A Letter to a Friend on Being Lost

Dear Pieter, 

Now I know that I’ve owed you a piece for some time and that I’ve been delinquent in my responsibility to keep my word. For this I apologize. The truth of the matter is that the content that we discussed for the piece is something very close to my soul and that several attempts to capture them on paper left me with only frustration.

You see, Vagabond’s catchphrase “Purposefully Lost” is one that resonates strongly with me. As a result of a somewhat less than reliable internal tiller arm I tend to navigate a lot of life’s back roads in perennial search of the road less travelled. This has led me down a lot of cul de sacs and onto ledges that have left me giddy with fear, but I relate strongly to what you are trying to convey. 

Tolkien said that “not all who wander are lost”.  For the longest time, when trying to understand why I felt so little inclination to be what the world expects of me, I have found safe harbor in that wise allegory.  That being said, I’ve recently jettisoned this personal motto in favour of another that I believe may resonate equally with you. 

“There’s no fear in getting lost if you’re doing it on purpose.

This is my favourite lyric from a folk musician from Milwaukee named Brett Newski. I met him at the White Mountain Music Festival in the ‘Berg a year or two ago. He’s an interesting guy – in the singular way that stoned troubadours tend to be. 

Newski has travelled the world with little more than a rucksack and a guitar for some years now. He tells the most extraordinary stories, like meeting the brother of the late Pablo Escabar in his cocaine-funded fortress of helicopter gunships, armed guards and rampant paranoia. The song is called “Columbia’s the Wrong Place To Lose Your Mind”. It seems a pretty accurate summation of circumstances. 

Anyhow, I am naturally drawn to that; story telling and story tellers. Coincidentally I’m also pretty good at getting lost. (Ask for directions? Grow a pair.) 

So what has all this carrying on about getting lost got to do with the act of casting a fly in an attempt to catch a fish, you ask? Nothing. Well, nothing directly, anyhow.

I have only once become lost while in the actual act of flyfishing. To be fair, it wasn’t my fault either (nothing ever is). It’s not an easy thing to do; getting lost while flyfishing. You either walk around the dam to return to your starting point (look for the pile of beer cans and unnecessary spare tackle) or turn and walk back downstream. Rivers don’t change their courses much during the course of a weekend. (If you’re a downstream type stream flyfisher then work it out yourself; you guys have no clue to start off with and were lost long before you got your rod out of its tube.) 

I’ve lost my train of thought. Oh yes, getting lost while flyfishing. 

We were up at Highmoor. I had my, then, seven year old son with me. He had brought a friend. What could possibly go wrong? 

There is a slope at Highmoor, not far but not too close to the dams (am I being vague?), that is littered with natural quartz crystals of a quite beautiful silvery-white color, some as long as your finger (I hope I was vague enough). If you know where to look and are very particular about what you pocket you can leave after an hour with one or two rare beauties. The boys were up there scratching away in the gravel like some pox-ridden farmyard fowls and us nymphing the lower dam when the mist rolled in. 

Have you seen Highmoor mist, Pieter? I’ll guarantee you that you’ve never seen through it. We lost the boys despite cries of “where are you?” and answers  of “right here”. 

Sound has a particular way of breaking up and dying in thick mist and we were battling hard to pin down their exact whereabouts. 

“Stay there, we’re coming to you.” 

“Don’t worry, we know the way.” 

“No, for fu-err-damnit, wait there.” 

“We’ll come to you.”

“JUST WAIT WHERE YOU ARE.”

“We’re nearly by yoooo- DAD I’M LOST!” 

This was followed by much wailing and swishing and grinding sounds that we took to be the flailing of stubby arms and the gnashing of juvenile teeth. 

After several tortuous minutes of scrambling about we found the lads. A paternal instinct honed from millennia of child raising and the effects of natural selection is a powerful instinct indeed and it did not fail us. When I talk here of natural selection I’m talking of the mortal fear of a mother’s blindingly deadly retaliatory response to the news that you’ve lost their precious baby. When you lose one of their offspring you are swiftly removed from the gene pool; nature, like an angry spouse, can be a cruel mistress. 

The boys didn’t look too worse for wear for the experience. We turned toward the dam with deals being made for their silence on the matter on our arrival back home (it cost me a milkshake – kids aren’t always particularly awake to the power of their negotiating positions). 

It was at precisely that point that we ourselves became lost. I’m not talking about that feeling of being slightly disorientated, either. I’m talking about being absolutely and entirely stone cold lost. We could have been pounding our way down the extinct canyons of Mars for all that it mattered right then. Aware that most of the hills in that area end in nasty falls we just sat there in the veld feeling sorry for ourselves and with my selfimage as something of a man-of-sports-and-action in tatters all around me. 

As is more often than not the case, the best way to clear muddy water is to let it settle. When the racked sobbing of the boys retreated to more than twenty second intervals and we no longer bothered to try to see around us our other senses were heightened. Through the mist, some 15 or 20 meters away was the sound of running water. To be more precise, the sound of the water running over the wall of the lower of the two dams, into that unique little concrete channel thing (where my son had dropped my ridiculously expensive brand new prescription Polaroid glasses the year before) and then on to become, somewhat inauspiciously, the start of the Little Mooi River. 

We were basically where we had started out. My outdoorsman skills had returned us to safety without any conscious intervention or even my overt realization of the fact. I was well pleased and immensely satisfied at this transcendence of the mundane, common, everyday ‘put a stick in the ground to find the time and / or direction‘ sort of bushcraft. I didn’t need to see on which side of the tree the moss grew or to stand a matchstick on my analogue timepiece. I was something spectacular. I could find my way in conditions of zero visibility without even trying. Selfimage restored. 

What I’m trying not to admit here is that we weren’t lost at all. I think that it proves my point that it’s really hard to get lost while actually fishing. (It proves nothing in the case of the downstream fly fisher as from its source here at the Highmoor dams the Little Mooi then proceeds to fall down a very high cliff in a perfect imitation of a waterfall and onto the jagged rocks below. By all means, rig up a sinking line and follow it from the lower dam into the valley below. Keep us updated as to your progress.)

No. You’re more likely to get lost on the way to your venue then while actually fishing. 

I have a very singular knack of getting lost on the way home from a venue. Yes, I know it’s unusual, but I’m like that. This getting lost on the way home may say something about my fatigue levels at the time. What it probably is, this knack of mine, is something entirely of a Freudian nature and speaks of my excitement to return to the real world from my other happy place (work that out yourself). 

Speaking of Freud and, by extension, Freudian slips, do you know the guy who goes with his family to the mountains and while he’s there sneaks in a spot of early morning stream fishing? He has a red letter session. He casts delicate dries with almost almost telepathic ease under branches, over lips and along seams with Jedi-like prescision, drag free, and catches better than average wild browns almost at will. 

On his way back to his rented lodgings he stops briefly to admire the stream dancing and giggling it’s way through the valley and, as if on cue, a small duiker emerges from within a stand of nchi-chi trees to lap at the sun-dappled water that he so recently departed. He approaches his cabin in uplifted but sober spirits and his wife steps out to greet him. 

Our unfortunate friend  maintains to this day that he meant to greet her with “good morning, darling”, but everyone within polite earshot heard, “you bitch, you screwed up my life.”

Now that, in case you ever wondered, pretty much defines a Freudian slip. Don’t worry Pieter, it worked out ok in the end and, last time I heard, he has plenty of time for undisturbed fishing these days. (Mainly on alternate weekends when he does not have custody of the kids, but such is the way with these things.) 

I digress again. 

Myself and a few erstwhile companions recently returned from the big fish waters of the Eastern Cape. We got lost twice over the course of six days. 

It really wasn’t our fault, Pieter. The first incident involved a unanimous decision to avoid a seven kilometer standing queue behind a multi-truck collision by following a GPS across, what was once, deep rural Transkei. It started well but ended with us throat-deep in Eastern Pondoland cutting our way through velvet mist along muddy roads. You’ll be happy to know that we made our way out safely with no damage to our pride (nothing fundamentally there to damage, really). 

The second time on this trip that we got lost was by following the somewhat dodgy directions to a secret (eh Matty?) lake that were given to us by a sweetheart of a lady who was feeling bad that we’d suffered so long and for so much of it pretty much fishless. 

Dawn found our company, waders donned, bumping along agricultural roads, opening gates and closing gates and pointing and trying to find cellphone signal and rebooting the GPS and cursing kindhearted ladies who were terminally bad at being helpful. Suddenly (we had settled on even odds that it was a mirage) a brown Land Cruiser towing a trailer of fatted calves (I think – I’m not an expert on things bovine) appears on the road ahead of us. The Cruiser has KZN number plates and the whole episode started to feel a bit otherworldly. 

“Hi, we’re lost. We’re looking for {secret lake number 149}, do you know where it is?”

“Sorry guys, I’m from your neck of the woods, just down here to buy cows and I have no idea where you’re looking for.”

“A pity, but it’s nice to see a familiar number plate.”

“Do you know Jay who makes J-Vice?”

“Yes, he’s a friend.”

“He’s my brother.”

Everybody piled out of our truck and hands were shaked and shoulders were bumped (rappers, are we?) and we all smiled and took a few photos and said our goodbyes and on driving off said many “howaboutthats” and “wouldyabelieveits”. I suppose, Pieter, that that’s the thing about being lost. You’re never really lost at all, are you?  Not in that sense anyhow. 

 The line from that song and meeting Jay’s brother has got me thinking a lot about the nature of getting lost – that it’s not so much a relative geographical thing as much as a mental state. 

Let me try to explain. I think that I’m a pretty ordinary guy and that I’m certainly not too much unlike your average fly fisher. We’re largely just a bunch of garden-variety husbands and fathers with mortgages, overdue tax returns, kids who need braces, morning traffic, unreasonable commercial deadlines, lawnmowners that need servicing, nagging doubts over the health of our spousal relationships and crippling revolving credit card debt. 

We do what we can, where we can, with what we have and very little time is left over to dream the sort of dreams that we did as younger men. 

At night though, in those precious minutes of stillness between full consciousness and full rest, we do lose ourselves to wander; and our dreams are simple – yet rich, elegant and textured. 

When I’m lost in my dreams I picture small streams, massive skies and towering mountains. I dream of being on a undiscovered stream that I suspect is, to me, a utopian blend of the Pholela and the Lotheni. I dream of startled buck jumping tussocks in their adrenaline fueled flight as they realize my presence. I dream of steep gorges and fast, tumbling champagne water, mirrorball surfaced runs and hypnotically deep pools. I lose myself in minute visualizations of holds; shadowed undercuts, small depressions in the bed and technically demanding laced current seams. I see clearly every stalk, presentation and drift. I can taste the crystal air and I can smell the damp earth. I hear the cry of raptors and I am reminded that I was born to live free or not at all. 

When I’m there I have the freedom to explore and I the freedom to discover this world. No, I am compelled to explore it and I am compelled to discover it. 

I move through this world with a childlike awe and a hermit’s simplicity – the bonds of schedule are broken and are swept away in the current that nags at my shins. Every bend reveals a new, untouched world and behind every rock lies a unique universe. 

I wander through this world with my inner child at the helm. I neither pay any heed to the hour of the day nor do I observe any civilized convention. 

I assimilate the rhythms of the land and I rise when it rises and I sleep when it sleeps. I sleep where it’s driest and I absorb the darkness (on which relentless war is waged on every night everywhere else in the world). This fear of darkness is something that perplexes me. As I stare out into the cosmos I try to remember exactly what it was that Van Gogh said about the richness of colours at night. 

I drink from the stream and I when I’m lucky I eat from its bounty – those beautiful, graceful and cautious little fish. I love those fish. I love the small ones that slash at every well-enough placed fly as though vicious ambush is the only way to subdue them. I admire the larger fish; the patient watchers. The pathologically cautious feeders who rise slowly to the intercept only the perfectly drifted dry and who accept no clumsiness. In this world clumsiness and a lack of complete focus begets only disdain and an empty creel. 

I get lost there, Pieter – lost in the world and lost in myself. But, and it’s a strange irony, that sometimes when within myself I am truly lost I go up there and I’m found again. 

It’s true, you know, that there is no fear in getting lost – if you’re doing it on purpose. 

Your friend,

Savs

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