It is evening in the wild and untamed shadow of a mountain aptly named Truchas by the son of a long dead Conquistador. Here the roaring Pecos plunges hundreds of feet over a precarious precipice of ancient ragged granite. The thundering river sends up plumes of rainbow-laden mist into the surrounding conifers and then up into a cloudless sky of an unreal lapis blue.
The glorious fading alpine light has ushered in the magic hour, summoning the mayflies and caddis to celebrate and dance their fleeting evening flights of love above a postcard perfect pool at the head of the pounding falls.
It is the summer of 1978 deep in the belly of the Pecos Wilderness.
And here a boy of twelve stands beside his father who has this year turned fifty. The man – like his father and grandfather – is the son of a son of a seasoned hunter, angler and passionate outdoorsman. He would rather hunt, fish, hike, and explore wild country than anything else in life. His son is no different. The is boy obsessed with the wondrous outdoor life.
Although it’s a weekend, they are the only two people in the entire upper Pecos watershed. This is public land. Their land. Exhausted from the twelve-mile hike from the trailhead at Iron Gate the two ditch their backpacks creekside and both stand breathless and mesmerized in the piney shadows above a deep pool illuminated by a golden shaft of sunlight. They have an unobstructed front row seat to an ancient and glorious trout ballet. Four fat trout effortlessly hover and glide through crystalline snowmelt casually picking off a fluttering caddis here and an emerging mayfly there. They neither know nor care of humans and our nonsensical world and that seems to especially give the man – a veteran of World War II – a great deal of comfort.
These native Rio Grande cutthroats are here as they have been through millennia of profound change – both natural and human born – and have somehow miraculously survived. They are some of the last living vestiges of the Pleistocene era – brethren to long extinct woolly mammoths, giant ground sloths, and saber-toothed cats. The trout’s ancestors hailed from the Pacific Ocean as the great ice sheets and glaciers retreated north and long ago became landlocked in our high mountains surrounded by a sea of desert.
The man strings up his fly rod, ties on a bright Rio Grande King and hands the rod to the boy. He instructs the boy to approach the stream’s edge in a low crouch, stay in the shadows and deep grass and carefully lower the fly down above the biggest trout in the pool. The boy’s heart is nearly pounding out of his chest as he does what his father instructs. No sooner does the fly approach the river’s surface than a 15-inch fish pounces on the fly. Leaping clear of the water it snatches the colorful fly from midair. The unexpected burst of the trout and the boy’s coiled excitement are simultaneously released. He springs backwards like a coil, landing on his butt in the tall grass. The fish is hooked and races wildly about the pool. The man grabs the boy under the arms and picks him up so he can fight the fish. It darts about the pool and jumps several times. Somehow the leader holds and the boy works the fish up to the surface where his father’s landing net is expertly waiting.
The man wets his hands and carefully extracts the magnificent trout from the net. The boy too wets his hands and his father then gently transfers the fish to him. It is the first cutthroat of the boy’s life. He has never seen a creature of such rare magnificence. The emerald green back that transitions into golden undertones above the lateral line. Subtle purple oval rosettes run from behind the gill toward the tail. Oversized dark chocolate spots slowly increase in number from only a few at the head to the heavily dappled tail. Purples, blues, pearl and lavender accents along the tail, ventral fins. And then that flamboyant orange belly to top it all off! Panza colorada the Conquistadores aptly named them – red bellies.
Father and son briefly admire and wonder at the miracle in his hands and then the boy gently slips it back into the water. The exhausted trout glides to the bottom and then hovers behind a submerged rock to recover its strength. The boy is amazed that such a bright and colorful creature can magically disappear against the stream bottom in the blink of an eye.
The boy looks up into his father’s bright, inquisitive blue eyes. They are moist with the magic of the moment. He smiles and the boy gives him a big hug. The boy will remember this extraordinary experience for as long as he lives. Indeed he can close his eyes right now and remember it as though it were yesterday.
That man is my now deceased father and that boy is the once upon a time version of my youthful self.
The year is now 2016. It is early summer and the day before my fiftieth birthday. Thirty eight years have passed in the blink of an eye. My father and cherished outdoor companion has now been gone for eighteen years.
And yet here I stand again in the same magnificent spot at the river’s edge above the thundering falls, exhausted from the long twelve-mile hike. Carried here not by boundless twelve-year old legs but by fifty-year old legs that with each step complain of the weight of the pack and the slope of mountain and protest loudly that they badly need a couple aspirin and a good night’s rest.
Looking down into the same beautiful pool at perhaps the very progeny of the same beautiful trout that I caught nearly four decades prior. It is as though I have stepped back in time. The modern world has undergone striking and often unsettling change in these four decades. The only thing that has changed here in 40 years is me. The land, the watershed and the trout are just as I had left them. And again although it’s a weekend there are no other people in the entire watershed. A pair of old boot tracks are all we see in 3 days of fishing.
Once upon a time I would have raced to string up my fly rod and methodically catch as many of these extraordinary fish as possible. Now I am simply content to watch them glide and levitate in their ethereal environment. I wonder at their elegance and grace and on the eve of my fiftieth year on this planet that is all at need in this moment. I have come here seeking badly needed solace and peace of mind – a thing these days as rare and precious as the trout I seek.
I do not cast my fly to the trout this evening. There will be plenty of that in the morning. Tomorrow is my birthday and a cutthroat dancing at the end of my line is going to be the ultimate birthday present to myself. I sit creekside in a bright ray of moonlight smoking a small cigar accompanied by a pull or two off my father’s old whiskey flask (the one with a fishing scene on it). Though he died long ago I am certain he is here with me. For this brief moment all is right in the world.
Many of us make a big deal about the symbolic milestone of turning fifty. I was no exception. We all have a different perspective on the value and meaning of those years we’ve lived. I suspect not one of us that turns fifty aren’t thinking long and hard about the value of those short years in which we will remain.
Long before my actual birthday I began to carefully think about that perfect place in which turning fifty might have a lasting impression. I was also looking for the ultimate luxury of undistracted introspection in a raw, remote, and unspoiled location that gave me an opportunity to reflect on what truly matters in life.
Another lifetime ago I owned an international fishing travel agency and had the privilege of fishing for many of the world’s most exotic gamefish in some of the most magical and untamed locations imaginable. Peacock bass, payara and freshwater dorado in the untamed jungles of South America. Trevally and bonefish in the south Pacific. Atlantic salmon in Scotland. Tarpon, snook, permit and bones throughout Mexico and Central America. Pelagics from La Gaira to the Pinas of Colombia. I carefully re-considered all those extraordinary places and the countless amazing adventures I had in these places. I could have indulged myself, incurred considerable debt, and returned to any of these places for the ultimate fiftieth birthday present to myself.
But then it suddenly dawned on me that my youthful, early and critical formation as a citizen of this world happened here in the wilds of New Mexico. I realized that the core and fondest of all my angling, hunting and outdoor adventure memories were with my father and friends as a boy deep in the public wilds of Sangres or in our vast and alluring southern deserts.
It was memory and deep connection with my early un-jaded self that I so needed. And that perfect place to find it was in a favorite haunt of my childhood.
Soon I will bring my daughter to this magical place so she too can have the experience I had when I was her age. She too can someday hopefully bring her son or daughter here when they turn twelve. And hopefully the only thing that changes in this story is the generation that lives in the story – not the land, river and fish that have such a profound influence upon them.
This article appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of the Outdoor Reporter.