For my aunt Nat: They say that pictures are worth a thousand words. Here you get both: Tyler Lausten’s photos illustrating (almost) a thousand words.
In the mountains of southwestern Colorado, a “lake” mirrors Lake Tahoe as my grandkids cast bobbers and lures and spinners and worms into reservoir waters, over and over again, getting the line out as far as they can and reeling in empty each time.
I think I had an instructor, someone I didn’t know, and it was a fish farm of sorts, with a wooden plank and pine trees all around. Or it was a river with a wooden bridge, the fish swimming in the dark pools beneath.
The Colorado lake is unnatural but the valley it inhabits is one large green rolling meadow that reaches to higher mountains where ponderosa pines grow, aspens higher still, Lone Cone capping the scenery in its 12,618-foot grandeur. Low for a Rocky Mountain high, this westernmost peak of the San Juan range is nevertheless visible from Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, marking us square in the Four Corners.
Lake Tahoe, iconic high Sierra landmark, gathers water from mountains all around and releases some into the Truckee River, which rolls and tumbles east-northeast then calms and disappears into the waters of Pyramid Lake. Lake Tahoe and its river hold images and a chronology of my life.
My grandkids standing at the edge of water stretch their four- and six-year-old arms out toward the ripples again and again. When they are casting well on their own, my sons start fly fishing from opposites ends of the small jut of land like a jetty on which we have made our day camp. I sit back in a canvas chair, rubbernecking as two children, their mother, and two grown sons cast hope over water.
I caught fish—brook trout? Several. I was five or six. The adult instructing me must have freed them from my line, holding mouths wide and pulling the hooks out with pliers. The pines made shadows over the water. It was a stream or pond, not the lake itself. Dark. Something was dark. Shadows of fish, of illness.
It’s a warm, early summer day. My granddaughter spies a mayfly on Tyler’s shorts. He matches it with a fly from his fly box, and my boys start catching fish planted in the reservoir, now rising to the hatch of mayflies. Rainbows, browns, ten inches, fourteen.
I didn’t like eating the fish. A tiny bone stuck in my throat. I didn’t eat fish for forty years. I didn’t fish again.
The grandkids take turns running with the net to either end of our jetty, helping to scoop fish from the water and hold them while hooks are removed. The net becomes the thing. Fishing poles are brought to me to hold, one with line extended, the red-and-white bobber bobbing in the wind waves. Rod and reel. My fingers grip and turn. The line comes in empty. I don’t recast.
I see a reflection of memory on the smooth surface of Lake Tahoe. Fishing wasn’t the thing. It was family. My aunt and her husband and their kids and their teardrop trailer with the wood paneling and cupboard doors that closed and caught so dishes wouldn’t fall out when the trailer was moving. Cubbies and bunks and order inside that teardrop. My mother and her older sister, young women in their twenties with growing families and complicated husbands. It wasn’t even the sixties yet. We stayed in a cabin but I could walk through the woods to the campground space that held the teardrop and smell pine pitch and inside the trailer there was a smell like wood drying in the sunshine. My aunt knew the names of all the pines and firs. So did my mother. They cared about such things, cared enough that they took us to the shores of Lake Tahoe and let our families tangle like fishing line as we swam and fished and walked through the forest to each other.
My sons care about trees and family, family trees. And fishing. Tyler found this lake and told his brother about it and here we are, all of us now running back and forth following the net to Tyler or Ken, whoever has caught something, and we gasp appreciatively as the trout slips away into the shadows of deeper water.
I don’t remember really how old I was, or how many fish I caught, or who cooked them—just the fishbone in my throat. I don’t remember the names of the trees—just the shadows of the forest. I don’t remember how many times we went to Lake Tahoe—once, often? I do remember that teardrop trailer and my aunt in the pine trees, cousins and my little sister in inner tubes in the water.
Then the father of those young-women mothers disappeared into death like a rainbow into the shadows of deeper water. Like the Truckee River into the desert.
Like harsh winds on the lake, changing the texture of our family forever.