Here in the hotel room, I watch my 8-year-old eat cold pizza – a breakfast recently noted as healthier than cereal. Over her shoulder, the Salmon River country looms snow riddled and patchy, cold but warming. A local painting of a mountain I should know the name of hangs in an aged gold frame over her bed. To my left my middle and eldest daughters, identical in their half-cradled sleep posture, utterly unique in their spirit and personality, still slumber. SpongeBob SquarePants chitters on the TV. And I try to turn myself into a sponge, soaking up this wonderful moment.
This morning I went across the street and ordered coffee from a place called Paradise Brews. Walking back, the sidewalks refreshingly barren on an early Saturday morning, I find this name apt. This is my paradise, the rolling hills and mountains surrounding a town that still maintains a ranching-community-first bravado. Other towns have crumbled to the hordes of the masses, celebrities and startups flocking banks whose bootprints have barely been washed over before dozens more smash over the top of them. I’m reading of one of those places this morning in Livingston, Montana. My word father, Jim Harrison, fishes with Chris Dombrowski on the Yellowstone and I wish like hell I was as talented or known or established as either of these men. I am here instead. Thank god.
The women of my life would say I’m being too hard on myself, that I’ve had articles published, that I’ve finished several manuscripts. I would respond with the usual: that none of my manuscripts have been picked up, that I don’t have an agent, and that any jackass with a thumb and a dictionary.com app can publish. Social media, Amazon, and standardless blogs have ensured that much at least. As usual, the truth is somewhere between. Still, I don’t feel accomplishment-barren, sitting here watching my angels sleep. I have spent most of my life balancing the responsibility of their conception with the realization and subsequent chase of my vocation. This has proven difficult, if not meaningful. I’ve done the best I can, I think, and I’m ok with the results, whatever they turn out to be. Perhaps I will never know the comfort of publication. Maybe some famous fly-fishing guide poet will never write a eulogy about me in Outside magazine, and perhaps no Hollywood starlet will be able to tell her closest friends the intimate details of my God-given abilities. And maybe that won’t turn out to be the worst thing in the world. After all, there are still trout to catch, regardless of whether or not the hand that casts to them is well-known. The 20-inch brown trout Jim caught on a streamer in the article I’m reading didn’t know it was the author of Legends of the Fall that caught it. It only knew a hunger, and subsequently, only knew a pain. This is the ethos of a writer. Therefore, I am one too.
Yesterday I played guide, this time without pay, doing my best to get rainbow trout to secure themselves to the end of my children’s fishing line. I had three fly rods and one push-button model. I had intended to maintain a purest mentorship, hoping the lack of options would force them to pick up the art I love so much. It resulted instead, in all of them fighting over the Wal-Mart special. My middle-child caught two fish in the first thirty minutes. The other two stayed at it, particularly my youngest daughter, but eventually all relented to playing grab-ass on the bank, their hoots and howlers no doubt frowned upon by the lawn chair anglers watching their bobbers predicate the mysteries of underwater worm and hook angling.
I had spent the first two hours casting for each daughter, untangling lines, and tying flies. It was only after they quit that I was able to fish myself. I struggled too but eventually found the right midge pattern to entice several takes. I don’t think I have the capacity to ever tire of stillwater fly-fishing. It may be number one on my fishing list. There is a certain tranquility that comes with the smooth glass tops, as though a certain peace can be found no matter what’s going on beneath the surface. Of course, this theory was immediately challenged by hard winds and rippled waves. The water flittered with echo reprints of the sign language of the whisper gods. My girls would pick up a cast here and there, then dip the net in the water or search the escape routes of our surroundings. They giggled like chipmunk drunkards against the barren cliff country so ascribable to this region. My mind went again to authors and fishermen, and I wondered if they ever doubted themselves in either pursuit. I know the answer is yes, and yet I continue fishing for answers.
My youngest kicks her legs in the air, watching the tv. She’s blonde, beautiful and innocent. A droopy, half-eaten piece of cheese pizza loops in front of her like a big melting spoon, and her mouth wrestles the attention necessary to secure it from the blaring remarks of a talking yellow square. I realize that to her, there is no struggle of meaning over the course of a life. At least not yet. She doesn’t care if I’m published or not, couldn’t care less if my name ever dons the back of a book cover. Even if it did, the short bio found underneath my no-doubt absurd profile picture would fail monumentally to encompass anything close to the relationship I have with her. That is only accomplished here. Now. This room a dank and pitiful retreat unless you’re a fisherman or a human being who lets go the preposterous leg trap of luxury. What is it, after all, that I’m seeking? Praise? Admiration? Respect? I have it here. In cheesy spades.
Returning to the article, the guide and author trade quotes from ancient and looming literary giants. I’m skeptical of the error-free rapport, but I do know Jim Harrison was a man of prophetic talent. No doubt the guide is as well. This serves as yet another ridicule stick I beat myself with. Why can’t I spout Shakespearean quotes against the backdrop of the Yellowstone as I cast also effortlessly to giant, five-pound brown trout? Why can’t I share a lunch with parcels amassed with gifts from famous New York chefs and eclectic millionaire hermit novelists? Instead, I have cartoons. Instead, I have takeout.
And then my daughter looks at me with eyes that evaporate the insecurities of my dreams and vain ambitions. In them is the purest green. The kind that does not depend on IRS zeroes or critical assessment. I am living my dream. I’m in it. Right now. It’s specific and unique to me, as a breathing snowflake that melts only into the fabric of a single subconsciousness. I’ll use it to draw future breaths, as a swimmer uses the practice of his past to propel himself forward. These children are unique also onto themselves, but they are connected with the fiber of my own soul. This is the true legacy. They are me, and they are also something entirely different. They will build their own dreams while also giving life to mine. They don’t even have to do anything but be themselves. And by being themselves they make me feel better about being me. About who I am. Father first. Fisherman always. Author maybe.