Tom wasn’t a Native American. He was a fisherman. A fly fisherman. He’d been born to the children of immigrants, his mother Italian and his father Irish, and he’d grown up near Danbury, Connecticut as the country was being shifted and molded by social unrest. A sandy-haired, all- American kid who’d watched “Father Knows Best” on his folks’ black & white TV was dipped in change and came out smelling of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King and The Beatles. He went to college, missing Vietnam by the skin of his teeth, and then life grabbed him by the short and curlys and he found himself employed, and then not; married, and then not; and time passed, years passed, until he came to realize that the only constant in his life was change.
Change, and fly fishing.
As luck would have it, Tom’s father had been a fly fisherman and he’d started Tom off when he was young, barely nine. And that love for the long rod, which had bitten Tom hard back when he was still a boy, had never, ever gone away.
In fact, while Tom had spent decades watching his friends in their incremental quest for growth and enlightenment, nodding as they stopped getting stoned and started meditating, as they stopped reading Tom Wolfe and started delving into Thomas Merton, he couldn’t help but marvel at the simple, joyful gift his father had given him. For like yoga and Tai Chi, fly fishing is a moving meditation, a way to connect to the intimate dance of life. The arm moves, the rod moves, the line moves and eventually time, that strongest of illusions, gives way and we are left in the moment.
Truly, no greater gift exists.
Tom hadn’t really planned it like this. He didn’t want to do a vision quest, and he certainly didn’t want to do it in Housatonic Meadows State Park. But your heart leads and your mind follows—that’s the way it works. So he set up his circle, ten feet across and marked here and there with river rocks, on the very banks of the Housatonic. Then he sat down with his back against a huge pine, knowing that he was four days and four nights from getting up and walking the quarter mile back to his truck. Four days and four nights in the circle.
What would he learn?
The first morning passed slowly. Seconds were minutes and minutes were hours and Tom’s butt made intimate acquaintance with every stone and root in the circle. He just couldn’t get comfortable, not until he finally decided to sit on a patch of wet moss; a trade that left his jeans damp but well-cushioned. And then, of course, his back started to cramp up.
He was just stretching it out, trying to loosen all those complaining muscles, when he noticed the sound. It was a sip, a sip with just a tiny bit of slurp thrown in for good measure. His eyes jumped to the river’s surface, knowing damn well what was making that noise. A rising trout. But he couldn’t find it, not until his gaze shifted back to the river’s edge just fifteen feet from where he sat.
It was a brown, a nice one, maybe eighteen inches, and it was in water barely deep enough to cover its back. It was picking off sulphurs, eating the emergers but letting the duns float by unmolested, and Tom knew that instead of observing true natural selectiveness, or an act of piscatorial generosity, he was privy to a lesson in the laws of physics. Because they floated completely on the surface in such shallow water, the brown couldn’t see the duns, not in time to eat them. Yet the emergers, still attached to their dangling shucks, were hanging low enough that they were excellent targets. And in addition to providing a lesson on the parameters of a trout’s underwater vision, the whole thing was a microcosm of the first law of nature – conservation of energy. A fish had slipped into the shallows where it could eat its fill without fighting the current or moving more than a couple inches for its dinner—a perfect lesson in sustainable living.
It wasn’t long before a second trout moved in on the bank, and then a third, and Tom, the predator, the angler in him come alive, drank it all in. The third fish was a monster with a kyped jaw and old scars on its back; the faded round wound near its tail from a long-ago encounter with a heron, while the scrapes near its dorsal fin seemed courtesy of an osprey or an eagle. Probably an osprey. Tom couldn’t believe that such a nice fish – twenty two inches if he was an inch—could actually make a living from such tiny insects. Yet there he was, slurping down emergers like they were candy. So Tom watched, completely engrossed, and those trout showed him the truth of how they lived.
He watched those browns for at least an hour and he would have happily watched them for several more if the immediate environment hadn’t changed so dramatically. In retrospect, Tom decided that his biggest mistake had been his absolute focus on the fish, his tunnel vision. For he never even knew the angler with the new vest, new waders and new rod was nearby until all three trout scattered, shooting out wakes like torpedoes as they raced for safety in deeper water.
Of course, the guy with all the new gear was even more oblivious. He missed Tom, sitting there against his pine tree; he missed the trout on the bank, looking, as he was, out toward the middle of the river; in fact he seemed to miss just about everything, ignoring the bugs and the currents and the dozen or so small browns that were rising here and there – ignoring pretty much everything around him so that he could wade out up to his waist and lob his beadheaded stonefly and bright orange strike indicator indiscriminately toward the far bank.
Tom’s initial reaction was predictable. He was pissed. This guy, this ‘Minnie Pearl’ of a fisherman—Tom half expected to see a price tag dangling from the brim of his brand new hat—had charged into Tom’s little world and disrupted everything, spooking the fish and messing up the natural order of things. It was obvious—the man didn’t know how to fish. He didn’t belong there.
Within seconds, though, Tom stepped out of those judgmental shoes and became, once again, a simple observer. What could he learn from this man? What was this experience teaching him?
The answer, surprisingly, was quite a bit.
He noticed that the wake the angler sent out as he waded into the river put down every trout in the area, even the small ones. He learned that a beadheaded stonefly fished beneath a strike indicator was a poor choice during a heavy sulphur hatch. He saw that the angler’s presence changed everything around him—not only had the trout stopped rising, but the birds had stopped singing and the muskrat that had been cruising up and down the far bank had gone into hiding. In short, Tom was graced with a lesson on how not to fish the river under these particular conditions. Hardly earth shattering, but important nonetheless. And when the fellow waded out of the Housatonic and tramped off a half hour later, fishless, Tom’s own studied approach to angling had been confirmed by everything he’d observed.
Confirmed and reinforced.
Later that day, still his first in the circle, Tom heard a voice. It was oh-so-soft, coming from the gathering darkness as the tree frogs began their nightly chorus and the crickets chirped, yet he heard it clearly.
“Son,” it told him, “I’m proud of you.”
“I know, Dad.” he answered back, not bothering to look around for the man who wasn’t there. “I know.”
The next day and the one after passed slowly, leaving little but snapshot moments for Tom’s future reflection.
A kingfisher sitting motionless on a broken branch across the river. A bluejay perched on Tom’s knee when he awoke in the morning. A snapping turtle drifting by, everything but its great gnarled head submerged. Ants, little red ones, carrying a dead moth back to their nest. The almost imperceptible passage of an owl in the gathering dark. The sound of bare feet and native voices across the river. A light seen from the corner of his right eye; gone when he turned to look at it, visible again when it was no longer the focus of his attention. The patter of rain on the water. The feel of the morning sun on his face.
Everything had meaning, everything happened for a reason—nothing in a vision quest is born of coincidence—but he couldn’t have told you much about those meanings or reasons, not right then. Only in the fullness of time would some of those snapshots, just a few, come into focus and divulge their secrets. For that’s the way the quest speaks, in a language that’s whispered and hard to learn.
Half a dozen men fished in front of Tom on the second day, and four more on the third. Not one saw him sitting there against his pine. It was almost as if he didn’t exist, as if the river was such a magnet for their attention that they could barely even glance toward the shore. Only one truly caught Tom’s interest, a young fellow just out of school. His rod was old and his waders were patched, yet he moved like a heron and his cast flowed out with the same rhythm as the river, touching down here and there, probing, inspecting. The trout came to his fly like babes to a mother’s breast and when the young man’s rod bent, it was as if the tune had changed but the dance went on.
And each time the young fellow released a fish, he paused for a second and dropped his head, his lips shaping silent words of thanksgiving.
It was hard for Tom, at that point; damn hard. He wanted to call out to his boy Sean, his son; to share his pride and his love. But the quest is a pact, a serious commitment, and he honored that bond, maintaining his silence and offering his own prayer of thanks that he’d been granted this particular gift; a chance to watch Sean fish through such a unique lens.
Later that night, sometime past midnight but still well before dawn, Tom woke out of a sound sleep. Fear, a primal, irrational terror, gripped his heart and washed through him, filling his mouth with the bitter taste of ice and metal. He wanted to run, to hide, but there was no place to go and he froze like a rabbit as the hawk’s shadow skips across the grass.
“Son of a bitch!” he said to himself before he could stop the words, and the night, dark already, grew darker. He heard footsteps off to his side, each step coming closer, and then somehow the truth of the situation broke through the defensive barriers of his mind and his fear started to subside. His fingers brushed against the silver chain that around his neck and he actually found it within himself to smile.
“You can’t touch me.” Tom told the darkness. “You have no power here.”
Words, or something like words, came back to him. “Oh, but you’re wrong. You’re mine, to do with as I please.”
“Liar,” he answered. “Begone.”
As he said those words, Tom reached inside himself, into his heart, his very soul, groping around and finding just what he was looking for. Love. Love for his son, for his parents, for such a beautiful, magical, wonderful world. He felt that love building, growing warm and bright like a great beacon, and then he sent it out in beams of pure white light into the darkness. His dark visitor screamed once—nails on a blackboard—and then was gone.
Afterwards, as Tom sat alone with his thoughts and the reassuring music of the river, he quieted his mind and asked himself the very same questions he’d been asking for the last three days – what did this mean, what was it teaching him?
When dawn’s first faint light finally breached the night a few hours later, Tom was still awake, puzzling over the last seventy two hours. He took a drink from his water jug and marveled that he wasn’t hungry. He’d gone more than three days without food at that point, but he felt great—strong, vital and alive. It was almost as if he’d sent down roots into the earth and the land itself was offering him nourishment and sustenance.
He eventually stood up and leaned against his pine tree as the dawn grew brighter and a gray mist formed over the river. He looked down at his hands, noticing for just a moment how the years kept adding more and more wrinkles, and then he glanced out over the Housatonic and watched as the tiny droplets of mist swirled and eddied, evidence of unseen air currents. The trees on the far bank began to disappear into the ever-deepening fog and even a few of the midstream boulders became indistinct. Then, before his eyes, the mist began to change, slowly taking form, and Tom could see a man, the outline of a man, casting a fly rod. He was short and slight, and he threw gorgeous loops from what seemed to be fine old bamboo.
This man of the mist kept casting and casting, his rod and line a symphony, poetry. Sometimes Tom could see him clearly, as if he were truly flesh and blood, only to lose him when the air currents shifted, obscuring him for a time. Yet eventually the ethereal curtain would part again and he’d be there; casting, always casting. Tom watched, enthralled, as the rhythm of those perfect casts drew him in, pulling him further and further into the moment, into a dance so intimate that it became a part of him and he a part of it; his consciousness flowing in and out with the line, in and out with each breath. Time lost all its meaning and something Tom had never known, never thought to experience—rapture—touched his heart, filling him with a joy beyond measure.
This incredible experience went on and on, pure and all-encompassing, until the sun’s first rays finally broke through the trees on the eastern hills and pierced the mist, turning it golden. At that very moment, now illuminated by the newly risen sun, the man within the mist stopped casting, turned to Tom and smiled—his features so like Tom’s, his eyes filled with the very same love and pride. Then he was was gone, fading into the glowing mist, and Tom was left with the sounds of the river and the warmth of the sun on his face.
It’s funny, but try as he might, Tom could never remember anything else about the rest of that day, or of the night that followed. It was as if his experience had ushered him through a great veil to what the mystics call “The Cloud of Unknowing”—a place so real that memories of it simply can’t exist. He eventually woke to the dawn of the following day, the sounds of the river soft and reassuring, the grandfather pine at his back grown nearly as comfortable as his living room couch.
He sat there, not really thinking, not really doing anything at all, letting the minutes come and go of their own accord. As the new dawn broke, though, he noticed that he was holding something in his right hand. He thought it must be a pebble or a piece of wood—really, what else could it be? Yet when he opened his fingers he found, amazingly, a fly; a perfect size sixteen Light Cahill. One of his father’s favorites.
He stared at it for a while, overwhelmed less by the miracles of the last four days than by the fact that he’d been deemed worthy of such gifts. Tears touched his cheeks, and he thought back to all the times he watched those graceful, effortless casts as a boy. Finally, knowing that the Quest was over and that he needed to head out, he stood up, grabbed his water jug and walked back to his truck.
Todd Tanner is a longtime outdoor writer, a former fly fishing guide, and the head of the new School of Trout.