California Literary Review

The Quiet Mountains – A Ten-Year Search for the Last Wild Trout of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental – by Rex Johnson, Jr.

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April 24th, 2007 at 4:31 am

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The Quiet Mountains – A Ten-Year Search for the Last Wild Trout of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental
by Rex Johnson, Jr.
University of New Mexico Press, 224 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

Mexican Trucha Meditations

For one such as me who lives to fish, to not only catch fish but to sink into the healthy, good country where species like Westslope Cutthroat, brown, brook and golden trout or northern pike and smallmouth bass thrive, reading anything about such pursuits by anyone who shares my avocation and hazy belief system in this area is an uncommon and unexpected joy. Places like the small highland streams near my home in Montana, the Blackstone Plateau in the Yukon, the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, the upper Slave River in the Northwest Territories or the seldom-visited volcanic interior of Iceland have captured my imagination and drawn me to them like genetic magnets for as long as I’ve been a so-called adult.

One region I’ve always wanted to wander about in is Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental mountains, a 1,000-mile range running from near the U.S. border down towards the isthmus of Panama. Some years back as I was preparing to do just this, someone I knew was murdered by drug dealers down that way and a well-traveled journalist friend advised against the venture for similar reasons. For once in my life I displayed a degree of prudence and I backed off. I abandoned the six-month trip. I reasoned that there were plenty of other places to explore that were a good deal less dangerous from a human behavior perspective.

When I happened upon the release of The Quiet Mountains : A Ten-Year Search for the Last Wild Trout of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental by Rex Johnson, Jr., I couldn’t wait to read the book. Over the years I’ve devoured everything I can find on the area including Carl Lumholtz’s two volume Unknown Mexico, and Mexico’s Sierra Tarahumara – A Photohistory of the People of the Edge by W. Dirk Raat and George R. Janececk.

Johnson loves to seek out little-known and/or vanishing species and sub-species of trout that, in The Quiet Mountains, include the Bavispe strain of the northern end of the Sierra mountains in the Bavispe River system that includes dozens of tiny, rarely traveled tributaries that flow far down within gorges as deep or deeper than the Grand Canyon.

One thing that struck me within the first few pages of reading this handsomely-published volume that also contains a number of good photographs by David Burkhalter, is that Johnson, like me, loves to fish but loves even more the country and people he experiences in his curious quests for native trout. There were times when reading this book that I was reminded a little of Hemingway, a touch of Robert Traver, a bit of A.J. McClane and always there was Johnson’s own, clear voice that marvels at the wonder of what remains of the natural world and questions so much about life and our species role in the grand scheme of things. Johnson doesn’t dwell on any of this to the extreme and usually comes to the conclusion that he is but one man living but one simple life and that’s more than enough for him.

“…maybe if I still deserve anything in this world I’ll find a seventeen-inch Bavispe trout, the very last one, deep in the Sierra Madre Occidental, beneath a cloudy, black mountain lit by insects and made of all the stuff that all our different dreams are made for…And then, dear reader, when I am only back to where I have been before and where I was put in this world to be, the last page in my book will have been turned.”

Johnson climbs, hikes and forces his way up isolated canyons catching trout – tiny and large – as he goes with his fly rod and ragged flies that he’s tied himself. Along the way he encounters numerous locals who offer him and his curious collection of companions food, shelter, advice, local knowledge and even guided trips on horseback far up to the heights of the timbered mountains and down to the depths of the rocky canyons to fish what each of them, in turn, calls “the best” of the trout streams. He describes through narration and dialogue the true abundance of what appears to be abject poverty in the forests and tiny villages – from holiday celebrations and horse races to harmonious families living off the land and with an independence that comes so naturally to the indigenous people that it is accepted to the point of not being noticed by them.

Johnson’s choice of traveling companions is at once questionable and interesting. On one of his earliest trips a college student and neophyte photographer named Victoria makes the journey up and down extremely rugged roads that are often little more than ragged trails that cling to side sides of cliffs or wander haphazardly through the sycamores and pines. She comes from a wealthy family and questions everything – why Johnson is doing the trip, what is so interesting about trout, why fish, etc. She stages a disappearance far into the mountains panicking everyone including local ranchers who search night and day until she is found alive, well and full of herself. None of the few photographs she took appear in the book.

Or there is Burrkhalter who is seemingly always both physically ill and home sick. He never accompanies Johnson when he ventures far up some obscure (and actually they’re all obscure) drainages in the far reaches of the high valleys of the Sierra Madre. His photographs, while both revealing and competently composed and exposed, reveal this. Where Johnson writes like a true adventurer in the tradition of R.M. Patterson or F.C. Selous, Burkhalter’s photographs have something of the feel of a tourist shooting Glacier National Park through a windshield along the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

None of this apparent craziness detracts from the author’s compelling and unique work. In some bizarre way all of this confusion and discord adds to the layers and interest of The Quiet Mountains.

Johnson has composed a wonderful, at times lyrical, exploration of an out-of-the-way niche on our crowded planet. As he says:

“As for this particular book, it seems to have arisen by itself, and it has taken its own shape…Altogether, the fish, the canyons, the day-to-day life in the northern Sierra Madre, and this particular book about them are kind of a lucky secret, of which I am a very luck part.”

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