I drove north to my folks’ house last weekend. It’s about a three-hour trip if you stick to the main roads, and about 10 minutes longer if you turn off the blacktop about 5 miles out of town and take the back way home.
I always take the back way. It’s not a shortcut, but it feels like one. There’s a certain spot just a little ways down the dirt road where a small trout stream crosses. Here, a trickling current funnels into one end of a metal culvert and pours out the other, forming a wide, deep pool where my grandfather used to take me and my brothers and sisters fishing.
As soon as I reach it, I feel like I’m home already.
* * * * *
On summer afternoons when we were kids, Gramps would bring one of us to the culvert pool where we’d dunk worms and catch wild brookies. Any ruler would show that these fish rarely topped 8 inches. But whenever any of us kids caught one, Gramps would proclaim it a 9-incher. Truth be told, he proclaimed his own catches 10-inchers–but the fact that our fish benefited even a little from his measuring system was good enough for us.
After my brothers and sisters and I left home, Gramps continued to fish the stream by himself. And whenever I drove to see my folks, I knew that if I took the back way home, I might find him at the culvert pool dunking worms. When I did, I’d stop and visit. I’d ask him how he was making out, and he’d usually point to a pair of 8-inch brookies skewered by the gills onto a forked alder branch.
“Got a couple of 10-inchers,” he’d say.
“I see that,” I’d agree. “Those are nice ones.”
That’s the way it went until he died five years ago.
* * * * *
On this recent trip, as I drove down the gravel road and toward the culvert pool, I was surprised to find my brother P.H. and my nephew Jacob there. They too were up visiting my folks and had taken the afternoon to fish. I stopped and asked them how they were making out. P.H. pointed to an 8-inch brookie on a string.
“Looks like you’ve got a 10-incher there,” I said with a chuckle.
“Nope,” P.H. corrected me. “Only Gramps caught 10-inchers here. That’s a 9-incher.”
“That’s right,” I said, still laughing. “Only Gramps.”
* * * * *
I’m planning another visit to my folks later this summer, and I’ll take the back way home then, too.
I’ll always take the back way. On this route, there’s a stream that feels like home. It threads through my family as surely as it threads through the fields and woodlots of the farming valley where I grew up. The person holding the threads together is still my grandfather. And when I drive by the culvert pool, I still find him there.