Evan is an elderly gentleman I’ve run into at least five times in the last three years. He walks the paths near where I fish for steelhead and cutthroat through the late winter months. I actually don’t know his name, though we’ve spent enough time talking now where I feel like I should know his name, so it’s going to be awkward when we finally get around to formal introductions. Though realistically, I’m really not sure he recognizes me from our previous conversations. Regardless, he looks like he could be an Evan. He’s relatively short with glasses (and without I assume) and looks like a kinder, happier, wispy haired version of the actor Ed Harris.
The first time I ran into him, he was walking with his younger wife (or possibly an older daughter—forgive me as I’m quite bad at judging age). The conversation started as a passing hello, but then Evan stopped, nonverbally indicating he wanted to chat. Stopping to converse goes against my nature when I’m walking from hole to hole, but Evan asked if I’d caught anything. I replied, “No luck yet” simply slowing my stride. Then he carried on as if ignoring my hurried body language: “Not many steelhead left, but there’s a chance you may get a cutthroat.” So as not to be rude, I stopped and engaged in the conversation.
It went on for at least 10-minutes as we talked about steelhead numbers, the cutthroat tagging program, and water levels. He conversed easily as I learned facts about the river Google could never provide. His walking companion stated they should continue on their walk a number of times throughout the discourse, but due to his focus on me (or his matrimonial deafness) he ignored her and carried on. Throughout the conversation, he impressed me not only because of his knowledge, but also because he treated me like a familiar face and not a stranger.
When I got home, my wife asked how fishing was. I said, “It was great. No fish, but I met a guy who I want to be like when I’m old.” Then I went on to tell her about our conversation, about how he’s walking the paths along the river, and how he’s in tune with what’s going on with the fish.
I’ve had a number of similar encounters with Evan along the river paths. We talk about fishing and water levels and sometimes he asks me about my gear. The last time I bumped into he and his companion was a month or so ago. After spending the morning hours swinging flies, I trudged up the last hill on the trail and into the parking lot. Nearing my vehicle, a noiseless vehicle pulled up beside me and the passenger lowered her window. Evan leaned over from the driver’s seat and said, “Any fish today?”
“Got a healthy cutthroat but no steelhead,” I said. We carried on about fishing for a few minutes, and then I told him I liked his new electric vehicle. He asked if I had one. “Not yet,” I said. “I’m saving my pennies. I’ve got my eye on one but it’s pretty pricey. It’s an off-road EV.” Then he said the name of the company. “Is it that one?” he asked. Wow. I thought. Evan’s an old guy who knows new technology. When I walked through the door, my wife asked about fishing. “I ran into Evan again today. Did you know he drives a new EV? I want to be like him when I’m old,” I reiterated.
“What do you mean when you’re old? You’re old already,” she said playfully.
“Three years older than you makes me 32. That’s not old.” I calculated how many 29th birthdays she’d had to that point as I took my shoes off, and then thought it best to stop the addition if I wanted to avoid the relational red. “He knows the river. He hikes to the tough spots. He knows technology…he drives an EV. He stops and talks to people on the trail like they’re friends and not strangers. That’s what I want to be like when I get to his age,” I said again.
The times I leave the river after running into Evan I often think more about our conversations and less about the fishing. Admittedly I’ve never hooked a steelhead on a day that coincides with an Evan encounter, so I’m not sure who will win out in that situation, but I have a suspicion it would be the steelhead. Nevertheless, I think a lot about our conversations and I have a few take-aways I’d like to pass along just in case you never run into Evan or someone like him when you’re out.
In an era of “you do you” and the impassioned search for the authentic self, I suspect Evan understands something universal about the human experience that eludes many of us who arrived after him—the concept of letting go in order to truly discover. For example, letting go of youth in order to fully embrace the next stages of life. By all appearances, Evan’s an old guy who possesses a timeless aura because he embraces his age.
The older I get the more I believe life is all about paradoxes like that. The rivers teach us this. They are all-powerful until we strip them of their power. They are life-giving until we rob them of their life by polluting them. They run forever until the human race changes the climate. Trout and steelhead thrive within their banks until we tinker too much with their ecosystem by stripping the hills bare.
People like Evan seem to have figured out how to be part of the puzzle in the portrait of themselves. His pieces make up a very small portion of the image. He’s surrounded by landscape and knows where he fits within the landscape. He’s down the hill from the parking lot near the river talking to anglers about the fishing and the fish.
From our conversations, I’ve also begun to realize personal longevity comes with a cost beyond individual rights. I have the opportunity to enjoy this global playground for more years now because civilization has partly figured out how to survive plague, famine, and disease. So I, statistically speaking, have a greater chance than my ancestors to become an old guy who walks the riverbanks. Individual human rights are essential to personal freedom and something that we need to constantly fight for and protect. But there’s another side to basic human rights. Once we’re at a place where our rights are protected, individuals in an advanced society potentially evolve to point where they have the capacity to explore their responsibilities. Responsibility has everything to do with thriving, not just as an individual, but an individual within a culture, a community, and an ecosystem.
And maybe that’s the key to enjoying the rivers I fish for the duration of my years. If I really want to become an old guy like Evan, I need to know my role and perform it unselfishly through each season of life. Though the cowardice in me gravitates toward selfishness (even though it wasn’t me that hoarded all the TP at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic), my heroic side knows selflessness is a better route to choose.
I say all that, but truthfully, if I end up in the middle of a conversation with Evan and see a group of anglers walking down the hill toward my favorite run, I’ll likely cut the conversation short and head toward the river ahead of them. In the words of Kevin Malone from The Office, “It’s only human natural.” Right? Guess I’ve got quite a few years of practice left before I become more like Evan—I really shouldn’t rush it.
Written by Derek Bird and published in the Fall issue of 2021
Illustration Paul Vecsei @fish_as_art