Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Rio Grande - When Ho Who?

While gazing out the window at work it suddenly dawned on me the flags on the pole at the police station across the street weren’t straining against the raging spring winds anymore.

I stepped outside and sure enough the wind had finally died down. It was sunny, warm and much too pleasant for a workingman to endure.

It was one of those early spring days here in northern New Mexico that breeds a spat of mysterious stomach flu cases or a dead relatives’ second or third funeral.

And then there was the fact that the caddis were hatching up on the Rio Grande, an annual event designed to even up the odds with many a frustrated flyfisherman who’d been skunked on the state’s stingiest river.

I could only hang my head dejectedly, there would be no skipping out mid-week and hitting the water. I had started a new job and was now a weekend warrior when it came to fishing.
“God, what has become of me?” I thought as I shuffled back into work, dropped the window shade and got back to banging away at the keyboard.

A short time later my boss showed up in the doorway, leaned against the door jam and smiled sweetly.
“What’re you going to do on your day off?” she asked.
I was a little confused, “What day off?” I asked.
“Oh, you didn’t you know?” she said. “We get Good Friday off around here.”

I laughed inwardly at my incredible luck and lifted the window shade back up.

Down the Road
That morning I bounded out of bed early, leaving my warm, soft, sensuous girlfriend mumbling her goodbye into the pillows. It would be best if I departed quickly.

As my old van lumbered up the Santa Fe bypass, I dipped apples slices into a cup of yogurt balanced precariously on the dash. Wiley, my trusty dog, sniffed at me and gave me a look that seemed to say, “Hey pal, whatever happened to the breakfast burritos?”

We both turn our heads to watch the people trudging along the shoulder.

Here in northern New Mexico, the pilgrimage to the Santuario in Chimayo on Good Friday is a religious tradition and strung out all along the highway, walking earnestly, were hundreds of pilgrims making the hike.

For many it is the time to pay penance, give thanks or just share time with family and friends.

I feel a touch of reverence and a slight pang of guilt as I pass the many walkers. They’re looking at about 25 miles of blacktop from Santa Fe to the Santuario and I wonder if I could handle a hike like that myself.

The thought fades with the miles as I continue north out of Santa Fe, top out at Opera Hill and drop down into the Pojoaque Valley where I come across a crowd of pilgrims milling about at the intersection of State Road 503, a back road to the Santuario.

They are resting up here before taking on the final leg of the journey. The road is jammed with cars carrying food, water and other support for the weary walkers.

I think back to when I once lived off this road up near Nambe Pueblo and enjoyed many a summer evening driving along the back roads under a canopy of cottonwood trees, past the small family farms and pastures, waving to people on their porches.

In the surrounding piñon and juniper studded hills I would hike the sandy arroyos where Wiley could chase after an occasional rabbit.
It was quiet out here, very rural and I didn’t mind the 20-mile commute to my job as a newspaper reporter in Santa Fe.

But in the years since I lived there in a run down, rented trailer, many an adobe palace has sprung up behind a gated entrance with an expensive SUV parked in the drive.

I wonder what affect the onslaught of gentrification will have on the culture that led to traditions such as the one I was viewing now.

I continue driving north towards Española. The pilgrims have thinned out but I encounter a few peeling off the highway at the La Puebla and Sombrillo turn-offs that cut over to State Road 76, the main road leading to the Santuario.

I lived off that road, too, in another run-down rented trailer on a family compound. And I enjoyed many a summer night plying the back roads and hiking in the nearby hills with my dog.

That was late in my newspapering career when I moved up to Española to work at the Rio Grande Sun which was then a commendable paper run by an admirable man.

It was also one of most target-rich, news environments in the state and I liked the people and the culture.

And it was a hell of a lot closer to the prime fishing than most of New Mexico.

I found a place that summer on the outskirts of town just minutes from the canyon through which the Rio Grande flowed and spent many a night after work making my way upstream to stalk rising fish with dry flies.

I’d spend the night sleeping in my van by the riverside and in the morning would hustle back into town to dig up some news.

My base camp was a little camp trailer parked in a pasture with open fields, grand mountains and the big river nearby. I had electricity to the site and a campfire pit outside my door.

I was living the life of a genuine trout bum and news hound and recall those days with fondness.

And it was on one of those warm, summer nights down on the Rio Grande at a place called Pilar that I met a fellow fisherman named Wen Ho Lee.

What a Ride
I was breaking down my gear after a long foray up a side canyon through which the Rio Pueblo De Taos runs down to the Rio Grande.

That stream is best wet waded in shorts and sneakers with a light rod, short leader and a hopper. There’s plenty of pools and eager fish the higher up you go but more of that later.

It was late and darkness was setting in. There was a rust colored, early model, American-made sedan parked behind my van. I had to laugh at the car being parked so close to mine when there was so much room to breathe out here.

The car reminded me of my Nana’s old 1973 Olds Cutlass, a coupe with a Rocket 350 under the hood fed by a four barrel Holley Carburetor.

Man, that car could move. When my Nana got older and didn’t drive as much, she would ask me to take the Cutlass out on the highway and “blow the pipes out.”

One of the few speeding tickets I’ve ever received I got in that car.

I was down in Las Cruces where I had gone to State and earned my journalism degree. I was rushing over to the Gila Wilderness on a Super Bowl Sunday to try and get in some fishing before the game started later that afternoon.

I crested a hill and bore down upon a slow moving Isuzu Trooper. I punched it and swung out and around the truck. The road headed down into a gully and then climbed again before curving off to the right at the top of the hill.

I had that Olds humming by the time I popped over the crest and passed a state trooper in a black and white heading the other way.

I knew I was busted and let it idle down until I pulled over up around the corner where I sat and waited.

A moment later the trooper came barreling around the corner and locked up his brakes up after he overshot me parked by the side of the road. He banged a hard u-turn in a cloud of burning rubber and screeching tires and pulled up next to me, driver’s window to driver’s window.

Smoke and dust drifted through the air. My engine ticked and sighed as it cooled. The Isuzu slowly puttered by, its driver grinning from behind the wheel.

“What the hell were you doing back there,” the officer asked as he removed his mirrored sunglasses.
“I honestly don’t know,” I replied. “Maybe seventy?”

He laughed and ran a hand through his short-cropped hair.
“You’re lucky,” he said. “You had to be doing at least ninety but my radar wasn’t picking you up on the other side of that hill.”

Naturally he asked what my rush was, I told him my grandmother’s orders as I handed over my license and her registration.
“So I guess you’re just being a good kid uh? Respecting your grandmother’s wishes and all?” he asked.

I could only grin in return and accept the ticket he gave me for doing something like nine miles over the limit. He said that seemed fair since he knew I was speeding but he really couldn’t say by how much. I agree and it turned out that was the cheapest ticket he could give me.

With our business concluded we exchanged some small talk about politics and the weather. Before leaving he commended me for pulling over on my own, said he sure liked the Olds and warned me to keep it out of the ditch.

Years later long after my Nana had passed on I ran that Olds hot one day and blew a head gasket. It now sits in a friend’s pasture in Las Cruces waiting for the day I repair it and I will repair it, some day.

But this car parked behind me at the river looked more like Telly Savalas’ ride from Kojack, a Buick Century maybe. I wondered where the owner was because it was getting dark fast and things could get real hairy down on those slippery, rocks in the canyon.

Just then a little Oriental guy wearing a Vietnam era boonie hat and hip waders, just like mine, came trudging up the trail from the Rio Grande.
He nodded hello and I offered him a cold beer. He declined and instead pulled a thermos of coffee from his car.

I asked him how he made out, what was he using and stuff like that but his answers were short and clipped. The conversation died and an awkward silence ensued as we broke down our gear.
I made one last attempt at conversation when asked him where he was from. He told me Los Alamos and after I told him I lived and worked in Española, he seemed to relax and open up a bit.

We talked about the lack of meaningful research coming out of the publicly funded national labs at Los Alamos. Solutions for the common good rather than just continued nuclear weapons studies.

He remarked that he felt like he was wasting his time and talent, that he didn’t get a lot of real work done and felt like they only kept him around because he knew too much to be let go.

He joked that it was like being in the Mob, where once you were a member of the family, it was for life.

Here was yet another bitter, angry government employee who wished he could just move on and forget all about their frustrating career in public service, I thought to myself.

I wished him luck and we said our goodbyes.

Later Days
I forgot all about that guy until one day I was watching the nightly news and there’s a couple of buzz-cut, beefy FBI types leading this little, Oriental guy out of a house in the bedroom community of White Rock up near Los Alamos.

He was being charged with being a spy at the labs.

And then there’s the FBI guys searching through the trunk of this rust-colored, older model American-made sedan and pulling out a pair of hip waders.

This was all starting to look vaguely familiar and then it hit me. Hey, that's the guy from the river that night.

Well what do you know?

Now I don’t claim to know the whole story about Wen Ho Lee’s case as my paper didn’t really cover it, but I know from news accounts that he spent about nine months in jail, in solitary confinement, before he broke down and accepted a plea to a single count of mishandling computer files and was released.

The rest of the government’s claims about him being a spy for the Chinese went up in smoke along with their case. It was such an embarrassment that a federal judge in the case apologized to Lee for jailing him on such flimsy evidence.

The disgraced scientist would later file suit claiming the government leaked information about him to the media which resulted in his being sacked with less than a year to go to retirement.

And one of the names that came up as a possible source for the leaks is our governor who was then head of the Department of Energy, which oversees the labs.

I guess we’ll never know because the case has been settled with several media organizations picking up a good chunk of the estimated $1.6 million settlement tab.

They did that so they wouldn’t have to reveal in court who supplied them the leak.

So now our governor’s off running for re-election, a race he is expected to win handily, and then he’s thought to be preparing a campaign for the White House?

Meanwhile Lee’s reputation has been horribly smeared and the media look like easily, duped fools - once again.

What’s wrong with this picture? Whatever happened to the day when the media was inherently skeptical whenever the heavy hand of government came down on the little guy? Where have all those heroes gone?

Back to the Fishing
I snap out of my reminiscing as I roll up on my favorite spot on the river. In years past I have done quite well here during a caddis hatch. It’s a nice day with just a slight breeze coming upstream. I don’t see anything happening on the water but it’s early still.

I gear-up and climb down the steep bank to the river below. Hordes of caddis cling to the streamside willows, scattering in the air as I push through the thick bushes. They settle on my clothing and I can feel some crawling about under my shirt.

I fish for the longest time with no luck and see no risers. My bottom fishing with an imitation caddis emerger is ineffective. I am perplexed as waves of caddis wash over me, headed upstream on the wind. They founder on the water in eddies by the rocks but nothing pierces the surface.

It slowly dawns on me that the surface feeding frenzy characterized by years past when I got to this spot has apparently passed. I was a day late it seemed.

The fish were already gorged on caddis and laying low. Besides, why chase my imitation on the bottom when millions of the real things were floating by? And with that much to eat off the bottom why come to the top?

I begin to worry I’ll be skunked and desperately began to fish harder. I tie on a triple rig and re-dedicate myself to the effort.

Then I see the first rise of the day, off where a side channel connects with the main current. Just the slightest dimpling of the water where its snout broke the surface and sipped off a bug.

I quickly stripped off my bottom gear and tie on a single elk hair caddis fly, one of several I tied up the night before. I slowly waded across the river, below and behind where I’d seen the rise.

It wasn’t the caddis that got him; it was a tiny copper-colored, bead-head pheasant tail I tied off the back end as a dropper. And it wasn’t a trout but a small-mouth bass that saved my day.

Just a little guy the size of my hand, but, boy, was I happy to see him. Then the wind picked up and began to blow hard. White caps appeared upon the water, clouds blew in and the temperature began to drop.

I called it a day and once again the Rio Grande proved it could be one the stingiest of rivers in the state, even under the best of conditions.

Some may say if I had taken a good, long walk earlier that day it might have improved my odds.

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