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I took some time off one spring to fish.

I had mostly planned for it. Months earlier, as I tied flies and rigged my truck for camping, my wife began referring to the coming downtime as my “sabbatical.”  That felt generous, a characterization maybe reserved for priests and tenured professors, not a bored, half-assed attorney. But, I would be lying if I said I didn’t like the label. I certainly wasn’t convinced that replacing work with fly fishing for a bit would suddenly yield significant revelations. Chasing trout and smoking weed—despite what noble sportsmen and Deadheads might tell you—will only get you so far. Yet, I was confident that breaking up everyday routine would be meaningful. 

So, through a smidge of innocent trickery, I quit my old job, found a new job, and swindled a little time in between. The powers that be allowed it (fell for it?) and I was lucky. This gave me 30+ days to run around—not an excessive amount of time, but enough to cover ground. A buddy in western North Carolina, a buddy in Montana, a wife meeting me in Idaho, and a buddy in Wisconsin set the confines of the trip. I would drive its entirety, 6,000 miles, and mostly sleep in the truck with some short stays in friends’ homes and a rental or two. I left home on a Tuesday.

For the next month, I fished every day: began with hiking blue lines in the Appalachians and Smokies, soon waded fast flows in nearly every tailwater in Montana, floated through eastern Idaho, and finally covered countless miles along Driftless spring creeks. As could be expected, the fishing was hot and cold. Any halfway decent angler knows that late spring is a lovely time to catch trout throughout the east and midwest with good flows and hatches abounding; the west is a bit more challenging with its high water and volatile weather. Nonetheless, many fish were found, caught, and released. Twelve-inch trophies in North Carolina and Tennessee were soon replaced by twenty-inch trophies in the Rockies before returning to twelve again in Wisconsin. In a notebook I took on the trip, I wrote, after about a week on the road, “I have never worked so hard in my life, but I am refreshed.”  That’s what I was looking for: that very real place between exhaustion and fulfillment. Leisure.

There has arguably been too much writing on the zen of fly fishing, glorifying it as a damn-near sacrament connecting us with the natural world and our inner selves. Many of us happily drink that Kool Aid, but some of that aggrandizing is probably nonsense too. If I learned anything from my brief outing, it had less to do with fly fishing and much more to do with leisure, the pursuits outside everyday, typical life. While the activity that occupies our free time might not, in and of itself, always provide us with worthy epiphanies, the act of interrupting routine, defining our identities outside of our work and normal undertakings, and simply enjoying ourselves, may do just the trick. Ovid, the Roman poet, stated, “in our leisure we reveal what kind of people we are.” The clichéd “finding yourself” while fly fishing (or traveling, or running, or, Jesus Christ, playing golf) is a tired notion. Taking a break from the usual, for the sake of taking that break, is not.  

Characterizing a fishing trip as a “sabbatical” felt naïve initially—it ascribed a weighty practice of spiritual and professional rest to a pretty hackneyed aspiration (i.e., bummed-out 30-year-old kind of quits job and goes west). But, the sooner I started focusing less on the why and more on the what, the more I came to like the term. Ultimately, who really gives a shit why any of us feel a need to run away every once in a while to pursue a silly activity? Casting a plastic line for fish that won’t be kept is a practice that can be completely profound and completely trivial at the same time—asking why we do it is pretty useless. The why changes, adapts, morphs with age and convictions. In my humble opinion, simply looking for that point between some form of enlightenment and some form of enjoyment is worthy of a life-long search. Leisure is a privilege. I am thankful to have fished for it. 

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