It felt like a dream, me and my old 1998 Jeep rambling northeast on Route 62 in Warren County along the Allegheny River, with the State Game Lands 86 on the west bank to my left and the Allegheny National Forest to the east. The river runs wide and shallow there, reflecting wooded hills on both sides and winking at me, sparkling in the sun. I accelerated up the highway and gazed at the roadside greens — lime, forest, and olive drab in the hillside hemlocks, pines, and hay-scented ferns. They pacified my mind and cooled the muscles in my back and shoulders.
There’s something to this, I told myself. I’ve read about the effects of leafy green woodlands on the human heart and mind. They flash you back to primitive times, when the forest meant shelter, haven, food, fuel, a place to hunt and fish and hide. Kind of like what it meant to me that day, on my weekend of escape. Waters, too. The sound, sight, and smell of flowing rivers and streams bring a similar relief, and for the same primal reason.
We were packed up tight with provisions and gear, that old Jeep and me, cruising in the noonday sunshine, both of us old and ugly, rusted out, beat up, our parts unreliable and in need of repair, but neither of us caring at all. We felt as happy as jaybirds in the forest along the river under the sun.
I picked a good campsite on an abandoned railroad bed just above the river on the west bank: the dirt-road, non-highway side of the Allegheny. A mountain creek ran through nearby on its way to the river, with pure green waters splashing into riffles and small waterfalls, making easy music over slate rock, sandstone, pebbles and clay.
A creek bend lay upstream 100 yards, a sweet dark little stream there, turning in the forest, and a pool formed at the curve, where I knew a tough old wild brook trout must lie, finning in the off-current, waiting for the red worm, the mayfly, the crippled minnow to come tumbling downstream and reward his sudden dash into fast waters for the stuff of life. Hemlocks overhung and shaded the pool at the apex of the bend. A breeze lifted from the ground and delivered a mix of pine needle, fern and leaf mulch to my nose.
I love this stuff, I said to myself. I love it more than I can say. I stood silent for a moment and took it all in. Then I crept up to the edge of the pool, examined the waters in front of me, flipped my fly line upstream, and let the black Woolly Bugger drift naturally into the feeding zone.
An eight-inch brook trout beauty zipped out from the cutbank, attacked the bait, and dashed back toward sanctuary. I set the barbless hook, worked the thrashing trout to the water’s edge, and released him back into the deep green pool. I’ve caught so many of these wild native brook trout over the years, I thought, but each time I experience it, I feel a sense of something new: the fish, the woods, myself, I’m not sure what. But something happens.
I sat on a windfall pine log. The steep slopes of the hollow soared high above me, the oak leaves and pine boughs gave shade and cool air, the flowing brook and gentle wind murmured against the background chatter of chipmunks, and the huge, moss-covered boulders solidified the ground. All is right here, I thought, in harmony, rock-solid, and true.
Later I grilled two ground venison patties at my campsite and afterwards strolled down to the river and sat on a flat-topped boulder. The shallow shoreline waters eddied colorlessly around the rocks in front of me in the onset of dusk, and farther out I could still see the dark current, as the river rushed by, like a life dashing headlong toward the unknown.
I sat quietly for a while and watched the bats flutter above the riffles in the twilight and listened to the carp splash in the slow pools near the shoreline. I smelled the fishy, watery scent of riverside life and felt the great, grave pull of the river as it sent its millions of gallons downstream, to whatever chance or fate.
The big river makes me feel small and insignificant sometimes, but this night I calmed and assimilated and became content. I smiled in the darkness where no one could see. Then I headed back up to the campsite.
I placed kindling — strips of grapevine bark, twigs and dry leaves from the ground —into the campfire circle of rocks and added the strike of a match and four dried-up pinewood logs to the dead embers of my earlier dinner fire. I sat and stared at the flames — another dark connection with my primal self — until a peace descended upon my shoulders.
And I knew right then that I would sleep a deeper sleep that night than my other self, my city-dwelling workaday self, could ever imagine.