By Gary Griffin
On a hot summer night in August 1954, I was with two of my buddies, Ben Sturgeon and Bill Culpepper. We were seated at our local teen hangout, a drive-in called Caldwell’s. Every parking spot was filled with cool cars from the 40s and 50s. The three of us were in Bill’s white ’38 Plymouth sedan. He accented it with red rims and wide whitewall tires.
Many cars were full of guys checking girls and vice versa. The parking lot always had groups of guys sitting on the fenders of their cars discussing the day‘s events but always aware of the opposite sex passing by.
Somehow we turned away from our regular stretching and manipulation of the truth about our conquests and changed our talk from girls to fishing. Naturally, as the male egos went, Bill and Ben argued over who was the better angler. I had only fished twice, and that was using a rod and a bobber with a minnow attached. My fishing experience was not what I could brag about.
Then Ben said those magic words: “Why don’t we go fishing!” I know the perfect place. Living in begging Texas, where lakes are non-existent, I think of our muddy pond called Lake McClellan. “Where is it?” Bill and I say almost in unison. Now Ben had a captive audience and started describing the place.
“It’s Lake Cabresto, just outside of Questa, New Mexico, across the Red River. It’s a beautiful lake at the top of this mountain…like the ones you see on a calendar. That was all we needed to hear. Then the pending research questions began to flow… when, what, where and how. When would we go; where is the Red River; How long would it take; and WHAT are we waiting for?
Texas was where I had spent my whole life; I had never seen a clear water lake or even a mountain. What an adventure… I could hardly wait!
Over the next two weeks, we gathered the gear we needed for the big adventure. As with all great outdoor enthusiasts, the one thing we didn’t need was a lot of food. Ben said we would eat all the fish we wanted because it was fishing heaven.
Cro (Bill’s nickname after the Cro-Magnon man) and I reasoned with each other, well, if we don’t catch any fish, we could always run into town for a meal. Not serious ! We each had about $20.00 in our wallet, which was a lot of money since gas was twenty-five cents a gallon and burgers, fries, and coke were seventy-five cents.
Thus, the three amigos head for the great beyond. The Sturgeons let us drive their new Kaiser Frasier station wagon. We headed straight west from Pampa towards the state of New Mexico. Five hours passed and I was beginning to believe that Ben had pulled my leg on that lake on top of a mountain. The terrain was still as flat as Texas begging. It was dark outside when we stopped on the side of the road to set up camp for the night. I decided that nature was calling me into the bushes, so I went to hide behind a big bush. Ben yelled, “Watch out for the rattlesnakes,” and I decided I could wait until morning! After a baloney sandwich and some girly chatter, we curled up in our sleeping bags and called it a day.
Knowing they had a greenhorn with them, Ben and Bill had timed our arrival after dark so I couldn’t see the mountains at the entrance to Cimarron Canyon. I woke up the next morning to see the Rocky Mountains unfold before me. WOW, they were beautiful! The mountains were covered with pines and aspens, and there were large, steep rocks and cliffs. In the meadow to the right, there were tall green grasses with deer drinking from a mountain stream flowing through the middle. The deer watched our every move. In the 1950s, people could stop at small roadside campsites, much like our roadside parks, but not as big. We had absolute freedom back then.
After a breakfast of coffee, egg sandwich, and crispy bacon, we hit the two-lane highway, entering Cimarron Canyon. Cro and I flipped a coin to see who got to ride the shotgun (front seat near the passenger window). The drive through the canyon was unforgettable. A highlight of the canyon ride was having a drink from a fallen log that had a natural vein running its length and was fed by a natural bubbling spring. If you go there today, there’s a sign that says, “Do not drink from this spring. It’s polluted. Sad sad sad.
Then there was a stop at a small town called Eagles Nest. It looked like it was straight out of the 1800s with its cedar plank buildings, sidewalks and dirt streets. Just outside of Eagle Nest was a small hill that housed an old Boot Hill cemetery. The tombstones are made of white rock. We decided to stop and read some of their names and when/how they died. Boy were we in for a surprise. All the people were young, between 19 and 40! Two or three said, “gold miner!” Then we headed up the Red River, passing Bobcat Pass, a winding gravel road with a ghost town and Boot Hill cemetery along the way. The tall pines and aspens rustled in the light breeze, and the sun made the aspen leaves shimmer like silver. As we rode, we gradually climbed higher and higher into the mountains. Finally we reached the top and down the valley was the morning view of the Red River, New Mexico! It looked like heaven. We meandered the switchback road down the valley and spent an hour looking around this small, former gold mining town. I noticed that there were only two places to eat and a grocery store. We stopped at the store and bought a dozen eggs and another pound of bacon. Ben informed us that we better have lunch now because once we reach the lake, we won’t be coming down the mountain for four days. So the three amigos fed themselves on fried chicken steak and toppings, then headed for another two-lane road about 20 miles from the lake. You could see the Red River meandering to the left through the canyon
The first twelve miles were through the valley on a flat but winding road. There was an old wooden water pipe tied high on the ledge of the mountain that was used to carry water for gold mining in the 1800s. Then we took another gravel road and started to climb a mountain.
The first few miles seemed uneventful, but then the road started to get steeper, bumpier and narrower. Several times we dragged the bottom as the road continued to deteriorate. It was becoming a white-knuckle trick! That’s when Ben and Cro turned chickens, pulled out of the new wagon, and left me, the neophyte, to either run the car up the mountain or down the cliff. I was driving two or three miles an hour, gradually crawling on the old, washed out, bumpy, bumpy road. He was a scary reader; I wondered what I would do if I encountered another car on this fucking road. It felt like it took an hour to go, maybe two or three miles. My two brave companions followed courageously behind. I remember hearing screams, moans and gnashing of teeth every time the gravel started to give way under the weight of the tires. But eventually we reached our destination, and the big brave Cro commented, “That was piece of cake!”
The camping area was sparsely populated with only three other cars. After what we had just been through, I could understand why. We definitely had our choice of campsites. We chose a site under a massive tree with large rocks to use for the chairs and the fireplace against a huge fallen log. Fishing was on our minds, and we left immediately. Cabresto Lake was beautiful and about a mile long and half a mile wide. The crystal clear water reflected the mountains coming down to the water’s edge. What a view! We decided to go fishing right away, so back to the cart we ran to get our gear. Chipmunks were running everywhere.
That’s when I was informed that we were fly fishing! Oh my god, I was already in trouble, because I didn’t even have a fly. I had no idea how to rig my Zebco for this kind of fishing.
The first lesson in fly fishing: tying the fly to the line. Shoot, it couldn’t be that hard. While Ben and Cro fished, I spent the rest of the afternoon practicing tying a fly borrowed from my line, which was not designed for a fly! Then I had to learn how to cast it feeding the line as I worked the fly higher and higher above the water. This technique was really a lot of fun, and I quickly discovered it while working with my platform. “It’s all in the wrist.” I only hooked up three times that afternoon!
We were unlucky, however, so it was sandwiches and cokes for supper. A large colony of chipmunks had adopted us, so we also made sure they were fed. We made a big fire and sat around stories of girls, sports, automobiles and other girls! As the evening progressed, I noticed how cold it was. I had my first lesson on heights and their effects on temperature. I could see my breath as I spoke! We put bigger logs on our fire and as we were getting ready to go to bed, Ben announced that he was sleeping in the wagon. Well, that sounded like a great idea, so I said, “I think I’ll join you.” Cro replied, “What…are you going to give up this opportunity to enjoy this great outdoors?”
He kept calling us various names like “chicken, pantywaists”, and a few that I can’t repeat. All his nagging couldn’t persuade us to leave our bed in the carriage. Instead, he made his bed by the fire, zipped up his sleeping bag with nothing but his nose, and settled in for the night. Ben and I converted the back of the wagon into a double bed and used our sleeping bags. Things were quiet and sleep was great until about four in the morning when we woke with a start with Cro settling into the front seat with a sheepish smile and calling the ‘cold’ a few of his names. of choice.
After a big breakfast, it was back to fishing all day. Come dark, Zilch…no fish! I hung on a few more times, but I’m not edible! So, at supper time, it was time to discuss our food supply. It was decided to start rationing what was left of food as we still had two more days on top of this mountain. Forget driving to the Red River for supper. Once we got back down this “road”, we didn’t go back up!