I was wide awake when the dream came to me. So maybe it wasn’t a dream. Maybe it was a vision. I don’t know.
But I was at work and somebody asked what I was doing for my vacation, which started in a couple of days. I had hoped for an easy week of running errands and tying up loose ends, but had instead been visited by chaos and disappointment, the kind that threatens to climb into your luggage and follow you when you leave town.
My family had booked a cabin on Roan Mountain, along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. We planned to hike along the ridge and swim in the creek and play board games on the porch.
Then in my mind I saw the trout. A long string of them, actually. Brown trout and brook trout and rainbow trout. Stocked by the Tennessee government, so they weren’t native to the area but lazy and slightly dim-witted.
And then cleaned and lightly seasoned with my secret rub of lemon pepper and paprika and if I told you the rest it wouldn’t be a secret, and then fried in a skillet with lots of real butter.
So I told my co-worker I was going trout fishing.
Yeah, trout fishing.
The first day
I rocked on the porch and enjoyed a cold beverage though the high that day was 80 degrees. My wife and teen daughter were reading. The three boys were running through the woods and yelling and beating each other with tree limbs.
We had left Columbus that morning. The air-conditioning fan on our mini-van was busted and the part was supposed to arrive the day before but of course didn’t so we took my truck which means the six of us were stuffed into two rows of seats instead of the usual three. And we had to put our luggage in the bed of the truck, which means we had to empty all the Christmas ornaments out of the plastic containers in the attic and then pack our stuff in the containers in case it rained.
Outside Atlanta one of the lids flew off and we had to pull over and duct-tape everything down, and then the kids wanted to listen to hiphop music, and then we drove into North Carolina where there was a big wreck and sat in traffic for nearly two hours.
Then Google maps led us along an unpaved, one-lane road with no guardrails and a beautiful view of a 2,000-foot drop accented by moss-covered rocks and shattered pickup trucks and I think I saw some scattered plastic containers.
At the state park, we got stuck with a smaller cabin than the one we’d reserved months in advance and we had to drive through the woods looking for it and they had these low split-rail fences everywhere to give the place a pioneer feel and I made a sharp right-hand turn and knocked down one of the stupid little fences and put a sizeable dent in the side of the truck. And my wife Bess was scared we’d get arrested by a state park ranger for knocking over a state park fence so she jumped out of the truck and with her bare hands put the fence back together.
I’m not kidding.
And then we had a couple of husband-wife discussions that the children found interesting and then we parked and carried all the little plastic containers up the trail to the cabin.
Now I was rocking on the porch and sipping a drink and thinking about all the trout I would catch the next day.
We woke to rain drumming on the roof and decided to drive into the village to buy me a fishing license. (The kids could fish for free and Bess doesn’t like fishing enough to spend money to do it.)
On the way, I told them about the time I caught a dozen rainbow trout. I was 5 years old and my father took me camping with no food but only a frying pan and a fishing pole, and he didn’t have a fishing license and he was of course a law-abiding citizen. So how did we survive? Only because I could fish for free and I was a freaking fishing prodigy and I caught a dozen rainbow trout all by myself. That’s the story, and I’m passing it to another generation.
Just as I finished telling it, we looked onto the side of the highway and saw a gaunt, long-bearded man step out of the fog holding a stringer loaded with trout. The kids gasped.
The village store was closed and we had to drive all the way to Super Walmart, where I quickly purchased a three-day license (no trout stamp required), a carton of Canadian worms and a deluxe galvanized fish stringer to hold all the large fish I was going to catch, and then Bess bought everybody a raincoat, which involved each of the kids making a careful decision about which color to choose. Then we had a long discussion about a four-piece patio furniture set being offered at an unbeatable low price.
That afternoon, I sat on the porch and rigged up our four fishing poles. Then the rain stopped.
The four kids each grabbed a pole and sprinted for the creek. Two of them launched high, arching casts that hooked tree limbs waving in the breeze, and the other two avoided the overhead cover, deftly dropping their bait into the rushing creek and setting their hooks into fallen tree limbs submerged in the water.
I opened the tackle box and tied on new hooks or lures — the older kids preferred spinner baits and the younger ones preferred worms — and they thanked me and then went back to the creek and did the same thing again.
It was a long afternoon. Eventually, the youngest child, Joe, discovered that his calling was wading into the creek to save the stranded spinner baits and, in some rare cases, even the worms. That freed up a rod for me, though I couldn’t seem to do much better.
At the end of the day, we lined our poles up against the rail of the porch, put down the tackle and the carton of worms and went inside to eat country ham.
That night, I awoke to something on the porch bumping into rocking chairs and knocking over fishing poles. Probably a raccoon — I started to open the door. Or maybe a bear — I stayed inside and flashed the porch lights and the sound went away for a few minutes.
In the morning, the carton of worms was polished clean.
The oldest boy and I grabbed all the poles and sneaked out of the cabin and followed the creek to a dark pool. The rising sun sent rays shooting through the trees and shadows dancing on the water.
We spent several peaceful hours there, making textbook casts into the dark pool and sometimes upstream into the little rapids.
My son asked me when the government last stocked the creek. I told him it was before the Fourth of July. He put down his pole.
“All the fish have gone downstream,” I shrugged.
“The mountain man caught them all,” Robert said.
“Mom’s making breakfast,” I said.
We headed up the path and heard a splash and wheeled around and caught a flash in the corner of our eyes.
“Was that a trout?” Robert asked.
“No way,” I said.
But the more we thought about it, it was a trout. And it was making a gesture with its middle fin.
The story pretty much ends here. In life, you have dreams and then reality sets in and you get over it.
We went on a couple of long hikes, so long and steep that we believed we’d never return but ending suddenly in sweeping mountain views and a refreshing descent.
A few times we took the fishing poles down to the creek and made more beautiful casts into the trees.
On the last day, I dropped off Bess and the kids at a spot where the creek deepened. We’d left the fishing poles on the porch.
As I drove away, I could hear them laughing and splashing.
I went into the village, filled up the truck for the trip home and asked the attendant where I could find some trout.
In North Carolina, just over the border, at a national chain grocery store.
In the seafood case, I found packages of rainbow trout. Farmed in Idaho.
I fished around in the case and finally found some trout from North Carolina.
Bingo. I reeled in six big fillets. They cost about half the price of a three-day fishing license.
That night, I added my magic seasonings and fried the fillets in lots of real butter and added white wine to make a sauce.
Even the kid who hates fish loved it.
We chewed slowly and told stories and used bread to mop up the sauce and acted like we loved each other.
Another successful vacation.
Just like I’d imagined.