I am sitting in the back of a van in the middle of Wyoming, just after dawn, with three bearded fishermen who are all singing along to Taylor Swift at the top of their lungs. We haven’t seen another car in at least 30 minutes or any sign of human life really. I haven’t had a signal on my phone for more than an hour. Outside, the landscape has turned from the gently rolling grasses of the high prairie to jagged red cliffs; Wyoming is so open and empty that I’ve started to feel as though emptiness is a new language I need to learn how to speak.
You can drive forever in Wyoming and never see another car. (Photo: Glynnis MacNicol)
I am going fly-fishing.
Two days earlier I’d arrived at Paradise Guest Ranch, a century-old dude ranch nestled in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. I was on a 10-day cross-country trip with my friend Jo Piazza, Yahoo Travel’s managing editor, and this was one of many stops we’d scheduled along the way. Our plan was to stay one night; it turned out to be such a glorious place, we stayed for four days. It was during lunch on our first day that someone mentioned they offered fly-fishing.
Since we’d left New York five days earlier, our mantra had been “I guess we’ll find out.”
Does that storm cloud look like a funnel? “I guess we’ll find out.”
Can we make it through this mountain tunnel on an empty tank of gas? “I guess we’ll find out.”
Do you think it’s possible not to eat any fast food on this entire trip? “I guess we’ll find out.”
Do you think fly-fishing is a good idea?
You get the idea.
I had never been fly-fishing before, or fishing at all actually. The closest I had ever come to fish in my normal life is sitting at my favorite sushi bar in Brooklyn. But this is also exactly why it appealed: I live in New York, so how often in my life would I have a chance to fly-fish. Somewhere in the back of my mind was a cloudy memory of a poster for A River Runs Through It featuring a very young and very handsome Brad Pitt. Visions of Hemingway, the man who made an adventurous lifestyle for a writer seem like a necessity rather than a luxury, floated through my brain. I suddenly recalled a scene from one of my favorite Myrna Loy films that sometimes shows on TCM. There was something very chic and old-school about the idea of fly-fishing. I felt like I would be traveling back to a time before we were all married to our devices and wore better clothes.
Still, feeling I should be honest about my total ignorance, I promptly forewarned Paradise’s 28-year-old head fishing guide, Dustin Arnold, that I knew nothing.
Not a problem, he assured me, neither did anyone else he took out.
This is the view down to the river. (Photo: Glynnis MacNicol)
And so it is that two days later I find myself hiking down a steep 1,200-foot canyon, wading boots dangling around my neck, far away from everything. In fact, this might be the farthest away from everything I’ve ever been in my life. This knowledge alone is intoxicating. We all enjoy complaining that we are too tied to our devices, that we long to unplug and get away, but, short of relinquishing our iPhones to a hotel clerk, the actual act of disconnecting while on vacation is hard. In Wyoming, however, I barely get service anywhere, and so the decision to take myself offline is blissfully made for me. Later I ask Dustin what would happen if someone got hurt. “Don’t,” he replies sternly, explaining that we are reachable only by helicopter, which would take hours to get to us. Instead of panicking me, this knowledge offers some relief; it is strangely comforting to know there are still places unreachable by the Internet (though I do walk more carefully after this conversation!).
It’s not my phone I’m thinking about, however, as we set out; mostly I’m just focused on not falling flat on my face. Down and down we go along a rocky path. Above us are nothing but blue skies and what appears to be an eagle circling. Far below is a rapidly flowing river. Around us jagged canyon walls rise. Pocketing the rock face are caves that outlaws used as hideouts and a place to stash their gold more than a century ago. In fact this place remains so untouched by time, it’s entirely possible that by blaring Taylor Swift in the van the entire way here we’ve torn some sort of hole in the space-time continuum and landed back in the 19th century.
I’m not allowed to tell you where we are.
Two of the fishermen I’m with make this clear more than once. At first I think they’re joking; can “secret fly-fishing” really be a thing? It can. According to Dustin, the site we are headed to is “blue ribbon” and is so good and full of fish it will ruin me for fishing anywhere else. The trout we are after — Paradise is purely a catch-and-release operation — are wild trout that have inhabited these waters for more than a century. The people who know about it don’t want it ruined by a curious but unappreciative public. Since I’m pretty clueless about our actual whereabouts thanks to my lack of phone service, it’s not a problem.
After 20 minutes or so, we reach the bottom and gear up, which for me entails mostly switching my runners for a pair of laced-up boots I can wear in the water. Dustin is the one carrying the backpack and supplies, so all I have to do is bring the rod. Leaving my iPhone behind with the backpacks on the shore, I follow Dustin downstream into the river that twists through the canyon. Pretty soon it’s just us and the sound of rushing water. At one point it strikes me that people purchase meditation apps to make it sound like they are standing where I am actually standing. We walk in the water picking our way through and around the rocks. At times the water rises as high as our waist. Dustin walks with sureness — I stumble along, lurching from rock to rock, happily buoyed by the cold, clear current. There is a punishing heat wave in New York, and this is heaven.
It looks even more steep in person. (Photo: Glynnis MacNicol)
After 20 minutes or so we stop at the turn in the river where the water pools before speeding away again. As we stand there, Dustin asks me if I can see all the trout in the water. I cannot. In fact the longer I am here, the more apparent it becomes that I have no outdoors skills whatsoever beyond the desire to be outdoors. Weaving through NYC traffic on my bike? Not a problem. Weaving through a river in Wyoming? It will take some practice.
Fly-fishing done right is a beautiful thing to behold. Unlike other fishing, it is all action; from a distance it almost appears that the fisherman is attempting to lasso the fish or is conducting some sort of freshwater orchestra. One graceful, continuous action, which after a while makes it seem as though the entire apparatus is simply a natural extension of the fisherman’s body.
It does not look like this when I do it. I don’t know what I look like, but based on the amount of times I hook a rock or a branch or a bush, I’m fairly certain graceful does not factor into it.
Fear not, reader: Under Dustin’s patient tutelage I do eventually catch some fish. Four to be exact (including a VERY LARGE one that unhooks itself and gets away).
Looking chic in some waders. (Photo: Dustin Arnold)
At our fourth or fifth spot down the river, I clamber up to the top of a 10-foot boulder, where I’m able to basically drop the fly into the water without worrying too much about the casting. Soon enough the fish are biting. And they are big —each one between 15 and 18 inches — which means along with everything else, I have to learn how to reel them in as Dustin stands below me, net in hand, coaching me. This can be a long process that takes up to 10 minutes. The key is to let the fish tire themselves out fighting my constant pull, as I gently guide them toward Dustin and his waiting net. Sounds simple, but by the time I hook my fourth fish, my arms and legs are aching from the never-ending pull as the trout swims to and fro and in one case hurls itself clear from the water over and over. There is a thrill to this I’m unprepared for; suddenly I’m no longer an observer of the wildness of this place but a participant. I joke with Dustin that this is basically like The Old Man and the Sea, except I’m a young(ish) woman in a river in a canyon in Wyoming. He tells me to focus on the fish.
A very good-looking trout. (Photo: Dustin Arnold)
Once I do bring the fish in, Dustin nets it and unhooks it and hands it to me for a photo. There is a science to fish pictures, I discover. You take them from below. When I point out this is a bad angle for me, I am met with a shrug; this is about the fish not my jawline, and the fish is then held out at arm’s length toward the camera to exaggerate its size. Once recorded for posterity it is gently placed back in the water and held there until the tail starts to swish again; trout are delicate, Dustin tells me, and need time to readjust. Then it swims off.
At 4 p.m. we turn back. Over the course of seven hours we’ve come nearly a half mile down the river and need to head back, against the stream this time, before hiking up the canyon to the car and then settling into a long drive back to the ranch and presumably some more Tay Tay. When my phone does get service back, I forget to look at it.
Check out our original adventure travel series “A Broad Abroad.”