For many years I would take a few days out of each summer to spend some time with my brother Tim, fishing down in the Ozarks. The drive was quite lengthy, from Ohio, Michigan and the Chicago area, but well worth it knowing what awaited me on the other end of my journey. I used to do a lot of fishing, but circumstances in life and the geographic region were instrumental in me doing less and less over the years. My trip back “home” was the one time I could rewind my clock and it served almost as a “fix” would for a drug addict. Making the trip alone allowed me to act, shall we say, less than proper; letting my hair down being a good description.
After loading up my car with all the fishing equipment and luggage (I pack light for these trips, only needing a few pair of shorts and t-shirts, and the much-needed wading shoes), as well as enough music cd’s that I could drive to Alaska and back and not listen to them all, I headed west and south. When the family was along for the ride, the music had to be muted if on at all, but on these trips by myself, it was time to crank up the volume. A freezer bag full of cigars was necessary and added to the primitive, caveman theme; perfect for sitting around a campfire. No shaving, no worry about the hair under my baseball cap, no worry about having to look like a professional businessman; I was free in a sense. I could hardly wait to get back to the hills.
When I finally saw the Arch in St. Louis, my heart began to pound with excitement. Once across the Mississippi I was tempted to stop the car and get out and kiss the ground, but I kept driving, stopping only for potty breaks and a quick bite at a Sonic (we didn’t have Sonics up north and a foot long cheese coney, onion rings and extra-large cherry limeade were just what I had dreamed of for an entire year).
Once outside of St. Louis the terrain began to change as I drove down I-44; destination Rolla. The Ozark hills are beautiful as you pass Eureka and Six Flags and the scenery made it hard for me to concentrate ( all I needed were more distractions while driving). As I glanced in the rearview mirror I noticed a grin frozen on my face; it was there from the time I pulled out of the driveway. As I drove and listened to my favorite tunes, I continued to look to my right and to my left, imagining myself in the woods, exploring the hills and valleys that always beckon me. I thought of wading in the cool, clear Big Piney river, catching fish after fish; enjoying the sights, sounds and serenity.
Nearing Rolla, I exited the interstate and started south on highway 63. Although Rolla is a college town, it has a small town feel and is nothing at all like St. Louis, just 100 miles north. I stopped at the local Wal-Mart to purchase my out-of-state fishing license and a few more fishing lures and continued on my journey. Once outside of Rolla, there were only pine trees, oaks and the occasional meadow with a few Angus cows grazing in the summer sun. I was in a sensory overload and with the music mixed in I could have floated away and never come back. It was beautiful. Every time I came upon a stream, I slowed the car and peered down into the river to see if it looked “fishy”; my mouth watering in anticipation.
The plan was for Tim and I to meet after he got out of school (he teaches at the middle school in Cabool), but because of my impatience and excitement, I was on schedule to arrive two hours early. As I drove out of Houston and the remaining sixteen miles to my destination, an idea popped into my head. Why not stop along the way and fish the river for a couple of hours? I was so excited that I couldn’t wait for my brother. Besides, if I caught a bunch of fish or maybe a big one, it would put me one up on Tim (we always competed with each other when we fished, either who caught the most fish or who caught the biggest; I always kept score).
There was a dirt road about halfway between the two towns and I remembered that we had fished above the low water bridge in the past, having a lot of success catching smallmouth and goggle eye. Arriving at the river I parked alongside the dirt road, changed into my wading apparel and grabbed my gear, quickly heading to the water (I was casting before I even reached the water’s edge; excited does not describe how I was feeling). With cigar in mouth, mini-tackle box attached to one belt loop and a stringer attached to another, I was all set.
I waded upstream, fishing both sides of the river; catching fish all along the way. The water was chest deep at the deepest point and waist deep for most of the entire hole. It took me about forty-five minutes to an hour to fish the hole and I caught a number of fish; the smallmouth putting up a great fight, even at only twelve inches in length. Once I came to the end of the hole and a set of rapids, I had a decision to make; do I go on to the next hole, or turn around and head back to the car? Because of time, I decided to turn around and head back down stream.
I fished the entire way back to the low water bridge, catching more and more fish along the way. I was thinking of how I would be able to brag to Tim about how many fish I had caught while he was stuck in the classroom. As I got to the low water bridge, I removed my wading shoes (old tennis shoes normally used for mowing the lawn) and banged them together, removing all of the gravel and rocks collected from the bottom of the river. It was hot as I removed my semi-wet t-shirt and as I approached the car I began digging in my pockets for my car keys.
Standing in the middle of the dirt road, I suddenly realized that I didn’t have my keys. Where had I lost them? Could they have floated out of my pocket while I waded the river? I couldn’t believe what was happening. A moment before I was basking in the glory of bragging rights on catching the most fish, and now I wasn’t sure how I was going to get to Tim’s, let alone home. No cell phones, no houses along the way. No one knew that I had turned off the highway and was deep down a country road. Who could I call? What was I going to do? I was desperate and embarrassed at the same time.
After unsuccessfully digging into all my pockets and looking in the car window to see if the key was on the seat or in the ignition, I was feeling downtrodden and defeated. Walking to Cabool didn’t seem like an option and I hadn’t seen another vehicle for over an hour. As I stepped around to the back of the car, pacing back and forth, trying to figure out what I was going to do, I saw it. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the key, sticking out of the trunk. It was right where I had left it; in all my excitement to get in the water and start fishing I had left the key in the trunk! I began laughing out loud. I called myself all sorts of derogatory names; “you idiot” being the most repeated. I was so relieved that my mood immediately returned to the euphoric state that I had felt on the trip down and while in the water fishing. Onward to Tim’s.
As I drove the remaining few miles to Cabool, I vowed not to tell anyone about my misfortune, but knew in my heart that I couldn’t keep it a secret for long. After telling Tim and Sherri the funny story and taking the good-natured teasing that I knew would come with it, I finished the conversation by asking Tim, “I caught twelve fish today. How many did you catch?”