September 10, 2023
This article was originally titled “Five-Pound Bag of Sour Patch Kids” in the Seasonable Angler column in the 2023 Fly Fishing Made Easy special publication of Fly Fisherman.
It’s always here, where gravel roads cross and there’s no cell reception, that we meet. Some people meet at bars, some at coffee shops, some at the local Thai restaurant. For us, it’s always where there’s at least a one-to-one ratio of rivers to roads, where we can get lost if we choose, where we’ll end up having to bushwhack for at least a few hundred yards to find the stream.
I park and wait at the top of a hill between cattle gates, the only place to get any sort of cell reception within miles, to wait for them and to check my messages. I just set up my tent in a national forest campground 15 miles upstream, after driving for two and half days straight from Pennsylvania and sleeping in highway-hugging hotels. I’m tired of podcasts, and the relentless reach of the interstate and billboards, and eating processed food wrapped in plastic, and doing the math of miles and gas. I’m tired of sitting and being alone. When I close my eyes it still feels like I’m moving—following those yellow-line road markings—and I just need to be with people I love, catching fish.
It took 36 hours of driving, and more than two and a half days just to get out to Montana to catch cutthroats and explore some wilderness. The world gave me a clear ride; my truck didn’t break down, and I wasn’t the guy squatting next to his car expelling the Sbarro pizza from the truck stop 23 miles back. I made it here, at the top of this hill in the middle of nowhere 15 minutes early—so I am grateful. Grateful and tired and excited and ready to get lost up some ravine with good friends.
I’ve known Todd and Noah for a few years. We connected through our mutual love of poetry, wild places, and native brook trout. A few years ago, I emailed Todd to tell him how much I loved his book In the Kingdom of the Ditch and after a few messages back and forth I realized that his son, Noah, was the writer who wrote all those incredible essays I read over the years in fly-fishing magazines. We met a few months later at a turnoff to a rutted-out gravel road up in a pretty wild part of a little-traveled Pennsylvania state forest just as Noah’s first book, Of This River, was published. We ended up hiking eight brutal miles into a ravine full of brook trout that maybe only see a fly or wading boots once or twice a year. It was a perfect first date. Ever since, we try to find time to explore new water whenever Noah is back home and we have become, in some ways, a little writing community that meets around wild trout streams.
As they pull up, Noah jumps out of the car and we hug and Todd and I wave at each other. We’re too excited to spend much time with greetings so we immediately pull out, rushing and curving through a plume of dust toward a wilderness trailhead. We hike a few miles until we start bushwhacking down to the stream to fish all day. This is the only chance we’ll get to fish together and we make the most of it; Todd is flying back to Pennsylvania tomorrow and I’m heading up into the Bob Marshall Wilderness in a couple of days for a two-week off-the-grid completely solo artist residency.
There’s a deep run that undercuts a giant granite boulder at the first place we stop on the stream. Noah and Todd fished this stream last week so they give me the first cast, and I immediately hook a hefty trout that gives my 3-weight glass rod a full bend, and in those moments of landing that fish our whoops of joy drown out the echo of the endless engine drone, and wash me clean of the sore staleness of three days of driving alone. I am on a river, with friends, catching fish. What more could I ever want?
We catch cutthroat after cutthroat on dry flies, kneel down to identify plants, and catch up on our writing projects and how the fishing has been for them over the past couple of weeks. We fish until a storm rolls in and the rain puts the trout down and we hike out soaking wet. As I pack my waders and quickly throw on some dry clothes under my truck cap’s rear window, they hand me a big five-pound bag of Sour Patch Kids to take with me into the backcountry. I haven’t bought Sour Patch Kids in years, but Noah loves his candy and with Todd leaving tomorrow, they weren’t going to eat it. My provisions for my trip consist mostly of dehydrated meals and non-perishable foods and I didn’t think to bring anything tart and sweet along, so some Sour Patch Kids actually sound pretty appealing. We hug and off they go. I’m alone again.
Over the next few days I slowly make my way up to northern Montana and eventually into the wilderness and my cabin. I quickly fall into a rhythm of waking up, drinking coffee, writing, fly fishing through the day, and writing as the sun drifts below the mountains. I’m lonely, but content. In that solitude, I find myself reaching out to the people I love—writing letters and notes on the back of postcards I bought down in Missoula, talking to them as if they were right beside me hiking up a mountain (this also helps scare away any grizzlies).
When those whom we love are easily found, we tend to forget just how important they are. Each day without people pushes me deeper into a sense of gratitude for my friends and family, and each day I reach into that sticky bag of Sour Patch Kids that is slowly congealing into a big lump of sugary tartness.
I fish every day and catch beautiful westslope cutthroats on purple flies and hike up mountains and sit at their peaks trying to trace the horizon through afternoon haze. There are moments where I wish I was sharing these places and fish with someone else.
In these moments, the complete awareness of my isolation sometimes becomes so heavy that I end up floating in the river just to feel light again, to feel held by something other than my own thoughts. I naively think it’s just physics that lets me float in the river, but it’s not. It’s the slight current, it’s the spots of a cutthroat burned into my retina as if I stared at the sun too long, it’s the sound of the laughter Todd, Noah, and I shared as trout reached for our flies, it’s the taste of a beer drunk on my porch with my buddies two days before leaving for this trip, it’s the thought of my wife and dog lying in bed, it’s the sun resting itself on the far ridge and the knowing that the people I love might be watching that same sunset. I am buoyed.
In the evenings—back at camp and finally dried off—I snack on Sour Patch Kids and bourbon while I sit and watch the sunset. It’s in that last light that I feel most connected to this world, all of it: the things I can see and smell and hear and the people I know are out there, who’ll be there when I walk out of this wilderness.
Even in solitude, we have the small joys that our loved ones have given us. With each handful of sugary sourness I consume, chased with freshly picked huckleberries, I think about giving and sharing and how those two acts lead to so much joy and gratitude.
So many people gave me this opportunity to be out here alone for two weeks —my wife who stayed at home to take care of our dog and helped me plan and prepare, the people at the Forest Service, and nonprofits that sponsored my trip and believed in my work, my friends at home who encouraged me every time I started to doubt I should go, Todd and Noah for the Sour Patch Kids—and each day I try to give my thanks.
As I hike out from my artist residency behind a team of mules, grateful for the dust they’re kicking up under the weight of all my gear, I can’t help but wonder what I have given back to this place, these mules, and the people who have helped me get here. What have I shared? What have I given? What have I offered? Is all this fishing and exploring just a continuous process of catching and releasing, of extracting and returning, or does my presence, my pursuit, my connection with these people, places, and animals offer something to those on the receiving end? How can I live my life in a way that acknowledges all my blessings, that keeps me mindful enough to share them?
I finish the last of the Sour Patch Kids driving through a post-torrential-rainfall eerie-orange Wisconsin dusk, one day away from finally being home after three weeks of traveling. I lick my fingers for the last of that sweet sourness, waiting for the tart to hit my molars, full of gratitude for a place called home, for wild fish and wild places, for friendships founded around the sharing of joy, determined to give back in some way each day, knowing that the trying will answer the how, convinced the point of this whole thing is to keep the cycle of joy and gratitude going for as long as possible.
Michael Garrigan (mgarrigan.com) writes and teaches along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. He is the author of multiple poetry collections, including Robbing the Pillars and River, Amen (Wayfarer Books, 2023). He was the 2021 Artist in Residence for the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area.