There are times in our lives when the best thing we can do for ourselves is to fill our backpacks with some food, a sleeping bag, maybe a tent, and take a nice long, solo walk in the woods. I feel this urge quite frequently, but rarely follow through with it anymore, always finding some sort of excuse or distraction to keep me from doing it - work, mowing the grass, dinner plans, stairs needing swept, dogs needing walks, my old knees. In the end, I usually take day trips which, under a microscope with the right lens, feel like a backpacking trip - at least that’s how I try to see it. It’s on these trips into the backcountry where we are able to clear out the build up of muck, much like sediment settling behind a dam, between our ears, in order to create some headspace and hopefully figure a few things out with the fly rod and some open water.
Back in my early 20’s, when it came to catching trout on a fly, I had no idea what I was doing. However, I did know how to hike, how to camp, and how to be alone. So, with a three day weekend and a box of wooly buggers, I hitched up my pack and set off for a backcountry lake. I had been working in Rocky Mountain National Park on their trail crew for a couple of months and at that point I hiked what seemed like hundreds miles of the west side trails with a chainsaw on my shoulder, seeing a ton of the park and rolling my ankles and busting my knees in the process. I was barely a fly fisherman, using a wooly bugger exclusively, but I still walked to the Colorado River every Saturday morning to try and catch something. Eventually, I began to hear mythical stories about a lake full of cutties who would eat anything. This sounded like my kind of place since I still didn’t really know what a dragless drift was or how to match a hatch. Plus, the muck had been building up for quite some time, even though I lived and worked in the woods. I needed to get out of my shared living space and into the wilderness. I needed to pound the ground for something other the work - to explore and get lost.
The lake sits in a little basin at 10,700 feet between two peaks on the west side of the park. The first 7 miles up the trail to the junction of the lake trail meanders through a dense valley along a quintessential mountain creek. Once you reach the junction and get onto the connector trail, you hit switchbacks and quickly gain elevation. At this point, your legs begin to burn and you lower your head, hitch your pack up so it doesn’t sit so low, and, in your mind’s eye, begin fishing.
I reached the lake and the little breath I had left was taken from me. The clarity of the lake stared back at me, reflecting off my eyes and blinding all of my sub-conscious into finally believing that I was alone. I threw down my pack and jostled out my fly rod and tied on a black wooly bugger. I figured I’d set up camp later; the water was calling me.
I found a rock to stand on protruding from the clear alpine water. My feet sank into my sandals as my weight molded them to the rock while I cast into the lake from mid day sun to sunset. Clouds reflected in the water and I swear I could see the pink and red of the cutties in the swirls of the lake. The clear lake, the burning sun of peaks outlining this alpine alcove, my black wooly bugger slinging through the air. Even 10 years later I can feel my feet in my sandals wrapped around that rock, holding my weight as I cast, strip, set the hook, play the fish in, release. Cast, strip, hook, play, release. Over and over again for what now seems like an eternity. Water dripped off my line as I reeled in after my last catch and I laughed out loud to myself; I was finally catching trout on a fly. All it took was ten miles, a few thousand feet in elevation, and a wild lake that still burns in my mind.
The twilight came over the peaks as the sun set behind my mind. With rod in hand, I stood on a lone rock, watching the water settle under the moonlight. I finally felt like a fly fisherman. I flipped on my headlamp and headed back to make camp. I added some hot water to a pouch and had a quick dinner before I nestled into my sleeping bag between the peaks, lulling me to a deep sleep. Before heading home the next morning, I flicked my bugger out a few times and gently released a few more cutties. I don’t really remember walking the 10 miles back out to the car; my mind was still on that lake and those fish.
Every fisherman needs a lake like this at some point; a place where they can chuck what they know, like a black wooly bugger, and catch trout after trout (or even just a few). It’s good for the confidence and on days in the future where they are struggling to catch anything, they can venture into the backcountry of their minds and relive that moment. We need that body of water that lets us catch fish and the backcountry that whispers sweet nothings of confidence to us. We need it to clear our head and lift our lines.
I first fell in love with trains after watching Stand by Me when I was a kid. It’s a story about a group of boys that decide to take an adventure in search of something. Their way out of town? The train tracks. These tracks lead them on a journey that shapes all their lives in very different ways. At the core of this journey is a sense of freedom that resonated with me. I would daydream about hitching a pack on my back and wandering through the secret crevices of America all the while creating deep bonds with my fellow travelers. From that point forward, trains symbolized the possibility of living a truly unique and inspired life. They symbolized an untaken path, an alternative way of traveling. Something different.
Eventually, the likes of Jack Kerouac, Johnny Cash, and Tom Waits came into my life. Waits’ gravelly, sandpaper scraped voice took my love for trains and created magnificent sculptures of freedom loving train jumpers and other-side-of-the-tracks poets waving poems around like trainmen’s lanterns lighting my way away from my small hometown into big cities and tall mountains. From boyhood dreams to adulthood meandering, the symbolism of trains has always found a way to seep into my world view.
I took all of the weighty connections trains have developed for me in my head and I went traveling on my own journey, searching and experiencing. I filled my backpack with all my camping gear, a few choice books (I’m pretty sure some Gary Snyder made its way in there), a journal, and some clothes and set off. For three years I stretched myself out across this country: Baxter State Park in northern Maine, up and down California, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, and plenty of places in between. It felt good to have everything I needed on my back, a home wherever I laid my head and lit a fire. I learned more in those three years of working in the woods than I did in my four years of college.
That journey eventually led me here, to Marietta, where my wife & I bought a house and settled in. The train comes through every few hours, just a few yards away from our front yard. I hear that train working in my garden, sitting at Shanks weaving tales with friends, eating dinner with my wife in our kitchen, and I can’t help but feel light and free every time I hear that rumble of steel on steel or the low call of the horn. I no longer feel the need to pack a sling and “walk those tracks” away from the place I live, but it’s nice to know that right out my front door somebody could and somebody will. I’ll look forward to hearing their stories.
I stumbled upon the name "Raftman's Path" walking the river trail that traverses through the little town I live in. It was named during the days when lumber was a huge commodity in this area. The Susquehanna River was an industrial thoroughfare - bearing down loads of lumber from the northern reaches of Pennsylvania towards the Chesapeake. Marietta was a stopping point, a place for the lumber either to go to the mills lining its banks or shoot further downstream through pig iron smoke. Raftmen would guide the lumber down to the mouth of the Susquehanna into the Chesapeake - an estuary of salt, water, lumber, ore, eel and shad. When their job was done, they would walk the raftman's path back through the Susquehanna Riverlands of Lancaster County towards their homes. The path is now wooded and meanders through some of the only "wild" places left in the county.