May 28, 2010

The Gift of Starting Late

My friend Tom grew up fishing; his cast is lovely and natural even though he hadn't picked up a fly rod for years the morning I took this photo. I got a late start to fly-fishing; until a few years ago I barely knew what it was, and running left no room in my life for another outdoor passion. Hiking, snowshoeing, cycling, and everything else were the side dishes, but running on roads and trails and hills was the way I touched my world and centered myself. There were a few gaps in my running resume, but I always came back, and always pictured myself as one of those sprightly eighty-year olds who can still drop a few youngsters in a local 10K. Then an intractable knee injury cut a hole in that picture. Then I met a man who took me out a river and handed me a fly rod.

Most fly-fishers I know have been doing it for dog’s years, and many of them kindly assured me that starting at forty I would do all right, but never as well as someone who grew up fishing. My cast would never be quite as good as if I’d started with a young body and brain, and years of learning to read water hadn’t piled up behind me. However, starting late means I don’t carry the weight of what I “should” know by now, and life's journey has taught me some useful things. I’ve learned life is boring if I only do things I’m really good at, because that list is a lot shorter than the list of things that might be fun -- so I do the things that bring me joy. I’ve learned that investing time and attention can get you just as far as being gifted. I’ve learned deep in myself how much I truly don’t know, so I don’t mind asking questions, even those that seem a bit dumb.

But the best part of starting late is that all my fly-fishing memories are fresh still, fully colored and fragrant. I remember the first trout I saw, caught from an alpine lake, sparkling in the mountain sun. I remember the first fish I caught, a six-inch rainbow on the Teanaway River on a June day, and how that tug on the other end of the line was connected to a previously unknown place in my heart. I remember the freezing winter afternoon and melancholy sinking sun when I landed my first decent-sized fish. I remember the first time I caught a fish on a fly I tied, a scraggly elk hair caddis, and how I felt like a genius. I remember the giddiness of buying my first nice fly rod, and the beauty of the first fish it brought me, a brown trout from Rock Creek in Montana, with a bright golden back and silver belly and spots like little gems.

I think about all the things I didn’t know a few years ago and that I know now, and then I think about all the things I don’t know yet and may never know. Now I notice all the blue squiggles and spots and spaces on maps, and how they connect and define all the other places on maps. I think about all the fish I have yet to catch, steelhead, sea-run cutthroat, grayling, a list too long to enumerate. I think about everything ahead of me, and I feel grateful. Because even starting late, there’s plenty of time.