“Oh Sheena, my sweet,” I said encouragingly as the dry Spanish countryside marched past our windows, “do I have a treat for you.”
“Oh?,” she said.
“Yes, actually. You see, I’ve been planning a special fishing tri—”
“What? Does it look like I want to go fishing right now? Is that what this looks like?” She bobbled her head like a sassy hip hop singer while wildly pointing to various parts of her head and abdomen with her whipping index fingers.
“But my pea, hear me out. We’ll be following the path of Ernest Hemingway from The Sun Also Rises, in which Jake and Bill escape the hustle and bustle of Paris and steal away to the relaxing trout streams of the Pyrenees. It’s really more of a reenactment of a very important story from classic American literature.”
“Ernest Heming-who? And where was his fishing trip?”
“Well I’m not exactly sure, but I think we can piece together the clues and retrace his steps. But in the end they catch twelve fish. Can you imagine? Think of all the fish tacos we could make!”
There is no other explanation except that she must have found me too charming to resist, and so she reluctantly agreed to my shoddy plan of following clues from a ninety year old fictional novel. The fishing trip in the book was based on an actual trip that Hemingway took to Spain, and so figured it was worth a shot.
“There’s Roncevaux,” I said.
“Way off there where the mountain starts.”
“It’s cold up here,” Bill said.
“It’s high,” I said. “It must be twelve hundred metres.”
“It’s awful cold,” Bill said.
The bus levelled down onto the straight line of road that ran to Burguete. We passed a crossroads and crossed a bridge over a stream. The houses of Burguete were along both sides of the road. There were no side-streets. We passed the church and the schoolyard, and the bus stopped. We got down and the driver handed down our bags and the rod-case.
The pages were littered with clues and in no time we had pinpointed our starting point destination: the small Basque mountain village of Burguete. A quick search of the maps revealed our destination as a mere asterisk amid the giant Pyrenees range.
We passed Pamplona on the eastern outskirts and ducked off onto a winding one-lane road snaking upwards into the mountains, bisecting fields of yellow gorse as it went along. We of course knew the yellow flowers were gorse because of my gum-shoe sleuthing skills.
Ahead the road came out of the forest and went along the shoulder of the ridge of hills. The hills ahead were not wooded, and there were great fields of yellow gorse.
We climbed out of the valley and into the cool forest pocked with farm houses and drove up a winding road into the forest to camp for the night. While our trip across Spain had been generally warm and sunny, the Pyrenees were overcast and it rained on and off, making everything seem clean.
In the morning we drove into Hemingway’s Burguete. The road into town was indeed straight. We passed a crossroads, just as described, and found very old homes lining both sides of the street. We passed the church, near where Jake and Bill disembarked from the bus, and found a parking place.
It was time to prepare Sheena for our adventure. She had never read The Sun Also Rises, so I opened it and flipped to the part about the fishing trip. If we were to be successful sleuths, she would need to be brought up to speed with all of the clues at our disposal. I sat in the driver’s seat and she in the passenger’s seat, and like a couple of book dorks I read to her aloud.
“This is stupid and embarrassing,” she pleaded.
“It’s only embarrassing if someone sees us,” I reassured her.
First, I read to her about the hotel in Burguete. If we were to capture the spirit of Hemingway and leverage it to catch a bunch of fish, we would need to see where he stayed.
We went up the street, past the whitewashed stone houses, families sitting in their doorways watching us, to the inn.
… We washed, put on sweaters, and came down-stairs into the dining-room. It had a stone floor, low ceiling, and was oakpanelled. The shutters were all up and it was so cold you could see your breath.
“My God!” said Bill. “It can’t be this cold tomorrow. I’m not going to wade a stream in this weather.”
There was an upright piano in the far corner of the room beyond the wooden tables and Bill went over and started to play.
By this point I was getting pretty excited. I was like one of those dorky twelve year olds who reads Harry Potter aloud to his
victims parents as if they were actually interested in hearing about hobgoblins and haunted broomsticks. Sheena rolled her eyes and I continued on, bringing her up to speed about all of the clues that Hemingway left behind.
We locked up the car and wandered around Burguete, Sheena taking photos of old doors and windows while I wandered from building to building trying to find the inn. At last, a few hundred meters up the road from the church we wandered into a hotel. On the wall of the low-ceilinged, stone-floored, oak-paneled dining room hung a painting of none other than Ernest Hemingway himself. I whooped with joy at having found the inn while Sheena rolled her eyes and slowly shook her head.
In The Sun Also Rises, Jake and Bill set off early from the inn to walk over the ridge on foot to the Irati river where they will spend the day fishing. Jake rises early to dig worms behind the inn and then they set off.
We packed the lunch and two bottles of wine in the rucksack, and Bill put it on. I carried the rod-case and the landing-nets slung over my back. We started up the road and then went across a meadow and found a path that crossed the fields and went toward the woods on the slope of the first hill…
Given our history of getting lost and causing international missing persons incidents, we opted not walk blindly into the woods, but rather to include Nacho in the adventure by driving. We left town and skirted the ridge, descending after a few kilometers into the canyon in which the Irati river carved its path. During the descent I spied a small dam on the river far below, and imagined that it must have been the fishing spot where the story takes place. The subjects find their way over the ridge and down to the river, stopping at a dam. Jake opts to fish from the dam using worms, while Bill wanders downstream to try his luck flyfishing.
There was a field of buckwheat on the hill. We saw a white house under some trees on the hillside. It was very hot and we stopped under some trees beside a dam that crossed the river.
Bill put the pack against one of the trees and we jointed up the rods, put on the reels, tied on leaders, and got ready to fish.
“You’re sure this thing has trout in it?” Bill asked.
“It’s full of them.”
“I’m going to fish a fly. You got any McGintys?”
“There’s some in there.”
“You going to fish bait?”
“Yeah. I’m going to fish the dam here.”
At the base of the canyon we found the small village of Aribe, where we parked Nacho to investigate our options. We wandered around and found a small but promising dirt road taking off along the opposite bank behind a small stone bridge. Near the church we found a placard with some information about Hemingway. Our detective work was spot on—a fact that I reiterated to Sheena with enthusiasm, and I sensed a small hint of admiration in the eyeball roll that followed.
I asked someone how to get to los Baños, and was pointed down the river bank toward the dam I’d seen. We got back in Nacho and turned onto the dirt road, which wound its way along the bank and then climbed above the river valley through the thick beech forest. At about the point where I had remembered the dam being, we parked. The locals had reported that Hemingway used to bring with him a basket of beers so I hastily grabbed the sticky rice basket we’d bought on the roadside in Thailand and put a couple of beers in it. I was willing to go to great lengths to make this trip as historically accurate as possible.
In the book, Jake and Bill each bagged six rainbow trout in a relatively short period of time on the afternoon that they spent at this very spot. In short, we were more or less guaranteed to be eating fish tacos by nightfall.
I did not feel the first trout strike. When I started to pull up I felt that I had one and brought him, fighting and bending the rod almost double, out of the boiling water at the foot of the falls, and swung him up and onto the dam. He was a good trout, and I banged his head against the timber so that he quivered out straight, and then slipped him into my bag.
While I had him on, several trout had jumped at the falls. As soon as I baited up and dropped in again I hooked another and brought him in the same way. In a little while I had six.
When we arrived at the dam I set down the basket of beers and began to assemble my fly rod. Below the dam on the eastern side of the river there was a still pool, while the western side of the river fanned out over some submerged rock ridges before ducking below some overhanging willow trees. I fished both sides of the river, flicking my fly out into the current or into the still pool. After a while, not having any luck, I switched flies.
Sheena put down her coming of age princess novella and broke the silence.
“Any luck?,” she asked.
“Nope, not yet.”
“What are you using?,” she asked. I was pleased that she was finally showing a real interest in our detective mission.
“I’ve tried a couple of different flies,” I said. She stared at me for a minute as if to say, are you stupid or something? At last she spoke.
“Seriously? A fly? I thought Ned Hemington used worms!”
“Ned Hemington? Are you kidding me, woman? Are we talking about a literary legend or a Simpson’s character?!”
“I just think that if he used worms then maybe you should use worms too.”
“Some things are better left to the experts, understand?”
The afternoon passed without a single bite. We leaned against a tree in the shade, keeping to strict historical accuracy, and drank our beer.
In the morning the rain had moved in, but we weren’t to be discouraged. We left Nacho parked by the riverside in Aribe, opting this time to walk the riverbank out to los Baños, fishing the bank along the way. The river’s edge was pretty well socked in by groves of low hanging willows, making it difficult to flyfish without waders, but I tried nonetheless, knowing that this river was brimming with the grandtrout and great grandtrout of those caught by Hemingway all those years ago.
While I fished Sheena distracted herself from the mission by taking photos of grass, flowers, trees, water, and slugs, among many other things. When finally we reached los Baños, a place designated by a couple of old abandoned buildings on the water’s edge just a few meters upstream from the dam, I resumed fishing. I tried several flies, alternating between the bank, a sandbar, and the retaining wall in front of the old building, but after a few hours came up completely empty handed.
Having photographed everything within a three hundred meter radius of los Baños Sheena finally meandered back to the waterfront where I noticed her standing there with her hands on her hips.
“Where are my fish, boy?!”
“I think they’re all asleep today,” I said.
“Do you want to know what I think?,” she wailed in disbelief. “I think that Ned Hemington is full of crap!”