Finalist : Terrain.org 9th Annual Contest in Nonfiction
When we pulled up to the creek-side cabin we’d share for the next week, my father and I found it surrounded by horses, their skin quivering against the flies, faces buried in the scrubby ground cover. We grabbed our suitcases and weaved around them, through the muted, crushing sounds of their chewing. The tiny cabin was technically two rooms: the front room contained the kitchen, a table and chairs, a wood stove, and a queen-sized bed; tucked behind the front room was a bathroom and what seemed to be a storage closet but which was, in fact, my bedroom, just large enough for a child-size handmade bunk bed built into the wall, into which I would slide myself each night like it was a drawer in the morgue.
It wasn’t a great time to spend a week learning to fly-fish in Wyoming. I’d agreed to go six months earlier, while visiting home for Christmas, when I’d caught my father reading and re-reading the online course description with a sometimes wistful, sometimes forlorn expression on his face. My mother had no interest in spending a week surrounded by gear-obsessed men out West, tromping through frigid streams in heavy rubbery waders, so I agreed to go with him; dad would fly from Memphis, and I would fly from Roanoke, and we would meet in Jackson Hole and drive out together, to the secluded, quietly Christian ranch outside Dubois that my family had visited many times over the years, to spend a week or two in conversation with lefty theologians about topics like the spirituality of birding or finding God in nature.
My earliest memories of those childhood trips to Wyoming were of a landscape so foreign it could have been another planet entirely, with its dry, red soil, fragrant clumps of sage grass and juniper, and thousand-year-old petroglyphs scrawled on boulders. No place, it seemed to me then, could be more different than Memphis, my hometown, where the only sweeping vista was the view from the river, beyond which Arkansas’s empty shoreline receded into a flat, hazy blur on the horizon. The last time I’d been to the ranch, I was in middle school. Since then, I’d made a home in the mountains of southwest Virginia, and spent every weekend outside, hiking or canoeing, thinking often of the ranch out West, the first place I encountered the wider world and was hooked by it, felt my life reorient toward it.
When we made our way to the dining hall for dinner, I quickly realized how little thought I’d given to this trip. On the rare occasion when I imagined what our week together would be like, I thought only of the fishing itself, my body wading into the rushing water, the feeling of a new, alien skill transformed into muscle memory, something as automatic as swimming, as thoughtless as riding a bike. I had not anticipated the small-talk, which I’d been able to avoid in the past as one of few children at the ranch each year. Now, a grown-up, I couldn’t slink behind the dining hall to braid the knee-high grasses and give all the horses new names. Instead, I found myself chugging pink lemonade at a picnic table, answering strangers’ questions.
The dining hall was full of people, mostly my dad’s age, outfitted in fishing shirts, cargo shorts, and all manner of hiking boots and thick-soled sandals. I met a couple of lapsed Catholics from California, one Presbyterian preacher from Cape Cod, a woman wearing tie-dye and already hocking essential oils. Everyone wanted to know who was planning to go square dancing in Dubois on Wednesday night, but most of all, everyone asked, Where are you from? with their smiles stretched taut across tanned, eager faces, assuming the question to be innocuous, easy to answer.
Years ago, I would have jumped to answer this question before it was even asked. When I first left home for college in the Midwest, I felt an urgent need to tell people I was a preacher’s kid, that I was from Memphis. These two facts seemed more important than anything else anyone could know about me, more important than my name, my major, or what dorm I lived in. But now, the question had become fraught. At end of this week in Wyoming, my boyfriend and I would pack up our house and our dogs and move to Memphis, a place he’d visited only a handful of times.
As the folks around the table gave their nodding, one-word responses—Greensboro, Charleston, Mendocino, Denver— I felt suddenly unsure what makes a person from a place—and whether any place I chose could ever truly outweigh the place I came from. It was both impossible and incorrect to answer without a pile-up of qualifications: Memphis, I imagined saying, but I haven’t lived there for ten years, but I’m moving back in three weeks, but I’ve spent the last four years in Virginia, and that’s the place that feels like home, the place that breaks my heart open, the place I visit in dreams whenever I’m away.
The man who would be our fly-fishing instructor sat down across from me and rescued me from my deep inward tunneling. Berkley was tall, wiry, and white-haired, with kind eyes and a quiet, intelligent bearing. He didn’t ask where I was from. Instead, he wanted to know what rivers I knew.
“I knew the Mississippi first,” I said, “as much as you can know the Mississippi. But this summer I’ve canoed the James every weekend.”
Berkley’s face lit up. “I grew up fishing the James with my grandfather,” he said, “that’s one of the finest rivers in the country.”
I felt proud, as if I had something to do with the goodness of the James, as if knowing a good river said something about me. And maybe it did: I’d chosen to uproot my life and move to the Roanoke Valley, a verdant, gorgeous corner of the world. But if that choice said something about me, what about the choice I was making now, to give it up, to leave it behind?
After dinner and dishwashing, my father and I went back to the cabin to read for a while before bed. I slid into the narrow bottom bunk. Dad’s bedside lamp was shining through the cracks in the wall that separated his room from my closet. It was strange to be in such close proximity to each other, after a day of airplanes and airport shuttles and rental cars that narrowed the distance between us from thousands of miles to an arms’ length, this thin bedroom wall.
In Memphis, things like finding a good job and having children seemed eminently more possible than they did in Roanoke, 12 hours from family. But more than these new beginnings, I was anticipating an ending of sorts: I wanted to go home before my father retired from preaching. Once I realized I had only one more year to watch him from the pews, to hear his weekly sermons, nothing could have kept me from going back.
I tried to read, but felt the weight of the day settle over me, heavy and warm. It had only been a few hours, really, since the plane took off from the Roanoke airport. From the window seat I’d watched the mountains, ticking off the ones whose names I knew: Tinker Mountain, with its strange sunken shape like a cow’s low-slung belly; Mill Mountain, in the middle of town, a giant neon star perched on its crown; Catawba Mountain, with McAfee’s Knob visible in the morning light as a sandy-colored seam high on the ridgeline.
The mountains had receded into the distance as the plane headed west, out of the valley where the city I loved sat nestled between the Blue Ridge and Alleghany Mountains which converged there, so that from anywhere you stood the horizon was rolling and blue, shrouded in fog some mornings, streaked with white in winter. As the plane flew higher, the mountains became so small beneath the plane that they could have been air bubbles in a pie’s top crust, or sand castles half-eroded by the incoming tide.
I ran my mind over those mountains, reciting their names to myself as if counting sheep, as if forestalling the time’s march through the coming months when my memory would surely start to slip, going blurry and imprecise. As my eyes grew heavy, the muffled turning of my father’s pages and the gentle rushing of the creek just outside the screen window seemed to form a current of sound, surrounding us and our lamp-lit cabin, leading us together downstream.
The experienced fly-fishermen left the ranch before dawn, while my father and I spent the first day of fly-fishing class with the other beginners, sitting in the dining hall, tying knots. Berkley stood at the head of the table like a conductor and held two lengths of neon green line between his hands, forming loops in slow-motion, so we could follow along.
“This,” he said, “is the nail knot.” We watched him use a silver tool to help him form the tiny knots and pull the loose ends through. We’d practice on thicker lengths of line, neon green and yellow, holding up our knots for appraisal when we were done. The man sitting next to me kept leaning over to look at the knots as I tied them. I couldn’t tell if he was looking for more direction or scrutinizing my clumsy attempts at folding the line into impossible shapes and hoping they would hold.
“Now,” Berkley said, “let’s try the blood knot.”
We must have looked catatonic with boredom; Berkley promised that in the afternoon we’d have some time on the water. When we finished lunch, as people around us headed out for horseback rides and hikes to clear-blue mountain lakes, we frantically pulled on our waders and boots and piled into his truck. Berkley parked at our cabin next to the creek, and we all hopped out of the car and followed him to the creek’s edge.
“We won’t be fishing today,” Berkley said. “First we need to orient ourselves to the local waters. We need to find out what the fish are eating.”
We trudged through the ankle-deep water, under the hot afternoon sun, in full gear, watching Berkley pick up rocks to show us the insects—nymphs, caddisflies, unnamable squirming larvae of all kind— clinging to their undersides. By the end of the day, two of our fellow classmates decided they were not cut out for the tedium and quit, relieved to spend the rest of the week exploring the wide world beyond the walls of the dining hall.
On the way to the car, dad griped, “I didn’t come all this way to sit in the dining hall all week.” He came here to be outside in a way he couldn’t be back home. Memphis was not the best place for someone longing for natural beauty, but my father had always sought it out. In every other home video from my early childhood, we’re at some dumpy campground with the ever-present pop-up camper, a mud-ringed lake gleaming just beyond our campsite. As I grew older, we took farther-flung trips, to islands off the coast of Washington, where we’d take frigid sailboat rides, or to Montana and Wyoming and Colorado, where we’d rent a yurt and sleep surrounded by all the stars we couldn’t see in the city.
When he was a young pastor, he’d built pews and a stage into the hill outside the sanctuary, so his church could worship outside. Later, when we moved into town, he woke before dawn to run through the old-growth forest in Overton Park, his blue-grey border collie running at his side. He is no naturalist, could not name hardly any plants or birds or rocks. But he seemed to find time outside—in the nameless, anonymous natural world—calming, centering, quieting. As they prepared for retirement, my parents bought ten acres of land in the mountains of North Carolina and hired a crew to build a cabin, its logs hand-hewn by an elderly man whose accent they could barely understand. Building the cabin had long been a dream of my father’s, but it seemed to inspire a particular kind of existential anxiety in him, too. He couldn’t sleep, and when he did sleep, fitfully, he dreamed of the cabin burning down or collapsing in a mudslide.
He started naming each “last time” he did anything: watching contractors pull into the driveway of the house in Memphis, dad would say, this is the last time I put a roof on this house; traveling with my mom to see Paul McCartney in concert, he called to say I figure this is the last time I’ll see him play live. He wondered aloud, often, whether the stress of building the cabin would kill him; then he wondered, if he survived it, whether he would use the cabin enough to justify its existence, its expense. Eventually, he stopped looking at the bills, handing them unopened to my mom, and never asking for a total amount they’d spent. In a rare moment of excitement, my father told me that from the cabin’s back porch, he could hear the river down below, a stream which was stocked with trout each spring, and which he wanted to learn to fish.
As my father prepared for more time at the cabin in the mountains—a week or two at a time, here and there, once he stepped down from the church—I was preparing for a life indoors, a life in a sprawling, humid city. The life I had in Roanoke was the kind my father had always dreamed of, and alongside all my other anxieties was one I hadn’t expected: that I might disappoint him by giving it all up to move back home.
The next morning, as we drove to the dining hall, dad and I talked wistfully about our hopes for a day on the water. But class started inauspiciously, with a lesson in fishing accessories. Berkley spent the morning holding one tiny object after another and packing them into a mesh vest: natural insect repellant, extra leader line, plastic cases filled with various flies, a bottle of floatant, a tiny pair of nippers, a fly-tyer, extra sunscreen, neatly folded bandanas.
Berkley rewarded our patience with an afternoon in a small pond which had formed alongside the creek. Standing in a staggered formation, we practiced roll-casting, throwing the line out on the water, letting it load with surface tension, and pulling it from the water’s surface to cast it again. I liked the feeling of the cool cork handle in the palm of my hand. I liked adjusting the line with my left hand, pulling it into a loop alongside my hip. Anytime I looked down after casting in order to grab the line, I’d hear Berkley shout over the rapids that he was fining me 25 cents: I shouldn’t have to look to know where my line was.
Watching my father cast, I thought of the uptight Presbyterian minister casting to a metronome’s beat in the movie A River Runs Through It—the adaptation of Norman McLean’s book which had been mentioned in hushed tones throughout the week as if it was a sacred text. The film was one of several outdoorsy 90s movies my father loved and which ran throughout the background of my childhood. Along with A River Runs Through It, The Last of the Mohicans and Legends of the Fall seemed to play on a continuous loop, the characters and stories running together after a while: there was always someone cloaked in fur and running through the woods, always someone just on the cusp of getting beaten or shot or bludgeoned to death in some dramatically beautiful landscape.
For dad, these movies might have been a way to imagine a wilder life, through characters whose lives were suffuse with natural beauty. For me, these movies seemed to tell the stories of people who are, in their own ways, the last of a dying breed: the last of a native tribe; a family struggling to survive in the wilderness; a fisherman wading into Montana trout streams, insulated, for a time, from the rapidly modernizing world. I’ve wondered if my father is not a similar specimen, one of the last of—if not a dying, at least a convalescing—vocation: each of his churches has been smaller and older than the last, with fewer crumpled bills in the offering plate, and more funerals than baptisms or weddings.
For generations, people like my father were the first people the rest of us called when a sister or grandfather were sick or dying, or when we were getting married, or had no one to trust with our darkest fears. When my grandmother was in the hospital recovering from hip replacement surgery, I never found her in an empty room. There was always a preacher, some friend of my dad’s, there with her. They were always either singing her favorite hymns or kneeling in prayer on the floor beside her bed, holding her shaking hands. We didn’t have to call them; they just materialized, as if by an electromagnetic impulse that drew them to the sick, the frail, those in need of a prayer or a song.
Each week, my father wrote his sermons at the dining room table with a worn Bible spread open before him, filling hundreds of notebooks with his tight, tiny script. Whenever I caught a glimpse of him hunched over his notebook, his work seemed as rare as dowsing, as specialized as horology, utterly mysterious to me.
Though I’d grown up in parsonages on church properties and had spent every Sunday morning and most Wednesday nights in church, once I moved away from home I had no sense of how that would carry through the rest of my life, if it would at all. It seemed unfair, that all those hours spent on stiff-backed pews led not to a clearer understanding of faith and God and worship, but a deep, unshakeable ambivalence.
For a time, in Roanoke, being outside seemed to take the place of church. When I got up before dawn to spend the day canoeing or reached a mountain peak right as the sun began to set, I felt like I’d discovered a new way to worship. It seemed like time outside could carve out a physical and temporal space dedicated to quiet and contemplation and prayer, in the same way church had carved out that space back home.
But as my father approached retirement, I felt increasingly unmoored. I’d find myself on a rocky mountain summit on Sunday morning, thinking not about the view—the mist-shrouded mountains, the lingering pink sky—but about my dad’s church back home: the older woman who always left wet, rouged kisses on my cheek; the arthritic piano player with her painfully swollen knuckles; the way the sanctuary was always freezing and never fully silent, even during my father’s prayers, constantly interrupted by whimpering babies or beeping cellphones or the crinkling plastic of a candy bar wrapper.
I didn’t know what church meant if it didn’t mean hearing my father’s voice from the pulpit, taking the communion bread from his outstretched hands. I wondered if, without my father, worship—or even faith—would mean anything at all.
Our last day at the ranch, Berkley took my dad and me out fishing on the Wind River, “Just the three of us,” Berkley said, “We can stay all day.” I made sandwiches for each of us and filled thermoses with the ubiquitous pink lemonade. All around me, people talked about the big event coming up that evening, Story Time, when Dan the groundskeeper would tell about the time he was mauled by a grizzly bear. Dad wondered whether we should cut our time fishing short in order to hear the story. I was in favor of fishing as long as we could. “We know how the story ends,” I said, laughing. “Otherwise, Dan wouldn’t be here to tell us.”
As we drove out the ranch gates, onto a gravel road and then a two-lane highway, we passed by mountains which I’d hiked with my parents 20 years before—an amount of time which seemed absurdly miniscule compared with the ancient surroundings, but eerily long when I thought about the person I was then, a whole different body, made up of all-different cells, a mind whose fears and desires I could barely recall.
Berkley parked the car at the edge of vast cattle rangeland. We pulled on our waders and boots, shimmied between the barbed wire fencing, and hiked out to the river’s edge. I sat on the bank and watched as Berkley walked with my father into the river. In the coming days, this time would start to shift from the present to the past, and this image would be calcified as it became a memory. I wanted to remember the way my father cast, the look of focused attention on his face, his mouth slightly open, his eyes trained on the water as he threw the line out and watched it land, the way light reflected on the loop of his line as it arced overhead.
Once Berkley got my father situated, he walked with me downstream, where he pointed out a deep, still eddy he wanted me to cast into. It was, he told me, a prime lie. “They’re in there,” he said, “I can see them.” My gaze followed his outstretched finger, but I couldn’t see anything. I waded waist-deep into the water and listened as Berkley’s footsteps receded into silence. As I cast into the eddy, I saw the sudden, round ‘O’ of a fish’s mouth emerge, surround the fly, and then turn away in a flash, the fish’s body a metallic sliver just beneath the water’s surface. I cast into the eddy again, and again watched as the gaping ‘O’ rose up toward the fly and then turned away, the trout’s tail slicing the water as it dove back into the eddy. This time, I startled myself by laughing, a deep belly laugh that seemed to come from someone else.
When I looked upstream, I couldn’t see dad or Berkley, couldn’t see anyone at all. A few years ago, this would have made me too anxious to focus. But the years I spent in Roanoke—hiking and canoeing and sleeping outside—had changed me. Standing in the waist-deep water, the sun hot on my neck, I felt comfortably aware of my body in the world: the current pushing at my back, the constant, tiny adjustments my legs made to keep balanced in the rush of water, the way my feet anchored my body to the rocky river bottom.
As I continued casting, hoping to see the fish rise again, I realized I was seeing the water with greater detail than I’d been able to just hours earlier. Watching as the fly touched down, I could see what I was doing wrong—in my inexperience, my lack of grace, I was allowing the line to drag across the water’s surface for a split-second as I pulled the rod back toward my body. Surely, to the fish daring to rise toward the surface, this flash of line on the water was a tell-tale sign, an alarm blaring, warning them back to safer depths.
In my intense focus on the water just ahead of me, I had stopped paying attention to my wider surroundings. As my focus returned to my body there in the current, I felt a creeping, insistent sensation that someone was watching me. I scanned the sparse woods in front of me, thinking of the pepper spray some of the others in our class wore clipped to their belts when going out hiking or fishing. Every cell in my body seemed to blaze with sudden and growing fear. I wished we’d gone back early, I wished we were already back at the ranch and listening to Dan’s story, hearing how he’d survived against the odds.
The sensation of eyes bearing down on me intensified and I shifted my feet, hoping to turn slowly and get a look at the riverbank at my back. As I began to turn, a huffing sound rose up behind me, a kind of breathy growl that I did not hear so much as feel deep inside my body. I must have shifted too quickly; the water knocked me off balance and as I lost my footing I tried to follow Berkley’s instructions for proper falling technique—to turn with the current, to face downstream, to reach for the buckles at the top of the waders, which Berkley had instructed us to release if we were going under, to avoid being drowned by the weight of the water rushing into the waders.
I heard another low, humming sound from maybe ten feet away and chanced a quick glance to the opposite bank, where I saw—not a bear—but six tawny cows, standing in a line at the water’s edge and staring at me, glassy-eyed, their ears waving at flies. I don’t know how long I laughed, crouching in the rushing water. The cows took a few last sips, staring at me with unblinking eyes, before trudging back home.
Berkley and my father appeared on the horizon, walking downstream toward me. Dad shouted over the noise of the rapids that he’d caught a fish. I walked out of the water and told them about the bear that turned out to be cows. Berkley was mostly surprised that I hadn’t landed a trout. He took my rod and waded out into the river. I sat on the sun-warmed rocks, watching him cast, the line arcing over his head in a seamless loop, the fly touching down on the water’s surface for just a moment when the line drew taut as he hooked a fish. It had taken him less than a minute. He took his hand off of the reel, letting the fish swim downstream with the hook in its mouth, and turned to me, motioning for me to take the rod from his hand.
Once he’d handed the rod to me, he pulled the net from its place on his back and began wading toward the fish. We both watched the line grow longer and longer as the fish swam downstream, and Berkley followed it, trying to square off above the fish. Of course my hand went almost instinctively to the reel, too soon. Of course the fish used that bit of resistance to slide off the hook and free himself. Of course Berkley forgave me, laughing, holding his empty net in the air and asking, What happened?
The sky was shifting toward evening as we packed up our gear and hiked back to Berkley’s car, eyes on the ground to avoid cow pies and the grooved, winding pathways that cattle had worn into the ground. As our week drew to a close, I sensed our impending move bearing down on me. The trip to Wyoming had been a barrier in my mind, a demarcation in time. After Wyoming, I’d start packing up the house in Roanoke. After Wyoming, I’d say goodbye to our neighbors: Mike with his backyard full of rabbits in handmade hutches; Arthur with his strawberry patch growing along the front steps. After Wyoming, we’d watch a final sunset from the wraparound porch, where night after night we’d watched the sky go apricot and opaline over the mountains. After Wyoming, I’d finally let myself take note of the uneasy sensation in the pit of my stomach, the sense of not knowing where this decision would lead us, whether it was right or wrong, whether someone could really choose between the people they loved and the place they loved.
That night, as dad drove us back to the cabin, he said he thought this would be his last trip out west. It was a new declaration, a new last time to add to the list of all the last times that had come before. It was difficult, in that moment, to imagine an end to this, to any of it—impossible to think there would be a last long drive with my dad, a last Sunday morning seeing my father’s face in the pulpit, that he would take off his robe and stole for the last time and never put them on again.
Perhaps time really was rushing by, and we were caught in its current, and one day the memories of this trip—the creek-side cabin, the thin wall between our beds, our silent drives to the ranch and back, all the fishing equipment we’d only barely learned to use—would feel far-away and strange. But for now, my father was in the seat next to me, one hand on the steering wheel, driving me safely home as he had for 30 years.
Outside, the sky was purple and glowing in the waning hours of evening. The first time we came here, I picked fistfuls of wildflowers and my father helped me press them between the pages of his heavy, leather-bound Bible. For years after, watching him in the pulpit as he turned the pages, I’d see him pause to remove a perfectly preserved wildflower and set it carefully aside. It seemed there was no end to them.
Read Martha Park’s essay “Depth Sounding” in Terrain.org.
All images by Martha Park.