Y’all, I’m writing this from the floor of my Seattle apartment, carting the final few bags of donations to Goodwill and waiting for Craigslist buyers who may or may not show up.
And as I sit here, among all that annoying stuff that you never want to deal with at the end of a move, I am certainly writing this as a means of procrastination, but it’s as good a time as any to examine what we go through between the end of one thing and the beginning of another.
A chapter of my life is closing here, and with that closure comes a host of emotions. I’m a bit disappointed that things didn’t work out. I am a bit shocked at how little attachment I feel to this place. I am a bit nervous about what comes next. I am a bit sad to say goodbye to a dream. But nothing that happened while I lived in Seattle was what was expected, and it all started the day I got to my apartment.
When I signed my lease, sight unseen, I had a good idea of what I was getting myself into. Most new-build “open floor plan” one bedrooms are the same: partition walling off the bedroom from the rest of the space, sliding door of some sort, galley kitchen, in unit laundry, floor to ceiling windows. Sounds pretty good and they’re usually clean, free of bugs, and easy to deal with. When I asked the landlord about the location of the apartment in the building, she told me it faced East, toward the city, with “an urban view.”
Now, I know enough about the layout of Seattle and have seen enough episodes of Sex and the City, to know that on the third floor an “urban view” means I’m likely looking at the wall of another building, a power line, an alley full of dumpsters, or some combination thereof.
I got all three.
But I didn’t care. When I moved into this apartment, all I could think about was my new life here. There was nothing in my head besides optimism and excitement. It was the same when I moved to Boulder (both times), Bozeman, and almost everywhere else I’ve lived. Every time I pack my stuff, I’m stoked for the adventure, so my “urban view” wasn’t really a a big deal.
What my landlord didn’t tell me, was that there is an insane roof deck on our building. And once I found that place, I saw what I wanted to see: the Seattle skyline, the Space Needle and a panoramic view of Puget Sound. No one was ever up there so it was basically my private patio.
I made the choice to go up there every day. I made the choice to see what I wanted to see. And I choose now, as I sit on the floor, staring at the wall of another building and the power lines right outside my window, to see what lies ahead. Sure, I’m in the throws of transition, deciding which paperbacks mean enough to pack up and which ones are getting tossed, lovingly wrapping my last few knick knacks in bubble paper, throwing caution to the wind and giving away things I will undoubtedly need to replace someday, but that doesn’t mean I need to focus on what is passing on.
I recognize what I learned from this move, what I learned from my time here, what I learned about my friends and the people that I worked with – and I am choosing to move forward, lessons in tow, eyes open to the possibility that comes with any new adventure. And that is a valuable form of freedom.
Letting go of things. Letting go of expectations. Letting go of a dream. Letting go of the past.
I think that sometimes we worry that there won’t be another. That we’ll never find another apartment that will have as nice of a view. That we won’t find another partner that did for us what the last one did. That we won’t find work that means as much or pays as much. I think that we get stuck in a mindset of scarcity around a lot of things in our lives, but if there’s one thing that I’ve learned through all the crazy twists and turns, it’s this:
There is always more.
It might not look the same or feel the same or pay the same, but there’s more for us every time we have the courage to make room for it.
And as I clear out my place and take one last look through the floor to ceiling windows at my urban view, I am choosing what I want to see. I am choosing to see more.
As always, here’s to the adventure.
If you know me at all, then you know that I tend to wander. I’m a seasoned road-tripper. An impulsive maker of cross-country moves. A corporate tourist. I have “wanderlust,” they say. “A free spirit,” I’ve been called (today, even.) It’s not my fault, I’m just a Sagittarius. It was written in the stars long before I was born…right?
And I’d just accept my fate and chalk all the moving around up to The Universe having bigger plans for me if I weren’t a firm believer in this thing called personal accountability. I like free will. I find it empowering.
I’m all for chasing down whatever incites my curiosity and inspires an adventure. But, at 36, I’d be a fool to not recognize that my situation – whatever it may be – is entirely of my own creation. For better or worse. While I learn through fascination and am always on fire for the excavation of hidden knowledge – wherever that may take me – at a certain point, even I feel the pull of home and a strong desire to feel connected to a place.
When I moved to Seattle last spring, what felt like a calculated and well-thought out change, a chance to put down roots, was anything but.
I had a plan. I had direction. I had a W-2!
What I didn’t have was any friends, any idea of where to live, any community. And, for the first time in my life, I was as far from my family as it is possible to get within the confines of the contiguous United States. I had a new commute. A new paycheck. A new gym. A new climate. I was traveling so much for work that I hardly noticed, but when I returned to the Pacific Northwest in October, after almost two months on the road, and no more than three weeks in a row in the city since May, I was struck by how lonely I was in the midst of so much motion.
I was finally at rest within my surroundings, and I was actually scared of how unfamiliar it all felt. This beautiful city, my fantastic apartment, the places I’d been moving through for the last six months – they all felt foreign. And I was at loose ends.
I desperately dug in – worked hard, worked out, went about my business, hoping that something would click, that it would all fall into place and I’d find the ease inherent in routine.
But it didn’t happen, and I had to take a hard look at how I was doing things. Yes, I had a schedule and a sweet pad and a good job, but it all felt forced. And just weird.
Fortunately, a friend in the city invited me to a random yoga class one friday night – and I only say ‘random’ because, inexplicably, I hadn’t even thought to go to yoga in the six months I’d been living in Seattle. After two years in Montana, I’d forgotten about yoga. The one thing that has always protected me from the weirdness of life – I hadn’t even thought to look for. And then, there it was again, waiting for me.
That friday night, as I unrolled my mat, and stretched my lanky self out into the first dog that I’d downed in years – in that moment, I placed my hands on the mat and closed my eyes, I was comfortable. I went through the class, knowing the movements in the very cells of my heart, inhaling and exhaling as I expanded into the space, and, finally, into something that felt familiar.
I didn’t realize how much I had been powering through holding myself up in the face of everything that was new. There is always a necessary amount of posturing when you’re in a new place – exude confidence, hold your head up, say yes to things even though you just want to hide out in bed all day and try to get your bearings – and I was exhausted. I was in fake-it-til-you-make-it mode, and in dire need of a place where I could just be myself.
While that yoga class felt good, it didn’t pull me right back into my practice. I was still shaky in my new surroundings. Just as I was beginning to recognize this need for the familiar, for something that felt safe and recognizable, I decided to learn how to ride a motorcycle. And as much as I love that sh*t, at that point it was just more new that I had to manage. And then I dropped the damn thing and picked it up with one hand in a moment of baby-under-the-bus adrenaline and stupidity.
As a result, I pulled a muscle in my back so hard that I couldn’t get out of bed for two days. I could barely stand. I physically could not hold myself up anymore.
I got the point. And I booked it to the first yoga class I could find. And that class was all about finding ease, looking for places to soften, and letting the universe hold you, trusting it to catch you. I’d been trying to muscle my way through everything, and it took pulling one to snap me out of it. And I remembered the work that I’d done establishing my yoga practice – why I’d been so dedicated to creating something that would shelter me from the shitstorms that inevitably hit – and I was back on the mat with a vengeance. This is exactly what practice is for – whatever yours may be – it’s what fishing was for me in Montana, what yoga will be for me always, what riding my motorcycle is when the weather’s nice. It’s the thing that grounds you no matter where you are, and it’s the one thing that we all need to feel centered, safe, and like ourselves.
I never thought that I’d say this, but there is such a thing as “too much new.” And I’d pushed right up into and over the edge of what I was comfortable with. A boundary I didn’t even know was crossable. But as I got reacquainted with my yoga mat, I started to reposition the rest of my life so that The New wasn’t so overwhelming. I cut out some things that I was interested in but were crushing my energy, and reinvested in what I knew would support me. I wrote on the ferry. I focused on my relationships, near and far. I prioritized self-care so that when things went a bit awry, I didn’t lose my footing.
And now, on the road again, I travel with a mat and a pen and sense of place that supersedes my geographic location. I know where I stand withme, and while it’s easy to get lost in the otherness that is the world around us, I’m making a point to keep house wherever I go – because what we create internally will always give us a sense of direction. A true north. A sense of the familiar when the newness gets to be too much and a place to come back to no matter how far we roam.
Here’s to the adventure. Here’s to the familiar. May they always bring you home.
My teacher Gina blew into our Monday class a couple of years back, breathless and wild haired. “Ok, y’all” she called us to our feet. “There are days I come in here all yogi and zen and there are days I come in and…” she looked around the room as we begrudgingly stood up, having expected a mellow start in child’s pose. “And it’s just fucking monday. So we start standing up. Because life doesn’t catch you in child’s pose, it drags you from wherever you happen to be standing so you better be steady. Goddess pose.” We widened our feet and lowered our hips into a standing straddle. Breathing slowed. Pulses mellowed. Hands to hearts. We began.
Gina has a way of keeping it real, of keeping the practice of yoga grounded in life. “What are we doing, really?” She’ll ask. “Because, if we’re being honest, we’re just a bunch of grown ups rolling around on the floor in neon spandex – kinda pointless in the grand scheme of things, you know?”
At first, I’d been taken aback – how dare this woman demean my practice in this way? This was my sacred space, my safe place, my opportunity for true devotion. But the more I practiced yoga with her, the more I realized that it’s just that, a practice. And you’re not even practicing poses to get better at them. You practice yoga to get better at life. When I’m in dragonfly, and I’ve got a slippery foot on the back of my arm, nose inches from the floor, worried that I might fart on the person behind me and that would be all it takes to send me face first into my mat, I remember to breathe and just try to keep my shit together. Because that’s the goal really – keeping your shit together. Really.
If you lose it in the studio, no biggie. So you didn’t stand on your hands with your foot on an elbow and your ass in the air tonight. So what. But you did pull in to your center, pressed down through your hands, out through your legs, felt your strength and drank in your breath. And maybe, just maybe, you got better at that, so the next time you’re in traffic and you get cut off and spill coffee in your lap as you realize you’re out of gas and you left your wallet on the kitchen table, maybe then you pull to center, feel your strength, take a breath and keep your shit together. And you get through it. And you move on.
The more I’ve practiced, the more I’ve spent time in this body, the more I’ve learned to listen to it. And though yoga teachers say all the time, “listen to your body” – what they mean is this: pay attention to how the yoga feels. Pay attention so that next time you remember. Pay attention so that you can detect the change that will undoubtedly come. Pay attention to what’s happening right now so that you can notice the difference between this and the infinite that that exists within this moment, and know where you are.
As we practice, the body becomes our compass. The poses just bend us different ways to measure balance and strength and presence and focus. When we are in any pose, notice where you’re headed. Measure. Move on. Bend the other way, and again, measure – subtly, intentionally noticing and letting go. Things change and notice, take a breath, let go. Things move and notice, take a breath, let go. Maybe things feel easier and notice, take a breath, and let go. Or they feel more difficult, but do the same. Let the body speak, so that as we move through our practice, or through the world, we are aware of how we feel in this moment, without judgment, but conscious of all the other options, should we decide to take a different tack. And, for the record, it is always a choice. You can hate this moment, or spend your energy breathing through it, noticing, so next time, you see the difference and take another step in a new direction, into the ever expanding world of what is possible.
I had my best ride yet today.
And my worst.
I left the house this morning – electric. I cruised out of my parking place, stopped at the intersection, danced off the line when the signal turned green and flew down the hill to the waterfront, making every light.
I was onto the boat with zero hesitation and first off and out onto my favorite back road with no stalls and plenty of time to get to work. The fall breeze blew bright yellow and orange leaves in seductive swirls around my tires and I was hypnotized by the early morning light and the rumble of the bike’s engine against my too-thin-for-this-weather jeans, its roar muted and reassuring through my helmet.
The cold was invigorating and I buzzed through a busy morning of work – more than once distracted by the tiny keys sitting on the edge of my desk, reminding me of what waited outside once the clock hit five.
I couldn’t make it that long. I made lunch plans with a friend and reassured her that I didn’t need a ride. I hopped on the bike, got lost, and really started to play with the hills and wide curves of these beautiful back roads. I felt it all..
Also: I was late to lunch.
I got my first tank of gas on the way to the evening ferry – such a perfect day of riding and I was so excited to see 15 more bikers pull up to wait for the boat. Moto Guzzis and Ducatis and Suzukis and even another Bonnie. The energy in the group hummed with the weekend. Friday always feels good, but this one was particularly welcome.
We scooted off the boat and cruised along the water back toward my neighborhood. The rest of the bikes pulled ahead, but there are lots of potholes and errant pedestrians on this stretch, so I checked my speed. There wasn’t room for me at the top of the hill where they’d reached a red light, so rather than sit it out on the incline, I waited at the bottom. They took off as soon as the light changed but I stalled. Panicked. Got to the crest of the hill, but hadn’t let the clutch all the way out and stalled again in the middle of the intersection, forcing a city bus to come to a screeching halt.
I was shaking. I pushed my bike out of the way and off to the side of the road and tried to collect myself and start again. I stalled and stalled and stalled. My heart rate was through the roof. I was so close to home and so disappointed. I couldn’t get her going. What the fuck was wrong with me? I had this. A perfect day! I gave her one last start and she died on me – with a brand new battery. Failure. I couldn’t do anything but accept it.
I pulled her up between two parked cars where she’d be safe, managed to get the disc brake lock on with trembling fingers, and then started walking. I took one last look at her and couldn’t hold it back any longer. Tears of frustration rolled down my cheeks and I pushed my visor up so that I could breathe the cool night air in big heaving gulps. I stopped and sat on the sidewalk and just cried it out into my helmet. Maybe if I left it on, no one would notice the lanky girl in the leather jacket sobbing uncontrollably on the side of the road.
As I walked the last few blocks to my place, I didn’t question my decision to buy the bike. I didn’t miss my 4Runner. I did, however, wonder what had changed between getting off the boat and stopping my bike at that hill. I’ve started there almost every day I’ve ridden with no problems. Maybe I got excited and caught up in the energy of a group of riders who are much more experienced than I am. Maybe I wasn’t focused. I’d like to think that I was feeling cocky, but what really happened was probably that the reality of my time on the bike caught up with my newfound confidence and the two are not quite aligned after just 6 days of riding. Reality bites.
On the upside, I have a new friend who went out of his way to bail me out. He got my bike back to my apartment, got her running, and safely parked in her spot around the corner from my building. My go to currency for kindness that is truly priceless is really good whiskey, and I was armed and ready before he picked me up. Good whiskey is an emotional experience – so is draining a bike battery by being an idiot – so I felt like it was a fair trade.
All told, I am humbled by the selflessness of the people who have helped me in this short week of riding, and I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to tell them how much they’ve actually given me. The encouragement to press on, a lift when I’ve needed it, a reminder that it’s all going to be worth it… small gestures that often make me wonder what I’ve done to deserve such kindness from near strangers.
This bike has ripped me from the complacency of solitude that has been my hidey hole for a long time. While the place where we have been wrenched apart is certainly tender, it has provided an opening for a life full of places that I must go, things I want to be a part of and people who the universe obviously thinks that I need to know. Out here, it is hotter and colder and brighter and louder than I ever could have imagined, and I’m pretty sure there’s no going back.
Thank you all so much for helping me get here. Burns and scrapes and bruises, wounded ego, full heart and all.
The False Start: An unsuccessful attempt to begin something.
As per my last post, I had a shakey go of it on Day 1 in the real world. I vowed to move forward unfazed, and rode my bike into work again this past Tuesday. New battery, no stalls. Friendly conversation in the motorcycle lane and a successful ferry boarding that put me at the front of the line. All good so far.
When we went to disembark on Bainbridge, I was positioned behind another rider, next to a utility van and about 6 feet to the left of the ramp where we exit the boat. So I had to start a foot off of another bike, clear the van and then had 8ish feet to swerve to the right over the (wet and slick) rubber ramp, straighten up and exit the ferry dock. There were maybe 40 riders waiting to board, 6 WSF employees standing at the front of the boat and a vessel full of cars waiting to get off. Needless to say, after my performance the previous week, I was nervous.
So nervous my hands and knees were shaking and I predictably stalled out. I restarted my bike and tried again. Killed it. A rather impatient ferry employee gave me the “stop” hand motion to indicate that I should sit tight. The van driver shook his head at me. The rest of the bikes took off and the ferry employees pushed me on my bike into the herd of cyclists waiting to board. “That’s twice!” yelled a snide female voice, hidden in the crowd behind the anonymity of a helmet. “I’m trying to learn,” I muttered, mostly to myself. “Do it somewhere else!” she hollered. I sat with my head down as the bikes boarded around me. I caught a few sympathetic waves from the other motos as they passed through my peripheral vision, but just shook my head in defeat.
Embarrassed, but trying to maintain my confidence, I asked the closest WSF guy if I could get out of there before they started boarding cars.
“Feel free to try.”
His insinuation of failure was all the motivation I needed. I pulled on the throttle (much harder than necessary), let the clutch out and held on for dear life. California stops down the back roads and I was at work in ten minutes.
Unfortunately, I now have some weird form of ferry boat PTSD, so I’ve spent a good amount of time in parking lots practicing my start and finding the friction zone on command. I am determined to get it right, be first on first off, and not be shamed out of riding by bitchy women on bicycles. This does, however, require that I take a good look at what I know and what I don’t, so that I can focus my efforts accordingly.
Anytime you’re learning something new – and I’ve been hyper aware of this while learning my bike – you go through The Four Stages of Competence –
- Unconscious Incompetence
- Conscious Incompetence
- Conscious Competence
- Unconscious Competence
In the state of unconscious incompetence – you don’t know what you don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. You don’t recognize the value of the skill you are missing, and you don’t care. Before I bought a motorcycle, not knowing how to ride one wasn’t really something that I lost a lot of sleep over.
The day that I started my basic rider course, however, I got a swift kick right into conscious incompetence. While I still didn’t know how to ride a bike, I was acutely aware of the value of the skill as well as the vastness of this deficit. I was intimidated not only by the little 250cc Suzuki in front of me, but also by how much I didn’t know. I could balance a bicycle pretty well, but that was about all I had going for me in the crossover skills department. I knew I was going to make some mistakes, but that’s what the course was for – a sandbox that I could play in, a bike that didn’t belong to me that I was free to drop (though I didn’t – not once), and a crew of folks aboard this ship of ignorance to support me.
As I progressed through the course, I got more comfortable with the bike and even earned a perfect score on my test. I happily presented my certification at the DMV and am now a proud resident (and voter) in the state of Washington, sporting a motorcycle endorsement on my new license.
I’ve realized (rather quickly) that with great power (vroom!), comes great responsibility, and in ways I wasn’t quite prepared for. I came out of my class excited, confident and ready to take on the road, but the stakes are pretty high when you’re on a bike. As much as I like to compare motorcycling to yoga, if I fall out of a yoga pose, nothing really terrible happens. I land on my butt and maybe pick up a bruise or two. I can take my time figuring stuff out, it’s not a speed game.
On a bike, the learning curve is steeper because it has to be. It’s nerve wracking, but you learn faster when the pavement is keeping score. No two ways about it.
And I’m learning, and making mistakes, and slowly but steadily improving and gaining confidence as I chug my way into conscious competence one skill at a time. I am good at braking. I am good at shifting. I understand and can execute swerves and counter steering and feel comfortable navigating the winding back roads of Bainbridge Island on my lunch breaks. All of these things, however, require a great amount of concentration, and the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. And sometimes I begin to wobble back into the insecurity of conscious incompetence – and, some days that keeps me off the bike entirely. I am not usually afraid of the things that I don’t know, but I am overwhelmingly conscious of the judgey glares I get from cranky commuters in the morning, and that second stage of incompetence is starting to keep me up at night.
There is a balance between a healthy fear of the dangers of riding a bike and a healthy trust in my ability to do so that will let me enjoy my time on the road and the cool, crisp days ahead, and keep me upright while doing so – I’m still trying to find it, and be gentle with myself in the process.
With less than 100 miles on the bike, I keep telling myself – enjoy the ride.
This move to Seattle has been exciting, but not without its ups and downs. One of the downs is the cost of the ferry ride from the city over to Bainbridge Island where I work ($560 a month!). Clearly, the only cost mitigation option available to me was… buying a motorcycle. ($210 a month!)
It started off as getting a scooter. And then maybe a Royal Enfield cafe racer. But then, for (almost) the same money, I could get the bike I’d always dreamed of, a Triumph.
So, now we’re buying a motorcycle. I pulled together the cash, took the safety course, got relatively comfortable on two (motorized) wheels and headed up to Triumph of Seattle to pick up what I thought would be my bike. I tried a test drive…and couldn’t get it out of the parking lot. I had essentially done the equivalent of taking a driving course in a late model Honda civic and then marching straight into the Ferrari dealership to pick up a Modena. Or an Aston Martin if we’re carrying this analogy down to the proper country of origin.
Anyway – I didn’t feel good about the bike, and a work friend told me that a motorcycle doesn’t grow on you. If you hate the color, you’re still going to hate it in three months. If you don’t like the style, as soon as you pull up next to someone at an intersection, and they’re on the bike you really wanted, you’re going to park that thing in the garage and pout til you sell it.
My new friend at the dealership asked me what I really wanted. I wanted a standard (I’d been looking at a cruiser). I wanted a Bonneville. And I wanted a blue one. He looked at me skeptically – “blue?” BLUE. “Come with me,” he said, and I followed him out back to where they kept the recently acquired used (previously enjoyed) bikes.
“She came in on Saturday.” He motioned to a blue and white Bonneville with a gold pinstripe sitting in the lot. “Only 2900 miles.” Further discussion revealed that I could make the numbers work, swap the black seat for a brown one, and that she had British Customs Predator pipes, which made her growl, just a little. I liked it.
After a few test starts in the back alley, I took her out onto the street in north Seattle. I cruised the neighborhood in first, got comfy, kicked her into second, and got cozy. Once in third, she purred (growled) at me. Hello, kitten. This was my bike.
Now, a quick(ish) aside about motorcycles (if you don’t know already) – there is no checking out when you are on a bike. You have to do everything. You are essentially driving a manual transmission with your hands – clutch with your left, front brake with your right – and feet – shift with the left, brake with the right. There is a lot of finesse to feathering the clutch off the line out of first, easing her up into second, cruising in third, pushing her into fourth (or fifth, but I haven’t even gotten there yet). The thing that I love so much is how analog it is. I have fuel injection, sure, and a couple of lights that tell me if I’m in neutral or need gas, but other than that, everything is done on feel. And when you’re feeling your way down a busy city street at night, there is a rush of adrenaline that is equal parts video game, staying safe, and the blood pumping joy that is riding a bike.
You are connected with the machine and your surroundings on a completely different level than you are in a car. There is wind. There are smells. You can’t talk on the phone, can’t text, can’t drink coffee or eat breakfast, read the paper or put on mascara. All you can do is ride your bike, and that’s a very good thing – because all you really want to do is ride your bike. I am constantly exhilarated and terrified, overjoyed and hyper-aware. It’s a heady mix – one that doesn’t just beg your attention, it demands that you be at once in and of the moment in a way that I could only pray to Shiva that I might someday achieve within the confines of my yoga mat. I am so alive and awake – right here, in the now, looking ever ahead and barely staying in the farthest reaches of that second before the next. When I left the dealership sans bike (while we finished paperwork) on Tuesday night, the thought of getting back in a car – ugh. How boring. What do you even do while you sit in a car?
But I survived. And came back yesterday to pick her up – she’d had a bath and beautiful new brown leather seat installed. And we went through the pre-ride checklist, I was handed the keys, she was mine. 865cc of pure ZEN. Poetry on two wheels. We headed down the street to Seattle Used Bikes for their monthly BBQ, and I learned that bikes come pre-equipped with friends! Something I had had an unusually hard time finding in Seattle. Everyone was excited to meet me and wanted to hear about the bike! I was so happy to find that there is such a great community around motorcycles here. I made it home and ate some carbs and did my best to fall asleep despite my elevated heart rate.
I woke up today like a kid on Christmas morning. An hour earlier than usual. I made breakfast and a pot of coffee, packed my bag, went out to the street to grab the cover off of my bike and was antsy to get on the road. I got her started, let her warm up a bit, pulled the throttle a couple of times to make sure we were both awake, and made it without incident to the ferry station (I did stall out once at an intersection when the woman behind me honked as soon as the light turned green, and she scared me so bad that I dropped the clutch and had to restart).
I shut the bike off to speak to the ferry attendant, purchased my pass (SO CHEAP!), and went to start my bike. And nothing. Lights, camera, nothing. I pulled to the side and started to sweat. A nice man on a Kawasaki tried to help, but I was stranded. We pushed my bike onto the boat and I crossed my fingers that she’d start once we got across the sound.
No go. The WSF employees, however, were more than happy to push start my beautiful Bonnie for me, and then take a few laps around both decks to “make sure she got a good charge on that battery.” I think the bike enjoyed the showboating as much as the ferry guys. Anyway – crisis averted, and I was off with a round of applause from all the cyclists and other motos waiting to board. (I’m pretty sure being a redhead on a classic Triumph bought me some points with all the folks whose commute I’d delayed by about ten minutes – when in doubt, smile and wave, smile and wave!)
Five miles to go, and hopefully no further drama.
Well, the woman in the minivan who pulled out in front of me as I was turning onto the street where my office is forced me to slam on the brakes, and I stalled on the hill. Started her once, twice, aaaand – dead again. So close to the finish line.
Two Bainbridge Island police officers saw that I was on a “disabled vehicle,” kindly helped me push her to the fire station across the street, and after a couple of failed attempts at a push start, waited for me to lock her up and gave me a ride to work. In their patrol car.
So, here I sit, at my desk, cold and sweaty, with my bike locked up at the fire station down the street, having been delivered to my office by the cops. I’ll probably get more work done since I didn’t roar triumphantly (a-hem) into the parking lot this morning, and then get to show her off to everyone, but I am tired, slightly embarrassed, probably going to buy a battery starter at lunch, and determined to really learn zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. Emphasis on the maintenance.
There was a moment, ever so brief, when I thought I may have made a huge mistake. I thought of the warm (boring!) safety of my 4Runner, and wondered if I’d rather be there as I pushed my bike against morning traffic, sweating profusely in my helmet and trying to keep a 400 pound machine upright.
But as I stood outside on a brisk fall morning, getting to know my local law enforcement and smiling when they asked about the exhaust, complimented her classic lines and the beautiful blue and white two tone paint, I realized that it was fine. There wasn’t anywhere I’d rather have been, except maybe riding her up the hill to work, not a minivan in sight.
There used to be just two things I’d never do while drunk – drive, and say I love you for the first time – but last summer, I added “packing for fishing trips” to that list.
I planned a few days in the Yellowstone backcountry for the week following my best friend’s wedding. My pre-wedding self thought: I’ll just leave early on Sunday and be back by noon to pack. My mid-reception self said: I’llsleepontheplane! Shots! Shots! Shots! Clearly, I did not anticipate the level of alcohol-induced behavioral regression experienced by 50 people who haven’t seen each other since college.
My 7am flight from Raleigh was painful. I’d had two bloodies by Minneapolis. When I got to Bozeman, hangover number two was coming in hot. I grabbed lunch and a beer, ran last minute errands, and was lights out at 8 with promises to finish packing in the morning. We were halfway out of town when I realized I’d left my rod.
At the Slough Creek trailhead, my pre-and post-wedding selves were still at odds. What better way to detox than a week of fishing? had been my romantic proposal a month earlier. How about a week of sleeping? I thought, now faced with the reality of cold sweats, a seven mile hike and a 50 lb pack.
But I pulled it together and we headed out, happy as anyone fifteen minutes into a backpacking trip – boots still comfy, packs still light. After a few miles, I noticed the weird cicadas all over the trail. “Yo buddy, what are these huge bugs?”
“Mormon crickets?” I Googled them once I got home. Turns out they’re neither Mormon, nor cricket, but a katydid notorious amongst those of the Latter Day persuasion for nearly destroying Brigham and company’s first harvest in the Salt Lake Valley. Miraculously, a flock of seagulls ate them before they could consume the crops, and the settlers were saved from sure starvation. “Do fish eat these?”
I crouched to inspect one while my fellow missionary continued down the path. “Did we bring any?”
He paused. “You realize that you forgot your rod.”
I thought about that. He made a fair point, but… “You realize that you’re a fishing guide.”
He turned and started hiking again. I hurried to catch up, only stopping to ask a guy in a UVa shirt and a Patagonia trucker hat, “Hey man, what’re they eating up there?”
“Mormon crickets.” Well, chirp-fuckin-chirp. We walked the rest of the way in silence, save for the choir at our feet, and were almost there when we passed another Patagonia trucker. I wasn’t trying to make a point by asking for a fishing report; it just seemed the friendly thing to do.
We set up camp with plenty of daylight left, and got to the river in time for a smokeshow of a PMD hatch. After catching a few sizeable cuttys, we were at least back on speaking terms. We wouldn’t be doing much else–missionary or otherwise–that evening, however. The bottles of Bulleit Rye we’d brought had me headed toward hangover number four in half as many days.
The next morning was grey, which served my headache and the fishing quite well. I spent most of it stalking a cutthroat with two white half moons on his back–reminders of a recent go with a local eagle-but couldn’t seem to get his attention no matter what I presented. “He’s not biting anything,” I complained through a mouthful of beef jerky.
“Mind if I catch him?” he asked. Cocky. Smirking.
“Have at it.” I shoved more jerky in my mouth and didn’t say anything else, just headed upriver (where the trout were all about the Gospel According to Mayflies), and lefthim to Scarfish. When I got back, he had a bent rod in his hand and a shit eating grin on his face.
He netted the fish and turned it to face me, two hoppers in its lip. The larger trailed about a foot of mono. “Gotcha a Mormon cricket.” He was downright smug as he released the trout.
Not one to look a gift fish in the mouth, I tied the fly on and prowled the cutbank looking for my little friend. I finally spotted him – white lines on his back – swimming away from me. I cast a few inches from the edge of the water just as he turned upstream, and gave my bug a slight jerk to get his attention.
Now, this is the part of the story when I wanted to write about the Miracle at Slough Creek, and how by sheer luck we found the one elusive bug that could tempt this scarred and wizened denizen of the Park to leave the safety of the riverbed – how with finesse that can only be described as supernatural, I caught this elusive salmonid, and the day, the week, maybe even our relationship was saved by the intervention of some fisherman who had unwittingly rescued us from a fate worse than skunked.
I wanted to write about how the fish contemplated my fly before committing, but in the end was hooked with naught but my angling prowess. I wanted to tell of the celebration that followed, here, in the promised land of oncorhynchus clarki.
Scarfish stopped and weighed his decision, and while he pondered the deceptive delicacy drifting above him, another cutthroat – not 10 inches long – came barreling out of the shallows and shouldered the larger fish aside. Just as this upstart went to open his mouth on the Mormon, a live hopper fell into the river just inches away. The fish stopped. Scarfish lurked below. Maybe there would be another showdown? Alas. The old guy stayed put, and the young gun rejected my fly like it was wearing a name tag and riding a bike. He inhaled the live cricket and was gone.
I stared at my lifeless lure; I was devastated. It was really starting to rain and thunder boomed in the distance, but Scarfish….
“What do you think?” he asked.
“How much whiskey do we have?” My words hung low with desperation as lightning flashed high in the sky.
“Enough.” He nodded toward the campsite and I reeled in my line.
I may not get to tell of the miracle, but the celebration was one for the books.
I killed a fish today.
I didn’t mean to, but it happens. (And, if you’re wondering, it’s not the fish in the picture, I’m not that morbid.) No matter how often I find myself at the river, no matter how many fish I successfully catch and release, it always hits me hard when I screw up.
I’ve been told it’s just part of the game, that they’re food for something else on down the chain, but that doesn’t change how it makes me feel.
This morning, I went to the place where I caught a fish by myself for the first time. It seemed a ceremonial thing to do, coming back here to Montana, being home where I learned pretty much everything I know about fly fishing. I think I went to that spot to see if anything had changed – I knew that it would pretty much look the same, but I wanted to see if maybe I had changed.
My cast is better. My bug selection more intuitive. My confidence has certainly grown. I poked a few fish in the face before I finally snagged one, and he was beautiful – young, with gorgeous color.
Fly fishing is hard. It takes a while to figure out, but the learning curve is steep. Once you’ve got the motions and your gear dialed, it gets easy. You can fish pretty much anywhere there’s water and the skill set travels – pick bugs, read water, cast, set, repeat (if you’re lucky).
I admired the fish for a moment, he wriggled about, strong from a short life in heavy water. I went to remove the fly, and saw that it was caught deep in his throat, likely behind a gill.
This is when fly fishing gets hard again. When it’s not just about your ability to catch a fish, it’s about how you go about it and the mistakes you’re willing to make. The last time I was here, I was just excited to catch one. I hadn’t learned about mortality rates, the importance of a well timed hook set or our general impact as anglers on the resource. I also hadn’t yet established the bond with this river that I have now. I wasn’t as attached to these fish or as invested in their well-being.
I had one of two options – cut the hook off and hope it worked its way out, or try to remove it with my hemostats. I opted for the latter and told myself I’d give it one try, if it didn’t come right out I’d cut the hook.
It came right out and I released the fish, relieved. He swam away slowly, and then I saw the bright red blood start to flow from his right gill. He was small, not even ten inches, and he slid behind a rock just a few feet from where I stood. I tried to cast again, but couldn’t take my eyes away from the little crimson trail left by my mistake as the fish attempted to recover.
I reeled in my line and the red began to dissipate. I turned away from the river so I wouldn’t have to see the white flash of belly like a flag of surrender should it float up behind me. In the time I’ve spent on this river and so many others, I should have returned here to celebrate all that I’ve learned, but I started walking back to the truck defeated and full of regret.
These are the moments that remind me to be kind – to the fish, to my friends, to myself. It was just an accident, and some people would say that it’s just a fish, but to me it’s a responsibility that I can’t let go of. This is how the game changes, it’s why it stays interesting. There is no constant in fly fishing. The variables are always fluid, and we can only do our best to stay flexible, keep learning and keep moving forward.
Some people might tell me not to worry about my mistakes, but I can’t help it. I’m invested. I care too much. I’m emotionally attached. And it keeps me humble. No matter how far I travel or how much I learn, when I come back to the place where it all started, it’s always the same. Sometimes we both win. Sometimes we both lose. Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it.
But I come back. I try to learn something, and keep moving forward.
If I’m headed for the homewater, I usually approach it in one of three ways:
- I go with a known rig because I need a fish in the net.
- I go with a loved bug because I want to swing a fly rod.
- I experiment/screw around because boots in the water is enough.
This past weekend though, it was different.
It started snowing in Bozeman on Friday afternoon. On Saturday morning, I headed down to the river, not quite sure how it would go. I broke trail on the dirt road to our house, snow flowing up over the hood of my car. The thermometer on my dash read 19, so upon my arrival, I pulled on two pairs of wool socks, fleece pants, two zip-ts, my biggest puffy and a thick beanie. I found an old pair of fingerless gloves in my dad’s closet and tucked them into the top of my waders.
I drove back down to the bridge – wearing just my left wading boot so that I could drive the car with some level of accuracy in the deep snow. When I got there, I pulled on the other boot, grabbed my net and rod and walked out onto the bridge to see what was what. The fish were active. I slid down the steep incline to the river’s edge (wading boots provide minimal traction in fresh snow), and stepped into the river. My first thought was something along the lines of what the hell am I doing?
The temps have been mild for the last few weeks, so the water wasn’t that cold. It was snowing lightly, and I was definitely wearing enough clothes, but had no idea what I was getting myself into. I waded out toward one of my favorite holes. Two casts and a fish. Two more and another. Both rainbows. Both wearing beautiful dark winter colors. I released the second fish, careful to keep my hands out of the water, and as I watched him swim away, I realized that it was profoundly quiet.
Not many people brave the elements to wet a line after a snowstorm, but it was more than that. I was quiet. I had been so consumed by taking in the experience, noticing the midges on the water, looking for any surface action, trying not to fall down, that I hadn’t thought about anything else. Not even if I was going to catch a fish. It’s no secret that flyfishing has the ability to do this – consume your senses and provide the angler with a welcome reprieve from the daily ticker of mundane thoughts that occupy our brains so much of the time, that the river requires a calm focus and certain situational awareness that doesn’t leave room for much else – but this was different. Not eerie, but shockingly peaceful – so much so that it caught me off guard. I was so aware of that moment, that I couldn’t think ahead or behind myself. I was truly in and of the present, and it was perfect.
Feeling good about my ability to navigate the river in a snowstorm, I didn’t spend too much time under the bridge, but climbed out and headed upstream about a mile, hiking through deep snow to another spot with more fish and calmer water that I thought might be productive. I was feeling less intimidated by the weather, and as I tromped through the drifts on the meadow, I again thought about how crazy what I was doing would seem to most people. Why go fishing in a snowstorm? Why not ski? Why stand around in the river when it’s below freezing?
I kind of enjoyed the thought, that this was completely nuts. But as I slid back down to the river, I realized that it didn’t feel crazy at all. It felt completely normal. Obvious even. Why wouldn’t I be here? I have the river all to myself. I know what I’m doing. It’s quiet. I’m warm. The fish are hungry. It’s a perfect storm for someone who loves nothing more than the feeling of the water pressing against her legs, that first tug on the line as she sets, bringing a fish into the net and not having to maneuver around any
assholes other anglers. The snow was beautiful. The cold was invigorating. The fishing was lights out.
When I realized that I’d broken off the last of the flies that I brought, I happily stepped back onto the bank and began the trek back the car. I’ve learned that winter fishing demands both preparedness and minimalism if you’re going to stay warm, dry and focused. Screwing up has a different sort of consequences now than it does when the sun is shining and it’s 80 degrees. I’d brought just my net, rod, a spare leader, one spool of tippet and a small fly box that only held rubberlegs and prince nymphs, so I didn’t have anything to collect that wasn’t already attached to my person. I was free to examine the experience with few distractions.
I was in my favorite place, doing my favorite thing. Where a week ago it had been 65 and sunny, it was now 19 degrees and snowing, but the feeling was the same. I was completely content and utterly at home and had learned something new about myself.
I’d always thought that my approach had to be singular. I was either going to do what I know, try something new or not worry about it. I didn’t realize that I could move fluidly between the three, and that ability – to adjust, to respond, to grow – at once both in and of the moment, that was the goal. In and out of the river.
With lots of practice and zero expectations I am able to enjoy the things that I know, the thrill of learning something new and the contentment of just being there. I am able to move between the give and take and stay in the enjoyment of the moment, and that’s the zen of the thing.
I still go fishing to counter the time I spend inside and to test myself and possibly learn something – there’s always a give and take – but, first and foremost, I’m there because I love the river. Whatever comes of it is a bonus, because the experience itself is the goal, regardless of the outcome. The magic happens whenever I make the time to be there.
Winter had taken hold. The temps were firmly entrenched in the single digits and I didn’t check the weather anymore; I just stopped on the bridge to watch the dark blue water sneaking past the ice, a fugitive from the floes. When the mercury bottomed out at -30, the river smoked its way up the valley like a prescribed burn. I ordered a case of rye whiskey from the liquor store in town and didn’t stop on the bridge again until March.
When the ice began to melt, I watched. When the runoff came, I waited. When the water cleared, I went. This would be the season.
I fished every day. I fucked up a lot, but rapidly learned to tie solid knots, figured out what bugs to use and developed a personal code of ethics on the river. I remember the first time I forgot to press a barb. I remember the first fish that went belly up. I remember every mistake I made and every so-called victory. But every day, I went. I learned.
One night, curiosity led me to an access on my way home from work. I’d had a long day. I didn’t know the holes here. I caught a tree on every cast. But the river just went about it’s business. Efficient. Secretive. Selfish. Despite my efforts to work this stretch as I would the section that flows near my house, I caught nothing.
Part of me wished I’d just gone home, that I hadn’t wasted my time where I didn’t know the water, but I kept at it – working the bottom of a hole below a large tree. Finally, a strike. I set the hook and that fish bent my rod end to end as it took off into the middle of the river. I struggled to stay with him, but lost my footing and the tension on my line. A flash of belly and he was gone. My white whale.
I made a few dejected casts before moving upriver. I caught small fish here and there, but my heart wasn’t in it. The river would keep her secrets, I supposed. I decided to head out with time for one last try at the hole by the tree.
I tentatively tossed my line into the gathering dusk. Even if I didn’t catch him, I knew he was in there and maybe that was enough.
As the river pushed against my legs, my indicator dipped and I felt the tug. The set was instinctive. I stripped and my rod tip curved – we moved together this time. I kept tension downstream toward the shallows until I could grab the line.
This part I knew. With one hand on the leader, I tucked my rod under my elbow and brought the fish to the surface. I removed the hook easily and kept my fingers light under his belly as he regained strength. To my surprise – and, by the look on his face, his as well – my white whale turned out to be a whitefish. But that was fine.
He finned in my hand for a moment, translucent and nearly invisible in the water, then slowly swam back into the current. I made my way to the car, sat on the tailgate to break down my rod and fished a warm can of beer from my backpack.
It was a nice change from whiskey.