To say fatherhood is sacrifice would be a lie. We receive so much from our children and the experiences they provide, namely a sense of purpose, deep satisfaction, wonder, crippling anxiety, and existential crises. But, as many men my age are probably beginning to realize, fatherhood does involve sacrifice (if you’d like to stay in good faith with your co-parent), and one of the common victims tends to be our time outdoors.
These little people simply don’t fare well in the rugged circumstances we tend to find ourselves in, so we’re forced to adapt. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The following story falls squarely into the latter category, completely devoid of any sort of angling success, but ripe full of painful and valuable lessons for a young father's evolving perspective. It’s amazing how a poignant mixture of an aggressive armadillo, baby diarrhea, and an upset wife can do that.
When I told my wife I wanted to take our 3-month-old daughter to the creek, she gave me a skeptical look. It seemed like a great idea to me and I was determined to go fishing, so we packed up the family and left for Mustang Creek.
Like many small creeks in North Texas, Mustang Creek is a small respite to a desert of fly fishing opportunities packed with carp, panfish, and bass. In other words, it can be a good time if you’re desperate—and all fly fishers in North Texas are desperate, especially if they’ve been cooped up with a newborn for the past three months.
We pulled up to the bridge overlooking the creek and with my daughter wrapped around my hip we made our way down the trail. My wife walked behind, carefully watching for rattlesnakes.
Only a few steps in, I heard rustling in the bushes to our left, about 20 feet away. My heart jumped and I stopped, but to my relief, an armadillo peeked its head out of a clearing. The animal walked onto the trail, stopped, and looked in our direction. Ellen took no notice. Then, the strangest thing happened: the armadillo turned, looked me in the eye, and charged. A tiny, grey tank going full speed in our direction.
I started backpedaling up the trail quickly, tripped over a root, and slipped. My fly rod hit the dirt and started rolling and I hit the dirt even harder. I managed to not drop Ellen, at the expense of some bruises and the slight amount of pride I had left. To my dismay, the armadillo kept charging our way. It jumped onto my leg, scratched its way up my stomach, across my chest, and over my shoulder, while I screamed like a banshee the whole time. And, just as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone into the underbrush.
My wife came running down the trail. I stood, saw that Ellen had no injuries, and let out a nervous laugh. Neither of my fishing buddies thought it was funny. In fact, in all of the excitement, Ellen had filled up her diaper beyond capacity and was covered from the waist down. We drove back home in defeat.
I couldn’t help but be angry with the whole situation, armadillo included. All I wanted to do was go fishing with my family. Is that too much to ask? I’d always been told that as a parent I’d have to give things up. People at baby showers or in line at the grocery store would say, “Get ready, your life is about to be over.”
As we were driving back from Mustang Creek, that obnoxious phrase kept popping into my head. Was my life, specifically the one I live outdoors, over? Were those people in the grocery store line right? I felt silly. I had an image in my head of pulling fish out of a creek with my vintage bamboo fly rod, as my wife and small child cheered me on from the banks, but instead came home with a diarrhea-covered baby and a very unhappy spouse.
I knew things were going to change when my first child was born, that I’d have to sacrifice some of my “freedom” to raise this little girl. And there’s tension at that moment, the joy of being a new parent coupled with the terrifying reality that you’re no longer the center of your own universe. It was a freedom I was more than happy to give up, except when it came to my time outdoors. Finding quiet moments in nature is rare enough, let alone when you’re hopelessly obsessed with fly fishing. And this small baby was trying to take that away from me. How dare she?
Can fatherhood and a passion for the outdoors co-exist? I don’t want to be a Don Draper-esque father, someone who drinks beer in the garage and escapes the “old ball and chain” to head to the woods for a few hours. I love my family. I love fly fishing. I want them to coexist. In my mind, the more I can do to bring those two worlds together, the more sustainable my future would become.
Now, two children later, I still haven’t found the answer. I still don’t know how to be a father and an outdoorsman. But, maybe it’s not even a question to be answered. As people, as parents, maybe we grow as much as our children do. Our kids don’t get to choose how they grow or what difficulties they’ll face, so why should we? Instead of a question to be answered, maybe it’s a journey to be taken, with unexpected moments of despair and unexpected moments of joy.
I remember another moment, just a few months later, when my daughter and I went back to the creek for a second attempt at fishing. It was warm for November, only cold when the breeze picked up and tossed dead leaves around us. I stepped into the cool water and sprinkled a few drops on her toes. She giggled in response.
With the sun in our eyes, I cast a woolly bugger to the far bank. Ellen grabbed at the slack line that flopped in front of her and weaved it around her tiny fingers. A sunfish nipped my line on the first cast and I let her hold onto the tense line as I pulled the small fish towards us. She ran her fingers, awkward and inarticulate, over the fish’s scales, wincing with a smile and kicking her legs in excitement.
She quickly got restless and we walked up the gravel path towards a park, the sun setting behind the trees, and I sat her down on a soft patch of grass. She picked up loose stems of grass and examined each one before dropping it to the ground or chewing between her two teeth. She just sat there, gathering it all in, and looked up with a smile when the cool breeze swept across her little face.
Just then, I heard rustling bushes in the woods to our left and turned for a moment. Images of our aggressive armadillo popped into my head. I sat in silence, letting the weight of the stillness settle back in. There was nothing, just my daughter, still hypnotized by the expanding world before her, and I realized it was just the wind in the trees.
Being an outdoorsman and a father is tough, but it’s doable. Check out Steve Rinella’s latest book “Outdoor Kids in an Inside World” for more tips on getting your kids out of the house and into the natural world.