Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Return to Roaring River

In the mid-seventies I returned to Roaring River State Park in Missouri for the last time.  I guess I had been there at least 20 times in the 16 years since my family had first vacationed there in 1959, and I wasn’t tired of it yet.  By this time I had visited many of America’s greatest destinations, and this little park was simply my favorite.  It was here I first learned to enjoy nature.  It was here I first learned the basics of camping.  And it was here I developed my strong desire to fly fish.

For the past few years I had been privileged to hunt and fish across North America including Alaska, Canada, Spain, and a few other places.  I couldn’t get enough of the outdoors, and I took every opportunity to be there.  My first love was fishing, but hunting was a good second, and I had to be outdoors to do either one.  I thought nothing of strapping on a backpack, grabbing my fishing rod, and disappearing into the wild for a few days.  Sometimes I had a companion, and sometimes I did not.  But to Roaring River I always went alone.

I think my family traveled there only three or four times, and as soon as I could get there on my own, I didn’t hesitate to go.  For years I was drawn to the park like a moth to a flame.  Any opportunity to travel through Missouri or any of the states near the southern part of Missouri required a detour to the park.  I rarely spoke of the park to anyone because I was afraid that too many people would visit there and ruin it for me.  I guess I was selfish, but when one has found the end of the rainbow one becomes reluctant to share directions to the pot of gold. 

In 1969 I drove there on my own for the first time.  I knew the place was special from the family visits years earlier, and I knew I must return.  Besides, I had not seen anyone fly-fishing for a few years, and I wanted to see it again.  I was determined to learn the process, but at the same time I was unsure how to go about it.

I arrived at the park, paid my camping fee, found a campsite, and set up my tent.  I listened to the river talk to me for several days while I looked around the area.  I don’t recall talking to anyone in particular, nor do I remember seeing anything remarkable.  But the place had a voice of its own, and I listened.  When I drove out of the park to go home it was necessary for me to pull off the road into a picnic area just to cry.  I didn’t know why I was crying, but it seemed like the right thing to do.  It was a long drive home.

The following summer I drove back to the park four times.  Two of those times amounted to a stay of less than one day before I had to leave.  The other two times were three or four days each.  And the voice of the park was louder than ever.  The sound of the river was the same, but something else was tugging at me, and I couldn’t define it.

I always watched the fly fishermen with envy.  As I’ve said at other times, I’ve fished all my life, but the fly fishermen always had my undivided attention.  Each trip to this magical place was undertaken with the idea of spending time watching these special fishermen and learning from them.  I didn’t really know what it was I was learning, and I didn’t know that it was actually the river’s voice that was my instructor.  But I was trying to listen and understand.

On my last trip to the park I saw a man I had watched fishing many years before on my first trip to the park.  He was much older now, and his friend was still with him directing his casts toward the fish.  It was the blind man I had watched catch and release a rather large trout all those years ago.  He was still fishing and still catching and still releasing.

I sat down and just watched for a long time that morning.  The blind man released several fish in those hours, and his friend assisted him in everything he did.  They were close—brothers it turned out—and they were married to twin sisters.  I wouldn’t have known this if the blind man hadn’t started talking to me.

I don’t know how he knew I was there, but more remarkable, he asked me if I had ever learned to fly fish.  He said he remembered when I was just a small boy and had sat on a nearby log just watching him.  How could he remember that incident?  When I asked him, he simply asked if I remembered it.  I answered affirmatively.  Well, if I could remember it, he could also.

I spent the evening with him, his brother, and their wives at their campsite.  They were leaving the next morning, and they believed that because of age and distance, this would be their last night at Roaring River.  Little did I know it would be my last night as well.

It is nearly forty years since I placed my feet in Roaring River State Park, and often I think of the blind man and his family.  One of the things he told me that last night in the park was that he couldn’t stop hearing the river.  He had first heard it as a young man and was ever drawn back to it, and everything he had done in life was influenced by the river’s voice.  I had no idea what he meant when he said it.  Now it makes perfect sense.

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