Learning How to Learn

Last year I learned something.


Curry, Golab, and I had decided to do something we knew was dumb: hunt coues deer in the thickest piece of country we knew of.


I’ve written quite a bit about that hunt so I will not rehash it all here. Besides, the specifics don’t really matter for this story. What is more important is that in the process of hunting a place that hard we had to do something that I had avoided for years: go to the same place repeatedly over a relatively brief period.

When I was young and full of trigger-itch, I lived by a hard and fast rule of seeing as many different places as I could in as little time as possible. This meant two things, first, that I would cover a lot of miles as fast as I could, and second, that I whenever possible I would try to go somewhere new. As a result I saw a great many places, and did a great many things, and at the outset of our hunt I wasn’t enthralled by the prospect of hiking the same trails and glassing the same hills repeatedly within a couple of months. But finding deer in an area as nasty as 24b requires scouting, and scouting requires persistence. So we scouted and time progressed, from summer,

to fall,

to winter.

Slowly, my mind started to change. Without getting overly sappy (Editor’s Note: a thing we do regularly here on LP), over a great many months of driving the same roads, hiking the same trails, and glassing the same hills I slowly came to know the place. I knew which things were permanent, which rocks in the stream bed were stable, how to avoid the awkward spots along the way, and which trails were steep enough to devour your soul. More importantly, I saw what things changed, the deer moved, the water ebed and flowed, and the bears, which were plentiful in the summer, disappeared in the fall. We changed too, from greenhorns to veritable experts on our little corner of the world. As humans we like to think of the world as permanent and unchanging, but what we saw was the opposite, things were changing all the time, faster than we ever could have imagined or noticed in a single trip.

Learning this lesson required sacrifices, some more obvious than others. As for the obvious, hiking places off season is hard. In the summer it was blisteringly hot and in the winter we froze to the bone. Less obvious though, we had to learn that the lessons we were learning would not hold true forever. Deer move, and they wont be where they were in the summer by the time the hunt comes around. On the other hand, it was invigorating and exciting, like watching a child grow and being consistently surprised by how quickly they become someone new. By the end, we were in love.


All of which brings us back to Fossil Creek.


Going into this winter I had decided I would find a new place to know, the same as I had with our corner of the Superstitions the year before. Blessed with crystal clear water and an simply unbelievable population of round-tailed chub, Fossil Creek seemed a good option. The place is criminally over-used in the summer, but over the winter the 6-pack-and-a-boom-box crowd goes into hibernation and you can have the warm water and deep pools all to yourself. In late October, Jackamundi and I took our first trip.

Things didn’t go perfectly (the words “toddler poop” come to mind), but before that disaster, Jack and I moved from pool to pool as he screamed in excitement every time we had a fish on. We soaked in the warm water, and let to shade from the still leaved trees cool our heels.

A few weeks later when we wanted to take baby Henry on his first fishing trip the location was obvious:

The trees had changed and we were showered in the colors of fall. The kids survived their first trip together, though they were a little tired by the drive home.

Since then I have returned twice. First, to teach Curry how to cast a real fly rod:

And later to show Golab the joy’s of winter wet wading.

The leaves are gone now, but the water is still warm. We know where the fish are, though the bigger ones remain visible but elusive, reminding us that the place hasn’t given up all it’s secrets quite yet. The kids have grown unimaginably and I have become a better father in the process. Months in, we are still finding new ways to have fun.

It’s hard to admit you were wrong, but I was wrong in my insistence to avoid the places I had already been. Going new places, seeing new things has value, to be sure, but if I have found anything in the last two years it is that knowing a place, finding it’s secrets and all it’s idiosyncrasies, is more rewarding than I ever could have imagined. Sure, I missed out on some new places in the process, but instead I chose to fall in love with two.

I’m glad I did.

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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, has occasionally written for Backpacker Magazine, Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally written for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.

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