Angling on the Edge

by Kendrick Chittock

The town of Sintra sits within eyesight of the ocean and clings to the rolling green hills of Portugal. The coast of this European country shaped its history, yet Sintra was shaped by the wealth and vision of its royalty. The small town once functioned as a retreat for the region’s most powerful families before the fall of the monarchies. With so much wealth and an idyllic setting, residents of the palaces and fortresses spent their time dreaming up international gardens and spiritual sanctuaries.

I sat beneath deliberately misplaced redwood trees from the Pacific Northwest that dwarfed the native European flora. The trees shaded small valleys of oversized ferns from even further away in the southern hemisphere. The ferns relied on a network of mined spring streams designed to provide the proper moisture for their survival. I was as intrigued by this particular family’s vision for their grounds as much as I have been by remote wild places. I meandered the paths wondering what they had seen, what they hoped to create here.

I toured a second, smaller garden that was designed to take its visitor from the bowels of hell in a dimly lit grotto to the pearly gates of heaven. I ascended up a four story well to my final destination. Making it to the eternal afterlife seemed too easy, just a few flights of stairs. I didn’t even confess my sins. I enjoyed a wonderful view at the top, but sensed something was missing from the holiest of holy places in this re-created Garden of Eden.

There didn’t seem to be any fishing in heaven.

aoe2.jpg

After lacking a spiritual experience atop the well, I drove further up the hills to an old monastery. Sometime during the mid-1500’s, the local monks designed their home to be in harmony with nature. Huge boulders protruded through the walls and floor and the rooms cascaded down the slope of the hill draped under trees and shrubs. The minimalist monastery intrigued me more than the ornate path from Hell to Heaven that I traversed in the gardens of royalty.

The monks built their humble home from what nature provided to them. Here, in the hills of Portugal, that meant cork. The monks covered their benches, cabinets and ceilings with the cork bark. It was a wonderful reflection of their environment that made the palace’s ornate well to heaven seem slightly ironic. The cork oak is native to southwest Europe and northwest Africa, yet about 70% of all cork products come from Portugal alone. Yes, this includes those nicely turned handles on fishing rods. Next time you rub your thumb along the back of that 5-weight, keep in mind that someone used a specialized machete to chop off the bark of a tree beneath the hot, salty coastal air of Portugal.

 I hiked above the monastery and found a large boulder that gave way to a panorama of the countryside. I saw the gaudy palace and gardens I had just visited and could barely make out the ocean. The view was wonderful, but the feeling in my gut was not. It was some form of guilt; a longing, perhaps even self-loathing. I felt a sin so grave that had there ever been an Angler Inquisition I would have been drawn and quartered, my parts used for bait fishing. Despite all my packing and months of planning, I finally acknowledged my failure.

I didn’t bring a fishing rod.  

Whether the Holy Spirit moved in me then or if it abandoned me, I don’t know. But for the remainder of my trip I felt like one of the sailors on the great ships from the Age of Discovery that departed from the shores of Portugal. Only, remarking on fishing instead of the water sources I thought, “Angling, angling everywhere. And not a fish for me.”

After descending the mountains and resigning from my new monastic order, I found a hidden beach where the only thing more incredible than the rock formations was the strange naked man swinging his goods up and down the sand like the snood on a strutting spring turkey. I suppose one could admire his confidence, but not me.  My packing sins were coming back to haunt me. My best view of the ocean on a beautifully secluded beach was fouled by a nudist lunatic. It was only the beginning of my penance.

Everywhere I looked, I saw fish. I visited a lighthouse at the westernmost point of the country. The top of the building was dipped in candy apple red and provided a striking contrast to the sea. Down along the cliff edges, schools of fish darted around the foamy currents hundreds of feet below. Even without my polarized glasses they stuck out as a potential angling target. With no route to the water, I pondered the osprey approach. Hover right above them on the edge of the cliff, then go for a dive. Maybe I could stun one and pick up the pieces. I decided it might end worse for me than the fish. If only I brought my rod.

In a nearby village, I crossed a river flowing the wrong direction, away from the sea. I noticed a flash of white along the bottom. The river was tidal and the tide was coming in, rising above the crusty rocks and sand. With the water came schools of baitfish the size of freshwater bass. They flitted about and swerved amongst each other in a tantalizing display. I found one large enough to demand my eyes for a few minutes so I stood and watched. I wondered if I was walking through the angling valley of death.

Somewhere across the ocean my rod sat lonely, discarded and stowed away in my closet.

aoe1.jpg

My days overseas were running out and I wondered if my traveling angling torment could last any longer. I almost hoped to see no water, no fish. My itinerary did not oblige. I explored the old fortress and court of Prince Henry the Navigator, who launched tens of expeditions from Portugal during the Age of Discovery to cross the sea and explore the globe. I have always been fascinated by this time in history, when the courage was outrageous, the politics disastrous and the logic of treating even basic ailments such as scurvy was non-existent. Despite constant political upheaval men shipped off to the far ends of the world, pushing their own limits and when far enough, those of their country. In rare cases, they pushed the boundaries of humanity. Angling is like that for me, taking me to new places, stretching my understanding of the globe. And yet walking the path along the fortress I was a ship without a sail, fighting angling scurvy with no rod or line, flies or net with no cure in sight.

As I snaked my way along the peninsula, I saw that one of the locals had hopped the fence and leaned precariously over the edge of a cliff. In his hand was the source of my troubles, the tool with which I could explore the world. A fishing rod. It stretched nearly fourteen feet out from the cliff and controlled a line that had to reach a hundred feet to the sea below. I watched to see what the local angler would pull up from the churning water. I recognized my torment but welcomed it now, leaning over the fence, wishing I was the one working the line.

The angler jigged his rod up and down until I could see the resistance of a strike, then the consistent pull of a fish on the line. Like a giant, deranged blue-gill rod with no bobber, the man let the fish take whatever he had on his line and set the hook. The rod dipped and he reeled. I wanted the rod in my hand, wanted the baptismal feeling of a fish sliding through my fingers.

The line went slack and the rod went straight. My salvation swam off into the cool depths of the sea. I dipped my head and then looked up to the stranger braving the dangers of the cliff to angle on the edge of the world. He wrinkled his face and despite not knowing a word of Portuguese, I knew what he was saying. The fish got away.

At least he brought his fishing rod.

Kendrick Chittock