A lesson in survival


I thought about the woman's bones for a long time — what position they might have been in when they were abandoned and covered up, what had happened to her heart and her lungs as they slowly deteriorated. The cavity of her ribs and her chest, the now-hollow cavity of her thigh bones, that narrow indentation of skin between the sinews on the back of her neck where her black hair swirled against her olive skin — they were all empty and would stay empty, and she would be staring up at the hot blue sky for a long time. Ten years of sky.

What if I, like her, was buried in the place I happened to be going to the next morning? Was it a good day to die? A friend had just told me the story of his cousin going out to flyfish and never coming home again. The family recovered her remains 10 years later near a remote northern New Mexico stream. Before I heard this tragic and gruesome story, I was driving north from my home in Santa Fe with my flyfishing gear, a steaming cup of coffee in hand and a good lunch stuffed into my pack, headed for a river called Santa Barbara in the Carson National Forest.

Just short of a two-hour drive from Santa Fe, the Rio Santa Barbara is a cool stream that runs under the feet of the 13,000-foot Truchas Mountains. It's brushy, small and requires a short leader and a whole lot of patience, but it is one of the area's most rewarding fisheries. The brown trout, and upstream, the cutthroats, are small but opportunistic and haven't been over-fished. It took me three and a half unforgettable hours to cover about two miles of water.

The evening I returned from the Santa Barbara, my husband and I talked about Bone Woman, as I'd begun to call her. I couldn't stop thinking about her. Should I be afraid? Just like her, probably, I want a day alone to drive to a place and walk in a river where there is no one at all, my mind is quiet, and I am thinking only of fish. I want to feel the way I did when I was a kid, when I was completely absorbed in a place in that intimate way that children are.

So I ask myself the questions that Bone Woman — in fact, any woman — might ask, after getting out of a car and surveying a lonely place: Was a man looking at her oddly as she put her rod together? Does something feel wrong? Is this experience worth the risk that I might not go home and have dinner with my husband tonight?

The answer for me is still "yes." You cover yourself, you leave detailed directions, you make sure you know where you're going so you don't have to stop at a garage to get directions; and you are discreet. For me, the answer is always yes: I choose to go places where only my topo map can get me, and yes, I fish there, and yes, I do it alone. And don't look at me like I'm crazy just because I am a woman.

Growing up near Sun Valley, Idaho, I unwittingly flyfished some of the world's premier waters: Silver Creek, Big Lost River, Salmon River. Two Basque brothers from my high school and I would wet-wade the Silver Creek up to our waists, pulling flies from our belt loops and enduring dirty glances from the gear-heads that fished the technical waters in all their Orvis finery. I didn't get a car for my 16th birthday; I got a beautiful 9-foot 5/6 L.L. Bean rod and reel and my own vest. Walking out my back door to fish and explore was more than something I got used to; it was a passion.

The real question is: What am I willing to risk to keep the things that make me happiest?

The answer is that my love of flyfishing and exploring solo hasn't changed, but the way I protect myself has. I just took shooting lessons and recently purchased a .38 caliber Ruger revolver that I plan to carry with me. I will always say that if you are willing to risk your own life; if you are willing to face Bone Woman's fate, then you have only one option: Go.

But you also have to remember to be very smart. And carry a big gun.

Jennifer Hobson Hoffman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She writes in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.