Adventures in Traveling With My Father

Hills hung in the sky like Blimps

Every year as a boy, my father would take me on a fishing trip to the Big Sky country of Montana. I still vividly remember the long hours spent driving across Utah, where the vast, flat expanses of barren white salt desert reflected the sky so perfectly that you could not find the horizon. The salt encrusted sands looked like snow, but the heat blasted through the open windows and dried our sweat almost faster than we could produce it. As we hurtled through the strange land where mountains seemed to hang suspended like blimps in the sky, we would talk for hours.

Father, sitting by the river

He delighted in exploring how I saw the world and would often start our conversations with the statement, “A penny for your thoughts.” Even then I loved to bargain, or maybe it was because of then that I love to bargain now… “A penny?” I would say. “That’s not nearly enough!” and we would kick it back and forth until a fair price was reached. If I was thinking about school, or siblings, or television, then we could settle on a quarter, but if I had thoughts on God, or philosophy, or whatever my 9 year old mind took as the meaning of life, I could squeeze a full dollar out of him.

Father would talk about history and whatever book he might be working on at the time, he would recite poems that he particularly liked, or sometimes we discussed the politics of the day. One time, when I was older and we were traveling together we stayed in an old rustic cabin in the mountains, I awoke in the middle of the night to find him silhouetted in the moonlight, sitting straight up in bed and breathing heavily, as if there had been an intruder.

Father fishing

I asked him what was wrong, and he replied, “I have an idea for a book that will tie together the entire history of America. If I die, the history of this country dies with me.” That was, of course the night he began to write what would become the opus of his literary career, at first the 2 volumes regarding the American Revolution, titled, A New Age Now Begins and that eventually grew to a massive 8 volume series that encompassed the historical narrative of America from 1776 to 1989.

On these trips, he spent hours teaching me how to fly fish and lay out a long roll of line so that the tiny feathered hook would drop just exactly where I wanted it to. Although trout are best fried in a skillet with butter and crushed cornflakes, he also taught me to build a fire on the bank of the river and set a pot to boiling. Then we would each don our chest high waders and forge out into the river casting our fragile lines into sweet quiet spots along the banks or the safe gentle eddy behind a jutting rock.

The first one to land a trout would stick his fishing rod into his waders like a slender flagpole and start towards the fire burning on the bank. As he walked, the lucky fisherman would take out his knife, gut and clean the fish, washing it in the running water and trying only to handle it by its gills. As he arrived at the shore, he would drop the fish straight into the boiling water for just a minute or so, then from the front pocket of the waders, he would take a slice of lemon and a little shaker of salt, season the trout to his taste and eat it right there with the sound of running water and the smell of camp fire smoke.

Fly fishing is a strange sport and is much more about the moment of connection between the fisherman and the river than it is about catching fish. Really, I was much more interested in being with my father than I was about fishing. Sometimes, as is the tradition between pairs of fly fishermen, one of us would choose to go upstream, and one would choose to go downstream, so as not to crowd each other or spoil the best holes by too many people crashing around in the water.

I would often go around the corner, wade to shore and sit on the bank reading a book. It was not that I did not love fishing, it was just that it was unimportant in comparison to being near my father. We caught enough to eat well and bring a few home and released the rest.

He also taught me to wrap a trout in tin foil, season it liberally, and put it on the exhaust manifold of the car as we traveled so that after a few miles, we would have a hot savory meal. One time, he half opened a can of baked beans, and jammed it into a crevice to cook as we rolled along, but the can came loose and fell over. The baked beans ran all down over the manifold and burned and smoked something fierce. It was, always an adventure.

Walking by the river

As a historian, an author, the Provost of a college, and a professor, my father was a dignified and clean shaven man. Once a year, on those long fishing trips to Ennis Montana and the Madison river, miles from the nearest road he would let his beard grow out, which it did in a bristly and quite undignified way. The first time I saw him do this, it was black, or close to it, but then one year, it had a few snow white hairs in it, and then every year thereafter there was more white and less black. Until then, as far as I knew, he had been immortal.

When I was 9 or 10, my father asked me one day if I wanted to go stay in a hotel for a couple of days, kind of a father, son adventure, right out of the blue. He said we would just drop everything and find a hotel with a pool so we could swim together, maybe go out to a movie… Just us.

We packed our bags and found a place down near the center of town on Ocean Street. I’m sure it was nothing special, but it had a pool and there were other kids to play with and the beds seemed so clean and stiff and neat. I remember it all. The bumpy patterned texture of the bedspread, the squat glasses all wrapped in crinkly paper, how bouncy the mattress was, the strong smell of chlorine in the pool… And of course my father, treating me like an equal, building memories for me. I was so proud to be with him, off on an adventure where just being there was the best thing I could have. It wasn’t even far away, really just a few miles, but it felt like a different country.

It just happened that once. I mean, we went fishing every year and braved the gigantic mosquitoes of Montana, traveled together and talked together so many times, but we never did that spur of the moment thing again, where we just took off on a short little vacation. I begged him for years… “Dad, lets go get a hotel in town for a day! Lets go to a place with a pool! Lets just run off and be father and son together!”

I want to say that not once… Did I ever see my parents fight. Not once did I ever hear them yell at each other, or call each other names. To say that they adored each other is to say that the earth moves or the sun sets.

Writing with his chickens

It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I found out that my parents had been fighting about something that day and my mother, God bless her, had kicked my father out of the house. I never found out why, they were both such strong, independent people, but whatever it was… I still think staying in a hotel with a swimming pool is just the coolest thing.

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