I think that all or most men feel at one time or another, and to varying degrees, that desire to cut ties with everything, to take only what you can carry and just go. On the East Coast the Pacific feels like a magnet when you're 24 years old, pulling at you in your cubicle. Some days it pulls harder than others, and the roads, rivers and open skies in between are all part of the allure.
And I, for better or worse, am a dreamer. Pragmatism is somehow lost in translation. I like rock and roll enough to have a guitar tattooed on me. I like open windows and loud music. I like being so tired that it feels like you’re drunk. And I love to fish. Keep in mind, I said “fish,” not “catch.” I can’t rattle off the biggest specimens of each species that I’ve caught, and if I could, I doubt it would impress many. The August morning when, wading, I caught an 18-pound striped bass on the flats of Cape Cod, on 12-pound-test, was a highlight of my fishing career. But I wouldn’t trade all the nights growing up that my cousin (pictured here) and I stayed up until 2 or 3 in the morning deciding what we’d do if we caught that 50-pound striper. The 50 wasn’t to be, but those conversations, the late nights readying gear and studying weather forecasts, the long drives filled with anticipation, are as much “fishing” to me as casting, reeling and fighting a fish.
So finally, I have given up. I am going. I am regretfully leaving behind a good job, with good people. I am leaving behind a house, bed and television, and the habits that creep into our lives, grow like roots and keep us in place. I am fishing my way across the country, the long way. A good friend drove cross-country recently, and he sent me this postcard from Montana. I tacked it to my refrigerator at the time, without giving it much thought. But maybe those postage-stamp-sized photos of an enormous sky were working on my subconscious this whole time.
I have put almost everything I own in storage, with the exception of what I’m bringing and what I have loaned to friends. Piecemeal, I have toted my life, in bags and in boxes, to a locked garage, and am left with only what I think I’ll need.
Decisions like this, drastic changes in the course of your life, progress in a surreal way, punctuated by startling moments of sharp reality. When that storage door closes for the last time, and the things that have been such a big part of your life for so long are behind it, it feels an 8 ball has solidified in your gut.
First you store the big things that you can get away without: the dressers, the clothes, the couch. But then slowly you give up the others things, and little by little you trade in what your life was for what it will be.
When you finally store the mattress, you find out that an exercise mat doubles nicely as a bed for the last couple of nights.
And finally, all that’s left to attach your name to is the box you rented to collect your mail while you’re on the road.
But enough about what I’m leaving behind, what am I taking with me? What would you take, if you had this much space, five months on the road, and there was no going back? There are things I wanted that I’ve had to leave behind, and things I’m sure I will wish I’d brought, but here’s what I’ve narrowed it down to. I will forego the obvious.
Of course, you’ve got to have your favorite pair of jeans. No, these are neither pre-torn nor pre-faded. They were in great shape when I purchased them as a junior in high school. They’ve just taken a beating in the last 7 years, and my grandmother, who used to run her own yarn shop and lives in Utica, New York, keeps patching them up for me. They’ve been to 12 Bruce Springsteen concerts, Paris, Dublin, Madrid, Louisville, Key West, one World Series game, in the back of a couple police cars (rectified misunderstandings, of course) and now we’ll see if they can make it across the country and back. I don’t know how she keeps them in one piece, but when they get bad enough, I stick them in the mail and they return without holes. She snuck in a few shamrock patches for the trip, for good luck. (I almost left the squad car mention out, until my father asked where he could access the Internet to see “my glogs,” at which point I knew that sometimes “the closer you are to danger, the farther you are from harm,” as Tolkien wrote.)
I don’t have one of those fancy collapsible wading staffs. But I did carve this out of a branch in the Adirondacks, where my aunt has a small cabin, seven years ago and it’s stayed in one piece from Syracuse, New York, to New Jersey and out to Cape Cod. So I figure it’s got as good a chance as any at keeping me upright in whatever waterways I find myself traversing (knock on ash). My initials are wood-burned into the handle.
A good friend, John Merwin, was kind enough to load me down with some useful fish-related reading material for the journey.
I can’t imagine how you could possibly have enough music for a cross-country trip, but I’m doing my best. The Stones, Tom Petty, Clapton, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen–they are all coming along for the ride.
And now the tough part: If you could take only six rods to fish the entire United States, which would they be? I’ll tell you what I brought and you can tell me what I forgot, which I’m sure I’ll find out the hard way.
An ultra-light trout rod. I could probably get away with just an all-purpose light-tackle freshwater spinning setup, but you can’t beat the battle of a trout on ultra-light gear.
An all-purpose freshwater spinning setup: A Shimano Stradic paired with a G. Loomis GL3. This is the rod that I’ve had in my arsenal the longest. And there’s something about that one rod that’s stayed put while the others around it have come and gone. This was once connected to a redfish that was picked up by a pelican while I ran to get pliers to remove an embedded hook. The pelican took the redfish and in turn pulled in the rod. I got the rod back, but that’s a story for another gallery. Suffice it to say it’s proven itself lucky enough for the journey.
An 8.5-foot surf stick with a Shimano Spheros. The amount of surf fishing I’ll be doing will be comparatively small, but I love the surf. I prefer a shorter rod, finding them more maneuverable.
A stout conventional setup. A G.Loomis Pro Blue paired with a Shimano Tekota. I’m hoping this rod will be a versatile setup for a lot of scenarios: bottom-fishing, light-tackle shark fishing, live-bait striper fishing and trolling are just a few that come to mind.
A bait-casting outfit: This is another setup that I’ve had forever. A G.Loomis paired with a Calcutta, one of my all-time favorite reels.
A saltwater spinning setup: This one barely made the cut, and I could arguably get away without it. But I wanted a more stout spinning outfit for saltwater situations, one that would provide a little more casting distance. It’s a 7.5-foot G.Loomis rod paired with a Shimano Stradic reel. The saltwater setups are spooled with braid with monofilament backing, and the three freshwater setups are spooled with monofilament.
I’ve packed plenty of camera equipment so that I can capture and share the adventure.
And of course there’s the boring stuff: waders, first-aid kit, shoes, clothes, rain gear, tackle, line pliers, etc.
There’s a freedom and a foreboding in being entirely mobile. On the one hand, where you go is where you are, and any place is as good as the next. You are unencumbered and unattached. But on the other hand, there’s an odd sensation that’s hard to describe. The mental string that attaches you to the place you know you will at some point return to, whether it’s from a month-long vacation or a trip to the grocery store, is severed.
When you close and lock that door to a place that is no longer yours for the last time, that string is cut. You are left leaning into life, with a sense of perpetual motion. And there is only what you have left behind and what lies ahead.
I think Kerouac put it better than I ever could in On the Road, so I will spare you my attempt at description and simply offer his: “What is the feeling when you’re driving away from people, and they recede on the plain till you see their specs dispersing? It’s the too huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
I will miss many of the things that I am leaving behind, and I am apprehensive of many of the things that lie ahead. But there is so much water and only so little time. If you’re going to fish the whole country, you might as well start from the top, so I’ll be writing next from Maine. I hope you come along. Suggest places to fish and tell me places that I’ve missed, I’ll be kicking myself with the foot that’s not on the pedal. My hope is that some of the places I find become places you fish.