Dodging Snowflakes and Normalcy

Even though my back was turned to the gentleman posing the question as I stood organizing the gear in my car on the ferry, I instantly knew his expression and recognized the tone of his voice: “You’ve been fishing in this weather?” It was said in a manner better suited for a psychiatrist examining the mental adequacy of a patient than one adult engaging another in a conversation about recreational pursuits. As I turned, there was the expression I expected, and had seen on multiple occasions: part shock, part intrigue, and partially resembling how one might study the 6 legged calf at the circus side-show. My immediate thought was something along the lines of… “Crap. How do I answer it this time?” On this particular day, “this” weather was a dreary Pacific Northwest January afternoon with temperatures desperately trying to reach 40, and a flurry of precipitation that was somewhere between rain and snow. In the split second following his question I scrolled through my memory bank of all the other times I had heard the question posed in this exact way, hoping to find a response that might improve my standings as a sane human being in this complete stranger’s eyes. Let’s see, there had been the sudden and heavy June snowstorm in Yellowstone…oh, and the torrential July downpour with rain drops the size of marbles in Virginia…and of course the December day in North Carolina where the wind-chill wouldn’t have qualified for a driver’s license. As I quickly studied this gentleman, whose age was roughly equivalent to the air temperature, and who was neatly dressed in a wool peacoat and Banana Republic pants, it became apparent that explaining myself might pose a greater challenge than I had originally thought. So I gave the first answer that came to mind, hoping to avoid the conversation entirely: I laughed and said, “oh yeah.” Unsatisfied with my answer and obviously wishing to delve deeper into my psyche, Peacoat asked the follow up question that for those who do not fish can overrule the answer to question #1 (despite however ridiculous the answer to question #1 actually is). If the first question scratches the surface, the second one often cuts to the bone: “Well,” he said in a way that almost presupposed an answer, “did you catch anything?” The honest answer was no…I hadn’t hooked a fish, moved a fish, seen signs of a fish, and had even noticed that the birds seemed to be congregating on any item they could find out of or above the water—never a good sign. But to tell Peacoat that? Impossible! Then, not only would I be viewed as off my proverbial rocker for fishing on a day better suited for anything not involving the outdoors, but I would also be viewed as either a terrible fisherman or as being even further off my rocker for knowingly putting myself through the awful weather with the knowledge that I probably wasn’t going to catch anything. To say that I had caught 20 was the only response that would have quieted Peacoat’s mental musings about my disconnect from the “normal” human race, but then I would have been testing the limits of how much a fisherman can lie just to save face with a guy in Banana Republic pants. Rock, meet hard place. So what was my response going to be? Was it even possible to explain that catching fish wasn’t even part of why I was out there? I knew the odds were stacked against me going into the day, heading for a fishery that can be finicky in its best season at a time that isn’t its best season. However, I also knew that this fishery was my only option on a day where my schedule was entirely open—an increasingly rare phenomenon over the last few months. To pass up being on the water that day—regardless of weather and potential number of fish—would have been like playing chicken with an ever busier schedule, and therefore was not an option. Regardless of if I caught fish, in spite of frozen extremities, and despite the crappiest weather nature could throw at me, I needed to be on the water. And that’s when my answer to Peacoat’s questioning began to take shape: he was examining the situation from the position that my mental aptitude was called into question because I would fish in such terrible conditions, while the truth of the matter is that fishing, or hiking, or taking pictures (no matter the weather) plays a huge role in helping me maintain an even and balanced mental state in the rest of my life. That December day in North Carolina? The middle of the most stressful exam week of my college career. Torrential downpour in Virginia? Our day off between 2 conferences I was helping lead, at the end of which I was the most fatigued I’ve ever been. June snowstorm in Yellowstone? Fishing with my brother and dad the summer between graduating from college and moving across the country to Seattle, all while coming to the realization that life as I knew it had officially changed. On each occasion, the stress and pace and worries of life melted away to the rhythm of the cast, to the conversation with friends, to the beauty of the places trout call home. Boom! That was my response to Peacoat. I was going to respond to his stink-bomb of a question that had been hovering above my head for what seemed like an eternity that no, I hadn’t caught anything that particular day, but I was still ending the day feeling as refreshed and fulfilled as if I had. That the ability to slow life down into simple rhythms allowed my mind time and space to think of things that life and work and chasing success of any kind too quickly crowd out: faith, family, and purpose. Catching a fish honestly had nothing to do with my day. Instead, I was out there to catch my breath. As the answer formulated in my head, I laughed a knowing laugh, and began, “No, I didn’t, but I….” and there came from above us the sound of the ferry’s intercom system: “We are now reaching our destination. All passengers must prepare to disembark.” Peacoat looked at me and said, “well, better luck next time.” And just like that, he turned and walked towards his car, the Banana Republic tag only slightly visible beneath the hem of the wool peacoat. Standing there, I pondered the conversation that had just happened: a conversation that in real time lasted no more than 10 seconds, felt like an eternity, could have lasted hours, but at the end gave me a deeper understanding of the last 10-15 years of my life. Who knows, maybe one day this guy will be in need of a fly fishing guide and the conversation can be continued. But, I have a feeling that even if we had several hours to talk it through, words wouldn’t be able to unpack it all. Peacoat will have to experience the feeling for himself. “Better luck next time…,” he had said as his parting shot. Again, all I could do was laugh and think to myself: No, I had plenty of luck today—even in this weather.
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