The first rule of hitchhiking is simple: Don’t walk when you can ride. That means never use your feet to walk while searching for a ride. Instead, find a place with frequent vehicle traffic passing – shade tree preferred – and start thumbing. Vehicles come to you and so will rides. Many novice travelers fail to obey that primary rule, and wear themselves out needlessly walking toward destinations, rather than waiting for rides to materialize organically.
The second, and perhaps equally important, hitchhiking rule is best summed up metaphorically with the words of Martin Sheen’s character, Capt. Willard, from the film Apocalypse Now: “Never get out of the boat!”
For Sheen, getting out of the boat meant tigers, snakes and the Vietcong all were lurking jungle dangers. For hitchhikers, the rule translates to ‘never getting out of the vehicle until you reach your destination.’ And for me, as a 22-year-old in 1992, who’d just hitchhiked from the Mexican border to north Texas with fishing rods strapped to my over-stuffed backpack, it was a travel rule I’d yet to learn. Unfortunately, I paid for that education by losing my first fly rod.
Fiberglass Fenwick Fly Rod
No fly-fisher forgets their first fly rod. Like a first kiss or first bicycle, the first fly rod carries mythical, almost magical memories. And like my first purple Schwinn with training wheels, or even kissing my first girl in 6th grade at Skateland on a long-ago Friday night, I still recall the day I bought that first rod.
It wasn’t the first fly rod I’d ever held. That rod lived permanently in the back of my father’s coat closet, where it spent years wrapped tightly and unused inside its metal tube. I don’t recall the brand or any other details, but I remember sneaking into that closet whenever possible to admire the fishing rod.
I’d gently free it from its metal tube prison, where it had been long forgotten by my father, but never dared to connect the individual pieces for fear I’d break it or be caught. Along with the rusty-hook fly collection in the tackle box, hackles mashed flat and fuzzy inside a wool-lined, leather fly wallet, my father’s fly rod was the first fly fishing gear I ever encountered. Sadly, he never used rod or flies, to my knowledge, and failed to pass along any fly-fishing wisdom to his son.
Sam Lines gets credit for both inspiring me to fly fish and finding that first fly rod in 1991. He found it stuffed into an old wooden barrel in the darkest corner of a Missouri flea market. Sam is one of the best anglers I’ve ever met. His confidence about fishing was contagious and encouraging, and I learned many angling lessons on the water with Sam.
He was as comfortable with a fly rod as a spinning rod, and I learned basic fly-casting watching Sam catch big smallmouth on tiny Beaver Creek. When the phone rang, and Sam declared he’d found the perfect fly rod for me, I drove straight to the flea market without a second thought. Like Grateful Dead music and fried White bass and morel mushrooms, if Sam said it was good, that was the only seal of approval I needed.
The fly rod was reddish-brown and honestly ugly when I plucked it from the barrel of tangled fishing rods, but the $10 price was perfect for my unemployed college-student budget. It was two pieces and short by any modern fly rod measure, less than 8 feet long. The label featured an eagle with outstretched wings and the brand “Fenwick.”
That old fly rod was made in 1968 of cutting-edge fiberglass, and predated Fenwick’s 1973 introduction of HMG graphite fly rods (the grandpa of all modern carbon rods) by about five years, 1968, the same year I was born. Naturally, I felt instant affinity with that cast-away fly rod and knew we’d spend many years fishing together. I had no way of knowing that the fly rod would be lost within a year while hitchhiking home from Mexico.
Every fly rod needs a reel, and Sam kindly provided one. It was a simple click-and-pawl Martin reel, without a true drag system to help slow fish and prevent them from breaking the line. The reel was nearly as old as the Fenwick fly rod, the reel’s spool paint-pocked from years of fishing adventures that revealed its pedigree. Its former owner was Sam’s friend, a backcountry hiking expert who often fished while traveling the world.
One adventure found him perched high above a New Zealand waterfall, eating hallucinogenic mushrooms as he watched giant rainbow trout gently sipping insects from the sparkling plunge pool below. That cosmic sight inspired the psychedelic trekker to quit angling entirely to avoid harming fish, and he gave Sam his fishing gear. The reel came to me out of Sam’s kindness, and I used it for many years, even after I lost that first Fenwick fly rod.
Mission to Mexico
Even if the fly rod didn’t make the return trip from Mexico to Arkansas, that rod helped me catch fish from Missouri to the Guatemalan border. As part of a misguided mission to Mexico – a long story unrelated to fishing and best told around a campfire – I carried fishing gear, including the Fenwick fly rod.
Along with the fly rod, I packed a spinning rod with a Mitchell Model 308 reel (one of the best spinning reels ever built), and assorted lures and artificial baits crammed into and onto my backpack. That old black-and-red Kelty framed backpack was so heavy, in fact, that when a concerned woman in the Oaxacca, Mexico, bus station tried to warn me about nearby thieves intending to snatch my pack and run, I just laughed. I knew they’d never get 10 yards with that heavy pack before I could pounce and retrieve my gear.
When I set out for Central America in November 1992, I had no exact destination, but I didn’t plan on returning to the USA. I had enough of college courses, student loans and George H.W. Bush’s version of America. Searching for meaning in life, I gave away all belongings that I couldn’t carry on my back, and headed south to warm weather, seeking a place where I could live without working a conventional nine-to-five job.
Even though I was a heady (as well as over-confident and headstrong) young voyager, who tried to eschew all but the necessary possessions for my southern sojourn, I never abandoned my fishing gear. In fact, I chose it over a tent and even a sleeping bag. Foolishly, instead I chose to carry what I later learned was the worst hammock ever made for sleeping, along with a blue-woven, Mexican-cotton blanket that did nothing to keep me warm when needed most.
Strangely, even though I was giving up a huge part of my personal identity (college student, son, grandson, neighbor and friend) to find a new life south of the border, I couldn’t give up the fishing gear. I didn’t even take a camera to Mexico and have zero photos of fishing or travels. Clearly, above all else, I was an angler to the core. And no matter how far from home I wandered, and what kind of life I’d find on those foreign shores, I’d always be an angler.
Although the fishing gear was bulky, with a long plastic tube that protruded high above my already comically tall backpack, and the tackle took up too much room in my backpack, it fed me in the jungle and even prevented me from going to a Mexican prison.
Fishing South of the Border
When most anglers imagine fishing in Mexico, it’s either on the deep-sea, open-ocean blue water, or catching bonefish and permit on sandy flats in a place like Ascension Bay, or maybe chasing giant Florida-strain largemouth bass in high desert-country reservoirs behind massive dams. In those days before the internet and search engines, I knew nothing about fishing in Mexico.
I wasn’t a fishing novice, although I was new to fly fishing. While I may have been a stranger to Mexican fishing opportunities, I knew it had water with fish. And I knew that I could feed myself with a fishing rod, no matter where I lived. Toting fishing gear on my back would eventually come in handy, I convinced myself, either as a pastime or familiar way to fill my belly. Ignorant but well-equipped, I planned to fish wherever I could and catch and eat what I caught.
Although I covered thousands of miles in Mexico, I managed to fish in only three locations. The first, was the famous nude beach at Zipolite, along Mexico’s western Pacific Ocean coastline. I knew nothing about fly fishing the ocean, it was literally beyond comprehension for a river-angler from the Ozarks. I only thought fly rods were for trout, using tiny insect-like lures called “flies” that were intended to coax trout to rise to feed on the surface. Also, fly rods could be used to catch bass on “poppers,” a fly that usually imitated a small frog and again lured fish to the surface. I had a lot to learn about fly fishing.
That first fishing trip on the beach in Zipolete brought mixed results. Uncertain about what fish might lurk in the ocean beyond the sandy beach, I left the fly rod at camp and rigged the spinning rod with a plastic worm, as if I was fishing for bass on a farm pond or Ozarks river. The first cast brought a tug so hard the rod nearly slipped my grip and flew into the sea. When I retrieved my hook, something had bitten the plastic worm in half! I decided to save my limited lure supply and focus on having fun at the nude beach rather than fishing.
A few days later, I fished at Las Lagunas de Montebello, a string of 59 interconnected, spring-fed lakes that dot the Mexican-Guatemalan border southeast of the town of Comitan. Today, those lakes make up a popular national park, with expensive eco-resorts, kayak rentals and other “improvements.” Thirty years ago, we camped there along the lakeshore, among pine trees and lush blackberry thickets, without guides or glamping. And there I learned that southern Mexico has great bass fishing.
Again, I was too ignorant to understand how to use my fly rod to catch bass, other than using floating, top-water flies. Yet, intent on catching my first Mexican bass on the fly, I left the spinning rod at camp and focused on fishing with the Fenwick. I didn’t tie flies in 1992, and used only flies I bought, borrowed or pilfered from friends and family. That day, I tied on a small, yellow popper with two red eyes and a long, red feather tail. Slowly, I waded through the tall reeds along the lake shore, hoping those waist-deep waters had more bass than alligators.
My first casts were all in the reeds. I couldn’t control the line or the fly, and my best efforts caught nothing but brush and brought only frustration. Determined to catch a bass, after some practice, I corrected my casting and discovered how to avoid reeds, while placing the fly in perfect position for hungry bass hiding along the grassy shoreline. After a few more casts, I missed a fish and learned to wait before setting the hook, allowing the fish to fully swallow the fly.
The next cast brought success, when a fine 12-inch largemouth grabbed the popper fly and didn’t let go until I released the fish with an accomplished smile. That was the first of many hundreds of bass I’ve caught on a fly rod over the years, from Hawaii to Mexico to Maine. That small bass was the most memorable catch to this day because it was a hard-won, far-away fish.
The next day, I discovered a clear-water, rock-bottom stream that connected the lake near my campsite to another lake, like a Mexican version of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. I waded knee-deep in that river’s cold waters and used my new fly rod skill to catch largemouth bass, but they were much smaller than fish caught in the lake.
As I released the first bass into the river, I heard a loud groaning sound behind me. I turned to find a crowd of local kids and adults standing above me on a stone bridge, watching a stranger cast an even stranger fishing rod. They were clearly unhappy that I released the small, eight-inch bass, and asked me to give them any future fish I intended to throw back. It wasn’t the only time in Mexico that I learned catch-and-release fishing is a practice unique only to those who already have food.
The One That Got Away
After a wonderful week at those mystical lakes, I spent another week camping and fishing in the Lacandon Rainforest Biosphere Preserve. To reach the rainforest, two traveling companions and I took a 15-hour, dirt-road bus ride to Pico de Oro, which translates into English as “Beak of Gold.” That tiny village literally lies at the end of the dirt road, and sits among farm fields along the Lacandon River, about five miles from the Guatemalan border. There, my companions and I paid two locals with a boat $20 to motor us deep into the jungle for a do-it-yourself, week-long rainforest adventure.
After two hours of never-ending muddy river and vine-draped tropical fig trees, the locals dropped us off on a clear-flowing tributary of the Lacandon River. There we camped in a convenient clearing that the Mexican army made years before while doing borderline drug interdiction. It was very strange watching the little motorboat slowly vanish into the distance and downstream, waving goodbye to two people we hoped would return to fetch us as promised a week later.
Our guides were Poncho and Doroto, and they lent us a machete and taught me how to fish for catfish in the jungle before they motored away. First, they dug earthworms, which were small, skinny strings of pink and red compared to fat, juicy nightcrawlers used in the USA. For angling, they used a handline without rod or reel, wrapped around an old tin can. They baited the metal hook, and without any weight except the bait and hook combined, they dropped the line over the side of their flatbottomed boat into the dark river water. In seconds, the line twitched, and they flung a six-inch catfish onto the boat’s deck. One after another, they repeated the catch until a small pile of catfish squirmed in the boat an hour later.
The sight of all those small catfish concerned the conservationist in me, because conventional USA wisdom says that the fish would grow larger if the little ones were released. I tried to convey the idea of catch-and-release to my new Mexican friends, but both just looked confused and a bit surprised by the suggestion. Pancho even playfully flung a hooked fish back into the water, before again placing the fish onto the growing catfish pile in the boat while laughing.
That’s when I learned that conservation ethics are for those people without food scarcity. Hungry people do not have the luxury of throwing food away. That pile of six-inch catfish, all nearly identical clones, would feed their family and friends for another day, and allow them to keep on keeping on in a harsh, heartless jungle. After their laughter, I was embarrassed by my naive conservation suggestions. From then on, I focused on gaining wisdom from the locals rather than teaching them lessons they didn’t need to learn.
After a week of camping in the jungle, we’d eaten many of the same small catfish and other fish species that I never knew existed but learned to cook and devour them all regardless. One fish we ate often looked like a bluegill bred with a crappie, while another had a stiff, cartilaginous tube for the mouth and no lips to close it. Instead, it sucked food into that translucent tube like a vacuum, and I caught and released many of those strange fish. I’ve tried to identify those fish for decades without success, even Google doesn’t know what they are!
Between daily rainstorms, marauding mosquitos, howler monkeys shrieking, giant tarantulas in my backpack and other rainforest fun, I fished frequently, but never again used the fly rod in Mexico. When the boat returned a week later, we were grateful that some humans keep their promises, and that night enjoyed sleeping on picnic tables in Pico-de-Oro’s community building.
The next day, we bought bus tickets for the 15-hour dirt road ride back to Palenque, but we learned that the bus didn’t depart until that night. (See the song lyrics we wrote about the bus posted at the end of this story.) We rested and arranged for Doroto to bring us an ounce of Mexican weed (seven dollars an ounce, which was a lot of money compared to the $250 in my pocket when I crossed into Mexico weeks before!). Strangely, he never arrived. His absence was odd, because he seemed to befriend us quickly and was grateful when I gave him some spare fishing line and hooks. As night fell, we focused on packing for the bus and forgot about buying pot.
After the bus arrived, we took our seats at the rear, and prepared to sleep during the nightmare ride through the jungle and back to paved roads and electricity. About six miles outside of town, the bus stopped suddenly at an impromptu military checkpoint. Soldiers with submachine guns filed onto the crowded bus but ignored all other passengers and walked directly to us.
In rapid-fire Spanish that I barely understood, they yelled about searching us and our bags for drugs. They called us “drogistas.” More than mere rainforest tourists, they assumed we were drug dealers setting up illegal operations deep in the jungle. Doroto must’ve heard about the impending roadblock, and wisely skipped our marijuana exchange to prevent trouble for everyone.
My pack was the first searched. A short soldier angrily insisted that I open the numerous pockets on my backpack, one by one, which were all stuffed with too much gear. The first pocket held my plastic tackle box, which the soldier was certain to be the key to our nefarious narcotic crimes. I smiled, pointed to myself and proudly said, “Pescador!” Then I held up fish-like lures, with treble hooks dangling, and pretended to eat one like a fish to lighten the mood. The soldier laughed, and I knew then we weren’t going to prison.
Instead, the soldiers abandoned their search entirely. They apologized for stopping the bus and bothering everyone and left without even looking at my companions’ packs. Somehow, the international language of fishing superseded suspicion, and we were allowed to travel on without trouble. That wasn’t the last time I used fishing to connect with strangers and defuse tension, each time with great results, no matter what part of the world or whom I met. The language of fishing seems to be a universal tongue. That day, I was glad to be the one that got away.
Lost But Loved
Somehow, I traveled thousands of miles from Arkansas to the Guatemalan border, using trains, buses and hitchhiking – and nearly made it back again – without losing my fishing rods. Both the spinning rod and the fly rod were tucked into the same oversized-plastic tube, meant for blueprints and not fishing gear. Because it was comically large, people asked about the rod tube everywhere I went. On the bus or before getting into a worried stranger’s vehicle while hitchhiking. In the immigration line at the border, or at the market, the café, or even excited cabbies yelling out the window as I walked down the street in Mexico City. Everyone wanted to know what was in the tube, and I was always happy to explain.
After people learned about the fishing rods inside, they always wanted to know more. Why was I carrying fishing rods? Why is fishing so important that I’d bother traveling with so much gear? Where are you fishing? What are you catching? Fishing talk opened doors and helped people who might distrust strangers – especially long-haired hitchhikers like me – to be open and accepting.
That’s how we scored a ride with a semi-truck, driving from southern Texas all the way back to Arkansas. My traveling companion and I managed to cross the Mexican border without trouble, but an unusual ice storm waited for us as we hit San Antonio. We weathered that night sleeping on the Salvation Army floor, and enjoyed the day-old donuts and burnt coffee they served as we walked out the door the next morning. We took the free city bus to the outskirts of town, and walked onto the interstate hoping to thumb a ride north out of the fast moving ice storm.
When the semi-truck stopped, we weren’t convinced the ride was for us. Every male hitchhiker knows that semi-trucks never pick up hitchers. Whether because of insurance restrictions, weigh-stations and checkpoints, or just hatred of hippies, semi-truck drivers never pick up hitchhikers. We kept our thumbs out, even after the truck pulled up behind us, thinking it pulled onto the highway shoulder for maintenance. Suddenly, the driver stuck his head out the window, honked his horn and waved us over.
As we piled into the cab, we placed our backpacks in the sleeping area and settled into the semi-trailer’s welcome warmth. The trucker confirmed our conviction that semi drivers never pick up hitchers, but he explained that the fishing rod tube on my backpack convinced him we were headed somewhere important and needed help in the ice storm. We agreed and thanked him for the ride.
When we learned he was driving all the way to Arkansas, we couldn’t believe our luck. We’d miss the rest of the ice storm, scheduled to hit Texas that night, and instead wake up in familiar beds the next morning in the Ozarks. The driver even offered to buy food and weed and didn’t ask for sex. We found the best ride any hitchhiker ever had!
A few hours later, our good fortune vanished when we broke the number two rule of hitchhiking: We left the truck. Just south of the Oklahoma border, the driver explained that we couldn’t be in the truck during his upcoming delivery. He’d get in trouble for picking up hitchhikers, and instead asked us to wait at a nearby gas station. After the delivery, he’d pick us up and we’d be back on the road home again. Easy-peasy, lemon squeezy.
Smartly, we grabbed backpacks from the truck cab to get more warm clothes. That’s where I made my dumbest choice of the entire journey, and I left the fishing rod tube in the truck cab. I was tired of carrying it after thousands of miles traveling with the cumbersome tube, and happy to leave it in the truck while we sat outside the gas station for an hour. Less gear equals less hassle, I reasoned.
After the truck pulled away, my traveling companion called his father on a payphone for the first time since we returned to the USA. His dad offered to send $50 by Western Union (no cell phones, no money apps in 1992), but the nearest Western Union office was at the Wal-Mart store about five miles away. Rather than wait for the trucker to return and ask him to drive us to pick up the wired money at Wal-Mart, we set out on foot. We assumed that we could retrieve the cash and beat the trucker back to the gas station rendezvous and our free ride home. We were very wrong, and we missed our sweet ride.
When we returned from our Wal-Mart hike, happy with cash and a Subway sandwich to share, we sat on the sidewalk to wait for the trucker. He never arrived. About an hour later, as it was getting darker and the ice began to fall, the cashier opened the door, stuck her head out. “Y’all waitin’ on that trucker,” she asked. “He came in askin’ about you but you weren’t here. He said he couldn’t wait and to tell you, ‘Sorry, but he had to drive on.’”
We were both stunned and still, and I nearly cried. Not because we missed the best hitchhiking ride ever offered as an ice storm struck. Because the pit in my stomach confirmed that I’d lost my fishing rods forever. Frantic and facing a pending mid-winter, Texas ice storm, we tried to thumb another ride. We were miles from the interstate, and the local cops pulled over immediately. We explained our situation, and even though we were out-of-state longhairs, the Texas lawmen kindly offered a room in their jail for us to weather the ice storm. Naturally, we declined, asking instead for a ride to the highway. They refused, told us to stay out of trouble and drove away, leaving us at the gas station hoping for help.
The cashier took pity on us but declared that we were, “Too dirty to take home.” After weeks traveling without bathing, we weren’t offended. Instead, she told us about an old shed in the field beside the gas station. “No one goes there at night. You’ll have it to yourself.”
Bummed and broken spirited, we found the shed, spread our tarps and wore every piece of clothing we’d taken to sunny Mexico to ride out the ice storm. It was 24 degrees that night, and I’ve never been so tired yet slept so poorly – nor been so cold. Worst of all, I thought about that far-away fishing rod tube that I’d never see again. It took us two more miserable days of icy travel to reach the Ozarks.
All adventures end, and my Mexico Mission was no different. By the time I made it back to Arkansas, I had bigger worries than forgotten fly rods. I completed my college degree (a much bigger mistake than forgetting my fly rod in the semi-truck), spent the next six years with a woman I met in Mexico (another mistake, but no regrets, live and learn) and along the way, many memories of time spent fishing in the Lacandon Rainforest or clear-water lakes faded into the fog of modern life.
Eventually, I replaced the fiberglass Fenwick fly rod with an entry-level Orvis rod, and years later with quality fly rods, handmade in America. I now own more fly rods than there are days of the week. And even though 30 years have passed since I abandoned my first fly rod in that long-gone semi-truck, I still think about the flea-market Fenwick that I carried to the jungle and back to Arkansas. I never made it to Central America because we were too broke, but I remember the journey even if the destination changed. And I’ll never forget how I lost that first fly rod. Most importantly, I’ll never get out of the boat again!
The Chicken Bus Song
Just climb aboard the Chicken Bus,
Headed for the rainforest.
Just fifteen hours down a dusty road,
With potholes and pot patrols.
And just three times,
To show your passport to immigration,
To ensure you’re not an imitation gringo.
And get off at Pico-de-Oro.
Just like a Catholic rummage sale,
With Christmas lights and fringy tails.
The Virgin of Guadalupe,
And stickers of Looney Tunes,
All in a velvet Jesus shrine.
Let’s stop to feed the driver one more time.
My lunch is falling through the rack.
My pack is falling out the back.
I feel just like a sack of bruised tomatoes.
All in my sauce spaghetti mind,
I contemplate arrival time.
But it gets there when it gets there,
That’s the deal!
The driver stops to have another meal.
Don’t you worry about that sound,
It’s just the bus a-breakin’ down,
There’ll be plenty of time for love and kissin’,
While they’re pullin’ the transmission,
Down by the Rio Lacandon-a,
The Viejito lives alone-a,
With bananas and cabanas for to share.
And if you care to take a launch-a,
Or a little taste of marijuana,
And you don’t mind the mosquitos or the lodo,
Just find Jose, Pancho and Doroto!
Yeah, don’t wait for us,
We’re on the Chicken Bus!
– Song lyrics and music by Caelin Graber and Jason Harmon circa 1992