and thought. With enough of the natural world that you’re able to fool a stream-born cutthroat into thinking your fly, your pine needles, are for real. It’s about adapting to an interspecies way of looking at the world, developing empathy for what we affect and what in turn affects us. Knowing all water runs downhill, yet trout are continually facing up. Forward. Oxygenating. Onward ho.
And so last time I went on a hike, I took my fly rod along with. Put back what I’d taken away. Pushed my way through the wormhole—and something picked up on the other end.