Life is funny. We strive all our days to sit in comfort until we realize that comfort itself is the true cancer in life. Suffering brings out the best in us. Comfort is a fishbowl that keeps us safe. It never lets us become too dangerous.
The comforts of modern life were stifling me.
I stepped out onto my poor excuse of a patio to sip cheap coffee. From below arose the pattering of poor kids playing in a sorry excuse of a pool at the heart of the apartment complex that imprisoned me. lt was all they could afford on a late summer day. I felt the coffee burn my lips as I convinced myself I wasn’t one of them.
The grays and browns of the apartment complex dulled my senses. Its monochromatic security once seemed to be the cool pillow I could lay my face on after years of adventure, strain, and pain. Now the only thing different from it and prison walls were the kids below. They had no idea the world that lay outside the poorly maintained parking lot.
The mountains called. I sipped the bitter coffee and remembered the crispness of the air that no longer filled my nostrils. The memory of deadly cleanliness sterilized the chlorine laden air that wafted up from the pool below. I could feel my rod under pressure in my hand, but all my eyes could detect was a lack of callouses. Life at the bank had been comfortable. The only water to challenge me was the cesspool my neighbors played in down below.
A rumble of a passing motorcycle drowns out the children. It called into memory a show I had watched endlessly. Two motorcyclists attempted to circumnavigate the globe. I loved to watch the suffering. Pushing through mud, unmapped areas, being robbed, and falling off the bike without end. Real adventure. Real challenge. No comfort.
I needed that.
My mind began to churn. The coffee was doing its work. How could I scratch the itch I had deep inside? My couch sought to comfort me as the children splashed below. Their joy flooded my living room with sounds of sorrowful imprisonment. Distant dreams of rippling water plagued me.
It occurred to me that just north, lay a network of forest roads left unexplored. I had no idea where any of them went. Yet now I did. Time, money, and the complete lack of obligation was bestowed upon me when I handed in my two weeks’ notice to the bank days earlier. A reward for the courage of being true to myself. I was no banker.
There were cracks forming in the fishbowl.
I could go on a quest for new fishing holes completely off-road. The challenge of no cell service, poor maps, and absolutely no knowledge of what lay ahead was seductive. It seemed uncomfortable.
Yet it couldn’t be completely aimless. The coffee’s bitter burn hit my lips again.
I needed a northern star, something to shoot for. The Illinois River in northwest Arkansas, where my brother and I had fished the year prior, could be the anchor I needed. I could make my way from my fun-sized prison cell and head north on nothing but forest roads on a quest to find undiscovered fishing holes. No agenda, no time constraints, just adventure.
I sipped my coffee. Comfort be damned.
I let my brother know my intentions to set out in the morning on my small, 225cc Yamaha. It had been my commuter and only source of danger in the tame life I thought I wanted to lead. I didn’t know when I would arrive at his house in Fayetteville. Anything could happen, and it did.
Never having camped or fished from a motorcycle before, this was sure to be different. For starters, transporting my rod would be somewhat of a challenge. An older four-piece would have to do. It was far from the super lightweight rod that I wanted for the lakes and mountain streams I was sure to encounter, but it would collapse into the two-foot area on the back of my dirt bike. Strapped to the side of my backpack, it found its place on the bike. After a few trial and error runs, it worked well enough.
The morning came. Strapping my accouterments to the back of the bike, I kick-started the bike to life and felt the energy course from the crankcase and into my veins. My route planning was ridiculous and simple. Head north into the Ouachita Mountains and take the first forest road presented. From there, “go north” was my only marching order. I had no idea where I would actually be going.
It was an adventure in its purest form.
The wind whipped my face. The hot, humid Arkansas summer wove its way through my helmet. The Yamaha was a lot of things, but it was not fast. I was fortunate to own the road. So long I were alone, I was the king of the blacktop moving at 45 mph.
With the engine screaming to no one, I spotted my dirt road exit and prepared to enter the unknown. Soon, I would be headed into uncharted public lands that snaked their way north to my destination.
Downshifting, I leaned over and made a wide arc onto the tawny, sandy dirt roads that vacuumed me into the forest. My rearview mirror became cluttered with a massive tan cloud, hell bent on chasing me through the woods. The bike howled a relieved hum, grateful to be running less than highway speeds. It was my only companion.
My escape from safety suddenly paused. All my life I have passed over water, restricted to the asphalt. I fished each place in my mind. Each tree called for a cast, every simmer of sunlight pulled at my chest. Then as abruptly as I became aware of the fishery, I was ripped from it. My vehicle mercilessly pulled me back into reality somewhere on the other side of the bridge.
Free from the tyranny of the comfortable schedule of a bank, I could linger a bit longer now. When I encountered a spot that I thought was good for fishing, my newfound freedom allowed me to explore it. At each stop I added to my body of knowledge as I spoiled the undisturbed mountain waters with a cast.
I stuck with clousers mostly. White skirted and red headed, the small minnow rarely disappoints. Trout were occasional at best. The small mouth bass seemed to rule this corner of the map.
As I let my clouser drift, I stripped and reflected. How had I come to a nameless creek, to accost an assuming fish, on a random summer day? With each strip of my fly, I wondered where I was going. I had become like the wild animals I chased, reacting only to what providence would provide.
The freedom was intoxicating.
Fishless, I broke my rod down. Mounting my bag of possibles onto the rear seat of the Yamaha, I kick started my random journey. The motorcycle chugged away. Sometimes I found myself on mature roads adorned with occasional concrete. Once some sort of project, they were now simply forgotten. Each one was exciting. Each one brought the possibility of untamed fishing holes closer.
Breaking through the trees, I found a derelict pond. Completely devoid of civilization, the Almighty was the last to touch it. My clouser penetrated the skin of the water as it journeyed into the unknown depths. I drank in the scene and the solitude.
The comforts of my gray prison cell with its chlorine infused scents of a tame existence would have never allowed for this. The bank could not get the dividends of the pond on a spreadsheet and therefore judged it as a valueless “recreation.” I always thought it was sacrilege to title such an experience that way when this was what we were meant for.
Soon I was stripping in a small bass. He fought as if he were able to pull down a ship. Yet he barely warranted a second glance after I extracted the clouser from his lips. He must have been terribly confused about the experience. I wondered about his life experiences as he returned to his waters. I remembered how harsh a fish’s life is. I’m sure he thought he had finally met his end. I’m sure a part of him rejoiced to end the struggle.
I cast back into the pond; I was satisfied but greedy. I considered the shores I had found myself in. I wondered if I too had been hooked, but was too daft to realize it. I was, after all, on the side of this no-name pond in the middle of nowhere on an underpowered bike in the middle of the week. Had I messed up my life? Or was this true freedom? What was I doing?
I moved deeper into the mountains. Soon I found myself hanging in my hammock next to a small fire, dinner in hand. In the Army, I had learned the art of ramen noodles. My traveling soul simply needed calories, not culinary excellence. The loneliness of the forest either suffocated me or freed me. I wasn’t sure. I simply slurped my noodles and took another hit of freedom. I think every addict has found themselves here.
I woke up the next morning as the sun penetrated the trees. It was not to have my spartan camp on the road again. The bike hummed a lonesome song, and I didn’t know exactly where I was. The air reported that I was farther north and at a higher elevation.
The woods came alive with its traditional song. Yet, the drumbeat of my single cylinder horse killed all possibility of melody. The rocks popped under my tires as I took the gentle curves with stride. My fuel was down to a quarter tank. If I were to continue, I would have to pay my penance. Nothing truly is free after all.
As my thoughts turned to refueling, the forest road abruptly ended on a black ribbon cut through the mountains. I stopped. I looked both ways as I cut off the bike and was frightened by the silence. There was no one. Despite the mark of man, I was still totally alone.
Post-apocalyptic stories polluted the world in those days. I couldn’t help but wonder if this is what it would be like. A mountain man on a romantic quest for a fish with no one around to tell me no. I don’t know if you can fall in love with circumstance, but I and that day had quite the fling.
I turned the bike north in search of gas. Unprepared for it, I hoped the apocalypse had left one gas station open. Just for me. Around noon I found a small station masquerading as a diner. The locals endorsed the spot by filling the parking lot. It was either good or merely available. Cars decorated the outside like ornaments on a Christmas tree, just as much a part of the building as its signs.
After filling up, I parked the bike and walked inside. I didn’t know I was about to be in the scene of an old west movie, but I was. I clearly was the dusty outsider that the locals had never seen. Everyone stopped. Everything stopped. They looked at me for a few harrowing seconds as I looked right back. No one reached for their pistols and a bold few found their manners, dusty and holstered.
I’m sure I was a mess. The forest road was anything but clean and its dust decorated my persona like medals on the chest of a war hero. I was the only person they had seen in a while. I humbly walked over to an open table. The hum of the mundane resumed.
I ordered my lunch and studied the walls adorned with pictures of trout and smallmouth. They were the punctuations on sentences of dust that made the paragraph of the wall. Just another chapter in this forgotten story of this place. I was l lucky to read it.
I knew water was close, but I had no idea where I was. The internet barely touched this part of the world and cell phones were still looked at as luxuries, service a punchline. It was better for it.
I could feel the direction I needed to head. I could feel the river too. My excursion into the small world of the diner concluded. Returning the bike to its northern course, I continued on. Soon the Yamaha descended the banks of another river.
The river was lacking water, but that just made my little clouser more enticing. The rivers of northern Arkansas are like that in the late summer. The hot sun boils them away while the absence of rain exposes their bedrock as fish concentrate in deep pools. Having long since exhausted their bait fish, my clouser provided them with an overdue opportunity for food.
Casting in the evaporated, nameless rivers, I easily extracted a smallmouth from the shallow rocks. It came out flopping. I could feel the burn of the rock on its scales though it couldn’t. I leaned down and rescued it from the hell that I had pulled it to.
Only a pound or so in weight, it was nearly lifeless. Summer had taken its toll between the scarcity of food, the extreme heat, and low oxygen in the water. The fish felt the crushing weight of reality. It didn’t even flop in as I removed the clouser.
I slid the bass back into its watery home. It barely swam out of sight. With the water so low and season, the fishing here would be fantastic. But an intrepid fisherman would be more pressure on struggling fish. So I returned my rod to its case.
I resumed my relentless trek. Soon I was crossing the Arkansas River, my meridian. I pressed on to my brother. Days in the saddle yielded exploration of the lower half of the state complete. I yearned for a shower and bed.
The Pig Trail snaked its way through the Ozark National Forrest. It winds and curves and claims bikers every year. The trail is dangerous and exciting. Its scenic views highlighted by a curve-induced slow pace, it was a forced meditation. The rhythm of the single-cylinder relaxed me as I pushed to the tyranny of seductive comfort.
By nightfall, I arrived at my brother’s. Greeted by a lot of young twenty-somethings that had life figured out in speech, but not in their eyes, I found a bed empty and cool. I had little time for them.
The morning delivered coffee and a quiet front seat of my brothers truck. He oozed stress. Being a poor college kid with no money and overrun with expenses, I could feel the tension of his life. The truck lumbered along drinking the gas that taxed my brother’s psyche. I sat wondering why he entertained such displacement.
With McDonald’s in my gut and the cool morning air slicing the cab, we departed the road on a trail that terminated at the Illinois River. We stopped and began to prepare for battle. I’m not sure if it was with fish or each other. Perhaps it was both.
It never ceases to amaze me that, no matter how far we grow from our childhood, we return to it so quickly. My brother and I had done this routine over and over again as kids. We had fished together for years but were nothing alike. When I graduated high school, I ran off the stage into the deceiving arms of the Army. I couldn’t leave fast enough. Yet he clung to our past with different memories.
Still, we found ourselves walking to the river together. The discussion turned to how inept I was with a flyrod. By his estimation, so are all fly fishermen. He isn’t wrong, just wrong-headed.
“You know the point of fishing is to catch fish right?” he pointed out. I would like to say it was jovial, but my adventure into fly fishing offended him at some level. In our world, men traded on their success as fishermen and families shared reputations. We were always told that fly fishing was a rich man’s game. An activity for the aristocrats we were not destined to be. Though we were never told not to pursue it, the implication was alive and well.
I wanted to tear down the machine that raised us, but he had a point. Catching fish with a fly rod was unbelievably hard. Yet, the challenge was seductive. I still don’t think he understands. There is poetry in fly fishing. As an accomplished bass fisherman, he won’t even take pictures of small fish that he catches. Though most pictures of poems are small.
I stripped my line in, meandering a popper through a partially submerged tree, an unbelievable temptation. What if he was right? What if I was wasting my time on some outmoded method of fishing to serve my ego? Why did I need to think of myself as a fly fisherman? What was so attractive about that?
These questions resonated deeply as I watched the popper cup bits of water and throw it through the pool I yanked it through. Perhaps the same reason I chose the harder path of fly fishing in this densely compacted river is the same reason I was driving a motorcycle through the national forest. There is something about the challenge of hard things that invigorates my soul. I need suffering like I need air. I don’t understand it, but understanding is not something I need.
I watched a form approach my popper from under the glass-like water. Dark, then green then an explosion. The progression was quick, but rhythmic as my casting, and I let the bass take the popper to the bottom. He believed he had captured his prey with ease. Under the log that protruded out of the water he went.
I stripped the line taught, then hauled back with an effective hookset. The bass arced into a half moon and pulled the line back out of my hand. Soon he was on my reel as I snapped the line up to keep tension on it. The reel whined as he ran.
I began my retrieval. The bass attempted to head upriver away from me, but I brought him closer and closer. Soon I wore him into submission and he drifted to my feet. I picked him up and proudly displayed him to my brother, gawking.
This is one of my favorite fish caught. Being able to see the approach of the small bass and to watch him take my popper was thrilling and educating. He studied it for a moment before he made his decision. I knew my flies had to be convincing, but this made me recommit to realism.
My brother made some comment that was engineered to hide his jealousy and admiration. Fly fishing had worked right in front of him. Yet that wasn’t the part that caused him turmoil. It was the joy I had from such an ordinary fish. The effort that was placed in catching it had made it much more meaningful.
Perhaps that is why I was riding across the forest floor on such a small bike. Perhaps that is why I endured days of heat and fatigue. I wanted my journey to mean something. I wanted to kill comfort. I wanted poetry in life.
I think that was it.