He sat on a boulder beside a small stream just off Bright Angel Trail near the bottom of the Grand Canyon, looking frail, oddly content, and out of place. A fly-fishing rod jutted crookedly from his pack, which was brand new and his hiking boots were barely scuffed. A curious combination of weariness and joy struggled for dominance on his finely etched features.
I stepped off the trail and walked over to the stream beside which he sat. I lay flat on the sun-heated rock and plunged my head into the pool of clear water.
He watched me with gentle amusement, a man in his early 20s with tangled blond hair, and keen, somber eyes. He focused on my two fishing poles, projecting from my pack — a fly rod for fun and a spin-caster for catching fish.
I sat on the rock beside the stream, torn between my appointment on the rim, the sound of the running water, and a tug of curiosity about this misplaced stranger. I hadn’t much time to waste. I’d just come off the river at Phantom Ranch after a four-day run down from Lee’s Ferry. I’d been tempted to stay on the float trip to the end, but I had played hooky from my life too long already. Still, I could sit here a minute beside the stream.
“Going fishing?” I said, lifting my chin in a gesture toward his fishing pole.
“Yes. Yes I am,” he said with a curious finality.
“Good fishing down there,” I said, savoring the memory.
“I’ve never been fishing before,” he confessed. “And I’d always heard that the Grand Canyon had some of the best fishing in the world.”
So we fell into a discussion of fish, and hooks, and fake flies. He didn’t know a thing about fishing, although he’d been studying books. We talked about finding the rocks behind which they lurk, waiting for the current to deliver dinner. We talked about eddies, and undercut banks, and flies and nymphs that imitate insect larvae.
He lapsed, suddenly, into a fit of coughing. He fumbled with a pocket on his backpack, pulled out a small bottle of pills, and shook one into his hand. I shifted my position to read the label.
AZT. A drug for people with AIDS.
A silence settled between us.
“When were you diagnosed?” I asked at length.
He glanced at me, yearning, and loss, and nonchalant courage sweeping like storm cloud shadows across his face.
“In 1990,” he said.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“Great,” he said, with a sudden, utterly sincere smile.
“You going to be alone down there?” I asked, thinking about all the things that can happen to a person without a working immune system.
“It’s not so bad being alone,” he added, pensively. “Not out here,” he added, with a gesture that encompassed, the stream and the layer upon layer of sandstone, and schist, and limestone. “Sometimes, it’s a lot more lonely with people around.”
“I guess that’s true,” I said.
“Kind of takes your mind off things, out here,” he added.
“Lots of things could happen down there,” I said carefully.
“Things happen when they happen,” he said. “When I was a kid, I saw an article in a magazine somewhere about the Grand Canyon. This guy had caught the biggest trout I’ve ever seen. Ever since then, I had this fantasy about fishing in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. So I just thought I’d do it.”
Down in the brush and small trees along the stream, the cicadas started up. My ride waited at the rim, to hurry me back to my jumbled life.
Impulsive, I opened my pack and pulled out my cheapo K-mart spin casting rod, my little plastic box with a couple of lures and hooks, and a jar of salmon eggs.
“Here, take this,” I said. “You’re going to need a spin-caster.”
“I can’t,” he said slowly, staring at the disassembled pole. “It’s yours.”
“Not anymore,” I said, standing, suddenly awkward.
He stood in turn.
“Good luck down there,” I said, gripping his hand.
“Good luck up there,” he added.
I turned, 50 yards up, at the next bend.
He stood where I’d left him, holding my pole, staring down into the canyon that called us both.