I pulled up to one of the only sections of river that wasn’t imminently raging from the evening’s water release or still high from the morning’s power generation. The sun was sinking flatly, casting long, wintry shadows on the gravel parking area and leaves that coat the forest floor. Hank began nosing through the leaves, scurrying anxiously and enjoying freedom from the hours spent driving across northern Arkansas through the Ozarks riding shotgun in a seat he’s an inch or two too big for.
A fisherman emerged from the woods and greeted us, “Does he go fishing with you?”
“He goes everywhere with me,” I replied. To be fair, I actually hadn’t been fishing with Hank yet.
We struck up a conversation; his name was Jack and he had flown down to Arkansas from New Hampshire to experience a few of the state’s famed rivers while his house was buried under fifteen inches of Nor’ Easter snow. We discussed water release schedules and my past experiences fishing the Little Red.
It was a brisk Wednesday afternoon and the surrounding area was sleepy. I told Jack that I’d see him on the water in the morning since there were so few folks up there and our options were limited with all of the wintry power generation flow coming out of the dam.
I returned to Pizza Pie-Zazz and spent a memorably cozy morning with Hank at my relatives’ cabin, where I wrote my last dispatch. I had no idea what was to come.
We pulled into the parking area for the spot I wanted to fish. I saw Jack’s rental van and knew I’d made the right choice. Soon after I began rigging up my rod and stepping one foot into my waders, Jack emerged and told us the water was already rising. I studied the river map and offered up that I was heading downstream.
“Mind if I follow you there?”
“Of course! Let’s go!”
“Ok, just know I drive slow.”
We wound along the county road through the woods, following the river’s bends and property lines wherever they led. Hank was a natural, riding shotgun with the patient anticipation of a lifelong fishing partner. This time, we unloaded and he acted with the prescience of a dog who’s been on dozens of fishing trips, smelling everything within a reasonable radius, greeting Jack enthusiastically, and always returning to sit beside me.
We headed down to the water and I hiked upstream to leave Jack the easier water to wade and access. Hank plodded through the water, recoiling every time it touched his belly and quickly mastering the acrobatics necessary to hug the shoreline amid fallen logs and gnarled roots. I hooked a nice rainbow trout that broke the convivial silence of two fishermen. At the boat ramp, a man had been dutifully unloading his river boat and watched with keen interest as I netted the fish.
He returned his truck to the parking lot and sat in his boat rigging up fly rods and checking his phone. Eventually he looked in our direction.
“Hey! My buddy just told me he can’t make it today. Ya’ll want to hop in the boat?”
Jack and I offered an immediate and unanimous yes, and Hank quickly followed suit.
Suddenly we were in the boat and whisking upriver. Hank huddled behind me and shivered, his wet fur and the strong wind of forward progress combining to chill him even more than the morning air and wading up to my waist had done to me.
I sat in the rear-facing bow seat, which was disorienting as we covered more water in a matter of minutes than I’d seen in my several visits to the river by foot. Once we reached our first fishing spot, our captain introduced himself as Aaron, a firefighter based in North Little Rock. He made it clear he wasn’t worried about wetting his own line, instead he wanted to treat us to a different experience on the water. And, of course, Hank stole both of the frigid fishermen’s hearts and warmed our conversation as the minutes passed. In between immediate comfort and honesty was the beautiful shared silence that fishermen are so fluent in. We worked our flies off opposite ends of the boat as Aaron deftly maneuvered using only an emergency paddle—he hadn’t decided to fork out for a nice set of rowing oars and instead was planning to craft his own in his woodshop—and the synchronized teamwork of our rig produced trout almost immediately. Hank settled into casual comfort that belied the fact that this was, in fact, his first rodeo. Jack netted his first ever brown trout, and we passed a solid five hours moving from spot to spot as the water rose and our familiarity did, too. This was the perfect icing on the cake of my blitz up to Arkansas last week. And now I have the phone number of an eager fishing buddy who hits the Little Red often and that of a soon-to-be-retired Northeasterner with a few rental cabins scattered across New Hampshire and Maine and an open invitation to visit him for skiing or fishing.
* * *
That extended boat ride meant that I didn’t roll into Little Rock until nearly 5 PM, where I promptly found a cozy coffee shop and downed a cortado and a scone to fuel up for the long drive ahead. Hank and I strolled the well-worn street and enjoyed conversation with a few locals before jumping back in the car to while away the miles towards Texas.
As the lights of Texarkana began to glow ahead of us, my phone rang. I answered and was greeted with the affable gruffness of a speaker who said, “Hey, John, don’t rack your brain too hard, you have no idea who I am.” I liked him at once.
Turns out, he found my website via my sporadic posting on the Porsche forums and he’d been following my increasingly less car-related musings ever since. We had a great conversation which ended with my (utterly sincere) promise to visit him in Minnesota once the weather warms up a bit. I included my phone number in that day’s post for precisely this reason. It’s impossible to explain how heartwarming it is to launch right into the good stuff with a complete stranger via Bluetooth while Hank sleeps shotgun and I-30 slows down around the state line. From the particularities of whiplash to shared observations of the country’s great sights to that more unspoken understanding that we shared by virtue of being on the phone with each other, the chat was the type of moment that can sustain a life through extended periods of drudgery. So, hello out there!
* * *
And lastly, last weekend in South Carolina, we found ourselves in a lovely coffee shop in Mount Pleasant (quite the fitting name) fueling up before our last day on the water chasing moontails. In the middle of our burritos and cappuccinos, I answered the phone and our guide informed us that there was a surprise small craft advisory and hitting the water would be unsettling and futile in combination with the mercurial tides of that weekend’s semi-super moon. We quickly found a nearby National Forest and hit the trails for a hike, only to realize that a planning error had scheduled our flight home for mid-day on Monday, not Sunday. We managed to correct it fairly painlessly and get a night flight, but in a matter of an hour we’d lost out on our scheduling and the prospect of netting more redfish. Still, the seven mile hike through Carolina pines and palmettos was the perfect combination of Thoreau and Buffett, even if it led to fierce tick bite that I didn’t discover until I was in the bathroom at 35,000 feet that evening. We soaked in the blue skies and sandy single track before heading back towards Charleston to find some lunch.
As we approached the bridge, traffic slowed to an absolute standstill. Even in my erratic-processing-speed fugue state, the conversation and granola bars were flowing freely and the sight of the Bay made it all somehow far more pleasant than the average traffic jam. Once Waze confirmed the backup was due to an accident, we managed to bite our tongues and fully embrace the slowdown. The area and road users were so consummately pleasant and we were so ahead of schedule thanks to the planning error that there was no stress. At one point, when cars were shifting their PRNDLs into Park, I craned my head out of the rear window to inspect Fort Sumter and the growing windswell and the sailboats capitalizing on that same weather that ruined our fishing.
Some moments later, a woman appeared beside our rental Nissan Altima (the same model, though in much better condition, as the car that hit me last year) and asked quite plainly, “Excuse me, do you guys have any hugs to spare?”
“Yeah we do!” I answered instinctively. I’d been fairly checked out, letting my mind wander to escape the headache that was chasing my consciousness around the passages of my brain, but somehow it snapped to attention. I opened the door and gave her a hug on the Southbound platform of the Arthur Ravenel Junior Bridge (curiously, the bridge’s bike and pedestrian lane is named Wonders’ Way for Garrett Wonders, a US Navy member who was bound for the 2004 Olympics in cycling but was killed in a vehicle-on-bike crash prior to the games). A few cars honked in hilarious celebration. It was a fleeting moment that lasted well under a minute, but provided the same sort of outsized and long-lasting psychic relief as buying police officers burritos because you feel like it or quitting your job or telling a stranger that you like their shoes or the way they laugh.
Such everyday miracles are amply possible, and so long as we look for them, traffic jams and waylaid plans might always hold an encouraging glimmer of what life has to offer.