Fishing For Ghosts

Cal pulled up to the trailhead and was surprised to see no other cars. Not that it mattered. There were several campsites off the main trail as well as the other two which intersected it, and Cal knew every single one of them. So finding a private spot wouldn’t be a problem. 

Still, it was always better when your private spot was the entire side of a mountain.

Cal released the tailgate, reached inside the bed and pulled his backpack to the edge. He tightened the strap on the left to secure an aluminum tube before doing the same thing on the other side to make sure his tent was bound tightly enough. 

Once satisfied it was, he slipped his arms through the shoulder straps one after another, the 35 pounds upon his back in a fraction of a second. With a click, he’d fastened his hip belt; with another, the harness across his chest.

Cal grabbed the stabilizing straps which hung from the main compartment and gave each a firm tug to compress the load before pulling the hip-belt strap to stabilize the base of his pack. He then bounced on the balls of his feet as he twisted his torso to and fro, the pack in perfect harmony with his body. Not even so much as a wiggle.

Cal loved it when the load was cinched down just right. When it was so close, so tight, that it felt like an extension of who he was. Because at that point, he was no longer carrying a pack. 

He was carrying his life. 

The first part of the trail was an old logging road with a gradual incline. It ran alongside a stream that rolled through clusters of boulders which were broken up by plunge pools that Cal studied as he trekked.

The old logging road reminded him of the very first trails his dad had taken him on. When he was little. Six. Five, even. Cal’s dad would let him pick their lunch spot on those day trips and Cal always opted for a boulder in the middle of whatever stream they were on. Away from the rhododendron thickets which lined the rocky banks and blocked whatever sunlight had managed to sneak through the canopy of maples. 

Getting to those sun-soaked stones was Cal’s favorite part of those trips, his small hand enveloped by his dad’s calloused one as they hopscotched across.

“The dry rocks can be slippery, too,” his dad would warn. “It’s best not to trust any of them or you’re liable to get hurt. You hear?”

“Yessir.”

Cal made quick work of the six miles, taking two hours to reach campsite 30, the official terminus of the Little River trail. It featured three separate spots, each with its own food hang. No matter which Cal chose, it was unlikely he’d have any neighbors, especially considering what he’d seen at the trailhead.

But he wanted to be sure. So Cal cut into the maze of pines and yellow birches and hiked up a steep incline for another quarter mile until he came to a small clearing which sat 25 feet above the water. 

Cal smiled at the sight of the fire ring, as well as the log which sat before it. He was responsible for both, one he’d fashioned out of stones from the creek bed, the other, a felled pine he’d dragged from the uphill side all those years ago. The first time he’d ever camped there, in the spring of his senior year.

He’d discovered the spot from the water while fishing up from site 30 on the first overnight trip he’d ever taken by himself. Cal wasn’t sure what his mom would say when he asked her permission, but she didn’t even bat an eye. She knew there was nothing to worry about. His dad had taught him everything you could teach a boy about the mountains.  

But by the time Cal was 12, his dad wasn’t going out as much. And the few times he did, he didn’t want any company. That didn’t stop Cal, though. He used to tag along with the regulars from the fly shop whenever they’d go out. It didn’t take too many trips before they realized that Cal knew as much about hiking, camping and fishing the mountain streams as they did. Maybe even more.

So she wasn’t worried at all. The fact that they’d recently moved didn’t even concern her. Cal had hiked and fished the Park since the very first week they’d come to town. Right after football practice, in the heat of August, off he’d go, armed with his rod, a daypack and the map he constantly carried in his back pocket. The one with all the fluorescent streaks, the freshest denoting whichever trail Cal had chosen to be the next one to explore. And he’d explored just about every single one of them.

Yep. It was fine with her for Cal to camp by himself. More than fine. 

So while his friends cruised the boulevard, Cal combed the Park. And once summer came along, he was just as likely to be sleeping in a tent as he was in his own bed. Right up to the day he left for college.

It felt good to be back.

Cal had camp set up by four which left him a couple of hours to fish before he’d have to start thinking about a fire. He opened the aluminum tube and grabbed the rod sock, then pulled out the dark burgundy blanks and pieced them together. Seven feet, ten inches of graphite, the perfect mountain rod. He turned it around and held it close to his body as he stepped deliberately down the steep bank, the worn cork handle leading the way.

Cal stood on top of a large boulder and looked upstream into a brisk breeze. The water was nowhere near as wide as it was at the trailhead, 25 feet to the far bank at the most. But it was moving much quicker, as one might expect at 3,500 feet, rushing down the valley it carved with a roar that kept Cal company.  

He decided to try his luck with a yellowhammer. Some might have thrown a nymph, but Cal preferred a dry fly any day. With a wet one, an angler was beholden to a strike indicator to notify him when a fish had taken the bait. But that’s the exact sort of thing Cal preferred to see with his own eyes.

On his second throw, Cal landed the fly just upstream of a seam he’d been aiming for about 30 feet away. He mended the line to assure the float was unaffected, and a second or two into it, a fish popped out from behind a rock to take a peek. A moment later, it darted forth to claim its morsel.

And that was the moment Cal had his first catch. A little brook trout, its green-brown body accented with red dots along the flank, its fins and tail the same bright hue, no more than seven inches long. Cal loved the brookies because they were such a rare treat, available only to those who were willing to hike far enough to get them.

A lot of fishermen wouldn’t waste their time that high in the mountains, especially to chase fish that small, which was just fine with Cal. Anybody could float the tail-waters in town and catch a big, fat stocker at any one of the well-known holes. That’s why throngs of folks crowded the river each and every weekend. Cal used to fish those waters, too, and he’d pulled out more hogs than most.

But a 20-inch stocker could never excite him the way that little brookie did. Which is not to say he didn’t like big fish. He loved throwing a clouser and wrestling with a feisty smallmouth. As long as it wasn’t stocked. And as long as it swam in the mountains.

Cal was still thinking about the brookies after dinner when he left his warm spot by the fire to wash his dishes in the stream. Not the ten or so he’d caught and released, but the one that had watched the yellowhammer float right on by six different times. With each cast, Cal was certain it would strike, but it never did. What kept that fish off the same fly the other brookies hit? Cal wondered. Blind luck?

Self-preservation?

Cal returned to the fire and packed his stove, pot, fork and plate into a cinch sack which he rolled up to fit inside his food bag when something caught his eye. Something he hadn’t packed. A cookie wrapped in cellophane with a stickie note on it.

Cal,

I’m so glad you finally went to the Park. I hope you have fun in the woods.

I love you.

Mama

So typical. Always doing something nice for others, yet never wanting anyone to do anything for her. She hadn’t even wanted him to move back home. Not on account of her, at least. But he’d come anyway. She greeted Cal by telling him how mad she was that he’d come against her wishes, but the tears in her eyes suggested otherwise.

“You stubborn fool,” she said as she hugged her only child with all her might.

“I love you, Mama.”

He’d been back a week and not a day had passed without her needling. “You can’t just tend to me all day, every day. You need to do something for yourself. You need to go to the Park is what you need to do.”

But Cal didn’t want to. There was too many other things to do. Like meeting with doctors and discussing the different options, not to mention getting settled.

Which he assumed wouldn’t be a problem. After all, he’d come back to visit several times through the years. But visiting for a few days and moving back home were two different things. And Cal found staying in his old room for such an extended period of time to be a bit unsettling. His mom hadn’t touched it, everything exactly as it was in high school. Comforting in a way, this time capsule was. Yet eerie in another as sharing his old room with the past had stirred a few ghosts. Like the ones trapped inside the shoebox he’d found in his closet.

Cal finished his cookie and tossed the crumbled cellophane into the fire and watched it shrivel, then disintegrate with a hiss as he wondered if his mom had any keepsakes of her own. It was that thought which almost prompted him to pack up and hike out, right then and there, with no more than a headlamp to cut through the dark mountain night.

But it didn’t make sense. She didn’t need protection anymore. She needed care. And his aunt had come in town to provide her with just that. Which is why Cal had finally taken his mom’s advice and gone to the Park. 

By the light of his headlamp, Cal found the perfect tree to hang his food from. An old pine, its lowest limb 20 feet off the ground and perfectly perpendicular to the trunk.

On his way back to the fire, he stopped at another tree – the one he’d buckled his pack around. He opened the main compartment and took out the one thing he wasn’t sure he’d bring. It was a little worse for the wear despite the fact he’d packed it on top so it wouldn’t get crushed.

Not that that would have been the worst thing in the world. 

Cal pulled out his knife and made two passes through the masking tape which had been looped around it, one on either side. The tape was brittle with age, providing little resistance to the serrated steel.

He lifted the top and inside the cardboard box sat the letters he knew were there, one on top of another, each folded in three. He grabbed the oldest from the bottom and unfolded it, the light from his forehead giving another life to the words scribbled in pencil. Words that, according to the first line, had graced the paper since October 16, 1989.

Cal’s eyes remained focused on those words, even as he slowly reclaimed his seat atop the felled pine. Right next to the fire.

And the ghosts.

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About john cave osborne

John Cave Osborne is a writer whose work has appeared on such sites as DisneyBaby, Babble, YahooShine, TLC and the Huffington Post. He was also referenced by Jezebel one time, but he’s pretty sure they were making fun of him. He and his wife, Caroline, live with their five children and spastic dog in Knoxville, TN. Nothing annoys him more than joke-heavy bios written in the third person, with the possible exception of Corey Feldman.

  • Kristin

    Oh…a cliffhanger!  Waited to read this until I had time and no distractions.  Really enjoyed it — brings back all my old memories of hiking, backpacking and camping — and of fishing with my brothers, cousins, and all of my uncles.  You can tell when a writer knows what he’s talking about because he uses the right terminology!

    • john cave osborne

      Kristin, thanks for reading! yes, a cliffhanger in that it’s a small part of an overall story i’m working on. this was essentially a character sketch of the protagonist. i’ve really been focusing on fiction of late. trying to make a concentrated effort to become a decent fiction writer and hopeful to finish the novel about Cal i’m currently working on. i’m so glad you took the time to read and also glad you found it enjoyable *and* authentic. hope your week is off to a good start!