I was breaking fresh tracks through two feet of snow this past weekend while on a backpacking trip in Colorado, to a little-known creek that’s open water year round.
The drive was long enough, but hauling in gear for two nights of camping was enough to make me question what in the actual hell I was doing alone in one of the more remote areas of the West.
About a mile from camp, the lyrics from the classic Johnny Cash song “I Walk the Line” popped into my head. “As sure as night is dark and day is light, I keep you on my mind both day and night, and happiness I’ve known prove that it’s right because you’re mine, I walk the line.”
Fly fishing is on my mind day and night. I’m not sure if the happiness it brings me is proof that it’s the “right” to spend so much time doing it, but I don’t care. As the age-old adage so accurately says, I’m just happy to be out there.
But this trip was different. I had an entire, remote, high-desert canyon to myself, not to mention the excellent trout stream that ran through it. The ground was covered in snow and it took me ten minutes to clear the powder out from my campsite so I could sleep on the sandy beach of the river instead of on the snow.
The fishing the first day wasn’t as spectacular as it was in the past. I did have to go all “River Runs Through It” to chase down an angry rainbow but aside from that, trout were small and unwilling to take my flies.
I was exhausted after waking up at 4 a.m., driving for hours, and then hiking 2.5 miles to my campsite, so I called it a day even though there was more than enough daylight left. I got my stove going at camp, cooked up some beef stew and found the cake batter I’d hauled in and set about having a gourmet backcountry meal.
I crawled in my tent at about 6 p.m., utterly exhausted. It was still light outside, so I read for until I realized that I couldn’t feel my hands anymore. My lantern was doing a good job of providing reading light and I could see ice crystals beginning to form on the walls of the tent.
That was nothing new to me. I’ve spent plenty of cold, miserable nights in worse conditions. But as the frost grew thicker and the night grew colder, I knew I was in for “one of those nights.”
I woke up the next morning to about half an inch of frost covering everything inside my tent. My sleeping bag was soaked through, as was the pad underneath. It took me a half an hour to thaw out my waders and boots over my camp stove just so I could leave the tent to get water boiling for breakfast.
The Johnny Cash lyrics popped into my head again as I waited for the water to boil. And then I asked myself a question: was I walking a line between passion and obsession?
Fly fishing is my lifestyle. I plan my life so that I won’t miss the salmon fly hatches on local Utah waters, or the cicada hatch on the Green. My friends know that inviting me to do to anything during autumn is pointless, since I spend October through December chasing spawning browns and brookies. Then when spring rolls around, I’m up at 10,000 feet as soon as possible to fish ice-off on remote lakes, not to mention finding the spawning cutthroat trout — my favorite to catch.
I set off walking downstream for another two miles, through more unbroken snow, with that question still weighing on my mind. What most people call insane, I see as an opportunity for adventure. Sure, I was freezing for the two days I spent in the canyon (and I made the biggest mistake in the world of forgetting the toilet paper — first and last time I’ll ever do that), but on Sunday I hooked some truly monstrous trout. Fighting them into my net on my old Winston IM6 brought a smile to my face and I didn’t feel cold or hungry or alone anymore. I was standing right on that line of being insane and adventurous, and that feeling is what keeps drawing me back to far-flung places like the middle-of-nowhere Wyoming and the more remote basins of the Uinta Mountains.
The world would be better off with more adventurers, more dreamers, more people willing to live life with a purpose rather than just going through the motions. Passion makes you happier – the gleam in the eyes of my fishing buddies as they hook into big fish is priceless. The satisfied half-smile a woodworker I know will give to a project of which he’s particularly proud speaks volumes without breaking the dusty silence of his shop.
As I hiked out of the canyon and drove home, I concluded that Johnny Cash was wrong. There is no walking the line. There’s only doing or not doing, loving or not loving, living or not living. I’m happy to say that, right now, I’m definitely on the other side of the proverbial line – and I’m happy as a kid on Christmas to be there.
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer from Utah. He’s the author of the “Trout Bum” column for the Standard-Examiner, as well as a monthly columnist for KSL.com. Spencer also authors the bi-weekly “Cutthroat Chronicles” for Fishwest, and is a weekly columnist for Trout Life. He’s working on becoming a full time novelist. If he’s not on the river, he’s at home tying flies or writing. Connect with him on Twitter and Instagram @Spencer_Durrant.