Those Were the Days: The Unforgettable Fishing Trip, pt. 1


One hot summer night in August of 1954, I was with two of my buddies, Ben Sturgeon and Bill Culpepper. We were sitting at our local teen hangout, a drive-in called Caldwell’s. Every parking space was filled with the cool cars of the ‘40s and ‘50s. The three of us were in Bill’s white ‘38 Plymouth sedan. He had it accented with red rims and wide whitewall tires.

Many autos were filled with guys checking out the chicks and visa-versa. The parking lot always had groups of guys sitting on the fenders of their cars discussing the day’s events but always conscious of the opposite sex driving by.

Somehow, we got sidetracked from our regular stretching and manipulating the truth about our conquests and switched our conversation from girls to fishing. Naturally, as male egos go, Bill and Ben got into a hot argument over who was the best fisherman. I had only been fishing twice, and that was using a cane pole and bobber with a minnow attached. My fishing experience was not one about which I could brag.

Then Ben said those magic words, “Why don’t we go fishing! I know the perfect place.” Living in the Texas panhandle, where lakes are non-existent, I think of our muddy pond called Lake McClellan. “Where’s that?” Bill and I say almost in unison. Now Ben had a captive audience and began describing the place.

“It’s Lake Cabresto, just outside Questa, New Mexico, on the other side of Red River. It’s a beautiful lake on top of this mountain…like those you see on a calendar.” That was all we needed to hear. Then, the outstanding research questions began to flow…when, what, where and how. When would we go; where is Red River; how long would it take; and WHAT are we waiting for?

Texas was where I had spent my entire life; I had never seen a clear water lake or even a mountain. What an adventure…I could hardly wait!

Over the next couple of weeks, we collected the gear we needed for the great adventure. As with all great outdoorsmen, the one thing we felt we didn’t need was a lot of food. Ben said we would eat all the fish we wanted because this was fishing heaven.

Cro (Bill’s nickname after the Cro-Magnon man) and I reasoned with each other, well, if we don’t catch fish, we could always run into town for a meal. No big deal! We each had about $20.00 in our wallet, which was plenty of money since gasoline was twenty-five cents per gallon, and hamburgers, fries, and coke would run seventy-five cents.

So, the three amigos strike out for the great beyond. The Sturgeon’s let us drive their new Kaiser Frasier station wagon. We headed straight west out of Pampa toward the state of New Mexico. Five hours passed, and I was beginning to believe that Ben had been pulling my leg about this lake on top of a mountain. The terrain was still as flat as the Texas panhandle. It was dark outside when we pulled over to the side of the road to set up camp for the night. I decided that Nature was calling me to the bushes, so I took off to hide behind a big bush. Ben hollered, “Watch out for the rattlesnakes,” and I decided I could wait ‘til morning! After a baloney sandwich and some small talk about girls, we curled up in our sleeping bags and called it a day.

Knowing they had a greenhorn along, Ben and Bill had planned our arrival after dark so that I couldn’t see the mountains at the entrance to Cimarron Canyon. I woke up the next morning to see the Rocky Mountains set before me. WHOA, they were beautiful! The mountains were covered with pine and aspen trees, and there were large craggy boulders and cliffs. In the meadow to the right was tall green grass with deer drinking from a mountain stream running right down the middle of it. The deer were watching our every move. Back in the ‘50’s people could pull over to little roadside camping spaces, much like our roadside parks but not as big. We had absolute freedom back then.

After a breakfast of coffee, egg sandwich, and crispy bacon, we set out on the two-lane highway, entering the Cimarron Canyon. Cro and I flipped a coin to see who got to ride shotgun (front seat by the passenger window). The drive through the canyon was unforgettable. A high point of the canyon ride was taking a drink from a fallen log that had a natural troth running down the length of it and fed from a natural bubbling spring. If you go there today, there is a sign that says, “Do Not Drink From This Spring. It Is Polluted.” Sad, sad, sad.

Next was a stop in a small town called Eagles Nest. It looked to be right out of the 1800s with its rough cedar-board buildings, boardwalks, and dirt streets. Right outside of Eagle Nest was a small hill that had an ancient actual Boot Hill Cemetery. The tombstones are made out of white rock. We decided to strop and read some of their names and when/how they died. Boy, were we in for a surprise. All the people were young, between the ages of 19 to 40! Two or three said, “gold miner!” Then it was on to Red River, by way of Bobcat Pass, a gravel-winding road with a ghost town and boot hill cemetery along the way. The tall pine and aspen trees rustled in the light breeze, and the sunshine made the aspen leaves sparkle like silver. As we drove, we gradually climbed higher and higher into the mountains. Finally, we topped out, and in the valley was the early morning view of Red River, New Mexico! It looked like Paradise. We meandered down the switchback road into the valley and spent an hour looking around this small, old gold mining town. I noted that there were only two places to eat and one grocery store. We stopped at the store and bought a dozen eggs and another pound of bacon. Ben informed us we had best eat lunch now because once we reached the lake, we wouldn’t be coming back down the mountain for four days. So the three amigos pigged out on chicken fried steak and trimmings, then headed out another two-lane road about 20 miles to the lake. You could see the Red River meandering on the left through the canyon

The first twelve miles were through the valley on a flat but winding road. There was an old wooden aqua duct attached high up on the mountain ledge that was used to transport water for the gold mines in the 1800s. Then we turned onto another gravel road and started up a mountain.

The first couple of miles seemed uneventful, but then the road began to creep steeper, bumpier, and narrower. Several times we dragged the bottom as the road continued to get worse. It was becoming a white-knuckle ride! That’s when Ben and Cro turned chicken, removed themselves from the new wagon, and left me, the greenhorn, to either get the car up the mountain or ride it down the cliff. I drove two or three miles an hour, gradually crawling up the old, washed-out, pothole, bumpy road. It was a scary drive; I wondered what I would do if I met another car on that dang road. It seemed as though it took an hour to go, maybe two or three miles. My two brave compadres followed bravely behind. I recall hearing some shouting and wailing and gnashing of teeth each time the gravel started giving away under the weight of the tires. But finally, we reached our destination, and big brave Cro commented, “That was a piece of cake!”

The camping area was sparsely populated, with only three other autos there. After what we had just endured, I could understand why. We definitely had our pick of campsites. A site under a massive tree with big boulders to use for chairs and the fireplace against a huge fallen log is what we chose. Fishing was on our minds, and off we went immediately. Lake Cabresto was beautiful and about a mile long and a half mile wide. The crystal-clear water reflected the mountains that came right down to the water’s edge. What a sight! We decided to go fishing right then, so back to the wagon, we ran and got our gear. Chipmunks were scampering all over the place.

It was at this time I was informed that we are fly-fishing! Oh boy, I was already in trouble, ‘cause I didn’t even have a fly. I didn’t know the first thing about rigging my Zebco for this kind of fishing.

The first lesson in fly-fishing: tie the fly on the line. Shoot, it couldn’t be that difficult. While Ben and Cro fished, I spent the rest of the afternoon practicing how to tie a borrowed fly onto my line, which was not designed for a fly! Then I had to learn how to throw it out by feeding the line as I worked the fly further and further out over the water. This technique was really great fun, and I soon discovered as I worked with my rig. “It’s all in the wrist.” I only hooked myself three times that afternoon!

We had no luck, however, so it was sandwiches and cokes for supper. An abundant colony of chipmunks had adopted us, so we also ensured they got fed. We built a large fire and sat around trading stories about girls, sports, autos, and more girls! As the evening progressed, I noticed how cold it was becoming. I had my first lesson on heights and their effects on temperature. I could see my breath as I talked! We put some larger logs on our fire, and as we got ready for bed, Ben announced he was sleeping in the wagon. Well, that sounded like an excellent idea, so I said, “I think I’ll join you.” Cro responded, “What… are you two sissies going to abandon this opportunity to enjoy this great outdoors?”

He continued to call us several names like “chicken, pantywaists,” and a few I cannot repeat. All of his harassment could not persuade us to give up our bed in the wagon. Instead, he put up his cot close to the fire, zipped up his sleeping bag with nothing showing but his nose, and settled in for the night. Ben and I turned the back of the wagon into a double bed and used our sleeping bags. Things were quiet, and slumber was great until around four in the morning when we are jolted awake with Cro moving into the front seat with a sheepish grin and calling the “cold” a few of his choice names.

After a big breakfast, it was back to fishing all day. Come dark, Zilch…no fish! I did hook myself a couple more times, but I’m not eatable! So, come suppertime, it was time to discuss our food supply. It was decided to begin rationing out what was left of the food because we still had two days on top of this mountain. Forget about driving down to Red River for supper. Once we get back down that “road,” we weren’t coming back up!