High Country Heaven

With one thing and another – kids, mortgage, commitments –  it had been several years since I’d had the opportunity to hit the road for a few days with a fly rod in hand, an agenda no more urgent than to rise when the mood took me, fish for how ever many hours seemed appropriate to the day, then retire to the camp chair for a couple of cans, a dose of camaraderie and sleeping under the night sky. The original intention this fall had been to head up to Wyoming to explore the headwaters of the Green River, but a last minute change of plans saw Caveman and I decide to wander a little closer to home.

There are several reasons why I love spending a few days camping in the mountains, a civilized distance removed from civilization. Firstly, you can wear the same underwear for five or six days, and no one looks at you like that’s a bad thing. To be sure, when I returned home, I couldn’t get a hug out of my wife or daughters until I’d been in the shower for about twenty minutes. Fair enough, but I’ve always maintained that the best defense against predators in the wild is simply to smell worse than they do. The look on the face of the lass behind the counter at the liquor store in South Fork  when we dropped in for a resupply was, I believe, testament to the effectiveness of my strategy. Second, the high country is about the only place on earth where bacon is officially recognized as a health food. A day spent hiking and wading above ten thousand feet demands at lest half a pound every breakfast. Thirdly, sipping a red beer in the morning sunshine, sitting by a river somewhere, is a sure sign that despite the general gloom of the times, life isn’t so bad after all.

We headed south from Salida to two or three places we’d only visited in our imaginations previously, lines on a map transformed into memories of backcountry splendor and reverence. On a couple of days we hiked from camp up high into tiny little tributaries, close enough to the continental divide it seemed you could almost reach out and touch the peaks, in reality still two days distant. At this elevation summer was long gone, the trees stripped bare save the odd stand of aspen or willows holding out against the inevitability of winter’s approach, their remaining leaves pale, bleached of life and color.

The water up here was skinny and gin clear, the fish spooky. Once in a while a brookie or two still hovered over a redd, their bellies and fins a brilliant neon orange. We took care to leave these ones alone, their ability to survive and reproduce in such places quite humbling to a goretex clad fisherman in need of a zero degree sleeping bag and a bottle of Jack to keep him warm at night.

A lunch of summer sausage and cheese, washed down with a beer while sheltering under a friendly spruce from an afternoon hailstorm was for me an undoubted highlight of the trip. Watching a hailstone, perfect and multifaceted like a diamond, slowly softening and drawn into the warmth of the earth started me to thinking of the great cycle of life, death and rebirth, and of how many others before me, both two legged and four, had perhaps sheltered under this very tree in like circumstances. Such it seems are the consequences for a mind distanced even somewhat from the distractions and seductions of everyday life. Alas, I came back down from the mountain with no new insight into our ultimate purpose, no pearls of wisdom to share, but with an enhanced appreciation of the intricacies of life and our own minor place in it.

On the day I took the camera along, we fished lower down on the main stem of the river, the water and fish bigger, the scenery no less spectacular. Once again the fish were hungry, eager to pack down as many calories as possible before temperatures dropped and the food chain went into hibernation.

By the last morning, my fifty year old bones were beginning to rebel against the confines of my sleeping bag, my faithful paco pad somehow not quite as cushy as it seemed twenty years ago. In my single days, I would have been happy to stay out there for  few more weeks, but nowadays other things tug at my heartstrings also, and it was time to head back home and reunite with my brood. But the primary mission was accomplished – batteries recharged, a couple more lines on the map filled in, and several more noted for future exploration.

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10 Replies to “High Country Heaven”

  1. Thanks Mike. I see you fish up this way from time to time. Make sure you get in touch next time Salida is on your radar.

  2. I enjoyed your post on your trip to the Ark. It’s fun to look at the photos and figure out where you were standing when you took them.

  3. Hello Hayden, I just discovered this little slice of heaven you call a blog. I call the Arkansas my home waters even though I live in Superior and only get there a few times a year. Hope to retire there some day. I’ll be following.

    Howard

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