Columbus Day is a weekend best spent getting lost. A fitting tribute to the first American to refuse to ask for directions and ignore the signs that he was not where he intended. The last weekend before winter, when foliage peaks, sweaters are unpacked. I'm deep into the north woods of New Hampshire at a cabin that doesn't get enough visits, but the magnetic draw of its reclusive serenity serves as a vacation in my mind on many days at the desk. Miles from pavement, the bristling radio station's Canadian. Just as I'd left it.
I drove in through the rain, passing a number of downtrodden hunters in upland bird gear, going through the motions of grouse hunting while scouting their deer stands. Their tailgates displaying an array of sandwiches and cold ones, awaiting blooded birds arranged like a police-lineup. "Which bird did it to you ma'am? Number 5, step forwards and say 'caw'".
I walk the shore of the lake, lowered by the dam in anticipation of the snow and melt to come, whatever the power company deems the appropriate water level for the season between fishing and snowmobiles. I'm removed from the world, by proximity and mental state. I trip and scramble, the rocks slick, as if unhappy to be above water, left naked and exposed to the cold fall night.
The dog carefully selects and mouths a driftwood stick as though it's the particular one he's been looking for years, shakes it vigorously, and casts it off in favor of another of seemingly equal importance. A stream empties onto the exposed rocks with volume, making itself known after a summer submerged. And there, wrapped around a rock, half inside-out as if frozen in an unfinished backflip, is a lost hat. Emblazoned with the logo a fly-fishing company of top quality, and thus likely of a cost that its absence did not go unnoticed. Tattered by the wind and rocks, deeply caked in mud and bugs as if on its way to being reclaimed by the water its wearer came to fish.
How did it end up here? Did it come down the stream, or get pushed across the lake. Did it go overboard in the wind, protests drowned out by the 4-stroke hum pushing across the lake? Did it slip silently out of a back pocket, cascading to the ground with a sound indistinguishable from the crunching leaves? Or was it spiked into the dirt in frustration, like an angry baseball manager protesting the call at the plate by an unreasonable trout?
It's certainly not a baseball cap, this one. Long in bill, short in crown, floppy and wide. Reminiscent of the hat scorned in The Sandlot. Name inked in block letters under the brim, the only way to distinguish it from thousands like it. A tag stating Made in USA. Lost in USA.
Was this the hat of a beginner, sold as part of a fly fishing starter kit, zip-tied into a cardboard box alongside rod/reel and curiosity of the sport? Or the hat of a grizzled vet who, long past the days of care of equipment and appearance, pulled it from the shelf solely for its function of blocking sun. Perhaps to replace a hat lost in another river, on another day, chasing another fish.
It's lost. More than I tried to be this weekend. The sun is up on my last morning here, it's time to break camp and return to reality. The hat drips from a branch stub, absorbing the final wafts of smoke from a smoldering fire. I couldn't leave it there, in an unfitting burial by sea. But I'll leave it here, drying out, waiting for the next season. Maybe you'll stroll by, on your way to a fishing hole we each think is our secret. It'll catch your eye, a flicker of recognition, a curiosity of how it floated here. But you've probably moved on, to another lake, another hat. It will probably still be here when I return, which won't be soon enough.
I have your hat, CHRIS, and questions.
Chet Clem is a past president of the Bates College Fishing Club, and former writer at The Onion. He's a self-described mediocre-at-best fly fisherman. He lives south of Boston with his wife, twins and a dog named Willie Nelson. When he can, he likes to get lost in the Connecticut Lakes region of New Hampshire.