Last week on vacation in the Sierra Nevada, I taught my 10-year-old daughter how to fly-fish. She’s that wonderful age when every cast is hopeful, when everything about life is possible.
After casting into an alpine lake one morning, I told my daughter I learned about fly-fishing just after I graduated from high school.
“I learned up here in the Sierra,” I told her. “The man who taught me was a doctor, a family friend.”
The man was Robert Moncrieff, now a retired pediatrician who lives in Monte Sereno. I'll never forget his patience and kindness.
Moncrieff’s son, Scott, also helped me learn to fly-fish when our two families hired guides and pack horses to take us into the high country of Yosemite for a week in the summer of 1975.
We enjoyed the trip so much that Scott and I backpacked by ourselves the following summer to the same wilderness canyon and set up camp near a stream called Return Creek. We spent a week fishing and relaxing, and forging a good friendship.
Then, in 1977, I joined Scott and his parents and sisters for yet another trip to Return Creek. This time his New England cousins, aunt, and uncle (who was a surgeon) came along with us into the wilderness.
Some 20 years later I wrote a poem based on our experiences in the high country, titled “Photographs.” My idea was to create photographs in words, like snapshots in a vacation scrapbook. In the final part of the poem, I capture moments from the 1977 trip.
Before I share the last stanza of the poem, I want to recount an experience that demonstrates both the value of writing about our lives and the power of newspapers.
At the time I wrote my poem in 1998, Scott was living in Maine. Though our parents stayed in touch, he and I hadn’t spoken for many years. I thought he’d appreciate seeing the poem, so I got his address from my mother and wrote to him, enclosing the poem and several others, as well as a few of my short stories.
He didn’t write back.
I wondered if the letter was lost, or if Scott didn’t feel as I did about our summers backpacking. Then I thought perhaps he’d intended to write, but just never got around to it.
Then, in April 2000, I got a letter.
“Why I have waited so long to thank you for your poems and short stories, I am not sure,” he wrote. “I am ordinarily a good correspondent, except that I could not explain all that I felt.”
Scott told me my poems had been sitting on the shelf in his living room since he received them, and that he read them often.
What finally prompted him to write is that while he was on a train to the west coast from Maine, a man in the seat ahead of him was reading the San Francisco Chronicle with the pages wide open. Printed in the newspaper was an interview with me and lines of verse Scott immediately recognized as my poem about Return Creek.
Scott wrote, “Of all the people who might read those lines, none would understand them in the special sense I would, since beneath the beautiful sketch is a time gone by.” He goes on, “I still cannot give words to all I feel, but certainly there is the inimitable joy that only the pine and granite, snow, water, and ‘bright azure silence’ of the Sierra can give; there are a thousand taut memories, a center from which I can never be moved, and a wistfulness that moves in and out of simple longing and sadness.”
Scott’s words captured exactly my feelings about our trips into the high country. The “center” he references is both the connection we had to the wilderness, and that magical time in youth when everything is possible, when in spite of our awareness of the fragility and dangers of life, we’re hopeful and content, knowing we have our whole lives ahead of us.
It’s the same center from which my daughter cast every line as we fished last week in the Sierra, the same snapshot in time I hoped to capture in the final lines of my poem:
Here I watched your cousin
weave a fragile braid of wildflowers.
Your uncle stitched
the bleeding brow of his wife.
We fished Return Creek
casting hopeful lines
clear and strong as sutures
pulling trout from
flowing from Sierra snows
to distant rivers, unseen.