It’s that crossroads moment where past, present, future and right now compete. The last day. The last change of fly. The last walk down the meadow. The last cast. It’s that moment when the fisherman juggles finality and future, hoping to keep both in the air; to treasure what has been without sadness, and to look forward to more of it in the uncertain time to come.I guess it’s the same with all holidays, those weeks we ring fence for real living, as opposed to the robotic daily quest for the money to finance the real thing. One cannot exist without the other. I suspect, but do not know, that we can only elevate and value the richness of life if we also know some of its drudgery and pain, its hamster wheel repetitions and frequent, flatline rhythms.Mel was, as usual, up and readying breakfast for beast and their burden on our last day at the South Fork Wilderness camp. The frigid air was perfumed with frost, pine and cowboy coffee. George was pulling the blue plastic awnings of our living space down, putting things in boxes and panniers, untying things. Mel’s leather chaps lay discarded on a log, ready to pull on when left to ride back to the ranch and close the camp for the winter.There was bacon, eggs and tortilla for breakfast. And apples, although I secreted mine in my jacket to share with the horses later. A team of three riders and pack mules and horses was on its way up to the camp to take everything down into the ranch below. “Time for you to have a last fish,” said Mel, as if I hadn’t thought about it.It was a brilliant Western morning, a mixture of chill and sunlight, bright blue and fluffy white over straw yellow and dense green. There were blueberries on bushes beside the river, which ran low and clear and alive with fleeing fish. The red-tailed Hawk followed me at altitude upstream. I took fish after fish on a Lightning bug trailing behind a wisp of very fine leader.Darwin teaches us that these creatures adapt their physiognomy to survive. That may be true, but it still does not explain the sheer beauty of the marbled brook trout, its arresting blend of greens and browns and red, all the colours of autumn. Nor does it explain an otter’s joy or an elephant’s sorrow. There is so much more to life than we know or can understand. Religion can give you certainty. But nature gives you mystery, the humbling realization that humans can only guess at the answers. There is comfort in not knowing the answers, only marveling at the evidence.
Every fishing trip has its last cast. I’ve heard so many fellow anglers say “last cast” like a prayer that a fish will materialize and all dreams come true. Sometimes there is that unexpected tug on the line, but most of the time the fly floats inertly downstream, like dozens of fruitless casts before. And still, the angler dissembles his rod and leaves the water, already plotting a return, or a trip somewhere else. At the crossroads, there is only the future. As Gierach teaches us, it’s not about the fishing trip of a lifetime, it’s about a lifetime of fishing trips.
Mel had given me three or four hours to fish while the camp was packed away; I’d already taken my tent down and packed stuff. But after two hours of teasing trout from every corner of the river, I caught movement on the meadow out of the corner of one eye. It was the pack horses and team from the ranch, accompanied by two small bounding dogs which buzzed around the convoy like dolphins round a boat.
“Last cast,” I said to myself, and saw a brookie swirl at my fly and dart away. It seemed a fair outcome for us both. I headed back to camp.
Dano, Laura and Hannah had been riding since around five in the morning. “It was so cold we had to get off the horses and walk, just to warm up,” said Hannah. And now they began loading up everything that wasn’t part of the park to leave no trace of our presence before the snows came and covered it all.
It was not their intention to bring the lively little ranch dog Poncho, but he had just decided to follow the horse train out and was accompanied by another small dog that had just been given to the ranch for safekeeping. The team was working on its name but Nacho seemed the current favourite, a bite-sized piece of something good. The two dogs were cavorting like sheep on acid and enjoying each other’s company, chasing squirrels up trees and chipmunks down holes.
I rode Itchy back. Brandy was showing a little lameness so I got a mount whose name derived from its habit if scratching its face against other horses. We got on fine. There were two lovely mules in our convoy too, Ruby and Josie, and we headed out over the meadow together, Mel at the front, Poncho and Nacho bounding beside us, the river glistening in the morning sun.
It was a long ride. Five or more hours up and down rock trails, across spangled meadows and alongside peaty creeks. We chatted, we laughed, we took photos but most of all we watched the world go by, and ourselves going by it.
The dogs hammered off as the ranch neared. I climbed off. Almost without help. Ranch hands came and helped us unpack; the horses were unsaddled and led into the corral to feed and water. I was guided back to my cabin to unpack and pack before feeding and watering for a last evening. Michelle rang the triangle to summon us all to the dining table and we ate richly. “That’s one old tough bugger,” Dano told the diners. “Andy rode here all the way without a break.”
It was eerily quiet in the morning. And even colder. Snow had fallen and was threatening to fall again. I checked my diary. I’d been in the Winds for nearly two weeks. It had flown by.
Most of the staff had already left the pervious evening to set up a winter base for the hunters. There was a space on the hat stand for my inappropriate headwear. George and I decided to drive out together in case one of us got into trouble in the snow or needed help with a flat tyre or something.
The necessary busy-ness masked the end-of-holiday sadness of it all and necessity gave the morning momentum. I packed and loaded. Said my farewells again and watched the dogs cementing their friendship by kicking up snow and making trails in the powder.I promised to be back, and I intend to be, but you never know. I knew only that it had been remarkable, and that at my particular crossroads, Montana and its magical, mythical rivers was next.
It’s not about the fishing trip of a lifetime I told myself, searching through the radio stations for company.