Because so much of America’s public lands are in the Intermountain West, this is where arguments about the use and limits of those lands rage the loudest. And those loudest in the debate often become caricatures: rural ranchers who hate the government; West Coast elites who don’t know the West outside Vail, Colorado; and energy and mining companies who extract from once-protected areas. These caricatures obscure the complexity of those who use public lands and what those lands mean to a wider population.
Although for Grover fishing is often an “escape” back to wildness, it is also a way to find a home in nature and recalibrate his interactions with other parts of his life as a father, son, husband, and citizen. Grover sees fly fishing on public waterways as a vehicle for interacting with nature that allows humans to inhabit nature rather than destroy or “preserve” it by keeping it entirely separate from human contact. These essays reflect on personal fishing experiences with a strong evocation of place and an attempt to understand humans’ relationship with water and public land in the American West.
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Somewhere between the jobless troutbum and the world-traveling fly-fishing gentleman, between wildness and civilization, between gray cities and green mountains, between the fly-fishing lodge and the hobo camp, you will find the working-class fly angler. He or she is not revered in angling literature nor lusted after by high-end lodges. He sees too little of trout streams and too much of paint-covered dry walls and bumper-sniffing traffic. For her, the waters of New Zealand and Argentina are fantastic dreams, like moon colonies or rivers filled with mermaids. The working-class angler is hidden in the currents of fly-fishing culture like a reliable, relatively colorless, twelve-inch rainbow, big enough to bend the rod but not worth hollering upstream to your fishing partner about.
For a time in college, I was more troutbum than student. It took me six years to eke out a bachelor's degree. Six years of mornings, evenings, and afternoons among the pocket water and aspen trees of the local rivers. I skipped class to go fly fishing. I took a semester off to go fly fishing. I took out another student loan, and I went fly fishing. Eventually I graduated, my responsibilities multiplied, and my time standing in moving water among the wild places where trout live dwindled. I took a soul-crushing, river-damming, life-changing, bean-counting, blue-sky-intolerant, nine-to-five day job. If you consider life as a troutbum some sort of political movement, then I sold out.
It didn't happen all at once. At first I still made it out to the river almost every weekend and, if I was lucky, one or two evenings each week. My wife and I were living in Oregon, and a local river filled with hatchery trout — the working-class angler's meat and potatoes — served as an evening getaway. I would arrive an hour or two before dark and cast to rising hatchery trout. One night a run of salmon was in my favorite pool. Those rocket fish were launching themselves into the air to dislodge sea lice or entice a mate or satisfy some primal instinct. I didn't know why and I still don't, but I reeled in and climbed up onto a rock ledge to watch the show.
On the weekends we drove over the Cascades onto the high desert plateau of central Oregon. Among the cedar pines and sage, we fished the Metolius or the Deschutes or a fork of the Willamette River. My wife was introduced to salmonflies on the banks of the Deschutes. She learned quickly that those two-inch long, pterodactyl-like bugs were poor flyers and that any human was considered a nice airport terminal for insect layover and refueling. She decided to wait in the car. With the massive bugs all over me and the water, I caught one small fish on an even smaller mayfly nymph.
Eventually we moved to Idaho, where famous trout rivers beckoned. We had two daughters, and my job began to expand. I am a salaried worker, which means I work my share of evenings and weekends. In the heart of the Idaho winter, I arrive at work in the predawn dark and park my middle-class Toyota Camry among other such vehicles. I duck-walk across the icy parking lot under the sulfur-orange glow of towering street lamps. In the center of my personal office, a small four-sided column with a gray breaker box on the side that faces my desk rises from the floor to the ceiling, making half of the room difficult to access and creating a sense that the walls are somehow multiplying. The fluorescent lights flicker on when I flip the switch. The breaker box on the column is locked, and no one knows who has a key. Somewhere deep in the heart of the building there is an incessant, inhuman humming — like a mechanical heartbeat that has no need for rhythm. This humming never stops. It is accented by the tippy tapping of keystrokes, the whirring of computer fans, the bass-drum contracting and expanding of giant metal ducts hidden in the ceiling, the buzzing of cell phones, the voices of office banter, the low whisper of office gossip, the breathy exhale of office sighing, and the occasional ceramic clink of a mug against a glass coffeepot.
Like a synthesizer band from the 1980s, these sounds seem somehow unnatural to my ears. In large doses and over long periods unchecked, they make me feel like I imagine an android or a computer simulation might feel; they make me feel mechanical and constructed, like some kind of carbon-based machine. Every forty-five minutes government-issued software on my computer forces me to take a break, to protect my joints and muscles from my own efficiency. At such moments I cannot help but feel that I am a human component in a machine that would somehow work seamlessly if I were less human, less prone to muscle injuries and ligament damage brought on by what the workplace scientists call "repetitive stress." We office types injure ourselves not through sheer physical exertion but by repeating the same minor muscle movement hundreds of thousands of times without diversity. Such monotony is alien to our humanity. Our bodies — the delicate miracles that they are — flourish when we vary the muscle movements and the intensity. Humans evolved to meet the demands of working for and against the earth from sunrise to dark. Hunting and gathering required strength and stamina and courage in the face of a mastodon or the quickness to catch and cook and eat some ancestor of the jackrabbit. Now we are felled by a half-million mouse clicks.
None of this is to say that I long for those days as a college-kid troutbum or that I hate my job. Sure, I wish I could fish more. But I also wish I could spend more time with my children, more time writing, more nights eating quiet dinners with my wife, more time with my parents and my brothers and sister, with my nieces and nephews, watching sports or reading insightful books. I wish I had more time for all these things and perhaps that not as much of my time had to be spent putting myself at risk for repetitive stress injuries. But my job itself is challenging if cliché. I get to work with words, which I enjoy, and I get to work with scientists and engineers doing pretty incredible things, which is exciting. I wouldn't want to sacrifice all this or even most of it to chase the life of a fly-fishing guide. I love my family and my house and my retirement account too much for that. Besides, I am not convinced that a life spent repeatedly fishing the same river with high-dollar fly-fishing clients would feel any less mechanical.
One day I was browsing the tippet wall of my local fly shop when I heard the shop owner and one of his employees — a younger guy who doubled as a guide for a local outfitter — talking about steelhead fishing, about how hard it is and how much it means to catch each fish.
I was shopping for a new spool of 3X and maybe a leader, some fly-tying materials, and other odds and ends for an upcoming trip. I was eavesdropping because, well, that's an interesting conversation. The kind of conversation you only happen upon in a good fly shop. And I knew both participants, at least a little. The owner was an excellent guy with a generous streak who had helped me out a few times on my first fly-rod build, and the young kid knew a lot about fly tying and catching big trout on things like mouse patterns. I had picked his brain about such things enough times that he at least knew my face when I entered the shop.
I was hunched over and reaching for a spool, but I stopped short when I heard the kid say this:
"Maybe it's because I guide ... but I tell you, the South Fork? That river holds no romance for me at all."
They were talking about a recent steelhead trip and the differences between fishing for chrome and fishing for trout. I stood up, eyeball to eyeball with several spools of 1X fluorocarbon. The South Fork is the South Fork of the Snake, the most popular trout river among the locals in my town and a serious big-name river that people travel to from all over the country.
That idea, no romance, sounded familiar to me. It reminded me of that four-sided column in the middle of my office at work. This kid valued romance, or at least he felt that romance was missing, which seemed like a problem to him. Or maybe he knew something was missing, and romance was the only name he could put on it, some general word that describes the reason he started fishing in the first place, the reason many of us start fishing. The reason we still pull the waders on, the reason we travel to far-off rivers or dream about trout streams during boring staff meetings (and even not-so-boring staff meetings). I think that is what he missed — that spark that gets us out of bed for a day on the water. And romance was the best name he could give such a valuable, nameless thing.
Some listeners might have scoffed at such a sentiment. Romance? they might have said. The South Fork has some big fish, hombre. Who cares about romance? Well, maybe they wouldn't have used the word "hombre," but they might have said something to the effect that romance wasn't really a consideration when big fish and lots of them were involved. And that would have been a valid counterargument for a lot of anglers, I suppose. Such an argument could sway me, given the right circumstances.
But the shop owner didn't take that position. Rather, he said this:
"I know exactly what you mean."
It was a simple phrase, the kind uttered four or five times a day by most of us without much thought. But I didn't get the impression that the owner was just being agreeable. I think he thought about it and answered that way because he did know exactly what the kid meant.
What the kid seemed to be saying, and what the shop owner seemed to be agreeing to, was the fact that guiding day in and day out on the same water, floating the same stretches and casting to the same banks, using the same flies and pulling fish out of all the same holes, could get mechanical. Performing any task ad nauseam feels mechanical, be it launching a drift boat or casting an indicator nymph rig or clicking your mouse a half-trillion times. This kid wasn't exactly clamoring for more trips down the South Fork on his day off. In fact, he was suggesting that fishing for trout on the South Fork wasn't nearly as much fun as it used to be.
I have taken just a few guided trips in my life. As a working-class angler, such trips are generally above my pay grade. The first guided trip I took was a walk-and-wade trip on the Madison River with a guide from Blue Ribbon Flies, Craig Matthews's shop in West Yellowstone, Montana. It was me and my father and brother. The guide was an interesting fellow who had started guiding on the San Juan River in New Mexico. He ended up in Montana during a road trip with his wife. They stopped at Raynolds Pass Bridge. He got out, rigged up, and walked down to the river. Within a dozen casts, he hooked and landed a fish (guides are pretty good at that sort of thing).
As he told it, he had the fish in the net when his wife walked down to the river and found him gazing at the trout in open wonder, a confused look on his face.
"Honey, this fish has teeth." He gaped. "Actual teeth."
I can see him pointing to the jaws of a Madison rainbow, his mouth ajar.
He then looked at his wife and said, "We're moving to Montana."
I told you he was interesting.
In truth, the stories he told that day were better than the fishing, which — through no fault of our entertaining and highly skilled guide — was exceptionally slow. It was August, in the middle of a hot streak that had lasted two months. The water was low, and the caddis had ended their evening madness nearly a month early in protest of extreme water temperatures and poor working conditions. The trout seemed glued to the bottom, except for a few browns that took hopper patterns out of boredom. Even the whitefish were tough to catch. So we were paying good money to not catch fish, something we had learned to do perfectly well on our own for free.
The guide talked about moving to Montana and spending two weeks floating the Madison from Raynolds Pass down to Ennis Lake so he could learn the river, sleeping on river islands and fishing every square inch of the fifty-mile riffle. He talked about guiding big wigs from Washington DC and messing with the Secret Service guys, about his minor league baseball career, about tying flies all winter so that he had enough to give away to schmoes like us whose boxes didn't contain a whole lot of anything that worked. On the surface, his life sounded downright ... romantic.
And maybe for him it was perfect. He was a great guide and a cool guy to spend a day with. But the more I thought about it the less convinced I became. He spent nine hours with us working hard and watching us catch a few meager fish in water he might have cleaned up in. He hadn't had a day off in nearly a month. He guided the first several years of his career on a river where the fish apparently didn't even have teeth. Once you got past all the great stories, it sounded just as mechanical as my own life. Wildness in life comes not simply from being away from buildings and streets and people; it comes from an ever-changing routine, from the unpredictability of wild places. Running the same float day after day and watching clients miss fish in all the same holes does not sound wild to me. I already hate untangling knots that are the products of my own tailing loop — I really don't want to untangle someone else's rat's nest. In short, I could understand how a guide could say that one of the great trout rivers in the West had lost all its romance. It only confirmed to me that I had made the right choice by not undertaking the guiding life.
I think it would chew me up, spit me out, and probably make me a steelhead fisherman.
The English have a saying: "You've lost the plot." It means you've lost track of purpose or sense, lost hold of the reins that keep you moving along the road of life, gone a little nuts. It is an idiomatic description just short of (or perhaps related to) losing your mind. I may have come close to losing the plot due to the mechanical nature of my life, if not for one fortunate turn of luck: the nine-eighty work week. I don't think the term "nine-eighty" is a common part of the American vernacular, so let me put it another way. My soul-crushing nine-to-five gives me every other Friday off.
I know it doesn't sound like a big victory, but there are weeks and months when that extra day is a key part of my survival. My wife, in her infinite compassion, has generally agreed that I should spend my one day every two weeks how I would like. So twice a month (sometimes three times — thank heavens for five-Friday months) I leave early Friday morning (or even better, late Thursday night) with my vehicle pointed toward some far-off national forest or state park and trout-filled water that can be fished comfortably in a day.
This intervention (along with the more robust occasional week-long adventure) is enough to break up the mechanical nature of modernity, at least for me. I escape the constant whirring of the corporate machine and reconnect — if only for a moment — with something that humanity has tried to hide from in air-conditioned office buildings. I don't need more than that regular reconnection, not right now anyway. I know that for some, the search for isolated wildness must take place more than one day every two weeks. These souls move to remote parts of Alaska or spend the entire summer backpacking in Wyoming. They head to Nepal or Patagonia and look for the wild earth as it was before modern man touched it and turned it into a fly wheel in the machine of progress. They seek danger and immersion, the heart of darkness or the light of true understanding — not the tourist wildness I encounter every other Friday in places I can drive to.
I don't take offense at the idea that my own occasional forays into places where trout live are merely a poseur's attempts to understand the things we have sacrificed in the name of progress, technology, and convenience. I also take no offense when people see no point in leaving their gray cities except to go to the ocean and lay on the beach. I am not in the business of one-size-fits-all behavior. Right now, in my life, these biweekly forays to trout country serve me well enough that the rest of my life is kept in balance. My children are happy, and one day I might be able to afford to send them to college. These things matter. I agree with those who argue that we need to stop thinking of a wilderness as someplace that can only exist without people and starting seeing our own existence as taking place within nature rather than in opposition to it. Cities themselves are a form of wildness; it's just that most of the animals in such wild places are humans rather than trout. A routine that puts me in a trout river one day every other week helps me remember that the fish and I are both residents of the same planet, that going fishing doesn't mean escaping from the world but visiting a portion of it that exists outside of a column-laden office and the hive-like machinery of an office-based existence.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Wilderness of Hope"
Copyright © 2019 Quinn Grover.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: First Fish
Part 1: Reassurance
Kissing, Telling, and Invisible Trout
The Case for Inefficiency
Part 2: Reflection
The Bank Grass
Conversations with Grandpa
First Good Fish
A One-Sided Conversation with a Brown Trout
The Big V
Part 3: Renewal
The Stump Ranch Fish
Wind, Rain, and Snow
Five Days in the Wilderness
Epilogue: The Shallow End of a Nameless Lake