We heard about a campground north of Pagosa Springs, up against the San Juan mountains of Colorado, on the bank of Williams Creek. Back in the early part of the century a drought several years long almost emptied that creek. The trout were about ready to quit. But they clung on, those tenacious Colorado trout, and we thought we’d try and catch some.
We drove north through New Mexico, leaving behind desert and Democrats. Along the Rio Chama rare old trucks bloomed in shady backyards. At Abiquiu we bought some flies to tempt the trout, green and gold with hooks for tails. Then we headed north once more, the highway rolling away as it does in the West, and the hills grew trees and bluffs and meadows, and the meadows grew cattle and broken-down barns and a sleek coyote that loped across the highway with a look that said, just you wait ‘til you’re lying dead in a ditch someplace, then we’ll see whose boss.
The enlightened people of Pagosa Springs had turned the bordello into a spa, but we didn’t stop to test the waters. Beyond the town we headed north on a dirt road towards Sunshine Peak, and there was the creek winding among the green hills below us. Williams Creek. We followed it to the campground and pitched camp, and took up our rods. The creek lay along the valley like a long brown overcoat, a shoplifter’s long coat with trout concealed in the many pockets sewn carefully into its lining.
Full of American hope we laid our treacherous flies on the water, but these trout knew a thing or two about flies and hooks. We tried the still water behind a fallen tree. Nothing. We tried the eddy behind a boulder. Still nothing. We tried a deep pool beneath a willow, but the trout down there kept their eyes forward and their mouths shut. So we left the fish to their own devices and set about playing in the river instead, sending kids downstream in a rubber boat and building dams.
I lay in a hollow where the creek flowed fast between two rocks, thinking about Trout Fishing in America Shorty and the Kool-Aid Wino and love-making among dead fish, and smiling. Come to think of it, I first read Trout Fishing in America around the time Richard Brautigan decided enough was enough. I loved that crazy book but knew nothing of the man.
So on this trip I visited Washington Square in San Francisco, where a sign warns the winos of the 21st century that they and their port wine are not welcome in the park, and I saw Benjamin Franklin up on his pedestal, and I wondered whether the drinkers of the 1960s bought their wine from Coit Liquor on the corner – you’d have to be a well-heeled hobo to shop there these days.
And I tried my hand at fishing, in Williams Creek, with Trout Fishing in America as my guide, wearing on my hat – for luck – a hat band that once belonged to a mad old Indian from Santa Fe. Some lucky charm that turned out to be.
But what did the fish make of all this activity? Maybe they gathered round to watch, chuckling at our feeble camouflage and inability to swim against the current. These fish stand no chance, one might have said to another. They can’t even breathe properly! But only the young trout wasted their time watching us. The old fish lay in their hollows, feeling every vibration in the water flowing down from Sunshine Peak, keeping their own counsel.
Written on a visit to friends and family in Santa Fe, NM