In the middle of July, I had the pleasure of traveling to Denver, Colorado, and from there, to Estes Park, where I spent the next five days fishing in and around Rocky Mountains National Park. Along with eighteen other men, I fished the Big Thompson and two alpine lakes, Dream and Fern.
If I had caught a brook trout, I would have had a grand slam for the week, though the browns, rainbows, and greenback cutthroats made my heart jump.
The cutthroats are the only fish I have ever seen that even come close to matching the beauty of brook trout in the Great Smoky Mountains. They take your breath away, slow you down—deep reds and warm oranges that pulse. With their bold hues and delicate shapes, they are God’s fish. They will be in Paradise.
One of the few pursuits that I love as much as flyfishing for trout on remote rivers and lakes is traveling.
Over the past six months, I have attended Foxfield Spring Races outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. I spent a long weekend in Fort Pierce, Florida, and watched a spring training game in Jupiter. My friend and former roommate James Trimble and I drove to Destin, Florida, to hang out with another friend named Andrew Smith. My girlfriend Megan and I organized a long weekend in Charleston, South Carolina, with four other couples. By the time we left, she was my fiancé. I camped in the Great Smoky Mountains and flyfished on the middle prong of the Little River above Elkmont. I have visited family and friends in Nashville, and Megan and I also spent time with her family in Indianapolis.
Over the past twelve years, I have visited twenty countries. I have lived in Vienna, Austria; Sydney, Australia; and Oxford, England.
I have seen wild horses running along the green hills of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. I saw Pope John Paul II raise his hand in blessing over a crowd of thousands in St. Peter’s Square. I saw Snowflake at the zoo in Madrid—the only known albino gorilla, who has since died. I walked through the house where Anne Frank hid in Amsterdam, and walked with a heart of lead through the cold, wind-swept lanes at Dachau where Nazi soldiers burned hundreds of Jews in ovens.
I have found tokens of evil and traces of good.
In Cap-Haitien, Haiti, my jaw dropped at the poverty. A boy in diapers played in raw sewage beside the road. Three men butchered a dog beside the main street downtown. A hundred yards away from the school and church where we worked, a witch doctor’s flag, a talisman of fear and evil, popped in the wind. Yet, with that heartbreaking hospitality peculiar to the destitute, members of the church set a meal for us—sodas, thick milk, and crackers with ketchup.
Travel gives you the opportunity to experience firsts, and sometimes, lasts. I caught my first wave at Dee Why Beach north of Sydney. I jumped out of a plane thirteen thousand feet above the ground over the Swiss Alps strapped to the chest of an instructor named Beat. The day after accidentally locking myself in a bathroom in a pizzeria run by Albanian women in Cork, Ireland, I kissed the Cloch na Blarnan, or Blarney Stone, only to realize I probably didn’t need more help in spinning yarns but rather in being sincere.
Sometimes, you choose your experiences, and sometimes, they choose you. For example, I took a last-minute bathroom break at Old Mill Motel outside of San Quintin, Mexico, and when I emerged from the room where I had stayed with three other guys, I saw only my backpack sitting in the dirt. A cloud of dust swirled in the quiet like a cemetery. The rest of the forty members of the mission team had left on the bus without me. I had to beg a ride with a volunteer named Frank from California and chase down the coach. Our team leaders never even noticed that I was missing.
Sometimes, you choose your souvenirs, and sometimes, they choose you. I suffered the effects of Montezuma’s revenge at the ruins of Mayan Copan, Honduras. Upon returning to the States, I listened as a dermatologist diagnosed the rash on my chest: yeast infection. Men get yeast infections? Convincing him that I had not been sexually active in Guatemala took ten minutes.
In the second floor bathroom of 2 Frewin Court off Cornmarket in downtown Oxford, England, I discovered that I had a tapeworm. I won’t tell you how, and I told no one but my family for months. I sat down on the cold tiles, held my knees, and dry sobbed because I was too upset to cry. Compared to the sheer filthiness of an eight-inch parasite, warts and Athlete’s Foot feel like a hot shower and clean underwear. I felt violated.
I climbed Volcan Pacaya outside of Antigua in Chacos and watched the steaming lava flow past. I hiked up a slippery streambed to Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and roared at the top of my lungs when I got to the top. If I had missed a step, I probably would have died. I refused to take the safe way, and I felt powerful because of it.
I watched men solicit prostitutes in the Red Light District in Amsterdam, and I listened to Coldplay perform in a half-empty venue in Munich.
I watched as men with rifles took my best friend in the world off a train in Hungary.
I ate caviar in Bratislava and sturgeon in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The day after my friend Josh Elmore broke his foot stepping into a boat on Rio Dulce and got a cast in Morales, we took a boat down the river to Livingston where I ate a Garifuna dish called tapado, which is a thick stew of fish, shrimp, crab, and plantains in coconut broth. Afraid to miss my bus, I have run through the streets of Prague while eating steak. It got caught in my throat. The bus ride was miserable.
I tried horsemeat for the first and only time at a Mongolian barbeque near Stephansdom in Vienna, Austria.
At San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome, I saw Michelangelo’s Moses and the chains that supposedly were used to bind Peter.
On the same day that I visited the Baths of Caracalla, I also saw the Catacombs where early Christians worshipped and were buried and the Colosseum where gladiators fought and starving lions tore them to pieces.
I stood on the Spanish Steps near where the English Romantic poet John Keats died.
I share these experiences for two reasons: 1) because I enjoy remembering and reliving them; 2) because I need to establish my credibility as an “Expert Traveler.”
Why do I need to establish my credibility, you ask?
In the Denver airport, as you are about to go through security, you will see a line designated for “Expert Travelers.”
Why is this line as long as all the other lines?
Because everybody thinks he or she is an expert traveler. When they come to the dividers and must choose between the ordinary lanes with no special distinction and the apparent fast lane, with its flashy title and perhaps, extra privileges, will any of them think, “No, that lane isn’t for me. I’m just an Amateur Traveler. I have only 6,000 frequent flyer miles on my credit card from purchases at Target”?
Of course not. These amateurs walk confidently down that hallowed alley, guided by the car seatbelt dividers, thinking, “Yes, I am an expert. I went to Cancun for Spring Break my sophomore year of college, and I won $300 playing Black Jack in Vegas.”
We Americans are experts in everything, and thanks to this mentality, I have the privilege of standing in line and watching people pat their pockets and fumble around in their carryons for their boarding passes and Ids.
“Oh, I’m supposed to have my boarding pass and ID out already?!! Sorry!”
The frowning TSA agent waits and stares at nothing over our shoulders.
Who would have known that you need to have your boarding pass and ID ready?
Well, anyone who has ridden on an Aer-O-Plane in the last ten years. Yeah, people really ride in gargantuan aluminum tubes with the big wings. They fly through the air like angels drinking Diet Coke.
You can also identify these experts on the interstate. They set the cruise control at 72 miles per hour, clog up the fast lane, and refuse to change lanes to teach the lawbreakers a lesson. They believe that they belong in the fast lane.
They never stand to the right on escalators to make room for people in a hurry. They read Nicholas Sparks novels and say, “He just makes things seem so real. He just puts you right there in the moment!” They purchase 97% of the world’s yard art. They keep Ripley’s Believe It or Not franchises in business.
They too are God’s children. They too are Greenback Cutthroats. They too love casseroles.