August 10, 2022
I’m not sure about the existence of ghosts, but I sometimes suspect their presence—just as my somewhat animist tendencies feel the presence of something we humans call “God” in every songbird, stream, and stone. It’s just a feeling. It’s nothing I can put my finger on or prove but it feels as real as gravity, and as inevitable as death. There are things we leave behind, for better or worse. Like a hopper hitting the surface of the water, our lives and choices leave ripples in time and space. We are doing it now.
Whenever I step into a new river I imagine those who came before me, and whenever I step out of the river I wonder what will become of it. In the big scheme of things, fly fishing has no importance at all, and neither does anything else, from grilling burgers to brain surgery. After all, in time we all get hungry again, and in the long run the patient eventually dies, even if just from old age. Everything in life is a delaying action. It’s all just something to do while our atoms unravel. So, if I have my choice—and these days I do—I’d rather go fishing than almost anything else. And for the next two days, my friend Aileen Lane and I were planning to chase wild, native redband trout in the desert mountains and foothills of southwestern Idaho. How cool is that?
For a man who loves rivers, streams, and oceans, it is ironic how much I am drawn to dry places. I love watching the tenacity of life . . . the wildflowers growing through cracks in the earth, the trout stream that pours from deep, cold springs and amazingly supports life in the middle of so much parched death. Deserts speak to me. Deserts and other dry places accentuate the life-giving value of clean water. I guess this is why the Devils River in my home state of Texas seems so special to me. It winds through the harsh West Texas desert like a big green snake with scales that look like trees, and there are deer, mountain lions, javelinas, and myriad colorful birds that depend upon its flowing springs. When the springs run dry and the river vanishes, so does everything else.
Our destination that first morning was Jordan Creek, a tributary of the Owyhee River, which in turn is a tributary of the Snake River. Each little creek that spills down the mountains of the Owyhee Front adds to the river, that adds to another river, that adds to another river, that adds to the ocean, and ultimately ends up as clouds, rain, and snow, which flow back into Jordan Creek. These creeks have names like Rattlesnake, Wildcat, Big Antelope, and Battle, and although the water we planned to fish has a less exotic name, it possesses something the others do not—namely, it flows through a ghost town named Silver City and contains pure, wild, native redband trout.
When we arrived down the twisting dirt road that rises up from the plains and into the mountains, I immediately felt a strangeness, deep down inside me. Three young boys came flying down the hill on their knob-tired bikes, and even though I knew they were real and most likely picnicking with their parents nearby . . . they felt ghostlike. Everything felt that way, as if the town itself was an illusion and might vanish at any moment, taking us with it.
There was a heavy, painful, dark feeling to the place, and the closer we came to Our Lady of Tears Catholic Church and the small wooden schoolhouse that stood just below it, the more intensely the gloom came over me. The church was built in 1868, only a few years after the American Civil War and amid fighting between the settlers of Silver City and the Bannock Tribe. Add to that the bloody feuds between miners of various companies and claims, and you have a town that has a history of violent death and suffering.
We parked on the edge of the ghost town as close to the creek and as far away from the ghosts as we could get. After stringing up our rods, we walked down to the creek where it formed a deep pool before meandering through a tangle of willows. We could see eight-inch-long, fully mature, beautiful redband trout holding in the current. Neither of us could see any bugs in the air or on the water, but we had the feeling that the fish were looking up and we did not want to disappoint them. Aileen tied on a small caddisfly, and I went to my go-to choice whenever I have no idea what to choose . . . a size 16 Adams. It was a small pool, so we had to take turns. Aileen insisted I go first. Who am I to argue with her?
I worked my way slowly down the embankment toward the upper edge of the pool. I could see them lined up, looking up, sizing up everything that passed by, from a floating birch leaf to bits of cottonwood fluff. I made a short cast and got a nice drift in the foam, and a fish rose like an upside-down lightning bolt, and I promptly missed the hook-set.
“Wow!” we cried out simultaneously. “Did you see the speed of that strike?” I asked. “It was a torpedo!” We both laughed like little kids, and I wondered if I had just blown the pool. But the fish were all still there, lined up and waiting for the parade. These trout were hungry. I cast again.
I ended up getting a series of good drifts at the top and tail of the run, and I received strikes for the first few casts but missed every single one. I could tell that these fish were used to having an instant to choose between rising or ignoring whatever drifted their way. For the most part, they were quick to commit. I don’t know how many tries it took before I found myself slack-jawed in amazement that I had actually managed to hook a fish, and I raised it up out of the water and into Aileen’s waiting net before he could wiggle free. It was a beautiful little redband trout, and the colors were so vivid that I immediately fell in love with these fish. We were both beside ourselves with joy. There is no other way to describe it. I am addicted to small-stream fly fishing for native fish, as they hold a special place in my battered heart. Perhaps it’s because we are both hanging on against all odds. I’m not sure.
Aileen and I had both felt the darkness in town; almost an evil feeling near the church, and it was so heavy that we could not wait to get away from it. Down on the creek with the trout, all we felt was peace and joy. As we fished along the edge of town, we came to an old graveyard with perhaps a hundred silent gravestones overlooking the creek. My friend asked me what I felt. I paused for a long time before I said, “I feel the tragedy and triumph of life.” We walked back down to the creek and began taking turns casting into various pools and pockets as we found them, but we found no fish, and I found my mind wandering back to the feeling I had in the graveyard. It felt like sadness. It felt like regret. It felt like lives wasted fighting over unattainable illusions.
Author Terry Pratchett once wrote, “No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away.” I have found this to be as true as anything, or all the things I cannot be sure of—which includes everything. Our choices create perspective and our perspective creates our reality. Wherever we go, we leave something of ourselves behind. Joy or sorrow. Kindness or cruelty. Empathy or apathy. Courage or cowardice. Love or hate.
For me, fishing and life are both spiritual endeavors. Each new cast forward and each new moment lived is an opportunity to achieve a good drift and a meaningful connection. My finite life only contains the value I give it through my chosen words and deeds. My choices impact the future in minuscule but meaningful ways. I can love a river or simply use it. I can value a fish or friend, or simply use them. Extraction is not the same as interaction.
I choose love, kindness, empathy, and joy as the ghosts I wish to leave behind. Tombstones tell little of value about the journey of any once-breathing being. The choices we make about the currents we encounter decide what is found and felt by the next living soul who stands on that fateful edge and wonders, “Who was here before me?” “Does my life matter?” “What is a life well lived?”
Fish were caught earlier in the day, and we had shared a wonderful morning in a beautiful place that few people ever visit. We drove through Silver City for one last look, and as we were about to leave I looked over and saw an old woman and a young girl sitting on the porch of what looked like an abandoned and broken-down house with a Masonic symbol on the top of the front door frame. I waved at them as we drove slowly by, but they both just sat there motionless and emotionless, like dime store mannequins.
As we wound our way back down the mountain, I could not get the faces of the old lady and the child out of my mind. I recalled seeing a few stacked rocks and an old board near the old schoolhouse, and a sign that looked like it was written by a child. It read, “Crystals for Sale,” but there was nobody there and nothing on the makeshift table. I felt a little chill go down my spine as I thought, “Were they really there, sitting on the porch?” I know, it’s a silly thought. I mean, it’s not like there really are ghosts, in that ghost town . . . right?
Steve Ramirez is a Texas master naturalist, poet, and Marine Corps veteran. He is the author of Casting Forward (Lyons Press, 2020) and Casting Onward (2022).