The Man and I recently got back from our spring road trip. We had our usual quirky time – we like back roads and waterfalls and dams and fish hatcheries and of course we met enough characters to people a couple of novels (I hope).
When you and the guy walking across the top of the Holston Dam are the only people in a two-mile radius, you tend to get into conversation pretty easily.
This one started with, “That sure is a purty dog.” (Rule #1 for fiction writers: Get a dog, preferably a purty one.)
The guy said he came to the dam every day to meditate and pray. It was easy to stand on the far side of the dam and feel a supreme peace as you looked out at the placid lake caressed by green mountains – as long as you could ignore the massive amounts of rock and blood, sweat and tears that made it all possible.
“My uncle worked on building this here dam.” He pointed to the sloping wall. “Guy’s buried somewhere down in there. Fell in and they tried and tried to get him out.” He shook his head. “Almost lost some other fellers too, trying to pull him out. Back then they just didn’t have the equipment they got now and it was too dangerous. Didn’t make sense to lose a couple more guys to save one already gone.
“So his bones and everything is still right there inside that wall.” He was silent for a few minutes.
“That there lake’s ‘bout 250 feet deep in places – built the dam and the water just kept rising over houses, trees, whatever else was left down there. Water’s cold, too – not much above 32 degrees.”
He pointed to a section of the spillway wall. “A catfish – mebbe 200, 250 pounds got stuck right there in the intake valve back then. They didn’t have no way to deal with something that size, weren’t expecting nothing like that. Mebbe it was more’n 250.” He shook his head again.
“No telling what all’s in that lake.”
He rubbed Polly’s head once more before getting back in his truck. “Purty dog.”
The narrow road curved around to follow the bends of a fast-moving stream. Where they both straightened out a bit, we saw what looked like a series of home-made wooden dams straddling the stream.
We stopped to take a closer look. Below each dam, there was a wooden corral-like box crowded with fish, all trying to swim upstream. We were at a trout farm. We were also trespassing, and when we saw someone staring at us from their front door, it felt like time to move on.
Later we passed the State Fish Hatchery and pulled into the parking lot. It was hot, and the guy who ran the place told me to bring Polly inside the building. “My dogs love it in here,” he said and Polly seemed to as well. It was cool and fresh spring water bubbled through a channel along the floor before flowing into the large concrete fish tanks.
Mark (that’s not his name but he reminded me of a Mark) started talking about what the fish eat and how fast they grow and when and where the fishery staff release them. It was interesting, but once he stuck his hand in his pocket, I forgot everything he’d just said.
He pulled out a round tin.
Oh no he isn’t…
Oh yes he is.
A single well-practiced move and he opened the tin, pulled out an enormous wad of tobacco and crammed it into his cheek. Without pausing in his narrative one tiny bit. He just kept talking, looking like a lopsided Alvin the Chipmunk on steroids.
By now, there were four of us who’d been listening to him but I think we were all wondering the same thing: where’s he gonna spit that stuff out?
Oh no he isn’t…
Oh yes he is.
Mark kept talking and then his mouth did a quick sideways flk-splat into one of the fish tanks. He talked some more and then flk-splat into another fish tank. Then flk-splat into another.
Honestly, in the greater scheme of things by the time those trout make it out to open water and then into the frying pan, their nicotine cravings will be long gone.
Still, later that night in the Copper Kettle Restaurant, I considered the house specialty, pan-fried local Rainbow Trout, only briefly.
“I’ll have the catfish plate.”