By Brandon B. Sanders
I read when I hunt. In my youth, I read novels while I sat in a wooden box stand waiting for a whitetail to come along. Back then, each presented frivolous fantasy, well suited to my age and depth of thought. But as an adult, I find myself reading much more serious books on the side of a mountain while trying to take blacktail deer at altitudes that challenge every breath.
One book, regardless of my own growth and change, manages to always find itself in my pack. Each year I read The Old Man and the Sea, and each year I hold it up like a mirror to see myself in the light of Santiago’s example. As I launch my own figurative skiff out to sea, Hemingway’s words provide a horizon upon which to set my course.
Hemingway penned The Old Man and the Sea while in Havana winning marlin tournaments and watching old men take to the sea every day to catch the big fish hidden in sapphire depths. In those pages, he wove his experiences, thoughts, victories, and defeats. Whenever I turn a page in my old, tattered paperback copy I find myself at different points in my life.
When I first found the book, I got into an argument with my high school English teacher, a woman dedicated to turning us into lovers of Jane Austen. She kept a whole shelf of Hemingway, so I suggested we read an interesting American rather than some European with a rich fantasy life. Informing her that Mark Twain said a library without any books stood better stocked than a fully equipped library with any of Jane Austen’s likely helped me earn the D I got in her class. Recognizing the power imbalance, I took a copy of The Old Man and The Sea off the shelf and read it while she talked about the fantasies of an old woman long dead. What began as youthful rebellion grew into a lifelong examination that continues today. Each year I read that story, and each year it shows me something new.
As a young man, I wanted to achieve the same prowess for fishing and life I observed in Santiago. I grew up around old men just like him, men capable enough to accomplish anything with hands gnarled, busted, and scarred from a life of adversity. I wanted to bear those scars and tell those stories. Now when I look at the scar down the side of my nose and feel the tightness in my hands, I know I share something in common with Santiago.
I’ve often wondered what brought Santiago to the sea. Old, tired, and unlucky, staying close to shore for safety seems prudent. However, Santiago sailed out of sight of land at dawn every day. As he cast out lines and caught fish, he remained unsatisfied until he caught one he struggled to bring in.
Sitting on a glassing knob, I flipped the pages and wondered the same thoughts about myself. Why climb this high, this far? At this altitude, solitude offered no safety, and disaster crept but a breath away. The rugged beauty of the mountains provided a stunning view in the event of an accident, but every obstacle imaginable for rescuers. Even if they knew my location, the day’s trek back provided no guarantee of salvation.
Why did Santiago play with his life? Why do I? The fish holds the answer for us both. Not for the glory of catching it, but for the test. Every man yearns to test his capability for danger and his ability to overcome fearful odds. The moment that knowledge disappears, the man dies. The fish reveals to the man something about himself that he longs to know. That's why Santiago took to the sea, and I to the mountain, for the test.
The mountain stands unattached, unemotional, and unmoved. It always wins, for it uses time like a weapon. Hours deplete food and water, and the abrupt weather changes grind anyone caught on its slopes down to nothing. The path to victory lies in finding belonging there amongst the goat, elk, and blacktail. Much in the same way Santiago belonged on the sea.
When hungry, Santiago ate the smaller fish he caught. Splashing the saltwater to evaporate it and harvest the salt within, he thrived in conditions that folded lesser men. As I glassed, I drank from a creek fed by last year’s snows and ate huckleberries. The smaller fish played on the other side of the canyon, safe from my hunger.
I slept at night and dreamed of my own lions on the beach. I thought of my life and my failures and victories. I wondered if Santiago floated along, line in hand, and reflected on his life. I know that the granite seas on which I found myself made me ponder how I somehow remain alive, married, and valued. When Santiago pulled his giant fish from the depths after days of struggle, it exploded from the water in a fantastic display of power and ferocity. He pulled the line tight and fell back into the boat, undoubtedly dumbfounded by the magic of the fish. Tail flipping, bill slicing the air, the fish collapsed back into the black depths pulling Santiago across the surface like a toy.
My heart felt the pull of Santiago’s fishing line when the elk stepped out in front of me. It took two steps, then looked right at me. For a moment, he hung there with a rack bigger than any I’d ever seen mounted or upon any magazine cover. Just him and me, eyes locked, a test of wills and the question of belonging between us.The world below was too busy to climb the mountain to see such a majestic animal, and no cover picture capable of capturing the truth of him. He let out a deafening bugle that shook me, and I felt fear. From 10 yards, his thunder still rings in my dreams.
As the sharks robbed Santiago of his rightfully earned fish, my elk slipped away, protected from my arrow by the boundary lines of the game management unit we met in. I didn’t have the tag I needed to knock an arrow, and he knew it. I watched him crash into the treeline, bulldozing his gigantic body toward the cows he owned. As his rack disappeared into the sea of trees, I found myself alone with my thoughts. I listened to heavy breaths I could finally expel and sat down on the side of the mountain. Just as the tourist sat on the porch of the restaurant to look at the skeleton of Santiago’s fish, they read my stories, look at the pictures, and never know the struggle that Santiago and I know.
About the Author
Brandon is a freelance writer and National Guard Chaplain. He grew up fishing and hunting in southern Arkansas, but today enjoys hunting and fishing across the world. You can contact him at bbsanders.com