One of the first things I notice with each step is that I’m lighter. The next is the solitude. Normally at this time of day I’d have about 80 lbs. of gear weighing me down. That type of load strains every joint and tendon in your body as it works with gravity to smush you between the gear and the ground. All day in the unbearable heat you’d be under the strain of the weight and the mission. Dozens of pounds of equipment riding on straps that move and rub and grind your sweat soaked clothes into your skin until it’s raw and chafed. In a way it’s like being an 18th century mule...at some level war reduces you to a beast of burden.
Today I’m lighter though, I’m home. Gone is my kevlar helmet, which is basically a three and half pound weight that sat atop my head all day every day as if it was trying to make sure that not a single muscle in my body went unstrained. The helmet exists as much to turn your neck into a painful burning knot as to protect your head. Gone is my load bearing vest whose pockets carried essential but heavy gear all around my chest. Gone are my rifle, my boots, my pack, and my body armor. 80 pounds of gear and an unmeasurable weight of mental stress has been lifted from me, most of it left someplace far away. It’s been left somewhere far beyond the mountains that ring this valley and help block those memories from my mind.
It’s almost sunrise. The air is cool and has a clean smell to it. Not too long ago my mornings would be filled with heat, and fumes, the sounds of machines, and the feel of a third world, war-torn country. Sometimes they’d be punctuated by the smell of gunpowder or explosives, or blood or worse. But today I’m home. The sounds are from the river softly gurgling past me, the clear melodic chirps of the birds flitting through the brush around me and my own footsteps softly landing on tranquil ground. My only gear today is a light spinning rod and a very light pack with snacks and tackle. No stress.
I have time today. Time to think. Time to relax. Time to zone out if I want to and just let the river roll by me like time itself. I don’t have to react. I can sit. I am safe. I am quiet. I am home.
Too many days have been spent worrying about an IED strike taking lives like a random lottery of death where friends are here one moment, and literally gone the next second. Today the only violent strike I’m worried about is from a trout.
The cool morning air has my left ankle throbbing. It is a sharp, deep pain that comes and goes whenever it wants. It feels like an ice pick being driven into the ankle by a hammer. Over and over, bang...bang...bang. It’s absent enough that when it returns it makes you flinch, but when it’s there it’s so familiar that you can deal with it like an old friend. I look down every time it starts, as if I’ll be able to see something causing the pain. I scan the horizon as the pain starts and I see the ridges on the eastern horizon that are fringed with a fierce yellow blaze as the sun climbs higher somewhere beyond them. Bang...bang...bang, goes the hammer on my left ankle. I take a moment to look down before I start casting. My ankle is gone. As is most of my left leg. Gone in an instant after a bomb went off next to me two years ago. In it’s place is now a cold, hard, metal prosthetic.
The leg is no longer there. The flesh, and bone, and nerves were turned to vapor in the hot, dry, dusty air in a desert on the other side of the world. But the pain remains, it’s the one souvenir I brought home, and nobody can take it away from me. It remains right there in the ankle that no longer exists. Somewhere in my upper thigh, the severed and scarred nerve endings are sending a signal to my brain...and when my brain looks at the caller-ID, it sees that the call is coming from my ankle. While the ankle is gone, most of the nerve line it used to use to “phone home” still remains. So now when the hammering pain comes back, I look down and see a metal frame where my body used to be.
WHHHHHOOOOOOSSSSSHH!!! I drop down an inch out of reflex as a pair of ducks rocket right over my head and blast down the river. They sound so much like a plane that I almost forgot where I was. A smile crawls across my face as I realize...I’m home. THAT is the type of adrenaline and excitement I miss.
Laughing softly under my breath about those ducks I start to analyze the issue at hand. Where to make my first cast? The waters surface is still a dark green/gray as just enough light is trickling into the valley to begin reflecting the vegetation off it’s surface. It’s a slow current, lazy and swirling. It, like me, has no schedule to keep and seems in no particular hurry. There are fish under the surface and my only mission now is to find them.
The river meanders through this valley and in it’s own way reminds me of a fortress. This is where I come to heal, to be safe, to find peace. I have a huge ring of defenses protecting me here. As I look out from my riverside sanctuary I see low vegetation near the river leading to tall thick bushes. Those in turn are bordered by tall stands of aspen and firs. The trees rise as the earth heaves upward into an endless series of rolling foothills. The tree covered hills ultimately give way to the most intimidating series of rocky defenses on the planet...jagged, treeless, boulder strewn peaks that top out at 14,000 feet. This spot is so remote and well defended that even the bad memories have a hard time finding me. I smile as I look at the thousands of acres of layered defenses that surround me...this is indeed my fortress.
The earth is damp and soft under my right boot, I can feel the ground with the foot I still have. It’s damp but not slippery, it’s just right. Slender reeds and vegetation rise from the damp bank all around me and I can see the slightest hint of my breath on the cool air.
The river bank here is shallow, offering sure footing for this one-legged angler. The water is only a foot or so below my feet, and the river is only 20 yards wide here with a scattering of rocks and logs that offer the fish some premiere ambush sites. A quick glance to the eastern ridges hurts my eyes, the sun is almost above them now and will soon burn the darkness off this valley floor.
My first cast is up current of a small log on the far bank. The log looks soft and dark, like it’s been in this water for 100 years. Dark, swirling water slowly swarms around it leaving only traces of current on the surface as clues of it’s path. The mud on the bank beyond is rich and dark with slender green plants growing from it and providing perfect cover for the small frogs that hunt here as well.
My right arm comes back fluidly, loading the rod with energy. Casting nowadays is different. Throwing heavier tackle with long hard casts is difficult for a right handed fisherman who is missing his left leg. The left leg is needed to help rotate your hips and generate power for the forward stroke of the cast. But today I’m casting light gear on light line and I can get all the power I need just out of my shoulder, elbow, wrist, and hand. And so I throw.
In the still air of the valley I can hear the rod whip past my head, then hear the float cutting through the air until is softly “kerplunks” into the water 25 yards across the river and to my right. It’s a small bobber, barely enough to leave a splash. When it touches down it is instantly under the command of the current. After reeling up the slack I can feel the current through the bobber...it’s the one thing that connects us. Slowly the river and I get a feel for each other as we both have a hand on this float. It slips toward me one moment, then steadily eases away the next as the current curls toward the log on the far side.
I watch intently, but I’m profoundly relaxed as the bobber slowly rides the current downstream. I might as well be a million miles away right now. If a bear chewed off my good leg I might not even notice...I’m that relaxed.
The slack water behind the log pulls the bobber in like a doe gathering up one of her fawns. It’s smooth and natural. The bobber lazily rides a small circular path in the slack water, effectively advertising an easy meal for any trout that might be hiding here. I watch for any sign of a twitch...but it simply circles on top of the water like a floating feather.
The anticipation builds as the bobber looks to break out of it’s orbit behind the log and rejoin the main river flow. Just as that peaceful little float drifts past the jagged end of the log it gets snatched under so violently that my heart stops for half a beat. In that fraction of a heartbeat, the bobber is gone, my line is taught, and i snatch back on the rod.
I’m hooked up solid, but the only visual I have is my line slicing through the water with a life of it’s own. As the tension builds on the rod, the line races back behind the log then just when it looks like it will run out of water it turns and makes a slicing arc for deeper haunts. The fish is strong, pulling not only my line but also overcoming the friction of that bobber that its dragging around behind it.
My only thoughts are of the line, which direction it’s slicing, and keeping the tension on. As it races toward the middle of the river I have to reel quickly to keep the slack out of the line. The bow of the rod is getting less, the fish is gaining ground on me. Faster I reel and I feel the tension come back. Now he darts left and barrels downstream, using the current to pick up speed. My line again is the only sight I have to track him. He feels strong, sending the raw energy of the fight up through the line to the rod in my hand. As I ride the tactile sensation of the fight I wonder for a moment if he can feel me the same way. Can he feel the trembling in my hands? Can he feel the unsteady jerk as I rebalance on a prosthetic leg? Can he feel my heart racing? All of this happens in a blur.
He reaches the limit of downstream travel that he’s going to get. The drag remains silent, he’s not strong enough to steal any line from me. His arc now curves toward my bank on the downstream side and he’s almost out of room to maneuver. Now I’m getting glimpses of a long slender fish. Glistening spotted gold. A flash of red. Small but violent...a natural predator. I gently reel him to the bank in front of me, slip a net in front of him, and lift him from his environment to mine.
Standing here, staring at this fish, I’m still a world away. I am totally immersed in the present. The past is gone, the future will have it’s time, but here...now...is mine. I’m alive. I’m free. I’m home. And I’m having the time of my life. After a moment the fish has seared it’s image into my gray matter and I release him back to the ever flowing river. In a way he too is anchored in the present. The water that held him just moments ago is gone...downriver forever...never to be felt or tasted again. More water is flowing to him so the future will take care of itself...but for now he is in this water...and he lives for it alone. The landscape changes constantly, but he takes it as it comes. I log that as a lesson to ponder as I look to the west.
The sun has lit the slopes to my west with a clear golden light that almost makes you forget how cold those rocks must be to the touch. Again my mind wanders, but here it has time to wander, it’s not a distraction, it’s part of why I’m here at all. If I stare at those slopes for an hour I’m fine with that.
I stand there on the bank, rod in hand, sun warming me in the mid-morning light, and my mind drifts away. It’s begun a process that’s so familiar...playing back memories as if trying to sort them into the right bin. My brain reliving them so vividly that it’s like watching a movie, all while my body remains still. If you walked up on me like this you might ask “what’s wrong?” or “Is everything alright?” That’s what most people do...and then I snap out of it, shrug it off, and get back to doing something else without really giving my mind the time it needed to finish what it started. Out here I have the time. Out here there are no interruptions. Out here I can work through it.
I’ve been around the world. I’ve saved peoples lives and taken them as well. I’ve seen war and evil, as well as peace and kindness. I’ve seen men risk, and sometimes lose, their lives to save a friend (and sometimes even a stranger). I’ve looked dying children in the eye and thought that if I held them tight enough I could keep death from taking them. I’ve seen so many broken and shattered bodies that sometimes it’s all I can think about. Deep down inside it makes me tired. It’s not just a physical tired...my soul is tired. So tired that many times all I can do is sit and stare blankly, my body unable to do much while my brain tries to sort all this pain into the right box where it can be sealed up and stored away, hopefully forever.
Another flight of those ducks buzzes me and snaps me out of my trance...away from the mountains and memories. Another smiles crawls across my face as I realize...today is my birthday...I just turned 21.
My ankle bangs a few more times as I adjust my weight for the next cast. I’ve got all day and I feel light and at ease.
The weight never leaves for good, but being out here lets me get out from under it for a while. It’s the only thing that works.
**this was written to honor those who have served our country. It is not the story of one man...but of many. Thanks to all who have served...and if you have a boat...take a veteran fishing.