"Nick's heart tightened as the trout moved. He felt all the old feeling."
Big Two Hearted River
(photo above: Sherry festival posters at La Venencia)
I have always had a fondness for the writings of Ernest Hemingway; from high school literature class, to stolen moments while my boys napped as babies, his collected works would always be present on my bookshelf. His stories would fuel my enthusiasm for fly fishing as literature later in life.
At the conclusion of a trip taken to Spain a few years past, an evening in Madrid found me in a bar once frequented by Ernest Hemingway. The bar is La Venencia and was one of many of Hemingway’s haunts in the city. A venencia is a steel cup used for sampling Sherry from the aging barrels, an ancient tool whose shaft was once made from the whisker of a whale. The bar, La Venencia, is a place where primarily madrileños go to spend a part of their daily lives, sipping Sherry and sharing stories. Ernest Hemingway is said to have spent his days there as a young journalist during the Spanish Civil War. I read that the bar hasn’t changed much since the days of Hemingway’s daily occupation of it, gathering news of the war to send back to a North American post. The Spanish Civil War spanned from 1936-1939, so Hemingway spent his time there nearly 82 years before I would ramble in late one night while exploring the city.
On that particular night, the bar was crowded and felt perennially dusty. We ate herbed olives and sliced Manchego from modest white dishes and sat at a wobbly, rectangular, wooden table on the upper level. There were Sherry festival posters from the 1950’s above the bar and most everything, including the bartenders, seemed to have been covered in the sepia bits of soot that permeated the air. Shortly after we were seated, one of the girls we were traveling with realized that she had been pickpocketed on our walk to the bar and after a period of panic and notifying credit card companies, we relaxed and played games around the table. We were in Madrid only for the night after a week of fly fishing in the Pyrenees and before an early flight back to the States.
If you have the opportunity to spend time fly fishing in the Spanish Pyrenees, I highly recommend doing it. Hemingway did most of his fly fishing in Michigan and Idaho but I am certain that he would have loved Spain for its fly fishing as well as the bullfighting. I would have liked to have spent more time there inside La Venencia, maybe staying an extra day, maybe with a notebook and pen. Looking back, it was enough that I had even been there, inside the walls and at the tables where Hemingway had sat as a journalist, listening to stories of the anti-fascists and the Republican soldiers returning from the frontlines. His shoes must have once marked the same dusty wooden floors.
As we stood to leave at closing time, I quickly turned and took some photos, not knowing that that act was strictly prohibited, a vestige to the time of fascist spies. I promised the sepia toned bartenders that I would delete them from my phone, but I haven’t still.
(photo above: the sepia bartenders that were not happy with me )
I recently re-read Ernest Hemingway’s Big Two Hearted River. Written 10 years before his time as a journalist in Spain, it is the story of Nick, fresh from the war, returning to himself with the invisible and gentle nudging of a river called the Big Two Hearted. Exiting the train into the town of Seney, Michigan, into a landscape now sculpted by wildfire, his belongings are tossed from the train. His pack is full and heavy on his back as he leaves the town, as though a metaphor for his burdens. He hikes though the wildfire charred remains of the forest to the river. As Nick fishes, the river, as it does for so many of us, takes Nick’s mind only to the present. Now focusing only on the fish and the water, his afflictions are washed away, gradually erasing the scenes of war and heartache that seemed to haunt him like an ever-present ghost. Hemingway wrote Big Two Hearted River in Paris in 1924, but the essence of the story withstands the test of time.
It is nearing the 100th anniversary of the first publication of Big Two Hearted River and the writer John N. Maclean has written the Centennial Edition's foreword. His detailed connection to the story and the impact that it had on his own life make it as precious a piece of writing as the story of Hemingway’s Nick. Hemingway seemed to stumble upon answers that had been previously unanswerable by the rest of the world. Heck, fly fishing in Big Two Hearted River held answers to questions that hadn’t even been asked yet. Today, it is widely accepted that fly fishing aids in easing our battered hearts and minds.
Hemingway knew that fly fishing, the act of casting a fly (a simple hook adorned with feathers and fur) to a feeding trout, can and does heal. Fly fishing parts the clouds of the subconscious and lets the light in once again. The river swirls around your legs magically softening life’s edges. As the trout rises to your fly, you raise your rod tip in the exact right moment. You are now connected to a sentient creature by a thin piece of fluorocarbon; too much pressure will allow the fish to get leverage and you will lose him. It has to be just right. Your mind must be clear.
We value fish and fishing by the stories we tell and the feeling that it gives us. When we read Hemingway’s story of Nick in Big Two Hearted River, we can close our eyes and see the sparkling sun on the riffles and the rouge color of the rainbow trout because we already know it by heart.
Have you read Big Two Hearted River? As always, let me know your thoughts...
(Zebra trout of Spanish Pyrenees)