They say you can’t go home again, and maybe in some abstract sense they’re right. But in the actual world I inhabit I’ve had quite a few homes through the years and I find myself returning to them regularly.
I went back to one former home recently, my old stomping grounds in the Bitterroot Valley. Hamilton was the first place I lived in my adopted home state of Montana. I spent a day with Yoda, the old Zen master who taught me the ins and outs of guiding. We hit the water on a scorching hot day, floating from Wally Crawford down to Angler’s Roost south of town. It’s the water I learned to row on, and if there’s such a thing as home water, that part of the Bitterroot is mine.
Like most rivers in western Montana, the Bitterroot is running a little higher than usual. The good thing is that by now a little higher means just about right. This river has a smorgasbord of hatches this time of year and it’s usually a dry fly fisher’s paradise in July. The reports from Hamilton said the fishing was lights out.
It wasn’t quite lights out the day we fished, but we still had a fine day on the water. There were plenty of golden stones motoring up the river. These are big bugs, almost the size of a salmon fly. We watched a few fall on the water, but the bugs often drifted downstream out of sight without being inhaled. It was the tail end of a week-long hatch, and the trout just seemed to have eaten their fill.
We had a tough time casting the big flies Yoda had tied up the night before. The wind was gusting up river and it blew our flies in the same direction. Even if you mend like a mad man it’s tough to get a good drift when you can’t keep your fly out in front of your line.
Still the routine was all pleasing enough. Floating the Bitterroot is approached a little differently than most Montana trout rivers. This is inflatable water. The only dudes rowing hard boats are posers from Missoula who come down the valley when the water’s high so they can show off. The real Bitterroot guides don’t even outfit their rafts with lean bars as is common up on the Flathead. That’s an unnecessary extravagance on a small river that is properly fished from the seated position.
Mixed in with the bugs were a few smaller stones. Bitterroot Stones, Yoda said. We eventually sized down to 12s and 14s. This allowed us to cast properly and get a decent drift despite the still raging wind. Things turned on and as we alternated rowing and casting we boated a number of nice fish. Then, just as it began to get uncomfortably hot, we reached the takeout.
There are more civilized things to do at 5 p.m. when it’s 95 degrees than continuing to work on your sunburn. Topping that list is visiting the local brew pub. Besides good beer, I’m certain to run into an old friend I haven’t seen in a long while. That’s a part of the Bitterroot float experience that’s as important to me as the 18-inch rainbow I caught and released just below the Sleeping Child diversion dam.
I visited another old home last week, Flagstaff, Ariz., though the circumstances for this return were tragic. An old friend had to say goodbye to his son, a young man who should have been at the beginning of life rather than at the abrupt end due to a drug overdose. I best remember Sam as a 3-year-old when he became my daughters’ first friend when we moved to town.
I don’t know exactly what that saying about not going home again means, because Flagstaff sure felt like home, though in a sad way this time. When you’re in a place standing with old friends, fighting back tears while people you love say goodbye to a son who had just become a man, it seems that’s the definition of home.
At least in every way that matters.
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