My heart's in the swamp

Is home where you hang your hat, or your heart?
swamp florida
Photo: Chris Hunt

When I was 11 years old, my father moved our family from suburban Denver to the Piney Woods region of East Texas. As much as I protested — the move would take us 17 hours, with one dinner break and a couple of rest-area pee stops, from the rest of our family — the move wasn’t all bad. As we pulled into the low country around the Sabine River late one night, my sinuses opened up and I realized something that I never knew I was missing.

I could breathe. No, I never gasped for breath in Colorado, but the air was so high and dry that I became prone to every little sniffle, every bout with congestion. And I averaged a bloody nose a week, at least. Not knowing life any differently, I just lived with it.

So when that first full-throated blast of muggy East Texas air hit my lungs as I rolled the window down to combat the ever-present fog produced by one Marlboro Light being ignited from the last Marlboro Light — my parents were enthusiastic smokers — I was greeted by a revelation.

This is what a full pair of lungs felt like. And I liked it.

I liked a lot about our move south, honestly.

My parents bought a house not three blocks away from a big swath of undeveloped land — acres upon acres of pine trees and post oaks. For the neighborhood kids, this land was simply known as “the woods.” Certainly private but not at all posted, about a dozen of us would migrate to the woods on any given day — winter or summer, rain or shine. We built haphazard forts with scrap lumber, carved trails through seemingly impenetrable brush and conducted epic BB-gun wars — there may be nothing like the sight of a 12-year-old sprinting through the woods wearing swim goggles and ski parka with three of his best buddies, dressed similarly, chasing him down and trying to nail him with a tiny globe of brass, one round at a time.

And we weren’t too far from the Sabine River, either — we enjoyed epic days paddling its slow, southerly course as it made the border between Texas and Louisiana. We fished. We chased squirrels with our pellet guns. And me? I enjoyed something of a normal respiratory existence — it’s amazing what you can endure if you don’t know things can be better.

Nevertheless, I missed the Rockies too much, and I didn’t last long after high school and an ill-fated semester at a small liberal arts college in Louisiana. I returned home to Colorado to finish college, and then embarked on a career as a western journalist. My time in the South served as a little seasoning for someone whose feet were firmly entrenched in the cold, clear trout streams of the Rockies.

But I’m older now. And it’s February in eastern Idaho, a place not unlike Colorado was some 40 years ago. High and dry in the winter. Cold. Snowy. And, at times, it’s pretty gray and miserable. During the cold months, where the grass is covered by a seemingly permanent coat of ice and snow, and when the truck pretty much lives in four-wheel drive just to get out of the neighborhood, it takes a toll on your psyche. And, of course, my sinuses.

Years ago, after tonsil and adenoid surgery, a full sinus scrape (sounds great, right?) and a simple operation to repair a deviated septum (a junior-high “touch” football injury, I’m sure), a physician explained to me that I was just one of those unfortunate people — my entire sinus system is just a wreck. If there’s a cold, I’ll catch it. A sniffle? I’ll find it.

The recommendation?

“You might consider a humidifier,” the doctor said. “Or try living somewhere humid.”

Home is where you hang your hat?

My father once explained to us kids — likely as all three of us watched out the back window of old family Buick as the “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” sign fade into the distance once we crossed into the Oklahoma panhandle on our first fateful drive to East Texas — that “home is where you hang your hat.”

I’ve never put much stake in that declaration — it is likely the first in a long series of disagreements my old man and I’ve had over the years. I’m much more tuned into the idea that “home is where the heart is.” And, for as long as I could remember, my heart has been in the West. The mountains, the valleys, sprawling lodgepole forests… the trout water. Save for those eight years spent tramping around the muggy thickets of East Texas, I’ve always lived within a short drive of trout water.

But, as I said, I’m older now. And winter, which used to be an annoyance — the penance we paid for a summer of fly-fishing debauchery in the Rockies — seems much more punitive than it did, even just a decade or so ago. Yes, I get the irony — the winters of my youth were measurably more severe. But I’m not in my youth anymore. And I’m tired of the cold. And the snow. And the gray. I’m beat down by the end of February every year. Utterly defeated.

One of the great benefits of being a freelance writer is the ability to acquire a writing assignment from a trusted editor and then call up a friend in the travel industry and say, “I’d like to do a story about fishing down your way this spring.” Generally, this is all it takes to get me out of the gray and the cold for a week or so — a latitudinal salve for a tired spirit that’s just one snow storm away from a complete breakdown.

A few years back, I finagled a freelance assignment to fish the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge that straddles the border of Georgia and Florida. It’s one of the last truly wild landscapes in the Southeast (I might even say that it’s more robust than the Everglades, simply because it still functions from a hydrological perspective and its native flora and fauna system is still largely intact), and I instantly fell in love. And I was reminded what full breaths of air feel like again.

As much as I love the Rockies and the cold, clear trout water that I’ve never quite been able to shake — and, frankly, come summer, I’ll be perfectly happy to tramp all over the Rockies in search of trout — the swamp reawakened a sense of wonder that I haven’t experienced since I first pushed our canoe into the reddish-brown water of the Sabine all those years ago. The sensory overload that comes with croaking tree frogs, humming cicadas and the fact something is always moving — even if you’re not sure what it is — is stimulating. Sunning alligators with toothy jaws agape to catch every warming ray of the springtime sun add a touch of peril to the swamp and make you question the wisdom of paddling its coffee-black waters atop a rented kayak.

And the fish of the swamp … the air-breathing bowfin, the toothy pickerel and elusive panfish like flyers and warmouth … these were the fish of my youth. And fooling them with a fly is something everybody should experience, even if only once. But I guarantee you’ll want to do it again. And if you’re like me, you’ll want to throw flies into dark water every chance you get.

Just last week, I wired the final payment for two acres of land along the Florida-Georgia line to a bank in Live Oak, Fla. I’m now the owner of a densely wooded lot adjacent to 40 acres of flood zone that’ll work wonders as a winter retreat. In the spring it’s warm and sunny. In the fall, it’s warm and sunny. And in the winter … yeah, it’s warm and sunny.

Come summer, when it’s sticky and miserable, the mountains will call again, as they always do. No, it’s not about where you hang your hat, unless you’ve hung your heart next to it.

And right now, my heart’s in the swamp.


Sounds like a great way to live. I'm hoping to get there someday also, except I'll be moving to the Sierra Nevada's and maybe winter somewhere like San Diego. It's all about the time in the mountains though. I live in Pennsylvania now and our mountain wild trout streams are great, but come winter North Eastern Pennsylvania is one of the worst weathered places in the world. I know all about those sinus problems. I figured all those procedures on ears, nose and throat are nothing but a money scam since the procedures never seem to actually help. In my opinion "Home is where the heart is" because when you're not there it's all you can think about.