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September 9, 2006

The Long Road to Breckenridge

Middle Tennessee

Middle Tennessee is a land of gently rolling fields, idyllic pasture land, and turf farms, designed by the hand of God. Spring fed creeks wend their way down into the Duck River, parsing the land into discrete sections. Pecan groves and limestone walls sequester fading antebellum plantations. Gaited horses plod behind stark white wooden fences that line the pastures.

On the timeless Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee, you can almost hear the fading echoes of the last shots of the Civil War. Everywhere, signs decry a war valiantly fought, but grievously lost. Here fought the Army of Tennessee. Here lie the fallen heroes of the Tullahoma Campaign. Here lie the brave men that fought and died at Stone's River with General Breckinridge. As the sun sets on a still summer day, and the wind crawls through the dead fields of corn, you can almost hear the echoes of the last fading call to arms. Almost smell the gunpowder from that last desperate volley against the northern aggressors.

The Civil War is on everyone's lips here, carved into the collective conscience like a slow motion train wreck. Over shots of George Dickel, the locals talk about the campaigns in the Civil War as though they were fought yesterday. As though, through careful study, the outcome might be circumvented. Each campaign is discussed and debated, at length. If only his cavalry had come home to roost sooner. If only he'd guarded his right flank. If only the train had gotten through. And so it went. Wistfully, they spoke of these matters over Tennessee whiskey, beer, and moonshine sipped from clear, unlabeled flasks.

Middle Tennessee is a sprawling country with Kudzu choked roadsides. Crystal clear creeks. Old town squares. From this land, the people extract a meager existence. In the spring, envisioning symmetrical, uniform living carpets of hay and corn, they molded the fields into preternatural, linear rows.

But then, the summer came and the clouds disappeared and the sun descended and pinched the people to the land. For weeks, there was no measurable rain. And on Sundays, the preachers and the farmers held hands and bowed their heads before the Lord, and prayed for the rains to come. To save the farms and the farmers. The crops and the livestock.

For, this is God's country. This is the buckle in the Bible Belt. Where people leave WWJD calling cards on your windshield. Daily prayer books in the bathrooms. 10 Commandments posted prominently in their front yards. You could starve to death on Sunday looking for an open restaurant. “Closed for a reason� the signs all say.

But, in this gentle land that God sculpted from the billet of the earth, the rains refused to come, and the wind carried a light dust from the fields of death and tinted the sunset a little redder than it might have been.

At the end of July, the heat broke, but still the rains refused to come. The fields withered and the farmers went into the stubbled fields and rubbed their chins in silence. They'd only put up one cutting for the winter, and it would not last. The corn would die soon, as well, if the rains did not come.

In August, the sun came down from the sky to touch the earth, and simmered the people and the land in a limestone skillet. In this insufferable August heat, the Crepe Myrtles bloomed, exploding like roman candles across the lawns. Mockingbirds cried from the shadows of the woods.

Even a fool could divine the plight of the farmer. Their misfortune was written in brittle crops of the fields. Carved into the lands. But they were not alone. They didn't plead their case to the congregation, as it was not in their nature to do so. They spoke little of their own calamitous misfortune, but their story traveled before them, like dust before a thunderstorm, and their misfortune became the reciprocal misfortune of the congregation. Their stories reverberated through the ancient walls of the churches of the pioneers and the Sunday sermons were heavily weighted in their favor.

And when the crops had died in the fields, and when the farmers and the preachers were sure that the crops had failed, that they'd only harvest a single cutting of hay, that the corn would not tassel, still the Sundays pulled the farmers from the fields, as surely as the moon draws the oceans upon the beaches. Still the Sundays found the farmers, offering their tithes to the churches, for their faith in God was unassailable.

In the end, it was their religion that gave them strength. And, after a ruinous season, often all that remained. The only thing that couldn't be repossessed and offered for auction. Their faith defined them, and they clung to it, like a cocklebur on a colt's tail. And, in the Fall, they plowed their ruined fields under. They oiled their tractors and honed the teeth of their plows, and they pinned their hopes on God and Spring, and trod across a ruined land to instill into their neighbors an esoteric point of the War of Northern Aggression over a bottle of Muscadine wine.


It's ironic that I'm traveling from the Stone's River battlefield to Breckenridge, Colorado. In 1859, Breckenridge was just a wild little camp on the Blue River, staffed with gold miners, gamblers, prostitutes, and other assorted ne'er-do-wells. To silence Father Dyer's early morning church bells, they dynamited the church steeple. When they collectively decided they needed a town post office, they named their town Breckinridge, Colorado, in honor of the Vice President John Cabell Breckinridge, and it worked. They got their post office in 1860.

However, when the Civil War broke out the following year, General Breckinridge offered his services to the Confederacy, cementing his place in history as the only U.S. Vice President to ever take up arms against the United States of America. Breckinridge, Colorado was so outraged that they immediately changed the name of their town to Breckenridge.

It's a long road to Breckenridge from Middle Tennessee. I wake up at 3:00 a.m. and drive from Lickskillet to Nashville. Then, I fly from Nashville to Memphis to Denver. Then drive from Denver to Morrison to Breckenridge. It's a journey of a few thousand miles over many hours. But, this is not a journey I take lightly. It's my solumn duty. My responsibility to find my way to my daughter on the weekends. I undertake this voyage as sincerely as a salmon returning to its place of birth. It's a long pilgrimage, but it is a journey that I look forward to, as the reward is immeasurable.

I had tentatively planned to take Jennifer camping this weekend, but then I heard she got sick coming back from Yellowstone, so I wasn't sure on Saturday morning what the play was going to be. I wasn't sure if I'd end up seeing her or not, but the phone rang and Jennifer was booming that she was fine and wanted to get out of the house so I told her I was on my way and, I bought her two more wet suits, bringing the total to a nice even 7 that I'd purchased for her in the last few weeks, and I was off to Breck.

I figured we'd just go fishing, as that would not take nearly as much effort, and about two hours later, I pulled up with all our fishing gear and she was beaming proud to be going out on such a fine fine summer day. Pink cap and blue jean jack with her little hiking boots and Tweety Bird fishing pole. And we bought a few flies and headed south on Highway 9, on those twisty two-lane switchbacks, slowly climbing the continental divide, dodging deer and elk and woodchucks and marmots.

Montgomery Reservoir sits at 10,561 feet above sea level, just below a little used pass over the continental divide. They must stock the lake like mad because, when we pull up, the fish are jumping like mexican jumping beans in a cast iron skill. No one is catching anything though, so we set to work.

I have a secret setup for trout fishing that a very kind soul once shared with me at Georgetown. I don't waste any time changing baits or lures. I fish with the same fly every time. More often than not, it works. By that, I mean that I seldom get skunked.

Jennifer can cast, but not as far as I can, and I start catching fish, but further out than she can cast. So I start casting for her, and then just handing her the rod to let her reel it in.

The fish bites the fly. She hooks it and reels it in. She catches one nearly every cast. Jennifer is reeling in fish after fish. One right after the other. In all my life, I've never caught fish like this, and the people beside us haven't gotten a strike and all you can hear is their disbelief floating across the lake.

“Look...they've got another one.�

I cast until my shoulders were sore. I reeled in trout until my thumbs ached. In the end, Jennifer counted that we had caught 28, though I suspect we caught more than that. We kept a few, but mostly, we just released the trout, and they swam off quickly, disappearing into the darkness of the lake. In all my life, this may be the most fish I have ever caught at one outing. It was a fine day of fishing.

On each cast, they leap at my fly as it passes above them through the air. This spectacle confounds me to no end and, at first, I was sure that it had to be merely coincidence that they were jumping as my fly was landing. But, they repeated it like clockwork every time I cast, and eventually I had to succumb to the obvious conclusion that the fish were, in fact, quite capable of catching flying insects above the surface of the lake.

It's amazing how in tune they are with the air above the lake. They must all be out there just inches below the surface, waiting for the insects to get within leaping distance because, they never fail to leap at the fly as it descends toward the surface of the lake.

And, I think about the fish...how they're just living wild and free in the lake...surviving by their wits..leaping from the lake to snatch flies from the air. I consider this population of trout, out there, hovering just below the surface of the lake, patiently waiting for a bug to stray too close to the mirrored surface, so they can pounce on their meal like a duck on a June Bug.

But, on this one day, they're snared by an unseen force and ripped from their routine. This invisible malicious hand reaches down into the cold waters of the lake and prosecutes an unfair fight against them. For no fault of their own, they're stripped from their home with steel hooks and mono-filament line, and evaluated on the banks of the lake.

If they're lucky, they're released into the dark still waters of the lake, where they flick their tails, helter-skelter, casting dents through the lake's surface, and presumably returning to their watery homes, wherever that might be.

Fish probably don't have a means to share their experiences with other fish. Even if they had a channel through which they could communicate, they probably wouldn't understand enough about what transpired to convey a meaningful description of their adventure to another fish. If they did, they might say something like “You're not going to believe what just happened to me.�

After fishing for a few hours in a lake two miles above sea level, I suddenly realized I was totally exhausted. I think that I'd grown too accustomed to life in Lickskillet, Tennessee, just a few hundred feet above sea level.

I took Jennifer back to Breckenridge and checked her in in time for dinner, and she bolted into the arms of her grandparents, Tweety Bird fishing pole and all.

"You're not going to believe what just happened to us!" she exclaimed.

Somewhere in the darkness, Father Dyer's church bells called out to the heathen hordes of Breckenridge, as I turned down the long road to Stone's River.

Posted by Peenie Wallie on September 9, 2006 at 9:24 PM


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