The Distance Between One and Zero
by Anthony Naples
The outdoor newspaper article read something like “butterball trout shaped like footballs…” The stream was in the same state – but still very far away. And pretty remote too. Nothing but potato farms and starch plants factories, you know the kind of place. The roadside was littered with potatoes – you could have made a meal. Can you eat the kinds of potatoes they use for starch? I guess so. I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter I guess.
To be fair the stream in question wasn’t right in the farm country, it was a little further on where the fields decided to be forests again. Well except for where the forests had gone and got themselves clearcut, and so sometimes the woods were more like the beginnings of farm fields again. Anyway, this stream was somewhere away from the present day potato farms. Well it started back in there somewhere but of course it ended up by the farms. Did it have trout where it ran behind our motel and then down through the farms and then on into Canada? Yeah probably. But of course that’s not where we fished it. We went for the headwaters.
We made a few mistakes.
We didn’t take a map, or a compass, or drinking water. Yes I know. All very foolish. But in most places that I fished back home in Pennsylvania it was pretty hard to get lost – you’d have to try really. And we would be along a stream the whole time so it would be impossible to get lost.
Streams have a way of leading you on. They whisper promises and sometimes they just don’t deliver. It is that kind of stream that is the most dangerous.
You know the water must get better just around the bend. How is it that a stream can be so deceptive? Once you’ve committed to hiking in a few miles, it is very hard to turn back and they know that. This stream was a master of disguise. And a plain old liar too. It managed to remain thin unfishable flat water and yet it gave off the aura of a perfect trout stream – without ever actually saying that explicitly. It managed to be on the cusp of good water without ever actually being good water, and it did this for miles. It was like almost recognizing a long lost friend over and over again. And when you got up to the person that you’re sure was this friend you’d see that it wasn’t – and there wasn’t even a real resemblance.
Or maybe I was just a really bad angler back then. I don’t remember being so bad. But then I’m probably still terrible and just don’t know it. That’s why I try to fish alone – or with a only a few close confidants. I don’t want my cover to be blown. Did you ever have that feeling that maybe you’re insane but just don’t know it. I mean you wouldn’t know it would you? Maybe all of your friends and relatives are just humoring you. Smiling and nodding.
So here we were in a kind of wide-ish vague valley, a sort of flat-ish lanscape with slightly swelling hills, but without any real distinct landmarks. It was just the kind of place to cut cross-country without a map and compass, but that hadn’t happened yet. There are moments in life when we make decisions that have dramatic consequences, decisions that cause a turning away or a turning to, or that result in a “before” and an “after”, decisions that we regret, or decisions that we would have regretted if we’d decided the opposite. Yes, sometimes we get it right. This wasn’t really one of those times. And yet maybe.
I caught at least one fish. Maybe a few more I don’t remember for sure. But I remember catching the one that spanned the gulf between zero and one. It is hard to call a trip on which you catch no fish a success. But by catching one fish – you can call it that, a success. Not a great success – but a success in so far as you did what you set out to do. I always like to think of it this way – if I was counting on this fishing trip for subsistence, then that one fish may make the difference right? So in the battle for survival the day is a success. I got some protein. In a post- apocalyptic world, where the grocery stores have all been cleaned out, I would have scored some valuable food. Despite what the mathematicians tell us, we all know that the the distance between zero and one is the longest of all distances between consecutive integers.
It was a brook trout. The stream was wide and slow and and had a deeper run down the middle at this point. There was a beaver dam just above. As if out of nowhere a brook trout of about maybe 10 inches, rose and took a dry fly. I know I shouldn’t anthropomorphize but that fish looked up at me with sad eyes, as if it knew that it was participating in a charade. It had drawn the short straw. It was a sacrifice to the distance between one and zero. I think that the stream had a moment of pity and arranged the whole thing.
By the time of this “success” we had been slowly meandering with the stream for most of the day. I can’t say how far we’d gone. We were thirsty, hungry and tired. With a notch on the old fly rod and having a rather low standard of success I was starting to think about dinner and something cold to drink. Things had not gone as planned and butterball trout shaped like footballs had not thrown themselves at us, or even made an appearance.
The way back along the stream was long and winding – with lots of stream side willows, deadfalls, thickets of young dense firs, and beaver dams. Surely the truck was not that far, as the crow flies – but at least few hours as the angler walks. We seemed to remember that the road paralleled the stream. The road would be a much easier walk. Easy. All we needed to do was strike out. That is all you ever need to do to get somewhere – strike out in the general direction. In this case the general direction was away from the stream. The road was through those trees, up that slope probably just out of sight. So with a vague notion of our course we set out from the stream, our only landmark, and our only clear path back, or forward, since back was now forward. Nobody likes to backtrack after all.
Some bushwhacking ensued.
The sun had passed it’s zenith hours ago, and was just now starting to think about sliding below the horizon. The effect of a setting sun can be so different depending on where you are and what you’re doing. I distinctly remember that feeling when I realized that the stream, which was our one sure bet to get home, was in an undetermined direction. The further we went – the further away the stream got. We knew we could always get back to the stream if we had to – but knowing it and it being true may have been two different things at this point. Too far from the stream to be really sure where it was and not sure in which direction the road lay – we where exactly lost. The location of the line between simply being “turned around” and being utterly and completely lost is not definite – it is merely a state of mind. And moving to this state can be hastened by a setting sun.
An old stone foundation and some apple trees looked promising, as did what looked like an old road. Though whether the slightly less overgrown portion of forest had ever been a road was not clear. Following it was not easy – but after some walking it did seem to be a road. The direction of travel along the road was just a guess – based on our notion of which direction was “away from the stream”. A night lost in the woods would not likely be fatal. But it would probably be miserable anyway. I guess that’s another clue as to whether you are lost – when you start thinking about what a night in the woods will be like. The abandoned farmstead and it’s road saved us from finding out.
To be lost and then found is a wonderful feeling. It is a feeling that you don’t get the pleasure of having often enough in life. Groping in the dusky half light, looking heavenward for the sun or the stars or the moon to guide you, can make a person feel small, and make the world seem appropriately large.
The overgrown farm road lead us to a gravel road. Coming out of the darkening woods, we stood on the edge of the gravel road and looked to the right…and then to the left. The road curved gently in both directions, but you could still see a pretty long way. As often happens, there were no clues telling us which way was the best way to go. The road we were hoping to find (the road where our truck was parked) was a paved road, this gravel road could be the same road or a different road, who could tell? Dust. A rising cloud of dust along a gravel road. A vehicle. Far to the right just before the road bent out of sight, a truck. Then it disappeared into the trees. Another road? A driveway? Please let it be a driveway. It was.
I never thought about it till right now – how strange we must have looked. Wearing waders, fly rods in hand. Miles from any trout stream as it turns out. I don’t remember the guy even asking us about it. Perhaps he’d seen this kind of thing before. We told him where we started and asked for directions back. He laughed a little and told us we were about 20 miles, by road from there and then he told us to climb into the bed of the truck.