I’ve waited awhile since the end of my fly-fishing odyssey to write the coda to my blog. I needed some time to assemble my specific memories into a gestalt, and now I’ve done that, more or less, having just spent ten days basking in the sun in Provence and Paris and reflecting on the recent past. (The picture above was taken in an ancient fortress at La Baux, southwest of Avignon.) The result of my reflection is this post, the final chapter of Once and Future Fly Fisherman. Maybe there will be a sequel someday, but for now, this is it.
My great American journey started in Pennsylvania on May 20, and ended where it began almost four months later, on September 10. I piled up over 16,000 hard, mostly back-road, miles in Excalibur, my trusty ¾-ton Chevy Silverado. I visited 30 states as far-flung as Florida, California, Alaska and Wisconsin. I spent an abnormally large amount of time all by my lonesome, mostly holed up in a little Northstar truck camper with the ridiculously grandiose name of Camelot. I also enjoyed a large and much-appreciated amount of time with old friends and family scattered across the country. Even so, I wasn’t able to see everyone I wanted to see, giving me an excuse to return to some of the towns I had to speed through or bypass.
And I fly-fished. Boy did I fly-fish, to the point that I feel like a fly rod is now a natural extension of my right arm, practically part of my hand, like a long, powerful and very flexible finger. I deployed a dozen different fly rods of varying sizes, and almost as many reels. I fished in salt water and fresh water, in flowing water and still water, in warm water and cold water, in shallow water and deep (well, relatively deep) water, in wide water and skinny water, in clear water and muddy water. I bushwhacked through willows and nettles, stepped in cowpies and sunk in mud-holes up to my thighs. I skinned my knees and bumped my head and inadvertently went swimming a couple of times. I fished with tiny, drab mayfly imitations, little fuchsia-colored worm imitations and gargantuan, sparkling, multi-colored streamers. I caught hundreds of trout – brook, four kinds of cutthroat, rainbow and brown; dozens of bass – largemouth and smallmouth; scores of salmon – silver, chub, pink and even a stray king and a sockeye; numerous panfish – bluegill, crappie, and several kinds of sunfish; redeye (rockfish); grayling; gar; three kinds of shark – blue, mako and leopard; surf perch; ladyfish; and tarpon. There were probably a few other species I’ve forgotten about offhand. I caught the smallest pinfish ever hooked and landed on a fly. I had to admire the audacity of that fish, attacking a streamer that was more than twice as long as itself and putting a bend in my rod all the way to the boat. It was less than an inch long, but with a glint in its eye like Clint Eastwood, pulsing with sound and fury. I released the pinfish like I released 99% of the other fish I caught – long may it swim!
The trip didn’t go exactly as planned in all respects. I had planned to drive to Alaska but instead I flew there from Montana, opting not to spend another 6,000+ miles alone in the truck. I also cut the trip short by about a week. I had hoped to sojourn to New England in the final week of the trip, intending to terminate my fishing activity in Maine, but the region was hammered with two major storms and suffered record flooding just before I was scheduled to arrive, so I reluctantly diverted myself toward home eight days before I was scheduled to return. There was a silver lining – I had finally grown homesick by early September, and it was quite pleasant to return to the arms of my loving wife, sleep in my own bed and hug my three cats. I had also planned to haul my bike, a kayak and an inflatable pontoon boat throughout the journey, but I abandoned them in Memphis less than a month into the trip after concluding that the hassle of towing a trailer over long distances exceeded the benefits of having the extra toys.
The most common query I’ve gotten since my return is whether the trip was everything I expected it to be. The answer is that it was almost exactly what I expected it to be. I anticipated seeing plenty of gorgeous scenery and catching a large variety of fish, and I did. I expected to hang out with old friends and to enjoy lots of quiet time – “me time,” to use the current vernacular, and I did. I didn’t expect to have an epiphany, to be visited by angels or to suddenly acquire new skills, and I didn’t. But there were times when I felt as spiritually awake as I ever have. I experienced many more ecstatic moments than I normally would in a comparable period – the natural result, perhaps, of spending so much time doing whatever I felt like and having very little direct responsibility. It was a very simple life. I generally went to bed when I felt like it, got up when I felt like it, ate what I wanted to eat, basked in fresh air and sunshine almost every day, and wandered through every kind of exotic landscape our great nation offers. If I couldn’t be happy doing all that, when could I ever be happy? Let me be clear – I was very happy. So much so that my friend Joe Fleming, whose San Diego home I stayed in for a few nights in late June, voiced a frank observation (probably shared by many other friends I encountered along the way) that my expressions of happiness were “insufferable.” I could see his point. But I’m glad if I inspired envy in some people. If I gave them incentive to beat a path to their own bliss, then I achieved some small accomplishment.
Did I learn anything? I probably learned something but I can’t readily recall anything profound. My experiences on the road, and my feelings about those experiences, reinforced several notions that I already had when I started. I wrote about many of those in this blog along the way. Among the more notable of them were: wherever you go, there you are (i.e., you can’t run away from yourself); it’s okay to be alone; it’s good to connect with your surroundings spiritually and not just sensually; and ice cream is my favorite food. Oh, and despite what the famous 20th-century novelist Thomas Wolfe postulated, you CAN go home again. Finally, I relearned relaxation. After I retired last October, my mind didn’t immediately make the transition from its prevailing state of tension and simmering anger that accumulated during 30 years of working in an environment where expectations of my performance and availability were exceptionally high, but on my journey this summer I crossed over to a much calmer place and I’m pleased to be there.
I must thank all those people who put up with me during my trip, folks who variously housed me, fed me, entertained me and fished with me. In no special order they were: my parents Eldred and Topsy Wolfe (Memphis); Bill Nelson and Lara Merriken (Marathon, FL and Los Angeles); Seymour Singer (San Diego); Therese and Joe Fleming (San Diego); Eric Laun (Los Angeles); Kathy and Byran Jensen (Las Vegas); Chip and Julie Walter (Meeteetse, WY); Bob and Julie Bushmaker (Butte, MT); Buck Boehm (MT and IA); Carl and Karen Thompson (Ames, IA); Dave Thompson (Delavan, WI); my father-in-law Carl Martin (Walnut, IA). Thanks also to the many wonderful people I met along the path, and other friends in many places who followed my blog, stayed in touch via e-mails, checked out my videos on YouTube and otherwise coddled me from afar. I love you all. Your company was the ultimate highlight of the trip.
Most of all, my deepest gratitude goes to Trish, whose generous, independent spirit and unwavering support enabled me to indulge my adolescent regression in spectacular fashion. I am very fortunate to be so tightly wed to her, and so free, at the same time.
Here’s the main thing I’d like to leave you with: as Louis Armstrong sang so soulfully, it’s a wonderful world! I’m very glad to live in it and I hope you are too. Happy trails!