The one that got away 

Fly fishing, family and that book

In the early fall of 1999, when I was 12, my dad picked me up from school on a Friday afternoon. Hurricane Floyd was still spinning itself dry somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean and had left a high-pressure system of brilliantly clear skies and autumn air in its wake—which was good, because we had plans.

We were headed to the Adirondacks, to Old Forge, N.Y., to the South Branch of the Moose River. My dad had learned to fly fish there 40 years before. We—my dad, mom and I—returned every August, but this trip with my dad was different: It wasn't August, and it was the first of many trips without my mom. A fishing trip. It was also the first time I read A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean's autobiographical novella about fly fishing and family.

The story, published in 1976, is about Maclean's family during the summer of 1937, his last summer fishing with his younger brother, Paul. It all takes place before, during or after a fishing trip, and Norman's prose on the subject is treasured by fly fishermen: "Poets talk about spots of time," he writes, "but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment." And, "Something within the fisherman tries to make fishing into a world perfect and apart. ... Many of us probably would be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect." Over three nights and days in the Adirondacks, I finished the story. It was the first time I'd ever heard of Missoula or the Blackfoot River or read sentences I knew were beautiful and true and weren't for 12-year-olds. It was the first time I'd felt romantic. In high school, I read the story again and again. By junior year, I'd decided I wanted to be a fishing guide and that someday I'd like to write about fishing, like Norman Maclean. When it came time for college, I applied to only one school.

I've been guiding fishing trips in western Montana for a few years now, and of my prowess I can only say that I am busier and better than when I started. I row people down the Blackfoot often, through the canyon Norman and Paul fished in the summer of 1937. Usually my guests ask about the story, and if they don't, and especially if we aren't catching anything, I tell them about it. I tell them about the Presbyterian church where Maclean's father was a pastor and which still stands on Sixth Street. I tell them that once I got my hair cut by a guy who never flips his "Closed" sign and who claimed to have cut Maclean's hair. I tell them what they already knew or had at least hoped when they planned their vacation: that A River is a strand in Missoula's cultural DNA. That the plaque memorializing Maclean in front of the First Presbyterian Church was not just put up by people who know the book, but by people who knew the Macleans. What I don't tell them is that I haven't read the story in years.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY KOU MOUA

The first time I became aware of just how removed I'd become from A River, I was back east, at a college lacrosse game, watching a childhood friend play. This was in Massachusetts, where lacrosse is a thing, and I sat in the stands with my mom and my friend's family. My friend's grandfather, Dick, is the sort of blue-blooded, bullish WASP who believes playing lacrosse and going to Harvard are elemental. He crawled over a few rows of stands to give my mom a physically robust but emotionally flaccid hug and said, "How are you, Mo?" He was trying to sound sincere, because he knew that my mom knew that he knew her health was bad. Then he shook my hand vigorously, and said my name, "Jamie," like I'd gone 21 years without one and he had just solved the problem.

"How is it out there in ... Wyoming? Just like A River Runs Through It?"

I wanted to cold cock him and make him bleed on his polo.

After the game, on the way back to my parents' house, I bludgeoned the subject with my mom. She agreed that Dick could be condescending, but she submitted that maybe he didn't mean anything by the comment. Still, I stewed. He'd invaded something I'd once held sacred, something he surely didn't understand.

I didn't either.

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I basically grew up an only child. Occasionally one of my half-sisters would come and stay for a while, and my cousin lived in the guest room for a bit, but our nucleus was made of three, though we never acted that way. My relationship with both my parents was good but separate. We never ate meals or saw movies together. It was rare for the three of us to ride in a car together. Even on those family vacations to the Adirondacks, my time was mostly divided between fishing with my dad and trips into town or to the beach with my mom. This isn't evidence of a tortured childhood. If anything, I was privileged, lucky for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is that I felt loved and safe. But it was always my dad over here, my mom over there.

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