My father, ever the joker, began to dub me ‘Miss Hap’ after this particular episode capped a string of rather rocky adventures to my credit. I was guiding at that time for a shop on the Conejos River in Southern Colorado.
The Conejos is a pretty little river that springs out of the Continental Divide and flows over sixty miles to its confluence with the Rio Grande, near Antonito, CO. It is primarily a brown trout fishery and has a well deserved reputation for moodiness.
The Conejos is a challenging and worthy fishery, but it is only on the rarest of days that it favors the novice. So when we get folks in the shop who are looking for a less challenging experience, we hit the area tributaries. There are lots of these and they are gems without exception, home to a simpler breed of trout and stunning scenery.
The price paid for these high mountain streams is the elbow grease in getting there, often substantial. I met Jim and Anna in the shop on a bluebird day in early July. Ana had booked the trip to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. They didn’t want to be schooled by tough trout. While we did the usual guide-client dance, I tried to assess their physical ability and come up with a place that would suit their needs. They seemed fit and assured me they didn’t mind a hike to get away from the crowds.
The stream I chose is an intimate little affair that spills out of a reservoir and runs through a twelve-mile canyon. It has only two access points at either end and lots of obliging browns throughout. The stream is only seventeen miles from the shop as the crow flies, but most of those miles require low gears in four wheel drive. We arrived at the rim of the gorge and hiked the three quarters of a mile down to a small meadow where the river loses the rock walls that channel it and becomes a glassy flat.
This section holds fish up to eighteen inches that can only be taken with skill and finesse, but is still a great spot to start with beginners. We can sight cruising targets, and practice some casts where we have room. Most importantly, we can get that debilitating buck fever factor out of the way by sending fish we’re not likely to catch anyway screaming for cover before we go after our real targets in the pocket water upriver.
It was a magical day. They both caught plenty of fish. Around one-thirty it began to rain. It was a light and steady rain falling through sunshine and quite refreshing. It hadn’t hurt the fishing any, and as we still had a mile of river to the hike out, we kept up the fun. An hour later the rain still hadn’t stopped-or increased- and I began to find myself thinking about the road out.
After a few minutes of less than savory scenes playing out in my head, I heeded my sense of unease and decided to call it a day. Just as we reached the trail out there was a tremendous crash of lightning and the skies opened up. The path became a river in itself, ushering rocks and twigs out from under our feet. By the time we got to the car, lightning was punctuating every other thought. The inside of the cab was solid steam as we got underway, and I drove with my head out the window for visibility.
I just had one real gauntlet to run, where a series of springs and seeps filled a valley bottom, forming a quagmire in the best of times. I got a running start through the worst of it and managed to make it through, white-knuckling the wheel. The car surged to the top of the last hill and I allowed myself to relax my grip on the wheel. It seemed we’d made it. But no. The tires, tread packed solid with mud, began to slide off the slick wet grass on the hill down to the valley below. We came to rest with the two drivers side tires submerged well above their axles in mud and cow crap and the passenger side wheels not quite touching the uphill slope.
There was a heart-wrenching moment of silence and then Jim and I piled out of the car to assess the damage. It was bad. We were in the very bottom of the valley, balanced on two wheels, in the middle of a violent thunderstorm, twenty miles from home. The rain was still pounding on the roof of the car, interspersed by way too close blasts of lightning. Jim and I were trying to pile grass, rocks, anything - underneath the wheels, when Ana leapt out of the car, screaming that the car wasn't grounded and we were sitting ducks for lightning out here in the open. No way was she staying inside. That was the worst of all of it. With Ana cowering in a gully to our left while Jim and I dug frantically in the mud and ripped at the foundations of the earth for some purchase and getting nowhere, the realization that I was in way over my head came crashing down.
It occurred to me that in the typical mad- morning rush, I had left the shop without letting anyone know which specific high-mountain stream we’d be fishing. I was momentarily struck dumb. No-one knew where we were. I didn’t realize I had frozen like a deer in the headlights until Jims voice brought me back to earth. “Rita, I don’t think we’re going to get this thing out of here.” My face must have registered my paralysis, because he laid a muddy hand on my shoulder and shook me. ‘Hey, this is going to be ok. I think we should wait it out. Your boss will come looking for us before too long, right?” Wrong.
Reality snapped me back as I took stock. I did not tell Jim that no-one had us on radar. Instead I touted worsening road conditions as reason to start walking some of the way out and thus meet up with our rescue party all the sooner. After we had talked Ana out of her gully, we returned to my off-kilter car and geared up, pulling wet waders back on over muddied pants and piling on fleece.
Jim and Ana went into full survival mode at this point. No corner was left untouched or potential tool unconsidered as they went about equipping themselves for the coming trials with whatever they could find in my vehicle, laying to with truly impressive zeal. Finally we set off, armed with, among other things, flashlights, lighters, extra socks, a Swiss army knife and a Leatherman, leftover lunch and a weeks worth of my none too fresh guide clothes.
The first part of the trek was grim, hustling as we were uphill in the mud and rain, making for cover and cringing at every earth shattering strike. No-one said a word for a full hour. My thoughts alternated between being grateful that I was in this fix with these particular people and not the overweight smoker I’d had the day before, trying to envision the road ahead and a final solution to all of this, and kicking myself for not letting someone know where we were. Seventeen miles to pavement…
Then things changed. We hit our stride. Thoughts were drowned in the cadence of our footsteps. It quit storming and grew still and clear. The air was fragrant and fresh with sage and pine. It was so very quiet. I realized I had never been in that place before without the accompanying hum of motor, and found myself drawn in, enchanted despite everything.
Some time later we came upon a small clearing just as the sun was setting. There was a bull elk standing silent in the center, looking at us. His antlers were tipped with orange and red fire. It was almost too much. I chanced a glance back and found my wards with a definite light in their eyes. They were fiercely holding hands and looking very much alive. On some level, this would probably be looked back upon as one of the best anniversaries they’d ever had. It was a shoe-in for most memorable at the very least. Provided we got out of there. Our enchantment wore away with the miles and withered away completely as light faded into night and blisters began to form and fatigue to camp in our frames.
The moon rose. It grew colder. We couldn’t see. We were still walking. The hope of headlights on the horizon had long since died. At around ten o’clock that night, still five miles from pavement, we stumbled into an unlikely scene and salvation was at hand. There was a caravan of big rig RVs and accompanying Jeeps parked off to the side of the road. It was as far up the road as they had been able to get. It had been a very dry year and fire danger was high, prompting New Mexico (just across the way) to close all National Forests. This was a group of retired folks who had been unexpectedly displaced and were looking for some level place they could all call home for the night. I was amazed that they found any place level at all on that road, but grateful just the same.
I had some trepidations about knocking on a strange camper’s door in the middle of nowhere late at night, but there was nothing for it, and fifteen easy minutes later we were at Jim and Ana’s rented cabin. I left them to nurse their wounds and got a ride to the fly shop, where I imagined a beehive of frantic rescue activity to be buzzing. I arrived instead to a tranquil scene; an empty parking lot, the only light coming from a TV in the main house.
Inside I found one of the guides’ teenage sons on the couch with his girlfriend. My boss and his wife had gone to Denver. The kid seemed nonplussed at my account of events and returned to watching his show. It was all very anticlimactic. I was hit with the knowledge that even if someone had known where we were, we would not have been missed until morning.
There are a lot of lessons here, not the least of which is to leave multiple parties informed of your whereabouts, and that you can’t come too prepared. In this instance I was fortunate. Jim and Ana were only the better for the experience, and I got a great idea for ‘extreme couple’s therapy’ workshops, in case the guide thing doesn’t work out.