Maybe you’ve seen the videos on YouTube. If not, you should take a look: someone yells or throws up his arms, and a goat (or two, or three) falls over. The goat, which hasn’t actually fainted but is merely incapacitated, recovers in 5-20 seconds. It’s pretty hilarious. Unless you’re a goat trying to get away from a leopard or something.
“Fainting goats” suffer from a rare, genetic disorder called myotonia congenita, in which a mutation of the gene CLCN1 interferes with chloride channels – proteins that regulate the flow of ions across cell membranes and cause skeletal muscles to contract and relax.
Don’t worry about the goats, though. They’re fine. As Wikipedia assures us: “The myotonic goat … exhibits no obvious muscle wasting, is rarely incapacitated by the condition, and lives a normal and healthy life span.”
In mid-February, I was wading the Blanco River out near Fischer, Texas. It’s a beautiful stretch of fast, aqua water with some interesting, rugged rock formations. After making it through the first couple of deep pools and fast runs with just one follow from a big bass, I found a boulder at the water’s edge and sat to swap out flies.
It was just … gorgeous. The air temperature was in the low 60s, the water a chilly 50-something. Flows were up, and I got lost for a bit watching my buddy Cory casting in a pool just downstream, at the tail of a dancing riffle.
Cory is an elegant caster, and fun to watch. Finally, knowing we needed to press on downstream, I grabbed my pack in my left hand and my rod in my right, and stood up and took a step across the gravel. And fell flat on my face in 2 feet of water.
I am a human fainting goat.
More accurately, I suffer from a form of myotonia congenita called Thomsen disease, the autosomal dominant type characterized by early onset (you should see the baby picture in which I’m smiling with just half my mouth), and periodic spasms of the extremities and facial muscles. It’s not painful (until I hit the ground); really, it’s an annoyance and embarrassment more than anything.
If I ever shake your hand and seem reluctant to let go, blame myotonia. If I sometimes slur or stutter, it’s probably because my tongue stopped working for a moment; blame myotonia. If I fall flat on my face in a river or on a trail, for no obviously good reason, blame myotonia.
I’m sure some people think I’m perpetually drunk, which is offensive, since I occasionally take a break from drinking.
Entire weeks can go by with no obvious symptoms. Sometimes I have bad days. Stress, fatigue, and cold all seem to make it a little worse.
The disorder is non-progressive, meaning it’s never going to get any worse. But I do get to be one of Jerry’s Kids. If you’re going to have some form of muscular dystrophy, this is the one to get. The affected guys in my family routinely joke with each other about our latest false starts, lurches, and tumbles.
I’m clumsy. I’ve been clumsy my whole life. It’s hard to say how much of that is just, well, clumsiness, and how much is the genetic disorder. But whatever the usual cause – and that day on the Blanco it was definitely the disorder at work – it can get kind of expensive.
In the pack that was in my left hand (and broke my fall – I have trained myself never to break a fall with my rod hand) was a pretty expensive camera. It’s the second one that has taken a career-ending dunking while I research this book.
Thinking about that got me thinking about other casualties of this project, and about the numbers associated with it more generally.
As I enter the home stretch, with just a couple of rivers left to scout and the manuscript well down the road to the 70,000-word mark, I estimate I have driven about 2,100 miles, quite a bit more than the distance between New Orleans and Las Vegas, two really fun towns.
So far, I’ve waded about 162 river miles and floated or paddled another 53. In addition to the cameras, I’ve lost or destroyed: one phone, two rods and two reels (one lost when my kayak capsized, one bent in a fall).
I’ve worn out two pairs of water shoes, one pair of waders, two pairs of shorts and a favorite pair of quick-dry pants. I’ve swapped back and forth between three different sling packs and four backpacks, trying to find what works best for my long wade/walk trips. Seems now maybe I should have stuck with that waterproof model.
On Perdido Creek (alas, not covered in the book) I contracted a tick-borne infection (whether Lyme Disease or one of the half dozen others I don’t know; they all respond to doxycycline if treated early). On the Pedernales I tore my left meniscus, and I twice contracted nasty rashes from poison ivy because I wasn’t paying close enough attention – once on the Lampasas and once on the Gabe.
Scrapes, scratches, mild sunburn, and busted knuckles have been a weekly occurrence.
Whatever financial windfall I had hoped a book – an actual book! – would bring was long ago eaten up in gas, time off from the day job, and gear.
On the other side of the ledger: this book! Truly, it’s a labor of love; an opportunity to share with anyone who is interested some of the things I think are best in this world.
And the joy – the sheer, unadulterated joy – of finding myself alone in a swirl of clear, green water and birdsong. The electric thrill of a solid fish on the end of my line. The connections I’ve made, on and off the water.
While researching and writing the book, I have found a dozen or more new, lifelong friends: a discovered tribe of fish nerds, history buffs, beer and whiskey swilling river rats that have adopted me as one of their own.
When I first started discussing this project with my very patient publisher, he referred to me repeatedly as an “expert” on local waters. I balked, embarrassed: “But Mark, there are other people who have been doing this a lot longer, who know a lot more.” Plus, I knew that the “back of my hand” knowledge I had of four or five reaches of a few streams did not translate into expertise across more than a dozen rivers and creeks in an area the size of Connecticut.
I knew, even then, that any one of us can study a single river for a lifetime and not understand it fully.
But, almost two years in, I can say that I have learned. A lot. I am confident that for most of the streams I write about, someone out there knows a lot more about it than I do. In some cases, I know exactly who that person is. In part because those people are gracious, and generous (and in part because I’ve waded more than 100 miles with intent), I am also now pretty confident that I know a whole lot about a bunch of different waters.
Certainly enough to be of value to someone else.
That sort of learning – the thirst to know and discover more about the extraordinary streams all around me – won’t stop when I ship this manuscript off to my publisher. It won’t stop a year from now, when the book hits the shelves in your local fly shop or book store.
And that, more than anything, is the greatest reward of this crazy endeavor.