Oct. 23, 2009
“Sooner or later you’ve got to let loose of certainty’s hand and leap. Jump. Believe in something, like mountains and mountain streams, trout and mountain people.”
Harry Middleton, 1949-1993
There was something I promised myself I would do, if I could manage it on this trip, soon as I knew we were going.
As most of you know, Harry Middleton was an author whose words touched me like no other. And I promised myself I would try to find Harry, or at least, some memory of him, in the Ozark Mountains of his youth.
Those of you who have read this before, bear with me for the benefit of those who haven’t: Born into a military family and constantly moving, Harry’s life was forever changed one morning in the Pacific, when he was only 12 years old. There he met with tragedy that defined his life.
“When my friend Norwell, who was just thirteen, found a grenade in a clear, cool stream deep in an Okinawan jungle valley, and pulled the pin, my journey began. The long trip home. It continues still,” Harry wrote.
His parents, horrified by the incident, sent Harry to live with his grandfather and old uncle, Emerson and Albert, in the Ozarks on a hardscrabble farm named Trail’s End where they barely eked out a living. They grew enough to sustain themselves and make a little money so that they could then pursue their first love: Trout. The old men soothed much of the pain in the boy, forged within him love for farming, trout fishing on Starlight Creek, and the profound wisdom they had acquired over their lives.
Harry was very private. He changed names, fiddled with geography, muddled events to secure that privacy. The time he spent on Starlight Creek with Emerson and Albert was brief, and actually, there really is no Starlight Creek, no Emerson, no Albert. Not by those names. His family is mute, his publishers and friends silent, respecting his wishes.
But Harry carried within him a black stone, a huge burden of depression that gnawed at him most of his life: Norwell vaporizing into thin air, little pieces of him splattering all over Harry, who was screaming; an overbearing military colonel for a father, his mother later dying of a brain tumor, and the bittersweet memory of the old men and the short time he spent with them and the old Sioux named Elias Wonder. His only peace came from the various powerful medicines he was prescribed…and “moving water, water still marked by wildness, water that is active rather than passive. Wild water scrubs away layers of dead skin, stirs my dreams and the legacy of blood and bone, the legacy of earth and sky, sunlight and wind, water and fire, the rush of the universe, the drift of time.”
Harry died in Alabama in 1993 of a heart attack. He was 43. At the time, he was working on the back of a garbage truck to pay the bills. The Birmingham newspaper’s obituary said he was an author whose work “brought him more fame and friends than fortune.”
Near the end of his life, Harry penned what I think was prophecy:
“Each night as I haul myself onto the back of county garbage truck no. 2, there is a familiar wind, some thread of moonglow or starlight, a splatter of dark rain on my skin, something that stirs my memory, and again, if even for a brief moment, I am on some mountain river, some stretch of bright water, full of possibilities, including the possibility of trout, perhaps one that, when hooked, will haul me in and out of time, in and out of life’s mysterious and frightening, wondrous and incomprehensible continuum, even to the edges of the universe.”
Though Starlight Creek may really be the actual stream that ran through Trail’s End, it may also be parts of other waters Harry visited in his life as well. His rivers of memory. Still, Harry left behind a few clues, intentionally or without realizing, and I thought I might know roughly where Trail’s End and Starlight Creek were, in a five or so mile stretch along a valley floor.
Yeah, I ask myself why, much as you may ask. I don’t know. Tribute, maybe. A quest for something I can’t quite put my finger on but is important to me in a very real way. I really don’t know. Perhaps it’s just the draw to a kindred spirit.
We traveled down to the place some of us believe to be the right area. There is a river access there, and a hiking trail that runs beside a small creek. No, I won’t give any more detail than that, for I respect Harry’s wishes. Only with the unraveler of the knots and weave of Harry’s secret, can the knowledge rest. It can’t be given freely. True wisdom, the Indians say, only comes through pain.
But at the access area, I found only one badly marked trail. I walked it for a half mile, and there was no sign of water. Frustrated, I searched through the woods, looking for an overgrown trail, a marker, anything that might have been forgotten or disused. There was none.
Reluctantly I gave up, and we got back into the car. As we departed, we passed through another parking lot I hadn’t noticed. I was driving, negotiating the winding road left and looking that direction, when Suzie, looking to the right out the window, said, “There it is.” God, there’s one reason I love that woman, for indeed, there it was. Yes, it’s marked. Yes, it’s a public area and visitors go there regularly. We passed a handful on the trail. But I still won’t tell its name.
I was beside myself with delight. I strung up a fly rod – I had to, you know, I just had to – and we entered the trailhead, which quickly narrowed to but a foot-wide path. The ice storms of the last year had toppled trees across it, which we had to climb over.
But I could hear it: Not far. Just off the trail, through dense underbrush. Water, murmuring, mumbling, contemplating itself in the distance.
At last the trail moved closer, and into a clearing and there it was. Can I tell you that a thrill, sadness and joy all swept over me so that my knees nearly bent? Perhaps you’ll understand, perhaps not.
None of us are positive. Harry kept his secrets well. But many of the little nuggets Harry left behind in his words point to this little stream being at least the basis for Starlight Creek. We can’t be sure. Possibly never will be.
We walked down to a gravel bar, and I stood there watching the water. Development upstream, Harry hinted, somewhere near on possibly on Starlight Creek, might have warmed its waters until the trout died. I saw a few rises under an overhang of rock and cast to them. They were likely little bream, and they nibbled at my fly but were too small to take the hook. It didn’t matter. It was what I came here to do. Another mystery, left in the limpid flow.
And there on the bar of rocks, the water rushing past me, I knew. There comes a time, when you just know. Upstream was a long run of slow, deep water and I wished to believe in my heart it was Karen’s Pool, where Emerson and Albert and the crazy Sioux Elias Wonder pursued trout with concocted flies. And a boy of only 12 knew the only happiness of his entire life, who spent an adulthood snarled in the clinical details of chronic depression, soothed only by wild, cold, clear water and the memories of Starlight Creek.
Was Harry there? I would like to think I felt him. Perhaps it’s just because I wanted it so much. Perhaps it’s the sixth sense I tend to have about such things. I imagined myself on the back of county garbage truck No. 2, with the stench of a city in my nostrils, the concrete hurting my feet and the heat blinding me…yet escaping it all in my memories, rivers of memory, back to Starlight Creek with three kindly old men and trout.
But for the grace of the Creator, I could have been Harry. The deep melancholy that burrows within my own heart, and imbeds itself into these words so often, is a kindred spirit we share.
I took a cigar from my vest, bit off
the cap end. I took that end and crumbled it in my hand, sprinkled it into the
creek, watched it flow downstream and away. That was for Elias Wonder, the old
Indian who had been struck by lightning many times in his life and claimed he
was made crazy when exposed to mustard gas in wartime. Elias Wonder, who said
he saw a crow in the middle of a highway in the town nearby. The crow stared at
Wonder, and he revealed to Harry, “Finally I understood it was a messenger.
This is what it told me: ‘There is common ground. There is common ground.’”
The old men were buried together in the same cemetery. The last died about 1967 and Harry took off from school to visit their final resting place:
“How dull the stones looked in the rain against the black-browed hills, the dark sky. Only here in these mountains, here with these old men, amid the creek, the trout, the natural world, had I ever ceased to feel alone…Albert, Emerson, Norwell, Elias Wonder, the wildness of the mountains, all of it was with me, and the weight of it all, my time here, set my course, marked my way. So it was still; so it would always be.”
“Your secret’s safe with me,” I promised Harry in a whisper. We spent a long time there, but then it was time to go, and I was satisfied. Wracked with emotion, to be sure, but fulfilled.
There’s no way to be positive. But if there was one wave of resonance, one particle of air, one droplet of water that were in some miniscule way survivors from when a boy and three old men climbed those peaks and watched trout rise with unending reverence and joy, then perhaps in some small way I have met Harry Middleton after all.
Just a toast to trout men, one and all. There are so few left, so few who believe the earth is enough. – Harry, from The Earth is Enough.