Home > Short Stories > Going Back to Big Tree – Part I

Going Back to Big Tree – Part I

A man can divide his life into four parts. Part one: When his father is a giant.

My father was a great many things but above all he was this: He was a man of stone and steel. He was a man of fire and salt.

In the summer time he would take us fishing, up on the Continental Divide along the Idaho-Montana border; on the edge of a beaver pond at a place we called Big Tree. Sitting atop his broad shoulders, I would watch as he used his huge leathery hands to wrap the worm around the hook. He had enormous hands, disproportionately large, like bear paws; great gnarled machines of bone and grit. He was missing pieces of fingers callously robbed of him by cold steel. And everything he ever knew; everything he ever did; all that he was – could be read of in that venous text of his ruddy hands. They were a living testament to a life of hard labor.

Summer flies buzzed in the warm, moist air. The thick reeds and brushes along the edge of the pond disguised the deep, black mud they were rooted in. My father’s green rubber hip waders would sink to the ankles and every step he took would suck wetly as he pulled them up out of the muck. Each step he took left a hole in the earth that would slowly cave in on itself. Tiny green frogs, singing harmony with the dragonflies, skipped along the surface of the mud through the tall grass. It was a primordial place forgotten by time and ignored by all men except my father. This was his secret fishing hole. To know of this place was to know that my father guarded your life. Your sacred soul was in his care.

Tucked away in this lost valley where Camas Creek rolled down from the high Rockies, the beaver had built a work of art. Mother Nature’s engineers, working only with their teeth, tails and tenacity, had deftly diverted the rage of water that the mountain had thrown at them. With sticks and mud they tamed the creek and the tiny glen was transformed into a life-sustaining pond. Trapped in the deep, the trout bred and grew and lurked and waited in the cold for my father.

He’d carried me on his shoulders down through the heavy brush to the edge of the pond. Now, with a flick of his pole the bait flew across the open water, plopping down through its glassy surface with an audible “Bluup!” and the gossamer line trailing lightly behind faded invisibly into the water. Except for the gurgling of the headwaters and the buzz of the insects, this was the only sound on the planet. The entire universe was otherwise silent. My father had taught me well: fish can hear you coming so you must stalk them. Surely, fish must have the finest hearing of any animal on earth if they could hear us coming from that far away.

My father’s word was law. Even the sunshine settled into a whisper.

With his own line cast and the bait placed strategically along the edge of the reeds growing up through the water, he carefully rested his fishing pole against a bush and began preparing my line. My stubby little fishing pole, made especially for a child, like all things of mine was dwarfed by my father’s giant hands. With my fishing pole tucked under his left arm, I held his ears while he carefully wound a worm onto the hook and positioned a red and white bobber on the line above the string of lead sinkers.

Proper positioning of the bobber above the sinkers and bait was something magical that only my father knew how to do. Among all men, he was the final authority on bobber placement. I knew this because neither of my two sisters could ever position the bobber in just the right location. My father always had to reposition it – sometimes only a hair’s width distance one direction or the other. My father’s word had been given: if the bobber isn’t in the right place, the fish won’t find the bait.

He cast my line into the murky water, rolled the handle of the reel one-half revolution, and handed the pole up to me. Then he picked up his own pole, holding it firmly in his right hand, and began to delicately tease the line with his left hand. The diaphanous filament played across his thick fingers like a spider line. His index finger was ever so slightly crooked toward him with the line running lightly across the tip. He could sense the giant lurkers in the deep swimming around the bait on the end of his line. They circled it with suspicion, calculating their odds. Fish were smart, but hungry. He tugged on the line with his left hand and reeled in the slack, luring the fish toward him.

Golden sunshine danced across my father’s curly hair. He had a full head of wavy hair and bushy sideburns. Sometimes, as he carried me on his shoulders, I would comb my tiny fingers through his sideburns just for fun. They were thick like the whiskers of a cat, but as thickly spaced as the under brush that surrounded the beaver pond. They felt like the fishing line, tough and wiry. He didn’t like it when I tickled his sideburns with my fingers and my teasing would be met with a sharp rebuke. “Hey, cut that out boy!” But I knew his bark was worse than his bite so I did it anyway.

His cheeks felt like the sandpaper he kept in his workshop but were pliable like rubber. They were sandrubber. Sometimes in the evenings at home, after he had read to me for the umpteenth time The Shoemaker and the Elves, or, Gwendolyn the Miracle Hen, I would sit on his lap facing him and pull on his face. He was like a real-life Mr. Potato Head with a face I could rearrange by pulling it this way or that. My sisters would giggle uncontrollably at this and even my mother would start laughing too. My father growled a lot, but you could pull on his tail all you wanted. In the end, he would simply give in and say something like, “Yea, you’re all real damn funny.” My father never polished up well. He was as out of place in a tuxedo as a fish out of water. And at this moment, on the edge of the beaver pond at Big Tree, getting a fish out of the water was just exactly what he was preparing to do.

The spidery line running across his finger tips tugged gently but quickly. There was a fish on the other end tentatively nibbling at the worm. My father used a fly rod with a casting reel. An unusual set up but it worked well for him. The long fly rod was super sensitive at the tip and its length allowed him to place his casts far and with surgical precision. He wore a pair of green rubber hip waders over his pants, and connected the tops of the waders to his belt with snap straps. When he wasn’t trudging through the marsh and muck, he would unbuckle the waders from his belt and roll them down so they were folded over below the knee. It gave them a swashbuckling character and with my father’s pencil thin mustache, he was the very model of a dreaded pirate captain. Indeed, the beaver pond was my father’s secret treasure, stowed away high in the Rocky Mountains.

The beaver pond was known only to us and just getting to it was always a grand adventure in itself. At the time, the family car was a passenger van. We called it “The Bus.” It was creamed coffee in color and could hold the entire family and all of our camping gear. Myself, my two sisters, both older than me in the back seat with my mother riding shotgun and my father’s great hands wrapped around the wheel. With all of us loaded into The Bus, we would leave for Big Tree before dawn’s light. Big Tree was hours away beyond the tiny village of Kilgore, Idaho.

Sometime along the way I would awake on the seat never remembering how I got there. As we got closer to the mountains, the road turned from asphalt to gravel and meandered through a vast, open range of sage and cedar: a great ocean of musky smelling brush and bramble. Far off in the dusty distance, the blue-gray mountains yearned for the endless sky. Herds of domestic cattle, safely contained behind barbed wire fences, shared this land with buffalo, antelope and deer. Far off across the open range, a long abandoned barn would stand arthritic and sagging precariously to one side, its weathered exterior blackened with time.

Along the gravel road at the base of the mountains was the Kilgore Store: a one-room concrete block structure with a single gas pump out front, a pool table inside along with a few post office boxes, and coolers full of soda pop and beer. The Kilgore Store stood alone in this vast wilderness, sequestered away from civilization by dust and distance. It was cubicle, with equal dimensions on all four sides, and had a four-point roof of green asphalt shingles. Above the door the hand-painted sign, long forgotten and flaking, read: Kilgore Store. Out here on the open plain, the store could have gone without a sign altogether. It was the only thing around for miles.

We would always stop at the Kilgore Store. My father would top off the tank, all the while complaining about the outrageous price of gas. Stopping at the Kilgore Store was always one of my favorite things to do. It always meant a Payday candy bar and a Nehi orange soda pop.

From there we had to drive further across the open range and on into the mountains. As the road made its way higher up, its gravel surface gave way to packed dirt and rocks and sometimes a spongy bed of evergreen needles. Inside the tree line, the world changed. The air cooled and the musky odor of sagebrush and cedar was replaced by the pungent smell of Douglas Fir and Lodge Pole Pine. Inside the ancient forest, the world smelled like Christmas.

The road turned from clearly defined to imperceptible. We drove atop the carcass of a nineteenth century logging road left abandoned to the forest. Over time, the mountain had reclaimed what was hers. We now used it by permission on the condition that the location of the beaver pond never be revealed. Carefully, my father would negotiate The Bus along the road at a snail’s pace. I would stick my head out and watch the squirrels race up the trunks of trees as we passed.

Deep in the forest the road ended and there on the banks of the headwaters of Camas Creek, at the top of the beaver pond below the mountain, there grew a tree so old that only the mountain knew its name. This was Big Tree. At the base of the tree, a boulder of white granite rested in the earth. The boulder and the tree were one – a partnership formed in the deep of geologic time. Here, the mountain marked the passing of seasons as only a mountain can: with the patience of stone and stars. Big Tree leaned slightly out over the pond as if sheltering it from the mountain’s rocky gaze. Across the glen, downstream from Big Tree, just before the creek left the valley and cascaded down the rocky slopes to the great plain below, the beavers had built their dam and changed the face of this meadow for all time.

In the pond, a lunker toyed with the bait on my father’s hook. The line tugged again on his meaty finger and suddenly, “Whaap!!” he snapped the pole backward and slightly to the side. The line pulled tight and the tip of the pole bent down toward the water in convulsions. The stillness of the pond was broken by the frantic thrashing of a great trout on the end of my father’s line. The long fly rod he held in his hands threatened to escape his grasp as the trout broke the surface of the water and danced on its tail before plunging down again, pulling the tip of the fly rod with it.

“Ooh, he’s a big one.” He said cautiously so as not to jinx the moment. I had learned from atop my father’s brawny shoulders that fish can hear what you say and the wrong words will set them free.

On the edge of the beaver pond with a trout on the end of his line, my father was at his best. Nowhere else on the planet could you find a happier man. He and the mountain were one.

We never considered ourselves poor, but we were. An overnighter to Big Tree was the closest we ever came to a grand vacation, but it was enough. We had an Army surplus tent that my father would pitch in the clearing by the headwaters and that became our home. We were too poor to own sleeping bags, so the floor of the tent was covered with a great canvas tarp and my mother would lay out handmade quilts for us to sleep in. We seemed to have an endless supply of quilts. At the end of the day, I could wrestle on the quilt covered floor of the tent with my sisters in the flickering light of the campfire.

As soon as we would arrive at Big Tree, my mother would place a watermelon in the creek to chill. Other perishables were similarly stored in the cold headwaters above the pond. No one was allowed to wash their hands upstream from where she had placed the provisions. And under no circumstances was I allowed to bring any frogs into the tent.

The marshy muck, like black fudge, around the beaver pond was alive with frogs and I was more captivated by them than the fish. I could catch frogs. Fish, on the other hand, were always elusive. When my father would tire of me on his shoulders, I would chase around the brushes after the frogs. With nowhere else to store them, they went into my pockets. With my pockets bulging with croaking, squirming frogs, and covered from head to toe in black, tarry mud, I would then go on the hunt for my sisters. I had discovered sometime earlier that frogs, mud and sisters mix with rather humorous results. A frog-wielding mud monster struck terror in their souls.

But that was for later in the day. For now, I watched as my father skillfully reeled in the trout. Again, it erupted from the surface of the water and climbed toward the sky, only to plunge back down into the deep dark water of the pond. It was closer to the edge of the pond now and the critical moment was coming up: that split second between the water and the grassy bank when crafty old fish like this one always got away. My father had said it, and it was law. The distance between the water’s edge and the bank was so thin that you couldn’t even see it, but wedged inside that hairline plane of existence was a world that favored fish and once there they could escape the hook and be gone forever. And they would know if you ever came back to the pond because they had long memories.

Somewhere in the deep dark, nestled against the willow bank, was a monster fish that had thumbed its cold nose at my father for years. Summer after summer they had matched wits and the fish had always won. Only one time had my father ever managed to hook that great beast of all fishes, and when he got it up to the edge of the pond into that netherworld where fish cannot be captured, it got away. And my father had been hunting it ever since. That fish was the oldest fish in the pond, because this had happened back in the olden days before I was born.

Maybe the fish he had hooked now was that great fish of lore. We would soon see.

My father took great care to keep the line tight, pulling back on the rod and reeling in the slack, pulling on the rod and reeling in the slack. Again and again he did this, carefully coaxing the fish toward the shoreline. It was a delicate operation; any wrong move could spell disaster. This trout was huge. Surely, this was the great fish of legend. As he got the fish close enough to the shore so he could clutch the line with his left hand and pull it up, I held my breath. This was the critical moment. The fish was about to cross that line of no return. It would either end up in the pan that night, or it would escape back into the murky water to fight another day.

My father grabbed at the line and quickly twisted his wrist so as to loop the line securely through his fingers. He lifted it up swiftly and pulled the fish toward him. The trout was going wild on the hook, twisting this way and that, making my father’s arm shake. Through the netherworld it came, emerging on our side still hooked securely on the line. Now it flipped and flopped in the grass at my father’s feet, its glazed eyes staring blankly out on a world where it could not survive, its mouth clutching in vain at the warm mountain air.

My father held his fly rod under his right arm to free both hands and grasping the trout with his left, he pried the hook from the fish’s mouth with his right. His fingers were so thick I wondered how he managed to reach into the trout’s mouth and work the hook from its flesh. But he did it with such speed and confidence that within seconds the fish was off the hook and in his wicker creel.

As the fish continued to occasionally rustle inside his creel, he pulled another night crawler from the pouch on his belt and began knitting it on the hook. And with another flick of the rod, the bait was sent flying through the air across the pond. The great dance between man and fish began anew.

My father could stand on the edge of this pond all day until he dropped dead. Other things made him tired, but not this. On Sundays, we would go to church. My mother would make sure I took a bath on Saturday night, and Sunday morning she would dress me in my black pants with a red blazer and a clip on bowtie. She always combed my hair over and flipped it back at the bangs. I always hated that. My father combed his hair straight back across his head. His hair was so luxurious and wavy, it rested naturally thick on his head, not slicked back against the scalp. I would stand in the doorway of my parent’s bedroom and watch as my father tied his tie. I had no idea it was called a Double Windsor, all I knew was that my father knew many, many knots. He was a careful craftsman even with his tie.

At church, my father would always fall asleep with his head buried in one of his huge hands. My mother would nudge him for the passing of the sacrament. This happened so often that my sisters would play a trick on him by waking him before the sacrament just to see him instinctively reach out and grab at empty air as he awoke. When he wasn’t asleep in church, I would make him draw pictures for me or fold paper airplanes with the program we got at the door. Sometimes I would just tug on his huge, sausage-like fingers. They filled my fist like a pistol grip. When I got bored or tired, I would curl up under his arm and sleep. His smell made me feel protected.

In the summertime, the doors of the church were left open so the breezes could waft through the chapel. The sweet smell of honeysuckle and lilac would fill the church, and the organ would be heard for blocks around. Off of the entrance there was a room just for coats. And there was a multi-purpose room next to a kitchen where all the mothers would cook for special events. We had special events often and there was always a lot of food. Someone would always bring a salad made of green, lime Jell-O with shredded carrots in it. I never liked that, and I didn’t know anyone who did, but someone would always bring it anyway.

Whenever we came here to Big Tree my mother would always bring a lot of food but never any green Jell-O with carrots. Instead she would pack potato salad, bread and soda pop, a watermelon and breakfast fixings like pancake mix and bacon and eggs. In the mornings we would all awake to a world that seemed to be blooming from the earth for the first time. Stepping out of the tent first thing in the morning was like walking into a world that was brand new. The mountain air had a fresh, crisp quality to it. The smells of the forest were richly textured and woven into a tapestry of cool dampness. Morning sunlight would dance through the canopy of ancient trees in golden streams that exploded to life in a riot of delicate colors as they fell upon the forest floor. Above us, the crystal blue sky shrouded in a veil of green and gold, sparkled like jewels through the tree tops. The ancient forest was waking up from a long sleep and discovering itself again – older than time itself yet new as the sunrise that morning.

In the mornings my mother would cook breakfast over an open fire. The smell of wood smoke and frying bacon would fill the forest. It mixed in your nostrils with the sharp sting of the pine sap and the clear rush of the headwaters to create a palette of smells unique in all the world. It was as if the forest came to our house for breakfast. In the mornings the beaver pond was covered over with a blanket of white mist. It hung from the tops of the reeds and bushes like angel hair and the dragonflies disappeared and reappeared in and out of it. In the mornings, Big Tree and the boulder met the scowl of the black mountain looming over them. The mountain rose up from the glen and scraped the sky with its jagged, rocky tip. Wedged between the crags high up on the mountain face, perpetual snow clung for its life in streaks and wisps in places where it could hide from the summer sun.

From my vantage point upon my father’s shoulders I could look up at the mountain and wonder what it would be like up there, perched on an outcropping of black rock miles above the world. The eagle could do it with ease and grace.

I watched it soar from high upon the mountain; from a place only eagles can go, swooping down through the black crags wrapped in wispy white, its wings stretched out on the wind. Effortlessly it glided across the sky like a messenger from heaven, defying gravity as if the laws of nature didn’t apply to it. It circled above the tree tops, searching for a place to land, its keen eye surveying the forest below with piercing clarity and surgical precision. It dipped its wing and circled, carving a hole in the sky before diving through it like a fighter jet intent on dealing death. Then, it disappeared behind a curtain of trees.

My father wasn’t watching the eagle. He was still focused on the pond and the crafty lunkers within. The pond was patient and loath to give up her treasures. She acquiesced only grudgingly to my father’s insistence. But he had the patience of the mountain and nothing escaped the iron grip of his will.

Suddenly the silence of my mind was broken by the shrill screeching of sheer terror. My very breath was sucked away and all I could do was drop my fishing pole and pound my fists on my father’s head. My mouth opened, but not a sound came out. I was speechless.

Across the pond, from out of nowhere, there rose above the tops of the brush a great brown head with evil eyes and deadly teeth and it was looking right at me. It was the biggest bear to ever live in the history of the world. The bear’s snout wiggled this way and that, searching the air for signs of food. I was sure we were the food it wanted.

I grabbed at my father’s hair with my right hand and with my left I pointed at the bear across the pond. My mouth finally released the only words it was capable of at the moment: “Daddy, daddy, daddy…!”

My father looked up and, seeing the bear, raised both arms high above his head and yelled at the top of his lungs, “YHAAAAHHH GET OUTTA HERE BEAR YHAAAAHHH!!!” And to my total amazement, at that very moment, the great bear looked at my father with me on his shoulders and his arms raised and dropped back down to all four legs and went lumbering up the mountain from where it had come. We watched it carve a pattern of disrupted underbrush as it made its way up the hill and disappeared into the trees.

It was official: my father was the strongest, bravest man on earth. Without question.

As a child, I never feared my father but I always stood in awe of him. He never struck me or even raised a hand to me. All that was ever needed was that galvanizing stare and a gruff bark – if he was willing to take on a bear, he had nothing to fear from me.

“I wanna go daddy. I wanna go now.” I said, pulling on his ears as if to steer him like a horse. “Okay, okay just a damn minute.” He huffed.

Back at the camp I breathlessly told my mother and sisters of our encounter with the bear. By my reckoning, the bear had come within an arm’s reach of both of us and my father had out growled him. My father’s version was that I screamed and scared all the damn fish away.

Somewhere in between was the truth.

Copyright, Mitchell H. Elder, 2010

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