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The Worst Day of My Life

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My trembling hands did their best to keep my pint of ale from spilling across the rough hewn wooden table.  The day was cold, but despite being indoors I couldn’t warm up.  The exhilaration followed by such tragedy had sapped my body of its ability to regulate blood flow to my chilly extremities, but it wasn’t the cold that caused me to tremble. The body that I had held in my hands only hours before had slipped away, never to be recovered, and was now replaced by this lifeless substitute; a cold golden ale, which I now clenched in my fingers, quivering from a deep, soul-shattering anguish.  My heart became a lead weight behind my sternum.  I was inconsolable.  Patrons came and went through the screen door, their jackets pulled tight against the cold.

And that damned song.  Was this some kind of cruel torture?

Maybe I didn’t love you

Quite as often as I could have

And maybe I didn’t treat you

Quite as good as I should have

I tried to block it out by gazing into my beer, concentrating on the bubbles.  How they formed at the bottom of the glass like baby tadpoles.  How they floated – the epitome of freedom – through the golden ether.  And then how they bobbed to the surface, died, and were gone forever.

You were always on my mind

You were always on my mind

I tried to forget.  I needed to forget.  I took a deep, medicinal swig of ale and retreated into happier memories.

While driving along a stream in Patagonia’s northern Lake District, we spotted a tiny track leading into the trees.  Pushing our way through overhanging bamboo beneath lush oak trees, we came into a clearing.  We situated ourselves so that Nacho’s sliding door would open up to the sand bank and the crystal clear trout stream.  I fished all day, up and down the banks, reeling in a dozen or more rainbow and Patagonian brown trout, all too small to keep.  I showed Sheena how to fish where the creek hooked to the right, creating a perfect eddy in front of our camp.  Times were good.  Scratch that.  Times were great.

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My lip began to tremble, and I noticed that my glass was empty.  Why wouldn’t my hands warm up?  I was losing control.  I couldn’t let myself lose composure.  What would the others think?  Would they stare, or would they be kind and pretend not to see?  I tipped a finger to the waiter and pointed to my glass.

And that damned song.  It would be the death of me.  It was on repeat, midway through its third revolution.  Was a grand puppeteer watching me, pulling these strings that caused me to teeter on the edge of sanity?  Damn you puppeteer!  And damn your song!

And maybe I didn’t hold you

All those lonely, lonely times

And I guess I never told you

I’m so happy that you’re mine

He pulled my empty glass away and set down a fresh one.  I held the glass in my hands, just as I would have held her had she not slipped away into the darkness, never to be seen again.  No parting glance, no chance to say goodbye.  I again retreated into my mind, where better times awaited.  Better times, like when we camped on the Rio Quillen.

In the morning we had turned onto a dirt road that skirted the river.  Sheena and I had smiled at each other across the front seats while we bumped along, looking for a good fishing hole.  Spotting a rock outcropping in the middle of the strong, crystal clear water held promise of rising trout.  Sheena sat on a warm rock in the Patagonia sun while I let out line and set the fly just upstream of the outcropping.  My fly bobbed in the current, sweeping around the rock, and was quickly taken by a beautiful rainbow trout.  Eighteen inches!  Boy, it was a beauty; strong and shiny and perfect.

Throughout that day and the next I landed three eighteen inch rainbows.  We found a campsite under a weeping willow tree next to the river, built a fire, and ate like a king and queen.  Those were the good times.  I wondered if I would ever again know good times.  My heart ached and it felt as if I’d never recover. I had lost my joie de vivre.

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Just then a couple entered the establishment.  The woman’s shiny brown hair nearly reached her waist, and she brushed it off of her shoulder as she entered.  The man unbuttoned his overcoat and smiled at his wife.  Their happiness reminded me of my sorrow and I took another drink.  The song played on.

Little things I should have said and done

I just never took the time

But you were always on my mind

You were always on my mind

By now my heart was numb, and I was able to reenact the day’s events.  I slowly relived each moment, wishing that I could go back, just for one second, to make things better.  To somehow change the way things ended.

After several days of driving along Chile’s Carretera Austral, we had arrived at the town of Coyhaique.  We had passed through town and found a camp site at the edge of a bend in the Rio Coyhaique.  We were surrounded by green hills where the river passed under a bridge.  From our bed we could hear the water bubbling over rocks at the edges of the river.  My fly rod waited patiently for the morning, and I kissed Sheena good night.

In the morning I said a quick goodbye and set out to the north, along the banks of the river.  It was a cold day and the black rocks along the bank became slick with the spray of misty rain.  I navigated my way down a slanted rock face to the base of an imposing stone wall where the strong current churned and dove to untold depths.  I pulled out several arm lengths of line and whipped it in a cyclical motion over the surface of the water until my neon yellow leader reached the base of the wall.  I set my fly down and let the current grab it, sinking my line in front of the wall, and watched the neon yellow disappear into the darkness below the rocks.

A minute passed, and then I started retrieving the line.  Pull, relax, pull, relax.  I imagined the fly pulsing through the water like a little fish.

Pull, relax, pull, relax, pull – KABOOM!  Something hit my fly with the force of a freight train, pulling ten feet of line out of my hands before I knew what had happened.

“FUH-FUH-FUH…!” I couldn’t get the expletive out – there was no time!  I squeezed the line to add some resistance.  This thing was huge!  I had caught a salmon on the Rio Futaleufu a couple of days earlier, but this was far bigger.  It pulled more line out; fifteen feet, twenty, twenty five.  I guessed how far she had gone and figured she was just about to reach the point where the current funneled into a raging jet between two rocks.  She would surely break my eight pound tippet if I let her get into that current.  I eased back on the line and started making some progress in pulling her in.

I fought, pulling some line in and then letting her take it back, for ten or fifteen minutes.  Whatever this was, I needed to wear it out before I would have a chance to pull it in.

My hands trembled, my heart pounded out of my chest.  The mist beaded up on my jacket and tumbled onto the rocks, and I shuffled my feet to position myself near the water’s edge without slipping in and being carried away.  I looked to see if Sheena was around.  She was nowhere to be seen.

Soon, my line was taut, and pointed straight into the dark water at my feet. I still couldn’t see the fish, but I could tell that it was right in front of me.  Suddenly she twisted, revealing the side of her body.  A blaze of silver the size of a toddler flashed from beneath, and again the expletive stuttered on my tongue.

“FUH-FUH-FUH…!”

I positioned my net, but it was awkward.  The rocks under the water were like the Alps in miniature, surrounding the fish.  I managed to situate the net directly above the fish, and brought it down.  It all happened so fast.

As the net came down, it became clear that she was too big to fit through the opening.  The net’s metal frame bisected her, but she would not go in.  The fish – the most enormous rainbow trout I’ve ever laid eyes on – gathered her strength.  While I tried to capture her in the net, my heart pounded the back of my sternum.  I wasn’t breathing any more, I was wheezing.  And then, in the struggle to get her in the net, she gave one final, violent kick, and my line went slack.

I stood up, line in hand, and looked at the end hanging limply where my fly used to be.

“FUUUUUUU*$@#^&K!”  I evacuated my lungs, funneling all of the power from my adrenaline-filled muscles, into one long, drawn out, echoing expletive.  Somewhere deep in that river, through the tumultuous current, over the noise of clanging rocks and rushing water, that fish heard my heart breaking through the vibration of my vocal cords.

“If only I would have…positioned the net…like this,” I slurred, holding my frigid fingers out over the wooden table, “I woulda had her.  I woulda…had her.”

“Snap out of it, my love,” Sheena urged, “it was just a silly fish. Life will go on.”

But to me she wasn’t just a fish.  She was Homeric siren, as big as a tiny human, and she was beautiful.  I raised my glass as a tear collected in the corner of my eye, and the puppeteer played that incessant song.

You were always on my mind

You were always on my mind

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About Drive Nacho Drive

At the end of 2011 we quit our jobs and set off in our 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon, "Nacho". Our plan? To circumnavigate the globe, slowly, while discovering culture, food, recreation, and emergency roadside Volkswagen maintenance. We are Brad and Sheena. Just wingin' it.

Trip Start: Trip End: .

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