Route seventeen rolls along New York’s southern tier,
periodically dipping toward the Pennsylvania border—then rising as if to pay a
visit to the finger-lakes. It passes places with names that stir the
imagination—Red House, Painted Post, Horseheads. We’ve seen these signs many
times. Karen merely nods toward a particular sign to indicate that she already
knows what I am going to say. I say nothing, and we chuckle over the untold
The sun goes down, and I keep on driving.
Karen doesn’t like driving at night, but I am actually a
safer driver in the dark. During the day, I can’t help seeing the beds of ancient
Devonian streams, filled with rounded gravel that rolled along in their
currents a hundred million years before the first dinosaur eggs were laid. I know not to look
for dinosaurs here—any rocks that might have held their bones and footprints washed, long ago, into the sea. Where those rocks had been are rounded mounds of
sand and gravel left by glaciers only yesterday.
With night, I am not so distracted. There is only the road.
Karen gradually falls asleep and I am left to think about night-driving.
St.-Exupery I’m not, however, and until we pass through the convoluted and
brightly lit area around Binghamton, little of interest occurs to me. I suspect
that this is the sort of state in which drivers fall asleep, but a quart of
Starbucks, from Erie, Pennsylvania, is still working.
I keep driving.
Around Deposit, the road begins to climb and descend and
twist about—we are entering the western margins of the Catskill plateau. Signs
indicate the nearness of the Delaware River. Place names—like Hale Eddy, Long
Eddy and the enigmatic Fishs Eddy, conjure visions of giant trout swirling in
We pass over a hill and enter the Beaverkill watershed—hallowed
ground for fly fishermen. If there was enough light, I would find it hard to
resist watching the air above the streams, looking for the tell-tale swoop of
swallows and darting of cedar wax-wings that indicate a hatch of may-flies or
caddis-flies, checking to see that fishermen wade near the best positions in
But it is night, and a car is tail-gating me. He’s so close, I can see the ribbed texture of the glass over his headlights in
We pull into a rest area between Livingston Manor and Liberty—the
tail-gater follows us in, then parks several cars past us. No one gets out of
the car. Perhaps a dozen cars are parked there—but no one is walking around. We
notice that raincoats and such are hanging inside the car next to us, and the
windows are covered with condensation on the inside.
At the back of the rest area, flowing silently in the dark,
is the Willowemoc—the most trouty of the streams that feed, first, the
Beaverkill and then the Delaware. The cars are filled with sleeping trout
fishermen. It is nearing midnight, on a Friday, and they have driven—probably
straight from work—so that they can wake up next to some of the prettiest water
in the east.
Karen dozes lightly through the familiar mountains as we
drive the last hour or so.
I smile in the dark, picturing the white inside a huge brook
trout’s mouth as it tries to inhale my home-made dry fly: the fly bouncing
along perfectly, swinging naturally through the darkness under a mountain
laurel that overhangs a Catskill stream, the great spotted antediluvian head
emerging from unexpected depths.
The image is a quarter century old.
I did not hook that trout,
but I have seen its rise a million times, in perfect clarity. I no longer fish
for actual trout, but still, I envy the sleepers in the cars. Not, of course,
the aching stiffness they will certainly feel in the morning—but definitely the
cool damp grass before dawn, the taste of coffee from a stainless steel
thermos, and the promise of that glossy black current beneath the mountain