by Tom Joseph
They got together for one last adventure.
Don Juan says the Río Grande de Quetena holds trout. To make the point, he extends a muscled arm as if signaling a left turn: long as this and thick, too. He’ll meet us four days from now at his hotel, Mallku Cueva. “Voy a llevarlos.” I’ll take you there. I’m skeptical about the trout, but that’s not important. I only hope the guy shows up. We’ve just booked a five-day trip across a remote region in southern Bolivia where there are barely any roads, much less gas stations. Don Juan will be carrying our extra gas.
A nagging voice whispers caution. The Bolivian tour operator talks and smiles big. Like just that, an operator.
“What do you think, Larry?” I ask, and immediately the answer shoots across my synapses. Go for it.
What the hey, we’re here for the adventure. So we pack our gear into Larry’s ’84 Toyota Land Cruiser and set off for the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt lake. With my sister-in-law Babette and her friend Christophe, my wife Jeanne and me, plus our Bolivian guide Dieter, the car is stuffed to the max.
My brother Larry makes six, but he doesn’t take up much room. He’s in a Ziploc inside my fishing fanny pack. Larry died a year ago. I’m carrying his ashes.
Larry was a man of grand schemes that had an uncanny way of coming to fruition. His last was the grandest. Driving the Land Cruiser from New Mexico to Tierra del Fuego was only half the plan. The other half had Babette’s Peugeot maneuvering from Corsica to parts east. He’d ship the Toyota from Chile to New Zealand, then north eventually to Southeast Asia. They’d crash the vehicles head-on in China. Larry would collect the insurance.
Traveling six weeks at a crack, over the course of several years the Land Cruiser had gotten as far as Bolivia, weathering a Colombian earthquake that created pandemonium in that already chaos-riddled country and a Peruvian mudslide that left Larry with a concussion and he and Babette trapped in the car neck deep in a raging river. My brother always kept his head above water. But he didn’t survive pancreatic cancer.
One of his last requests was that his ashes be divvied amongst his loved ones to do with as we chose. Jeanne and I brought our cupful on our hundred-day South American sojourn organized around learning Spanish, visiting our Peace Corps volunteer daughter in Paraguay, and meeting Babette in Bolivia. We began our trip at the tip of the continent in Punta Arenas. On the ferry ride across the Strait of Magellan, halfway between the mainland and Tierra del Fuego, I flung a scoop over the railing. It felt right. Larry was a nautical guy—a boater, diver, fisherman. On the return ride, in the afterglow of a blazing midnight sunset, a Patagonian dolphin surfaced at the same spot and paralleled the boat for a forever moment, eyeing me and nodding his head as if agreeing: good decision.
I’d only scattered half my Larry, though. I guess I still needed to keep him near.
Now, a month later with Babette and Christophe in Sucre, we’ve resuscitated the car, dormant four years. Three days of a whole family of mechanics’ time cost fifty bucks, but we also had to pay an $800 ransom to liberate it from their brawny and resolute mother, who owned the garage and swore the deal was five Bolivianos a day.
We made our way through the massively wrinkled 14,000-foot desert landscape that is the Bolivian Altiplano, south to Potosí, where, booking a tour of Cerro Rico, once the world’s richest silver mine, we met this thickly built, charismatic fortyish guy Juan Quesada, whose employees call him Don Juan. A chef by training, he’s a born entrepreneur.
We leave his office about a thousand dollars lighter with an itinerary to some of the most isolated reaches of Bolivia.
After rendezvousing with Dieter—his only explanation for his German name is, “my father was crazy”—he directs us onto the somewhat slushy Salar de Uyuni. “No hay problema,” he says, the salt is ten meters thick. We dodge piles of drying salt destined for shakers as we drive to the Salt Palace Hotel, built entirely of blocks of the white crystals. The rooms are little igloos, complete with salt stalactites and comfy, if a bit dazzling salt furniture. It was Don Juan who built this curiosity that actually works. I gain a little confidence.
Traversing the open Salar at our pedal-to-the-floor sixty miles per hour, the white is so intense, the lack of reference so complete that we have no feeling of movement. Babette says she feels as if she’s in a boat on a perfectly calm day. Larry would have loved this. She scatters half her Larry out the window.
At the foot of Volcán Thunupa, its flanks streaked with the red of iron, the yellow of sulfur and the green of copper, sits a small village, tiny yellow and red flowers pushing through the salt soil of its church courtyard. Larry, an artist, would have loved this, too.
Dieter guides us unerringly off the Salar and through a landscape soaked in salt, borax, and a periodic table’s worth of other minerals that is at once stark and intensely vivid. We summit barren mountain passes and ford unmarked streams up to our floorboards. Sometimes there’s a road, sometimes just wheel tracks that flare off in random directions.
Our stops—other than the ones to blow rust particles out of a frequently clogged fuel filter—are as compelling as the environs. We stroll through an Inca necropolis in a field of coral boulders, the tombs containing the misshapen skulls—from being bound—that gave Inca noble kids that fashionable oblong look. We’re voyeurs to male llamas draped lazily over lounging females: llaid-back llama llove. We view through a haze of heat all three species of Bolivian flamingoes, the black-winged Andean, the all-pink Chilean and the James with its brilliant red-orange wings. An equal number of the magnificent birds stand upside down in the reflection of the unnamed salt lake. My overstimulated eyes find elephants, vultures, a throne and two lovers in the bizarrely sculpted lava formations of the Rock Valley. Maybe the coca leaves I’m chewing are working better than I thought.
Exhausted and encrusted in salt, dust and sweat, two days later we reach Mallku Cueva, another of Don Juan’s hotels. This one is built into the side of a cliff; its rock face forms the rear wall of our bedroom. The shower even has hot water. Better yet, as we follow our noses to fresh baked bread from the hotel’s wood oven, Don Juan shows up with our blessed petrol and a bottle of Sangini, Bolivian cognac. He’s brought his fishing rod, too, a decrepit looking spinning outfit.
So we’re a bit furry-mouthed and anvil-headed when our trout expedition sets out the next morning. I ride with Don Juan down a dirt track that keeps getting worse, finally narrowing to a footpath that plunges down a steep hillside, barely squeezing between two boulders. The blue Toyota bravely follows, Jeanne at the wheel. Don Juan’s impressed.
After maybe an hour, we reach the Río Grande de Quetena. Grand it’s not, so choked with weeds that you can hardly see water. Here and there are open spots through which a gentle current trickles. No way is this a trout stream. We climb a rocky hill to an overlook and peer down. Trout. Huge ones! A few spook and swim beneath the blanket of weeds, but several, including one monster matching the size and bulk of Don Juan’s arm, just lie there. “Ahora, ¿Me crees?” Don Juan asks.
Yeah, I believe. Lordy.
That’s when the pressure hits me. With so little water to work a fly through, how am I going to hook a fish, much less land it? And Babette has built me up as some kind of fishing maestro, whereas the truth is I’m not much of a trout fisherman. We have streams in northern Wisconsin, but a lot more lakes. I grew up with a spinning rod in my hand and a minnow bucket at my feet.
So I try to conduct myself in the manner of every trout fanatic I’ve ever met. I prepare fanatically slowly. I return to the car. Ease into my waders. Rub each section of my five-piece caña de mosca on the oily spot on the side of my nose before putting it together. Check each guide as I string it. Unwind, stretch, and restretch my fifteen-pound leader. Snug the loop-to-loop connection.
I open the large compartment of my fanny pack to pull out my fly box, and instead encounter the baggie of Larry. Whoa. Could this be the place?
“What do you think, bro?” I whisper it aloud.
One thing about my brother. Type-A though he was, he believed in letting people make their own decisions. That’s why he left a dozen of us with ashes and no instructions.
Oh, the magical fishing days we shared. Northern Manitoba on the solstice, hammering the pike and walleyes as the sun dipped down and came up an hour later. Loreto, in Baja, Mexico on my fortieth birthday, one of those cosmic jokes with me as the butt when I couldn’t catch a fish to save my life, but it didn’t matter, not even when the skies opened up and cancelled our last two days, because the sight of the orange, swollen river dumping into the aqua of the Sea of Cortez was unforgettable. Or another time camping in Baja when his outboard conked out and our next landfall, by Larry’s reckoning, would be Australia. Or that final time in Captiva, Florida, a week before he died, when, under a double rainbow, Larry outfished us all.
But most treasured of all were evenings on the lakes of Northern Wisconsin, in the cold or the rain, that ended with grins on our faces and a stringer of walleyes, basket of slab crappies, or memory of wide-shouldered bass caught and released.
We worked together twenty years. He was eight years my elder, ever my sounding board, but eventually our talk about relationships or kids or our current passions, his painting and my writing, had been as peers. We shared blood, genes, a somewhat obsessive commitment to family and a lot of wine. Yet of all the bonds between us, fishing was as important as any. When we fished together, the world was always right.
How Larry would have loved the utter improbability of this trout stream in southern Bolivia. I make up my mind: this is the place. Whether the fish are catchable is immaterial.
When I ask Don Juan permission to put Larry’s ashes in the river, he says he’d be honored. We return to the rock overlook. Babette decides to scatter hers as well. The wind carries them to the edge of the weeds, where the double dose of Larry gently settles and sinks.
Don Juan takes out his spinning rod, gives it a quizzical look. He admits he’s never fished with anything other than a seine net. I show him how to hold it, flip the bail, make a cast. He flips his one spoon from the overlook and whoops when one of the monsters turns to it, but the fish flashes off. I try to get him to come down to the river with me, but Don Juan is gaga over being able to see the trout below. I scramble down alone.
With the help of a wood pole, I slog through the weedy gook to where I can cast. I have no idea what to throw. I’ve seen a few dragonflies, so I try one. The wind behind me, I make a perfect cast. Phew, at least I didn’t embarrass myself right off the bat. The fly floats back toward me. Nothing doing. I try several more times, then switch to a green tongue depressor, a Wisconsin smallmouth fly similar to a wooly bugger that Jeanne ties. Whammo. Don Juan sees the hit and is screaming like a kid. Fish on.
I’m glad for the heavy leader. The fish is strong, but, pulling horizontally, my six-weight affords good leverage, and I’m able to keep the trout from the weeds. Dieter has followed me with a landing net, large enough though the frame is way flimsy. I tire the fish out and instruct Dieter: hands on the frame, not handle. La cabeza primero. Head first. Fish in. Twenty-one inches, four and a half pounds, a fat, beautiful rainbow. In Bolivia. Thank you, Larry.
“¿Quieres comerlo? ” I shout up the outcropping. Don Juan gives me the thumbs up. Hell yes, he wants to eat it.
I climb up with the fish. Time to help my host, who’s still after the big one. Time after time the fish refuses the spoon, though it never spooks. So I thread the spinning line through on a bobber I fashioned last night by boring a hole in a wine cork, then pinch on a split shot and attach a wooly bugger. A trout snaps at it immediately, but Don Juan misses the hit. He’s chattering nonstop, having the time of his life.
I still can’t get him to come down to the river. So I return. Wham. Twenty-three incher, another shimmering rainbow of a rainbow.
So the day goes. We eat lunch. Jeanne, Babette, and Christophe tire and leave. Don Juan, Dieter, and I, to say the least, don’t tire. The boss is determined to tease that monster trout from on high. I don’t have the heart to tell him that even if he hooks the fish, there’s not a trout’s shadow of a chance he’ll raise it up a twenty-five-foot cliff.
Moving upstream to another hole in the weeds with a large boulder in the middle, in no more than six casts I land a twenty-three and two twenty-fours, all six to eight pounds. We have plenty for dinner for us and the staff; I’m ready to catch and release. But Don Juan wants me to keep every fish. He’s having a party for his brother, who’s turning fifty in a few days. The brother has cancer. This will be a birthday to remember. I feel Larry smiling.
By now, it’s mid-afternoon and hot. I finally convince Don Juan to move to the stream. I want to take him to my boulder, but he insists on fishing downstream. Oh well, it’s his river. I try to place him where he can get some action with his spoon, but he’s not much of a listener. We see no fish for a good half mile.
So we return to the overlook rock. Yep, the behemoth is still there. Don Juan stands above to direct me. The wind has shifted and is now blowing down the river; it’s tough casting. Staying in the shelter of the rock overhang, I can just manage to put a fly into position. A fish hits. Twenty-four inches. Beautiful. But Don Juan wants me to fell the giant. I keep casting and break lines on two fish I never see. So I tie on a piece of twenty-pound shock tippet and return one more time. My fly sinks, drifts, stops. Yeah. Fish on. “Un caballo,” I yell.
I can’t stop it from swimming under the weeds. I’m patient, though, applying constant pressure, and finally out comes the trout, running downstream. Not good. But it stays on and begins tiring. The landing net has long since broken, so I keep working, tiring the fish, which always seems to have strength for one more run. Finally, the oversized trout lies quiet on the surface, allowing me to cradle it. Twenty-nine inches, eleven pounds. A horse, for sure.
Don Juan is all grins as we pose for a photo, holding the fish between us, as long as our outstretched arms. He thinks there’s still a bigger one down there. “Bastante,” I say. Enough. I try to impress upon him the importance of leaving some fish in the river. We return to the car and share a trago. Another universality, that post-fishing drink.
I pour a bit of Sangini on the ground both as offering to the earth goddess Pachamama and farewell to my brother. It’s not easy to get into Don Juan’s jeep and close the door. But it’s necessary. Thanks for one more great day, bro.
The next day we walk through a field of geothermal pools with roaring steam vents and burbling pots of brown, pink, and gray goo. Then we cross an expanse of soft blond sand dotted with large dark brown boulders, bleak yet ordered, and appropriately named Salvador Dalí Desert.
Larry would have loved this.
Tom Joseph‘s fiction, essays, and travel writing have appeared in regional and national publications, including Travelers’ Tales Central America. He lives in northern Wisconsin, but often escapes to warmer climes. Currently, he’s working on a historical novel set in southwest Florida. This story won the Grand Prize for Best Travel Story of the Year in the First Annual Solas Awards.
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