The current of life is unrelenting in an East Coast metropolis. Even as I vainly grasp for an isolated moment, the urgent flow pulls my attention downstream. In full servitude to the Western mind I’ve inherited, I become so focused on the flow, and the relationship between where I’ve been and where I’m going, that quiet suspension in time and space is difficult to achieve. Seldom is it that I truly understand where I am. The fully present me becomes an illusive phantom.
My friend Jeff is a gifted fly fisherman. He drove down from his post at Colgate University last week to guide me on a fly fishing expedition to the headwaters of the James, deep in the Appalachian Mountains near the West Virginia border. I am not a fly fisherman, or at best an awkward and clumsy one, but if I’m going to fail at something, I figure I might as well fail in a rare and beautiful place. Anyway, I like to watch Jeff’s gift.
So early on Friday morning we fight our way upstream on the human river known as Interstate 64. The tapering of the massive strip of asphalt mirrors the tapering of the James as we travel west. Five lanes wide leaving Richmond, then three, then two, with smaller traffic tributaries fanning away north and south into the Virginia piedmont. Somewhere east of Charlottesville, the blue wave of Afton Mountain rises and slowly crests above the western horizon. Our 250 horses groan a bit as they pull us over the swell, but then relax on our descent into a large valley surrounded by blue waves of earth on all sides. More tapering, until we find ourselves on a narrow ribbon of pavement allowing the passage of only a single vehicle in each direction. Ample room, it turns out, because west of the Shenandoah Valley and into the Mountain-Valley region beyond, the flow of humanity reduces to a pleasant trickle.
The human tributaries in the high country aren’t typically named on the whim of some real estate developer. In Bath County if you turn onto Johnson’s Farm Rd you can be fairly certain you are on the way to Johnson’s farm. The place we seek is Warm Springs, named for the warm springs bubbling from the earth there, and located at the terminus of a narrow ribbon of hardened petroleum known as Warm Springs Road.
Rare is it to sight a human separated from a vehicle in these parts, though human dwellings are common where gravity pulls water into the narrow valleys between ridges. I suppose the occupants are either working or are invisibly not working. They aren’t playing soccer in the front yard, or walking dogs, or at coffee shops, or out shooting money at the big red Target. Nothing seems to be happening. That’s good. That’s why we came.
Warm Springs is a special type of ghost town. The residents eat and breathe like you and me, but are lifestyle ghosts of an older, simpler America. In Webb’s Store we encounter the first pedestrian human we’ve seen for many miles. The thin, pleasant looking clerk is sweeping when we walk in. Slow, quiet sweeping, and by the lack of swept things gathered in the dustpan I gather for myself that her sweeping is more a routine than a necessity. The store is empty. The streets are empty. There is more room in the store than is needed, and long shelves are sparsely stocked. In her quiet, measured drawl the young lady asks, “You boys going fishing?” After the affirmative she offers, “It should be real nice when the rain stops.” We grab some supplies, and on the way out I say, “I guess we might be back in for ice tomorrow evening.”
“I’ll be here,” is her simple prophecy. No guess. Jeff and I look at each other and share a smile. More of what we came for. Tomorrow is mostly the same as today in Warm Springs, Va. Past, present and future more stable, and homogeneous. The calm, predictable float of the Webb Store ghost wheedles us away from the awkward downriver tumble of our modern American lives. She was here, she is here, and she will be here. Tomorrow too. Now I am here, in this quiet spirit world. It feels good.
We pitch our tents at the Blowing Springs Campground, where most of the sites are invitingly empty. The campground is just through a valley and over a mountain from Warm Springs, reached by following the Mountain Valley Rd. We camp beside Back Creek at a place where water tumbling from a mountain takes an erratic 180 turn back on itself. The air always seems to be blowing through this deep groove in the mountain, and there are springs oozing and exhaling from hidden sources to join the surface flow of air and water. Jeff and I have been here twice now to fish, and we both find it to be a place of rare earth magic.
Our fishing the first afternoon on Back Creek is unsuccessful if measured by the contents of our creel. I splash the water a lot relearning how to cast, and my streamers are so unfaithful to their design that a fish would have to be either really desperate or responding to some double-dog-dare from a friend if he were to touch his mouth to it.
Mostly I watch Jeff. He is using a rod with a long line attached to the tip, but no reel. Bare angler necessities. On the end of the line is the imitation of an aquatic nymph, made with his own hands and things you might find in your grandmother’s sewing box. Jeff ties his own flies, an entire art unto itself, wholly independent of the art of infusing them with life on the river.
When watched from any distance the work of an expert fly fisherman on a mountain stream seems more the work of a sorcerer or maestro than that of a common angler. After a stealthy approach to a pocket in the stream where these easily-spooked fish make their food selections, the wand is raised, waived through the air, and finally the fly and its tether are made to fall simultaneously on the surface without so much as a ripple to betray the landing. Hunched in a predatory stance, Jeff trolls the streamer through one pocket with slight flicks of his wrist, then lifts it quietly from the surface and in one beautiful wave of the wand drops it just as softly into another. This all done with such precision, rhythm and beauty that one almost expects to hear the response of violins and flutes rather than the appearance of fish. It is in this way that Jeff is able to conduct one beautiful, translucent rainbow trout into his hands on Back Creek. It is an early catch, and the only catch of the afternoon. Later we hear from other fisherman that the fishing is real tough right now on Back Creek.
We cross back over the mountain to fish the Jackson River on the second day. The Jackson flows through Hidden Valley and is joined downstream by Back Creek. Far east of these high places, and much increased in stature by the watery suggestions of many other tributaries, this same water flows through our great town under the surname “James” (named to honor the home base for one of the greatest real-estate ventures and developments of all times). The previous name had been Powhatan, or PowWow Hill. Indian names are always better.
A mile or two up the Jackson River from Hidden Valley, deep in the backcountry, and after nine hours of fishing over two days, I catch my first and only rainbow trout of the weekend in a bubbly, white tumble of water that probably serves to conceal my lack of prowess. Anyway, as they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day. The fish feels clean, like congealed water, and leaves my hand smelling strangely fresh. I place the tangible fruit of my whole weekend of fishing back in the stream. It floats upside down as if dead for a moment, or maybe just embarrassed, breathing in water as a man breathes air. A slow twitch starts at the tail and wags life into the body, and the fish disappears back into its element.
We do revisit Webb’s Store on the way back to Blowing Springs. The streets of the town are still empty and quiet. Ghostly. As was foretold, the pleasant-faced prophetess is there, and is again the only flesh and blood human we see. She asks, “How ya doin out there?” I tell her how l haven’t had much success, but my partner is doing ok. Peering into the future again, she offers the consolation of her smile and predicts, “Ah, you’re just waitin for the big one.” I smile again. Whenever she speaks it makes me smile. When she speaks I believe her.
I would indeed catch the big one on Saturday evening — the one that’s hard to catch, and even harder to hold onto. Jeff and I take our camp chairs to the edge of Back Creek and sit them down on the beach of smooth rocks facing upstream and west. Jeff fumbles with rocks, fascinated with the varying textures. Jeff’s hands, I think, are more important to him than his eyes. We notice small, grayish white insects beginning to swarm slightly above the surface. Jeff identifies them as mayflies, and digs under a rock in the stream to find a nymph. He knows their life story, as any successful fly fisherman must. After fighting the current underwater for as many as two years in the form of rock-crawling nymphs, they emerge to the surface where the underwater bodies must be shed, and an adult, flying form assumed. Their wings are still soaked, and must be flapped and dried before liftoff is possible. It’s the most vulnerable moment of their lives, and one that many will not live through. Rainbow trout are watching for this moment, and snatch the flies from the surface, sometimes even launching into the air to snatch a mayfly just lifting off. The ones that escape the danger have no mouthparts. Their only purpose above the surface of the flow is to fly, mate, and reproduce. After mating, the females descend to the surface to lay eggs and surrender themselves back to the flow. Their whole adult life transpires in a fleeting, 48-hour period. The weekend of a man is the lifetime of an adult mayfly.
At Back Creek on Saturday evening, these short-lived romantics hover in clouds above the stream, adding vibrance and shimmer to the mountain gloaming. The sinking sun turns the river we face into a sparkling carpet of gold. A cool ooze of air following the water down the mountain brushes over me. All is in motion — insects, river, sun — and yet all seems enduring and purposeful. There is a serene stillness in the motion.
And it is here, squinting my eyes into an irresistible brightness, that I meet my own ghost. The me that isn’t striving and trying to change things. The me that isn’t confused by the past or anxious about the future. My ghost is quiet and content about this existence. My ghost whispers to my flesh, “Just Be.” I listen. I comply. I am where I am, and catch the big one – my own ghost.
We make a last stop in Webb’s Store before descending. I wish my new ghost friend was here, so I could tell her about my catch, but in her place is a much older man. Also, thin, also tall, also very pleasant, and something about the voice suggesting to me that the younger spirit has been nurtured and calmed by the older. I am certain it is her father. He offers advice to improve our fishing, but it’s not new information to Jeff. Anyway, our time is almost up. Time to descend.
Already joined by multitudes of our fellows, we surf down the eastern face of Afton mountain and into the smaller swells of the piedmont. A merge of traffic. Another merge. The radio begins to receive XL102. When tumbling along in Richmond I enjoy that music, not always recognizing its true nature. But on re-entry from higher places, I find the angst and dissatisfaction splashing from the surface of our society unsettling. The pavement widens. Gaskins Road (don’t know why). Broad street (broader all the time). Parham Road (unknown). Staples Mill Road (historical). I-195 (???). Exhaust, concrete, glass, and heavy human turbulence. 48 hours after our hopeful separation from the surface, we surrender ourselves back to the flow.