Big Lake in the Sky

Of Trout and Carp


By John Michael Gorrindo


When I was young I never thought about patience.  Now that I am older- much older- I castigate myself regularly for always having possessed so little of it.  At what point in time I became self-conscious about the dire lacking most likely occurred on the cusp of adulthood.  Maybe it was the first time I dropped out of college. 

I had graduated from high school a semester early, prompted by distressing conditions at home and a very painful break-up with my girlfriend.  Having grown-up in sparsely populated North Lake Tahoe, the nearest state school serving our district was located a long distance away, and that was perfect as far as I was concerned.  The more distance I could put between myself and my past, the better.

So, in January of 1970 my father drove me one hundred miles across Donner Summit en route to my alma mater of choice, Sierra Community College.  Driving up the freeway’s steep grade over the 7,000 foot pass that originated in an expansive flat meadow land where the old railroad town of Truckee lies was always a sobering experience.  The grade had been blasted out of pure granite and provided spectacular views of beautiful Donner Lake as nestled in a deep rock fissure far below.

Important memories always crossed my mind as I sat in the car and peered down at the lake’s sapphire blue waters.  Some were personal; some were not. Donner Lake was an historical landmark as it was where the ill-fated pioneer group called the Donner Party had become trapped by the early arrival of winter on Halloween Day, 1846.  Not being able to cross the steep granite pass ahead of them in waist deep snow, they were forced to cling on to the lake’s flat east shore for the duration of the winter.  It wasn’t until April the next year that those who survived were rescued.  Most died of starvation and many resorted to cannibalism, eating their dead comrades as there was simply no other food available.

I knew their history enough to know that what had caused this tragedy was a lack of patience.  Several months earlier as the party was about to leave Fort Bridger in Wyoming, they decided to take a new overland route called the Hastings Cut-Off.  This was said to save three to four hundred miles of travel by taking them directly across the Great Basin desert rather than skirting it to the more mountainous north.  The party leaders decided that rather than take the longer, safer, and better-established trail west they would risk the short cut across the desert in order to save time.  The results, as they say, are buried in the ground.

Also, this was the lake where my grandfather had taught me how to fish.  He was an old Basque who had grown up in the Spanish Pyrenees north of Pamplona.  For generations, fishing was something all Basque boys who grew up in the mountains learned and loved to do at a very young age.  It wasn’t unusual for some to become expert at catching trout with their bare hands.

In his 1959 white Cadillac with its elongated rear end fins my grandfather would drive us over the Truckee Shortcut from our homes at Lake Tahoe and over to Donner Lake. Between the two, Donner was the better lake for shore fishing.  Parking on the side of the road next to the lake, we would walk together out onto a short pier where we would set up camp.  As Basque are prone to be built, my grandfather was short and rotund, and at his age could no longer stand for very long.  So he would park himself in a folding chair on the old, warping planks of the pier and teach me how to bait a hook, tie on fresh leader, hook a float, and cast a line.  And then- how to wait and watch. 

We never caught that many fish.  A concern of mine, it never was of his.  One time we had caught two fine trout in the early going.  We kept them fresh by putting a clip through their mouths and gills and immersing them on a long attached chain into the cold lake water from off the wooden pier. Our luck then deserted us, and we had to be content with the pair.  When time came to pull them out of the water and head home, I discovered the catch had been eviscerated by crawdads.

As a nine year old, I was damn upset.  I showed it, and I can still feel it today, over forty years later.  But my grandfather sat back in his chair and laughed.  And laughed, and laughed some more.  I was not amused, which caused him to laugh even harder and longer.  As one bad thing usually leads to another, his amusement at the situation was sublimely two-fold.

Some years later and my grandfather now dead and gone, I was a young man on his way to college for the first time.  From my perspective it was getting harder to be patient in general.  Becoming a student at Sierra College didn’t help the situation.  The dorms I lived in were infested with drugs and drug use.  It was grand fun, but don’t let anybody kid you.  Drugs make one impatient if only for the next dose.

But impatience was in the air, drugs or not.  There were two wars consuming the nation- one hot, one cold.  The hot one was Viet Nam.  The other was simply called the Cold War.  We didn’t have the means to articulate it at the time, but it was really World War III.  The government hadn’t named it as such, so we didn’t tend to think of it for what it really was.

A few of my fellow students were interested in discussing world affairs from time to time in our dorm’s second story lounge.  Sitting around in the early evening on institutional furniture colored a burnished orange, our talks always ended in the contemplation of doomsday scenarios.  Of course there was the obvious threat of mutually assured destruction through nuclear exchange.  That was something all of us had grown up with. But as many of us were from the mountains and had seen the rapid destruction of the Sierra wilderness in a very short time, we were amongst those early prognosticators that believed ecological collapse was more likely to do us all in.  In fact, we believed it was in the immediate offing.

How immediate?  One of the more influential among us made the prediction of ten years. That somehow stuck with me.  We all had ten years to live- that was it.

The realization sent my head and heart to reeling.  Within a few weeks I marched into the counseling office and told my academic counselor I was dropping out of Sierra College.

He took the news hard.  “Why are you doing this?” he asked with grave concern.  “Your mid-term reports are fine!  In fact, you ‘re holding down an A- in Chemistry at the moment!”

In a sincerely defiant and earnest tone I said, “For one thing you don’t have to go to college to be a success in life.  For another, the world is going to end in ten years.  I choose to live out my life doing other things than going to college.  It would be a waste of valuable time.”

Clearly, he had never heard such a dangerous conviction in his years as a counselor.  “Now; now- are you sure you know what you are doing?” he stammered.  I had already risen from my chair.  Firmly in control, I had called the meeting, said what I had to, and put it to rest just as quickly.

“Yes- I do know what I’m doing. Absolutely.  You don’t have to worry about it,” I said smartly as I walked out the door of his office.

So many of us young men at that time were filled with both rage and impatience.  We knew the U.S. Government was coddling the American middle class by offering student deferments, which meant minorities were more likely to be cannon fodder sent to die in the jungles of Viet Nam.  It was a war that was racist both against Asians abroad and Blacks and Latinos and Native Americans at home.  Let alone the horror of the war, the unfairness associated with taking advantage of a deferment that pitted class against class and race against race stuck hard in our craws.  The war represented every value we could think of anathema to life itself.

What we learned as young men was that the points we raised amongst ourselves were only important to ourselves.  To everyone else, they were trivial.  But a generation later, many of us had learned patience.  And that patience took rage to task neatly.  As far as changing the world, patience taught many an even higher lesson- progress is an illusion.  The world cannot be saved so it makes much better sense to save oneself.  That was one point just about everyone around agreed on for some reason.

Not all of us evolved in such a direction. Those who didn’t change are more likely dead than not, or crippled by the weary trauma of fighting the fight too long.  It is a fight where one loses all the battles and the war itself never ends.

I’m just wondering how long my grandfather would have laughed at all of us.  The Spanish Civil Was had probably been much worse in his way of thinking. And I wonder if I would have grown up a little differently if he could have lived a few more years than he did.  I do know that as he was about to die he pushed those next to him aside so that he could take his final breath while looking out the hospital window to catch some warm sunshine on his face and see the pure blue of the sky that was out that November afternoon.  Maybe he was thinking about all the days of sun he knew working on his farm or fishing with his grandson.  I would like to think so, and so I do.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if you catch the trout.  And the carp you need throw back.  Returning home empty handed isn’t the worse that can happen.  And anyway, hopefully you got to spend the day with grandfather.  The trout will always be there.  Grandfathers never last for long.