When my pup Arlo was younger, 14 or so years ago, we lived for a spell in Bozeman Montana. On the days when I wasn’t baking sleazy pizza in order to pay my rent and the associated “outdoor tax” that makes the cost of living so inflated in ski towns and other outdoor hubs, we would load up my 1976 VW camper bus and put some miles between us and civilization. Arlo learned really quick out there, where pavement is less a given right and more an unexpected surprise, that gravel roads usually end somewhere fun. The moment the van hit gravel and began the lurching, rattling, and shaking that only 2 tons of underpowered, box shaped German steel can muster, Arlo would race to the front and start to whine, whimper and bark in excitement. On those particularly long gravel roads the cuteness would wear off about the time all 90 pounds of energetic shepherd/husky jumped into my lap unannounced.
I know I get that puppy energy too after all these years of gravel roads and the places those roads have taken me. That excitement is amplified for me these days if that gravel road happens to follow the winding course of a trout stream through the mountains in and around south central Montana. I have found though, as opposed to most folks who respond to excitement with an acute stress response (ASR) and tend to speed up (pulse, respiration, movement), I become afflicted by the opposite, a parasympathetic stress response where your actions and body slow down, which explains why I tend to decelerate to the point where I need a bumper sticker that says “Caution: Car Makes Unexpected Stops at all Freestone Rivers” so the cars behind me know that I will be driving well under the posted limit and will veer off the road at any pull off that affords a view of the water. I guess we fly fisherman have to learn to slow down, if you rush you’ll forget to run your fly line through every guide, you’ll tie a crappy knot and lose your first fish, or worst of all you’ll crash into the river and scare that hog sitting tight to the bank you just jumped off. One advantage to living in an outdoorsy town is that you are usually not the only car on the road driving 4 miles per hour while rubbernecking at the mountains, rivers or woods in search of the perfect run, riffle, rock or ridge to play on. If the department of motor vehicles in those places were smart they’d erect signs saying “Watch for Slow Moving Subarus with Roof Racks” or something of the like.
I recently found myself bouncing down a 17 mile long gravel logging road in west central Maine to visit a friend who is the grounds keeper for a hunting and fishing lodge which conveniently happens to have one of only a few golden keys to a vast tract of private logging land with hundreds of miles of brook trout and land locked salmon water. There exists a different set of rules of the road off pavement and one of the most important for newbies to gravel is that passenger cars and trucks are not the top of the ecosystem. That award goes to logging trucks and other large trucks whose drivers I suspect see themselves as can opener and you tin can, so be forewarned and remember: those going down hill have the right of way. A few miles in a fully loaded logging truck asserted his dominance of the road and sent me into the ditch, luckily I saw him coming and slowed down enough to save any damage except for the rock which put another divot in my already (probably illegally) cracked windshield. If you spend enough time on the backroads your windshield will take on the appearance of the road maps you try to read while you should be watching the road. That’s the thing with gravel roads, you gotta pay attention.
Once I had a cup of hot coffee in hand and waders on leg I was able to shake off the mental dust and grit from the drive in get down to the real business of hood leanin’ and map gawking. I find it to be a good idea to get at least the ghost of a plan of attack figured out before you begin any fly fishing trip, otherwise you may suffer from River Attention Defecit Disorder or RADD which a good fishing buddy in Montana and I are co-afflicted by causing us to waste precious fishing time driving all over creation to find that perfect spot, or more recently driving for 2 hours through a full campsite unable to decide whether we should just go fishing and worry about camping later or head back to a different campsite down river. We are also both stubborn Midwesterners who are still in awe of the Rocky Mountain west which I suspect has something to do with our indecision.
We headed to Cleveland Eddy an hour up the road, which was good, I like to have a short drive with waders on to really build the excitement, plus it gives you enough time to catch up with an old friend so you don’t feel obliged to do so in the river when you should be fishing. I had the wonderful realization along the way that we were beyond the reaches of the cell towers, and I was as much as is possible these days, away. Away is a confusing word for our culture as we seem to spend half our lives working to stay connected and the other half trying to disconnect. As a wilderness guide I have seen the relief people experience when they find out that for the duration of the course or trip they won’t be able to get emails, calls, or texts. Ask yourself, how many days of being disconnected could you go before:
1. You start to feel anxious
2. You’d get fired
3. Your significant other would either leave you or come looking for you
4. Your family would sell all your worldly possessions and start to talk about you in the past tense
5. Your day to day life would cease to function
What really bothers me is the second on the list. How many times have you seen people, after their 9-5 day is over checking emails, taking business phones calls, or texting coworkers? While I know it is sometimes advantageous to be able to conduct business during non-business hours, like say if you go to Montana to fish and can field a few phone calls mid stream that will result in a boost to your bottom line, I see us as a generation a trading away our free time for what? It used to be that when the work day was over it was over barring some major catastrophe or crisis. After work we had 14 or some odd hours as free time, free from any obligation to be on call. But now we are not only on call essentially 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, we are expected by our employers to be on call all the time. I have heard friends get in trouble by employers for not responding to an email or text sent after hours and I have seen the result of this “on call” workforce mentality with friends who get troubling/stressful/crappy news from work after hours that alters their ability to enjoy their supposed time off.
I ask employers to make the change first and foremost. Us employees are in a pinch: if we ignore work after hours we run the risk of punishment but if we acquiesce to the 24 hour work day we risk being constantly in the workplace mindset and I wonder can we really relax and enjoy our “free time” if we can’t ever get away from work.
So join me in supporting:
No Business after 5 or NO B.S.→5 (I’m still working on the logo)
We need to get away, if for nothing else than to prove to ourselves that life goes on whether or not you check you email daily. There are some deep rooted psychological issues here that I’m sure not equipped to figure out, but I feel that it isn’t good for us in the long run. We need to make a point to our employers that we are not an on call generation of workers. Work when you work and leave it behind at the end of the day, remember you’ll never regret the decisions you make that allowed you to do what you want to do. How do you start? How can one find this “away” I speak of? It’s easy, drive until the pavement ends, roll down your window and drive until you lose cell service, remember, there is always something fun at the end of a gravel road.
Gear List for Getting Away:
- Coffee, water, tea, energy drinks, adult beverages. The proper liquid at the proper time is key.
- Snacks. Gravel roads seldom lead to big box grocery stores and road kill can be sparse out there.
- Happy time paraphernalia. Fly rods, skis, climbing rope, bird ID books, an excited puppy.
- Map. Optional.
- A full tank of gas. Happy time can quickly become a made for TV survival show.
- Cell phone on airplane mode. I know what you’re thinking, but hey, you probably won’t get service anyway and you may want to take a pic or two.
As expected, the fishing was tranquil without the clatter and commotion of other fisherman, sure I felt a little elitist but then again the fish don’t judge and this wasn’t exactly a pay to play spring creek. The first pool we fished was a long run that dumped into a pond that I thought was wadable but turned out to be bottomless as far as I could tell. Deep pools are like mountain trails, they egg you on until you can’t remember how to get back to your car or until the water is deep enough to buoy you up to the point that you can’t get a bite on the ground to stop your slide into the abyss. I have heard that to be a great fly fisherman you have to have two skills: either superb casting skills or an adventurous wading spirit to get your fly to the fish and you must have the ability to summon unending faith that you do indeed know what you’re doing and that there are indeed fish in that river, and I guess we sometimes extend that faith a little too generously to the integrity (or presence) of the river bottom.
A few drifts through the end of the run produced my first landlocked salmon of the year, and after wrangling a few of those high octane torpedoes I had the acute urge to drop all I was planning for the next year and devote my time to the pursuit of their equally energetic and over sized relatives who live in the cold Atlantic ocean. I don’t usually get into the quantification game, bigger fish and more of them, but it is hard not to imagine yourself getting spooled by a 30” salmon instead of lining in a 14”er. Like all gravel roads, my time fishing the water that produced the legendary Parmachene Belle came to an end and on the drive back out to the pavement my phone let out a belch of beeps, chimes and buzzes telling me that I had an hour of texts, emails and calls waiting for me to catch up on. Turning around crossed my mind, but if I didn’t get back to the pavement world I couldn’t afford to head back to the gravel.