by Reid Bryant
First published in Flyfishing and Tying Journal Winter 2010
In my early thirties, I moved my family from our hillside farm in western Massachusetts to the outskirts of Boston, where I planned to pursue a Master’s degree in Education. Ironically, we found ourselves living in an apartment not five miles from my childhood home, in a suburb I had left and vowed never to return to. As a boy, I dreamed of an adulthood in the hills of rural New England, where I could wander the land Nick Adams fashion, hunting and fishing my way through the changing seasons. As a young man I worked hard, and sacrificed much, to make childhood dreams come true. On the farm, I chased woodcock and deer on the ridge behind the barn, slipped native brookies from tannic streams in the valley, and got myself lost, or seemingly so, in red oak forests that stretched to the Vermont border. At some point, the clutching fallibility of my job prospects, and the needs of two rapidly growing daughters, pushed me city-ward. I sold a cane fly rod to buy a laptop computer, and tucked in my shirt for the first time in years.
On the first day of classes, I arrived early for the train that would carry me the fifteen miles to my University. I had slept little, and rose before dawn to navigate my way through abandoned streets to a shack that served as the commuter rail station. I parked the car and shouldered my backpack, noting with some melancholy the wood ducks that winged low overhead in scattered pairs and threes. In years past, September mornings had spoken so deeply of promise, had carried the whisper of another autumn consumed in the grouse woods, and in the ice-rimmed pools of my home waters. But I had resigned, upon my matriculation, to hang the hope of woods and rivers on a nail in the name of academic integrity. It was not without regret that I climbed the cinders of the railroad bed, and noticed a stream that rushed beside the cattail sprawl that lay on the far side.
In retrospect, I should have seen it coming. For years I have found that my favorite trout waters are framed against a backdrop of tracks and trestles. There is something so lyrical that is shared by railroads and rivers, something that sustains sentimental men and fascinates dreamy-eyed boys. It is therefore no surprise that rivers and railroads often follow similar paths through the bottoms of valleys, roaring down from the high country to settle in unhindered progress along the length of open land. So too is there a tacit solidarity between those who ride the rails and those who stand in rivers, an understanding that heritage and legacy are the largely the point. I would guess I am not the only one who, knee deep in a pool, has looked up at a passing train to see the engineer spreading his hands in the fisherman’s query of “how big?”. Over the amassed din of engine and rushing water, that man and I heard each other perfectly.
That September morning, I watched the gentle passage of the suburban stream as I stood in the creosote ooze of the ties, and I thought for a minute on what I’d left behind. My fisherman’s memory is so replete with railroads, and when I picture beautiful pools, they all fall in the shadow of a trestle bridge. Standing there in the dawn, I found some solace in a westward glance. I believed for a moment that I might throw my backpack to the alders, and walk west along those tracks to stand overlooking the pools of my abandoned rivers. I took an indulgent step westward, then dropped off the track to soothe my worry in a blanket of memory.
On a full-moon evening in early summer, I took my daughter Willa to the Millers’ river for the first time, wearing a fishing vest under the backpack in which she, just a toddler, was stowed. On that evening, the river was in lovely shape, and I wanted desperately to communicate to young Willa a birthright of fly-fishing. I wanted her to wade the river on my back, feeling that magic shift from day to dusk when the nighthawks swoop and the mayflies emerge in a swirling wisp. I wanted her to sense, her tiny body snugged onto mine, the increase of my pulse when a trout sipped then ran, and I wanted her to touch one of those shining fish with her small and chubby fingers. I caught nothing that night, nor did any discernible hatch come off, and as I trudged up the bank towards the railroad grade I felt a monumental failure. I had not, on our first trip out, managed to build for my daughter that sepia-toned memory that I wished her to cherish. Then, in the moonlit distance, a train whistled, and my failure was lost for a moment in paternal concern. I couldn’t risk a sprint over the trestle that separated us from our car, nor did the river allow room for much of a retreat from the track next to which we now stood. In the moments that I watched the train approach, it dawned on me how little of this my daughter could in fact comprehend, and how the clanging beast, fast emerging from the dark, was sure to scare her silly. I backed up, and held onto her, trying to cover her ears as the train rushed past. When the caboose overtook us, and the ensuing vacuum of silence absorbed the ringing in my ears, I realized that Willa was giggling. To this day, it is the train she remembers, not the absence of fish or the reverence I so wished to convey.
In my mind, train tracks all lead to rivers, and on that first morning of school, the presence of trains and rivers kept me breathing. I sat on the tracks chucking stones in the water and fought off a mounting conviction that I was far out of my element. I knew nothing of academia, or cities, or this world that seemed, in my absence, to have moved far beyond my range of understanding. Then, in the slanting sun of morning, a downstream trout rose to sip a fly from the water’s rippled surface. In my heart, I reached out and grabbed at the assurance of rivers, and trout, and my love for both. I held hard to this assurance as my morning train grinded to a stop. As I rode in and out of the city for the course of that year, I followed that stream, and loved it, and cherished the railroad that kept it within my reach.