May 26, 2022
When I turned sixty, I went fishing. I went fishing not because I was searching for some form of wisdom or enlightenment—and I wasn’t trying to escape from anything, anyone, or anyplace. I went fishing because after six decades of living I had finally learned that most human endeavors are the equivalent of building sandcastles at low tide, and almost none of them were half as much fun as angling. And I went fishing because life really is just a flicker of light, and we never know when the wind will pick up and blow out our candle.
It’s important to not look back and not look forward but rather, just cast, and see what’s biting. It’s important to simply accept whatever the rivers, seas, or life itself chooses to give us, and then adapt to the prevailing currents. We must play it out, and in the end, let it swim free without expectations, conditions, or regrets—allowing life to flow naturally, even as we set a hopeful course. After all, we aren’t going anywhere in particular. We’re just traveling in the here and now. We’re all treading water, as the sea moves us. “Time and tide wait for no man.”
The drive up to Crabapple Creek was a familiar one through my beloved Texas hills, across the wine country vineyards that line the Pedernales River, and up into the Llano Uplift where the rocks are enchanting and the songs of canyon wrens warble hypnotically. It was my birthday, and I had arranged to meet my friend Sue Kerver, who had invited me up as her guest on a trout lease operated by the Hill Country Fly Fishers club. It was a wonderful birthday gift.
Crabapple Creek is a lovely little ribbon of Texas Hill Country water. It’s the kind of stream that people drive over while crossing a low bridge and they never give it a second look, but they should. It rises up out of the granite rock of the Llano Uplift and tumbles down into the ancient limestone seabed of the Balcones Escarpment until it empties itself into Pedernales Creek and onward, down the Colorado River to Matagorda Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. I smile as I think of the water drops of Crabapple Creek tumbling over the stones on their way to the sea. I envision them as they rise up into the clouds and fall back down as rain only to be sipped from the palm of my outstretched hand—temporarily becoming part of me.
We are nothing more than ephemeral streams that briefly contemplate their own existence. I wonder if Crabapple Creek ever lies awake at night wondering about mortality. Creeks like Crabapple are drying up all over the world as temperatures rise and thirsty sprinklers water worthless lawns that scar the landscape. If only we’d kill the lawns and revive the creeks—imagine the world we might know.
We had come to this place in the water knowing that the club had stocked it with good-sized rainbow trout. I always have mixed feelings about “stockers.” I mean, it’s not their fault that they are raised in stainless steel tanks like cattle in a feedlot, only to be dumped into foreign waters where, in the case of Texas, they never belonged and have zero chance of long-term survival. Their hearts beat just as hopefully as mine and my only consolation is that for a small space in time, they too live in the illusion of freedom. I understand the comfort of that illusion. Impermanence is life; life is impermanence.
Sue walked down to a nice pool just downstream of where we crossed the creek, and I took one farther upstream. We were both tossing streamers, small olive Woolly Buggers with a hint of flash that proved to be just flashy enough. I cast into my pool and immediately got a follow and refusal from a chunky rainbow that looked to be about sixteen inches or so. All of the trout stocked here are at least that big.
To me, this kind of fishing is a bit like casting into a koi pond at the zoo, but I did not let it spoil the beauty of the place or the good fortune of investing time in nature with a friend. In short order Sue started catching one trout after another from the bottom of her deep, clear, fish-filled pool. For a while it seemed like she was hooking a fish every other cast. I smiled, happy for my friend.
“Come on down here!” she called out to me over the sound of rushing water. “You need to catch your first birthday fish!” I did, and while she remained at the head of the pool, I positioned myself at the tail and began working the streamer across the current. I caught a nice trout on my second cast, which gave me a brief but beautiful battle that included a couple of jumps that would make a Romanian gymnast envious. Once in the net I quickly slipped out the barbless hook and was happy to watch it swim away, seemingly no worse for wear. I caught a few more nice fish as the day rolled by, but in truth, my heart just wasn’t in it.
For the next few hours, Sue doggedly went about the business of casting and catching fish. After a while, I decided that I had caught enough and that all I really wanted to do was listen to the birds and the sound of the rushing water as it and time passed me by. So, I sat on a rock, between two waterfalls in the middle of the creek, my rod across my lap, and I watched and listened and felt everything around me and inside me.
I watched Sue casting and catching with a third quarter moon suspended above her in the clear, blue sky. I watched some deer as they foraged among the junipers and oaks on the bluff above us, and I felt the coolness of the breeze and the warmth of the sunlight. And although I tried not to think, I did think—a little.
When we got back to our trucks we sat on the tailgates and Sue ate her soup while I enjoyed my Texas chili and tortillas. At one point she mentioned that she saw me sitting on the rock in the middle of the creek just watching the water falling all around me. She asked, “Were you thinking about turning sixty?”
“A little,” I replied.
“How do you feel about it?” She asked.
After pausing for a moment of silence I said, “I feel fine.”
Then, after another brief silence, I added, “After all, there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. Sure, I’d love to go back thirty years with all I have learned along the way and try the whole ride once again, but I have no regrets, because regrets are a waste of time. I rarely look back except to recall something I’ve learned. I never look forward except to set a general direction, all the while knowing that I’m liable to end up someplace else. Life happens as we plan. Still, I am planning to make this decade the best decade of my life. So, I feel fine about turning sixty.”
It’s kind of ironic that we humans are always wanting to “get back to normal” when the only thing that is normal in life is change. Living authentically is all about being the best version of ourselves, in the moment. That’s a much better path than whining about “lost youth.” In my heart, I am still the boy of six with my cane pole in hand and a “lifetime” of living yet to do. In “real time,” I am a man of sixty casting graceful loops toward the progeny of those first fish, many generations removed. Nothing lasts forever, even as life on Earth outlasts any lifetime.
Driving home I imagined the faces of friends old and new, as I listened to the Steve Miller Band playing “Space Cowboy.” I watched the Texas Hill Country rolling out in front of me beneath skies as open as my hopes and dreams. These were my first casts of a new decade of my life. It might be the last decade of my life, who knows? Life is a river that flows in a circle, and we are all adrift in its currents.
Every moment of value I have ever experienced was the result of choosing to ignore the voices of limitation and fear. Life is a series of choices, and I genuinely believe that we must choose to live many lives, now. When we stop learning, we stop growing. When we stop growing, we are by definition dead. Why do so many people choose to be the living dead? When I got home from Crabapple Creek, I stowed my fishing gear before dropping to the floor and knocking out one push-up for every year of my life, just because I could. I guess some people might say that it was a childish thing to do, but I saw it as the childlike thing to do, and there is a big difference. Sometimes children choose to run fast, simply because they can. I guess quite like the character Rocky Balboa, I wanted to prove to myself that I still have “stuff in the basement.” I wanted to remind myself that no matter what comes my way, I can choose to keep casting onward. I hope you remember that too.
Steve Ramirez is the author of Casting Forward (Lyons Press, 2020). His new book Casting Onward is available from Lyons Press.