During the summer of 1997 my daughter Maggie, then eight, and our elderly golden retriever, Amos, and I set off in my old Chevy Blazer for a 7,000 mile camping and fly-fishing odyssey across America. We chased trout from the Adirondacks to the Snake River in Wyoming, learned about Hemingway’s Two-Hearted River, rode horses at a dude ranch in Colorado, blew up the truck in the panhandle of Oklahoma, met a host of unforgettable characters, and briefly lost the dog in Yellowstone.
Exactly four years later her younger brother Jack and his old man set off an equally ambitious summer adventure — to see the wonders of the ancient world in just seven or eight weeks. Basically, everything that could go wrong did so. But we still had the time of our lives.
Both were journeys of the heart that commenced in July, summers their father will never forget, not least of all because my two best books came from those trips.
This is from a chapter called “Touching a Trout” in Faithful Travelers. Following a long day of fishing Lake Walloon, the boyhood haunt of young Ernest Hemingway, and showing my daughter how to catch and properly release a trout — and failing to touch one in the currents as as related in Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories — we were camped near a Mormon couple in a beautiful state park on the shores of Lake Michigan.
After supper, I washed up the dinner plates and put on water to scald them, then fed Amos his aspirins in cheese. A screen door slapped up at the shower building and the Mormon couple came back from having their evening showers. I introduced them to Maggie, who was headed to the showers with her towel, soap, and toothbrush. When she was gone, Toni Bowman brought over fresh-made coffee and an extra cup. Jerry followed his wife, buttoning up a flannel shirt. The night was surprisingly cool off Lake Michigan.
“We made too much and hate to pour it out,” she explained.
We chatted for a while about their trip and ours. I admitted to them that Maggie’s mother wasn’t with us because she and I were getting divorced. I suppose part of me thought of this confession as a little test. I wanted to see how they would react, how a Mormon who didn’t accept the idea of divorce would take this news, how any stranger would. Perhaps I’d not yet stated the words aloud because part of me clung to the belief that they simply weren’t true. Just the prospect of going through a divorce makes you feel unclean, so anxious to try to explain that you’re really not an awful person.
I half expected them to whip out their Bible and lecture me in that cheerful pious manner some Mormons have about God and family matters. But the Bowmans were either too considerate, or maybe didn’t know what to say. They only offered hot coffee and a bit of sympathy, for which I was grateful on both counts. Jerry said they were fetching their horse and rolling out in the morning, too, hoping to make Holland by the weekend. “The town,” he said with a pleasant wink at Toni, “not the country.”
We said goodnight and a little while later my daughter came back from her shower and asked me to comb out her hair, which I was delighted to do. She hadn’t asked me to comb out her hair in ages. First I tossed on another log, sending up a burst of sparks, and then put on the radio softly, though no news this time. Central Michigan University’s station was playing Aaron Copland’s “Appalachain Spring,” a bittersweet anthem based on Shaker melodies that had its world debut on the same day fifty years ago that the war ended in Europe. My father had been in that war, seen things as awful as Hemingway had, and it had changed him, too. Strangely, it made him more determined to be kind and optimistic.
The Copland piece was one of my favorites. It reminded me of my boyhood home in North Carolina. I suppose I loved it for that, though not as much as I loved combing out my daughter’s wet, sweet-smelling hair and not as much as I loved being lost with her in the Michigan woods with a storm rumbling like a timpani drum or maybe the gods bowling far out over Lake Michigan, heading, like us, for the Upper Peninsula.
“Do you think that fish remembers that we caught him today?”
I smiled to myself and complimented her for asking such an interesting question. Soon she would have her own chair in philosophy at Yale — or at least a great country band. Did fish have memories? Only she would ask such a thing. All philosophy begins in wonder. That trout we’d caught was two pounds of muscle, fin, membrane, and sinew, a few thousand strands of taut nerve endings and survival instincts as old as stone, one of the most efficient eating machines on earth — amazing, I said, when you thought about it, for a creature whose brain was just slightly larger than a green pea. She reminded me that we’d had fresh green peas for supper and hamburgers shaped to look like trout and said there must be room in there for a bit of memory. I smiled again, kept combing, and explained to her that the Psalms say memory is immortality and I would remember that fish for a long time even if I failed to touch him and he forgot me the moment I let him go. God gives the solitary a home, the Psalms also say. And a little girl gives you hope, I would add.
“I think that trout will be a little bit smarter next time. That’s how small fish get to be big fish.”
“Did he feel pain when we caught him?”
“Yes. It hurt him to get caught. Every living thing feels pain. But you know what?”
“It made him feel better to be set free. I bet he won’t remember the pain.”
Finally, a snippet from “An Older Hill” in The Road To Somewhere. Father and son had climbed the famous Glastonbury Tor — believed to be the oldest hill in Britain — where I decided to break the disappointing news to Jack that our trip around the world had to be cut in half owing to unforeseen world events. We were carrying our baseball gloves along, aiming to play catch at every sacred site of the ancient world... .
The summit at Glastonbury Tor at sunset seemed as good a place as any to officially break the bad news about our trip around the world. It wasn’t going to happen the way either of us hoped and expected it to.
“Jack,” I said without preamble, after we’d climbed the two-hundred-foot hill with our ball gloves still in hand and sat down to catch our breath on a tilted stone outside the crumbling fourteenth-century tower. “I think Africa is out of the picture — and probably Egypt and China, too.”
For once, I wasn’t fooling around. He knew that and looked shocked and disappointed, maybe even a bit betrayed, his young face warmly lit by the midsummer sun’s retreat somewhere out over Wales.
“Dad ... why?”
I explained about my secret consultations with Chet from the embassy, the trouble and violence in all those places, the travel advisory placed on Kenya, the suicide bombings in Gaza, the continuing dustup over the downed American spy plane. His mother, I said, would be worried sick if I hauled him into harm’s way.
He got up and walked around the Tor to where a scraggily band of rough travelers had occupied the entrance doors’ interior space of the ancient watchtower. A young man with long braided hair was playing an unintelligible song on a wooden flute while a woman sat in the lotus position on the trampled earthen floor of the tower, head tilted back, eyes shut, lips moving in silent meditation. A few feet away, a toddler and three-legged dog played in the dirt.
I got up and walked around the tower, only to find Jack sitting on another stone, staring due east. He’d taken another ball out of his knapsack and was silently fingering it, obviously thinking the situation over.
“I can fly,” he said as I sat down beside him.
“I’m glad to hear it. But Africa’s still not possible.”
I held out my upturned glove, asking for the ball. He deposited it in my glove and stared glumly down the hill at the elderly couple that was trudging up to take in the sunset. They were carrying a blanket and a bottle of wine, probably going to make out like a couple young Druids.
Then I noticed something funny about the ball, which was one of the two balls we’d brought along with us. Jack had printed names of the places we’d already visited on the leather skin, the way travelers used to plaster destination stickers on their luggage. I suppose it was one boy’s way of charting progress through the world.
“Here ... catch,” I said and tossed the ball gently into the air. He stuck out his glove and caught it without too much problem, or enthusiasm.
“Now you can write Glastonbury on the ball,” I said.
“Are we going home?”
“Do you want to?”
“I don’t either.”
For what it was worth, I said, we could still go kick up our heels in Paris for France’s birthday, maybe catch the beaches of Normandy on the way, scope out the South of France and dip into Italy for a few meals, and maybe hop over to Greece to see whatever was worth seeing — a bunch of crumbling temples and stuff where half-dressed heroes and gods used to hang out while making mortal man’s life a real hell. For what it was worth, the island of Crete was supposed to be very cool, the edge of Western Civilization itself, where Minos placed the half-bull monster in the palace labyrinth.
“Really?” This news seemed to revive a bit of interest in the mysteries of an older world, pushing on with our pilgrimage to who knows where.
“Yep. Might be a myth-take we’d both regret to take our ball and just go home at this point.”
Nibs thumped his glove, turned and gave me another of his laughably threatening eaglet looks, trying hard not to laugh, the allowed the faintest smile to indicate he got the pun.
“What’s that way?” he asked simply, nodding toward the eastern horizon, which by now had turned several lovely shades of evening purple. Swallows or field sparrows or blood-sucking bats whirled madly overhead, and the ancient Druid lovers were nearing the top of the famous grassy signal hill. I could hear them pleasantly murmuring about breaking open the wine and which one would get to be on top in the pagan starlight.
“Holland, I think.”
“What’s in Holland?”
“Windmills. Wood shoes. Heineken beer. Tulips. The canals of Amsterdam. Anne Frank’s house. Gouda cheese. Jan Vermeer. Really cool stuff. I went there once.”
He nodded and gave his glove another thump.
“Can we go there?”
“Sure. You might really like Holland.”
I really didn’t. But that was another story. This was more Jack’s trip than mine, anyway. I was just pleased to keep on keeping on, wherever the good road took us.
“Okay,” he agreed.
And with that, we went to Holland. PS