© 2022 Cari Ray, Fisher of Zen

May is metal health awareness month, and Pat Kellner, the guy behind Texas Freshwater Fly Fishing, asked me to put some thoughts together on the pursuit of fly fishing as it relates to mental health. Rather than a treatise on their connection, what flowed on to the page were some prime examples of how the sport offers opportunities for the sort of mindfulness practice that can pay big dividends in our daily lives. It’s a long-held belief of mine that, if we let it, the pursuit can be immeasurably beneficial to mind, body, & spirit. Sometimes by offering low-hanging fruit like fly casting and drawing us into nature. Sometimes by offering situations that border on tedious or frustrating, presenting us with the choice to get bogged down or to rise above. Like most healthy choices, it gets easier with practice. Mastery is never about your relationship to anyone or anything else, it’s always between you and you. And step one to is to GET PRESENT, so let’s start there…

With a busy Texas trout season drawing to a close, I finally had a chance to sit down and crack open “Not all Trout are Geniuses,” by fly fishing author, Mark Usyk. From the first chapter, I was drawn in…not only by the vivid storytelling, but by the easy, conversational tenor of his writing. And I was sure I needed to convince him to  come on the podcast.

As he joined our virtual meeting from his den, he was accompanied by Masters of the Universe and Star Wars action figures, Kermit the frog,  and an 18-inch statue of the Incredible Hulk holding a trout plaque. So yeah, I knew this was going to be good.

We’ll talk about the release of his third book, a little about fly fishing, and a fair bit about the path of transformation from hot rod builder and and cell tower climber to published outdoor author.

Climbing into the driver’s seat perched high upon the lifted frame of our rental Jeep, I used my thumb to clear the dust from the gauges. Once strapped in, I stomped the clutch and fired her up. It had been several years since I had driven a stick, so as we began to roll along the washboard that serves as street in the old mining town, I might as well have been 15 again whiplashing us through the gears on the way back to the cabin.

We were in the 4 Corners area for the first time and planned to stay the entire month of August. One early lesson was that I will never again visit that part of the country without a 4 wheel drive vehicle. We had taken the #CariVan so we’d have a place to sleep on camping excursions, but there were just too many places we wanted to go that were high clearance 4×4 only, and the spot we had in mind for this outing was just such a place.
A little online research awarded us the opportunity to rent the last and least expensive 4×4 to be had. There was no extra charge to pick it up the evening prior, so we made the short walk along a street of packed earth mixed with a small ration of crushed stone. After a quick walk around to assess and inventory the multitude of scratches scrapes and bruises that marred the outside of the 15-year old Wrangler, papers were signed and she was all mine! Well, at least for the next 24 hours.

Recently, we pointed the nose of the #CariVan toward the venerable Pedernales Falls State Park deep in the famed Texas Hill Country. Growing up in Indiana, I thought that we Midwesterners had the corner on the unique pronunciation market, but my time in Texas has reminded me that every locality has it’s quirky versions. So, for the Texans listening in, that’s PERD’nales. Now, where was I? Oh, yes. It was the first crisp, sunny day off in a couple of weeks and we were looking forward to having our boots on a trail again.

A few years ago, Robbin Voight said yes to a 14-day rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Well, she actually said yes 2 years before then, but we’ll get to that. A while back, I wrote my own account of seeing it from the South Rim for the first time. You can check that out HERE. Contrary to what you might think, not all outdoor adventure is reserved for 20-somethings living the van life. It’s for folks like you and me, too. Some of my favorite outdoor adventure stories are those of ordinary folks who’ve had extraordinary experiences. And this one would certainly qualify. 

In the course of our interview, we’ll also get to all of the reasons she considers that trip to be life-changing. She’s even been kind enough to share a few of her in-the-moment journal entries with us. I’ve posted them along with the episode over at fisherofzen.com. We talk a little about impetus, a little about an average day on the river, and a lot about Zen of being disconnected from what one river guide referred to as “the fake world,” and immersed in the beauty that abounds in the real one. 

A couple of years ago, we were awarded the unique opportunity to spend the Christmas holiday along the US-Mexico border just in time for a government shutdown spurred, at least in part, by a political dispute over that very border. Feeling the gravity of that situation as we explored the ruggedly beautiful terrain and the river that runs between our countries offered a unique vantage point from which to contemplate the situation.

The following piece was written shortly after that trip. Much has changed since it was penned. But our current challenges seem only to have widened existing fissures and opened up fresh ones—between countries, states, neighbors, and even families. It is with a little melancholy that I entertain the idea that the upshot of this message might be evergreen.

JP Ross is thoughtful guy. I’m not talking about the “oh, isn’t he nice?” kind of thoughtful, though he’s probably that, too. I mean to say that from what I can tell, he approaches everything he does with focus and a great deal of thought. As though it matters. Because to him, it does. He’s also a rod designer and builder who believes, passionately, that a fly rod is more than merely a tool to catch fish, it’s an instrument of zen. Which is probably why we hit it off from the start.

My interview with him meandered from a doctor’s office parking lot in Utica, NY, where he was first introduced to fly fishing as a child, to his experience owning a fly shop and designing fly rods, and ultimately, to a discussion about the human and Devine forces that compel him. Terms you don’t often hear in conversations about fishing came up—like happiness, belonging, and believe it or not, even enchantment.

I stood at the open slider of the #CariVan feeling the late afternoon sun warm the back of my neck between my hat and my shirt collar. As I worked to clear the Tetris level that was getting my gear to fit into my favorite pack, I wondered for a moment if this little excursion was even worth the trouble. It was a fleeting thought born of the traditional values one picks up as a young angler where the proportion of the effort is weighed only against the size of the catch. Old habits die hard, I suppose. But this outing would be nothing like my youthful pursuits f   or either glory or groceries. I had a very particular goal in mind, driven by curiosity more than conquest. The plan was hatched last time I had visited this favorite TX State park, and I was bound to see it through.

In this installment, I have a heart-to-heart with Kate and Danielle Nolan of DNK Presents, Brown County Bikes, and a nonprofit called Live Adventurously. Like Episode #4 of my recent conversation with fellow van camper, Stephanie Burks, there wasn’t a set agenda for this interview. I wanted to just allow these ladies to talk about what they are passionate about. And believe me, there’s plenty. But the main thread that runs through our exchange is a focus on empowering and educating others, especially women, to embrace their sprit of adventure and self-reliance. To reconnect with themselves be immersing themselves in nature. Sound familiar? 

Earlier today, guided by a cobbled-together plan consisting of basic knowledge, general guidance and personal perseverance, I ventured eastward from Portland, Oregon through the shadow of the Mt. Hood National Forest. After an hour or so winding through old-growth redwoods, I rather abruptly emerged onto the straw-colored expanse of high desert. Windows down, I caught the whiff of woodsmoke even before catching sight of the mounting haze that had visited often on this trip. Though I hadn’t encountered a live burn at this point, distant wildfires have a persistent way of making their presence known.