I NEVER WOULD HAVE guessed I'd discover the beauty of nature in a muddy reservoir deep in Dixie.
As a child in California, I grew up a day's drive from the mountains and those picture-postcard high-country lakes. Our family headed up every summer to vacation in the Siskiyous not far from the Oregon border. We had a rustic one-room cabin on a mountainside that my great-grandfather had mined during the Gold Rush. You could hike around a spur to watch the sunrise over the great snow-capped volcano of Mt. Shasta, California's Fuji.
Even today, the Siskiyous feel like a world away from the America of the strip mall, the freeway and the traffic jam. They're too far from any big city to be the next commuter bedroom community or ski resort. Only a few stray hikers find their way up to lovely spots such as Sugar Creek and Tangle Blue Lake, whose very names were a kind of pioneer poetry. Those first white miners and ranchers, of course, seized this patch of California from the Karok and Shasta, killing Indians in the name of Manifest Destiny. Nowadays you can walk along a creek only to stumble across a smelly pile of malt liquor bottles, greasy chili cans and moldy box springs from some recently abandoned modern mining claim.
We like to think of nature as delicate, perpetually endangered. Surprisingly resilient, however, the Siskiyous have managed to survive a century of logging and mining. In the gentle sunset of a long summer's day, the mountains look like a magical elfin paradise with vistas far out to the shining granite peaks above the Scott Valley, the mystically deep green of the incense cedars and the red-rock boulders bathed in the golden California light.
When I left California for a university job in North Carolina a decade ago, I assumed I'd find natural beauty there too. I had in my mind vague Sierra Club calendar images of the Blue Ridge Mountains with fall colors and limestone brooks framed by flowering rhododendrons. My wife and I did our best to find a version of Western wilderness in our first years in North Carolina. We'd make the four-hour drive from our home in Durham to the mountains for weekend backpacking.
Yet the Blue Ridge Mountains proved crowded with motor homes, Taco Bells, water-slide theme parks, roadside knickknack stands and hordes of vacationers of every stripe. Those mountains may have been the untamed, mythical frontier of Daniel Boone and Cold Mountain, grizzly bears and log cabins. But the New South, like the rest of this country, is about mini-marts, car dealerships and the mantra of development. As much as I liked the people I met in Durham, I gave up any real hope of enjoying the outdoors in my adopted home state.
Then, two years ago, a friend invited me out to go fishing. Although no expert angler, I loved to fish the little Siskiyou streams. It was a way to be outside, and the creeks filled with wild trout quick and bright in the clear, sparkling water. But no trout can live in the tepid, coffee-colored water of the South's reservoirs. We would, my friend said, be fishing for largemouth bass. He had, he added, a secret spot.
Only a short drive from the Duke University campus, the little lake was tucked away in a patch of parkland hemmed in by the freeway, a Wal-Mart and the airport. We hiked half a mile under power lines into Buck Lake, actually a reservoir formed by damming a small creek. The occasional roar of a 727 from the airport runway surged through the woods, no Walden Pond this. Even so, I was surprised how away from it all we were. The lake was ringed by aspen and sycamore with the delicate, minty-green first leaves of spring. A great blue heron glided over to its high, twiggy nest in an oak on the far shore.
And then too there were the bass.
The best way to catch California's mountain trout is to flick a tiny, delicate little Royal Coachman, mosquito or some feathery imitation insect out into the current with a slender fly rod.
Bass fishing is another matter altogether. You use garish, oversized plastic lures, like fake tequila-green salamanders or pumpkin-chartreuse glitter glue imitation worms. These "plastics" come in packets you can buy at the K-Mart in Cheddar cheese, strawberry and other supposedly fish-attracting flavors. Heading to the reservoir for weekend bass fishing is as much a way of life in the Bible Belt as NASCAR or a plate of grits.
I didn't understand bass fishing until one struck my lure. The largemouth bass, the species you find at Buck Lake, is a thunderbolt of a fish that hides in the weeds to ambush frogs and minnows swimming by. They'll lunge and rip a plastic lure in half so it dangles from your hook like a piece of raw meat when you bring it up. When I caught a largemouth for the first time, I marveled at its strong, silver body with subtle shades of green the color of Buck Lake's weedy bottom. It was gorgeous and wild, reservoir fish or not.
I go out when I can now, sometimes with my friend, sometimes alone. Our latest discovery is that bass lurk in the ponds at a nearby golf course. We sneak on at dusk when the golfers are gone to throw our plastics out into the water, clear only because the greenskeepers put in some chemical clearing agent for cosmetic appeal.
The larger truth, I think, is that there is no longer any untouched, pristine wilderness anywhere on this shrinking planet. Like it or not, those of us who now and then want to be in nature will need to find it where we can. That may be in a reservoir by the airport, or at a golf course pond.
At times, it feels as if you're out alone away from it all even on that golf course, or at least so I've convinced myself. As darkness falls, there's just the shadowy silhouettes of the big trees, the mosquitoes and the soft sound of a turtle swimming across the pond. The bass are in there too, beautiful and predatory, nobody's pet fish.
I come back home happy and relaxed no matter that some evenings I can't get a bite.
Maybe I'll try a Cheddar cheese-flavored, green pumpkin plastic crawfish next time around.
Orin Starn is the author of "Ishi's Brain: In Search of America's Last 'Wild' Indian."