Perhaps I could just lease a place in heaven, in case there's no decent trout water there.
Emerson Newell, 1965
Before the sun had climbed above the hills, Albert had taken two fine trout, both rainbows, strong and healthy, one thirteen inches, the second a husky, blunt-nosed fifteen-inch male. He released them both, easing the tiny fly and hook from their lips as carefully as a surgeon removing a stitch. And he watched each of them in the olive-green water of Karen's Pool until they regained their strength and slipped into the deeper, darker water where the morning's shadows still hung over the pool like a blue fog. Not until he was content that each trout had survived did Albert inspect his fly, a No. 16 March Brown, and cast again, placing the small fly upstream along the edge of the pool where it drifted as naturally on the current as if it had been a leaf or a stunned insect, helpless in the current, a morsel that Albert hoped would be too inviting for any trout to shun. In the gentle morning sunlight that came off the water, the fly cast a subtle glow, the way soft light sometimes does in a woman's hair.
I had been up since before daylight and had walked up the creek to Karen's Pool after stopping first at Martha's Chute, where I sat on a worn slab of stone the size of a respectable table. Its edge reached well out over the water, which rushed unceasingly over smooth multicolored stones that cluttered the creek bottom. Long, thin alleys of light, gray smudged with pools of melon orange, drifted through the oaks that lined the far bluff. The creek whispered a chorus of sounds, a contrapuntal harmony of liquid trills that rose on the wind, sotto voce, as soft as a mist against the skin. I liked spending the mornings sitting on that great flat stone beyond the sweet gums and the slender mulberry tree on the near bank, listening to the myriad sounds of the creek, its liquid geometry, and watching the surface. Then, as the sun rose higher, working its way among the hickories and ironwood trees, among the hillside oaks and scattered elms, I would walk upstream along the bank.
There was extreme caution in every step, like a fat man trying his luck on a frozen pond and waiting for that first disastrous creak and snap. I took care because I knew Albert was nearby, thigh deep in the creek, enjoying its solitude. The old men fished for many reasons, I suppose, but angling gave them no greater reward than solitude, the priceless pleasure of spending unencumbered time along a cold stream in the presence of trout. No other bounty they had known matched these moments of quiet during which they desperately tried to smuggle themselves, in spirit if not in body, back into the natural world, the place where they were most at ease, truly at home.
There was an old river birch tree on the west side of Karen's Pool and here I sat in the early morning hours and watched Albert and Emerson work the pool with their willowy fly rods. Sunlight shimmered off the pool's smooth surface in rising waves, rose up toward the stark bluffs, dissolving the blue-black shadows that lingered there, exposing the craggy face of ancient stone.
Through some brand of indefinable financial wizardry, some economic alchemy I never quite grasped, the old men had somehow managed to work the farm just enough to allow them to spend the bulk of their days as they wished—that is, afield, along the creek, in the cool shadowy hollows, up in the hills. Whatever profit the farm generated went toward this end and few others. As far as I know, they harbored few wants or desires that the land would not satisfy. Neither longed for much of anything. Oh, there was the endless wishing and grumbling about new fly rods and reels, about shotguns and good dogs, but it rarely came to anything. Neither of them truly pined for other places, the great remote wildernesses beyond the Ozark Mountains. After all, Emerson had the big atlas and it took us wherever we wanted to travel, and at reasonable rates. While Emerson and Albert certainly wondered about other trout streams, other wild country, and read of such places with tireless enthusiasm, they never ached to visit them personally. It was enough for them simply to know that such places existed, still hung on, survived. These mountains, the land they lived on, the cold, swift waters of Starlight Creek, were never an escape from life, but life real and immediate, life beyond the artificial, life intensified. The solitude they sought was a natural part of their lives, something they cultivated and cherished, longed for rather than struggled against. Solitude was their profit, more valuable to them than a fat bank account, and they determined to spend it wisely and well.
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Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication