RUST OR BURN
I don't normally like to fish around other people unless they are part of a group of mutual friends so I tend to be unhappy when I find an angler in a spot that I consider secret. That was my reaction when I noticed tire tracks on the dirt track that led down to a long flat and a deep pool where I had enjoyed many great times fishing the evening hatch. As I approached the small opening in the trees that served as a parking lot I noticed an older model vehicle pulled in beneath the trees. It was a tight fit but I wormed my vehicle into the remaining open space that allowed me to open my door and squeeze out. The other vehicle had a local license plate and I hoped that he wasn't a fish killer. Many of the local anglers were into creels full of dead fish and they would fish a pool until they had fished it out. I was hoping that my secret spot had not been discovered by one of those guys.
After I had pulled on my waders, slipped on my vest and grabbed my fly rod I hurried toward the water. The river was nearly a quarter of a mile from the parking spot and the access to the river was down a hill and through a swampy meadow. It was necessary to follow a faint game trail to get to the river without bushwhacking through thick brush and wild roses. I always presumed that the difficulty of getting to the river was what had protected this spot. The local anglers were not inclined to expend much effort to catch some fish, and it definitely took some effort to reach this part of the river.
When I reached the river I looked upstream and down but I did not immediately see another angler. I thought perhaps that the other person was not an angler; perhaps just a bird watcher or mushroom hunter. As I walked up the bank I nearly stumbled over the mystery visitor sitting on the bank. He was leaning against a log tying a fly on his leader. Actually it was his crutches that I nearly stumbled over.
"Sorry," he said as he looked up. "I guess I didn't expect to encounter anyone else here."
"Likewise," I said. "It's quite a walk down here, especially on crutches."
"Well," he said, "I can either rust out or burn out and I prefer the latter."
I smiled and nodded not really knowing how to reply. I think I mumbled something and continued on upstream. I entered the stream about a quarter of a mile upstream and fished until it was nearly dark.
When I got back to my car it was full on dark and my mysterious visitor's car was still parked next to mine. I quickly resolved to strip off my gear and go back down to the river and find him. As I finished stowing my gear and was about to head back toward the river he materialized out of the darkness, walking through the dark woods on crutches without a light! It was at that moment that I realized why he was walking on crutches; his left leg was missing.
It was a couple of months before I encountered him again. I was sitting on the bank of a stream that is a mile from the nearest road when I heard someone coming down the trail. Looking up I saw my mysterious stranger approaching on his crutches. When he drew abreast of where I was sitting he stopped and I motioned to him to join me on the bank. He was carrying a back pack with a rod case strapped on the side, and balancing on his right leg he stripped off his back, swung it down to ground and settled down next to me.
"I don't believe we have been properly introduced," I said sticking out my hand. "My name is Ned."
His hand shake was strong and firm. "My name is Bill. It seems that we like the same places."
"Well Bill, I'm glad to make your acquaintance. I do like solitude and it's getting harder and harder to find. I'm surprised that you seem to like places like this since it must be quite strenuous for you to get into places like this."
"Well nothing worth doing is ever easy. My kids would like me to spend my time sitting in a rocking chair and fishing at the public access sites. I resolved many years ago that the loss of my leg was not going to define me or dictate what I can and cannot accomplish."
"I think the first time we spoke that you said that you wanted to burn out rather than rust out."
Bill smiled and nodded.
As we sat on the bank he explained that he had lost his leg in the war. His leg was removed at the hip making the wearing of a prosthesis more difficult than simply using crutches. He was introduced to fly fishing at a rehab center for wounded vets and soon discovered that he enjoyed the challenge. The war had given him an aversion for crowds so he avoided public access sites and the more popular places. Soon he started seeking out the hard to reach places, the places that were off the beaten track, the places that required some effort to reach. This added to his enjoyment and the challenge. That was the beginning of an enduring friendship.
What he failed to mention at the time was that he was also legally blind in his right eye; the result of the same incident that cost him his leg. It took me a couple years of fishing with him before I realized that fact.
Over the intervening years Bill and I fished together many times. We trekked into some very difficult places, floated an Alaskan river together through Class 4 rapids, and through it all I never once heard him complain or use his physical problems as an excuse. If I had a complaint about something I simply remember Bill and I quickly stopped complaining.
The last year of Bill's life we spent the summer fishing together in several of our old haunts. We stumbled through Tag Alder bogs, endured hordes of mosquitoes and made some great memories. As I stood next to his grave that cold fall day I would only think of those words that he said the first time we met, "I can either rust our or burn out, and I prefer the latter." Truly he lived out what he believed.
|The proceeding piece is fiction. However, the characters and the events represent individuals that I have known over my 50+ years of fly fishing. Their resolve to live life to the fullest despite their physical limitations has always been an inspiration to me. Given the choice between rusting out or burning out, like Bill, have learned to prefer the latter.|