The Wandering Troll: A Story on Thomas Reilly Dibble
If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music
Would you hold it near as it were your own?
Scene I: 1/1/1987
A short, wiry artist with hairy feet and a thick, grey beard sits in his studio in the small Vermont village of Peru. The man is wearing tattered jeans and a green flannel with his feet propped up on the desk as he glances outside a small window. Across the street, at the J.J. Hapgood General Store, there is the routine morning traffic: a group of kids jump off the towering snowbanks, a plowman stomps his boots as he enters for his third coffee of the day, and the painter’s spaniel, Patrick, chases a red Ford pickup down the street.
The studio is cluttered but there is methodical system at place. A full bookshelf contains works by Keats, Abbey, Yates, Hemingway, and Stegner. Manilla envelopes are scattered around fully stacked with sketches and drafts. In the far corner, next to a blazing wood fired stove, there is a small workshop area with a fly-tying vice and various tools neatly sorted in different boxes. On the opposite end, a flat staircase matches the uneven and shallow nature of the wood-beamed ceiling. Pinned to the wall are various notes, newspaper clippings, and drawings. The windows that show full perspective of both sides of the room are halfway submerged in fluffy snowbanks that sprinkle the glass with every slight breeze.
The artist pulls out a tobacco wallet and pack his pipe with a strong vanilla blend. He walks to the other side of the room where is easel is setup and Alexandra, the falcon, is perched on the top corner of the canvas. The artist organizes his drawing utensils and starts to work on his latest “troll”.
Troll (noun): a caricature of an individual in which the subject is portrayed as a jovial, white-bearded man doing a certain hobby of choice.
Commissioned by a chef, the artist draws the “troll” wearing white cooking attire, masterfully utilizing a wide range of pots and pans. Right next to the artist is Net the Labrador and his best pal Mr. Mallard the domesticated duck who are snuggled on a dog bed. Without waking the wacky duo, the artist shuffles to the stove and puts another log on the fiery coals. Just as he about to sit down, Alexandra flies, perfectly gliding with the fluctuating heights of the ceiling, and lands on the artist’s shoulder. As the bird and man both look at the newest piece, the artist says, “What do you think, my old friend? Not the best you’ve seen me do, eh?”
The artist then wraps up the “troll” in thick paper and his shaky hands slowly make a bow of twine. After placing the drawing down, the artist looks out the window to the rambunctious children playing on the banks. One of the boys is a neighbor of the artist who is dressed in a hooded wool snowsuit and awkwardly large bean boots that almost make up to the knees. The small boy has taken an interest in visiting the old artist and they discuss things such as the proper way to filet a fish, how to tie a bowline, and why Ted Williams was the best ballplayer to ever play the game. Once the school bus arrives, the small boy gives Patrick a belly scratch and lunges up to the lofty first step as the mechanical door swings open. Stalling the line of kids awaiting the warmth of the bus, the small boy turns around and gives a wave to the studio, for he knows that his artist pal is having his morning pipe and cup of tea: the artist nods his head and smiles.
Thirty years later, I emerge out of the same studio with a burlap sack of fatwood on one shoulder and a stuffed pack on the other. With no precision, I throw everything in the bed of my Tacoma, and the air mattress subsequently deflates: “thank god I’m not sleeping in there,” I mutter to myself.
As I pull out of the driveway, I take a glance back at the studio and reflect on the artist who used to live there and how some of the remnants of his life are in my pack in the form of letters. I then zip off in four-wheel drive and the frosted pavement transitions into a dark shadow of dirt signifying the slightly quieter and rustic village of Landgrove. The home for the night is a cabin aligned with the narrow and rapid Utley Brook. I park on a snowbank next to a private sign that is the entrance to a dark trail marked by small animal tracks. Without the luxury of back country plows, I latch on my snow shoes and head into the black. With a thirty-pound log carrier, my arm throbs and I begin to get the irrational anger you only experience when lugging an awkward object. The route seems far longer than in comparison to my childhood days of hopping rocks upstream, but I eventually make out a chimney in the distance.
The cabin looks uninviting initially as the cloudy night shows no reflection on the black windows. I round the corner and step up to the decaying porch and open the slide door to a dark and unlived area. The temperature inside is almost identical to outside and the constant sound of the roaring brook reminds of the bitter fifteen degree winds making its way through the uninsulated construction. My headlamp beams pointed light all over the room as I scramble to lay an excessive foundation of fatwood so to thaw my white hands. The room lights up instantly and I start to feel at home: alone with the rushing river and thoughts of the artist.
The task of dinner then begins to come to fruition: a small bottle of sake clouds up in boiling water and a mashed potatoes concoction chars in overflowing oval of tin foil. As I wait for everything to cool down, I do some light reading and the characters of my graphic novel accompany me as delicious smells of dehydrated vegetables and makeshift seasoning occupy the small space. After a hefty, post-meal, American-Spirit, I glance down at my watch and see a digitized “8:30”: I am now up to my own devices for entertainment with a wildly awake mind. Without an extensive hike in or tiring setup process, I lack the heavenly fatigue in which your strained legs only feel at home stretched out in a sleeping bag.
Two cups of sake are successful in relaxing my aching shoulders but unfortunately daze my eyes to the point where the collection of the artist’s letters only resemble smudged Sanskrit. In complete frustration, I try to make out the ramblings to his longtime friend, and outdoor ally, Sam Ogden. Not all is lost, however, as I’m able to squint my way through the translation of the final line: “Sam, it seems that our intense interest into the details of trout fishing-the intricacies of the pattern, the art of the set, the insight of micro-stream structure-can often be overshadowed by a loyal companion to us both: dumb luck. Love, Tommy.” The fragment is a caption for a detailed drawing of rising brown-trout and the alternative methods of tying hackle for a dry fly. I begin to lose full concentration of the letters as the words and drawings begin to take corporeal form. Instead of trying to decipher the writing, I relish in the thought that I am entering a spot in time in which two friends passionately discussed a hobby. With a full on, sake-fueled buzz, I walk around the corner to the dusty lower bunkbed and roll out my sleeping bag. With the muffled sound of the roaring brook outside the window, I begin to doze off, but right before my eyes fully close, I see “TRD” etched into the panel above.
The artist went by the name Thomas Reilly Dibble. A man who you would find painting landscapes next to a multitude of animal companions. A man who would play his harmonica late into the night. A man who livened all settings with his stories and cheer. A man who touched the lives of many. A man who truly lived. Thomas Reilly Dibble was my grandfather and this is the part of my life when I try to find him.
Scene II: 8/4/1937
Tom and Sam pack the bed of the pickup with their fly rods, some dry logs of wood, and a sixer of Genesee. On their way down the mountain of Peru into the flatlands of Manchester, Vermont, the friends talk about the predicted hatch activity and what section of the Battenkill to fish first. Although the Battenkill River is known for being the settlement of the esteemed British angler, Charles Francis Orvis, Tom and Sam do not see the stream as a symbol of buckled shoes, button down shirts, and well-manicured creoles, but rather a home for the “Manchester Outlaws” who they always possessed a fond interest for. A fascinating dichotomy is at place between great depression ramblers and the foundation point for the aristocratic, pure angling that would spread outwards across the United States from Manchester: even though it was the epicenter, there were always some form of desperados.
Manchester Outlaw (noun): Like the characters of Steinbeck’s Canary Row, these individuals were ramblers of the Southern Vermont landscape and would almost always be found next to a campsite with a can of worms, a case of beer, and no real attachments to society.
The pair stop at the road sign labeled “Duffesne Pond Road” which leads to a newly constructed dam. The concrete structure offers alternative fishing conditions below and above the dam, and the location is sure to be productive because on the other side of the river, the outlaws are well established on the bank. As Tom and Sam begin to cast, one of the outlaws yells, “How long did it take you boys to whip up those bugs? You know they’re gonna’ end up on a log or bush and not on no fish’s mouth!” Tom laughs and responds, “We will just see who ends up winning the day. Who knows, I may be switching to worms before the hour ends.”
Tom and Sam possess a conflicting ideology on fishing: while they are intensely interested in the art of fly fishing and researching the endless literature brought westward from England, they equally enjoy placing bait on a line overnight so to wake up and have convenient breakfast char. Their mentality follows the “if you’re catching fish and having fun, then you’re catching fish and having fun” principle.
On his third cast, Tom places his light-Cahill fly a few yards above a feeding brown trout. With one large mend, Tom flicks his wrist and sends a spiral loop through the line and the fly begins to drift perfectly towards the slurping fish. Just as he doubts the attempt, the trout makes an acrobatic dive for the fly, and Tom’s fiberglass rod displays the hefty bend that signifies someone is on to something. As he nets the native, eleven-inch brown, Tom looks up to the outlaw across the river and yells, “What do you think?” The outlaw takes a puff of his cigarette and remarks, “Wouldn’t want you to go home empty handed after all dem’ arts and crafts,” and Tom walks over with the fish wrapped in a red bandana, and says, “How about we share it and you pour the bourbon.”
The group congregate by the fire and after deboning the thick trout, they wrap the filet in tin foil and let it char on the open flames. With the sun setting on the mountains above, Sam and Tom sit with the outlaws and share provisions, beer, and bourbon as the day turns to night.
My aunt, Anna Dibble, and I drive down the long dirt road to the Duffesne Dam and she states how it seems very similar to the days in which her father, Tom, would spend summer nights chasing trout. The concrete of the dam is a dark grey, almost like the hue of an elderly gentleman’s beard, and there is a long-abandoned workshop that has a micro smokestack with the label “H.M. SAMSON” written vertically down the rusted metal.
As we both gaze into the riffles of the stream, Anna tells me about her experience frogging and “trout tickling” with her father and how those are some of the most vivid memories of her life: time stood still as the family would escape to the dense forests of the Green Mountains.
Trout Tickling (verb): A gentle massage of a trout near the gill and above the pectoral fin which relaxes the fish to the point where it will succumb to the hand of a fisherman without the use of a lure.
With vivid thoughts of my grandfather fishing the pocket water of the dam, I decide that I need to go fishing. Vermont trout fishing ended November 1st, and although I could fish for trout on the New York side of the Battenkill, there is only one place that is beckoning me to stand in the thirty-three-degree, January water: the Salmon River.
Not to be confused with the picturesque river of Idaho, the Salmon River of New York is a haven of salmon, steelhead, and brown trout fishing when the “trout bums” of the Northeast are able to feed their addiction during the winter months.
In the fall months, the Salmon River is known for a momentous salmon spawn from Lake Ontario, hence the name. Crowds of anglers swarm the river and try to secure as many of the rushing fish as possible. A common scene of the Salmon River is shoulder to shoulder traffic with one fisherman of the surrounding twenty hooking on; once the roar of the reel begins, everyone directs their attention to the single angler as the salmon pulls the lure through a mess of dozens of neon-colored fly-line. As the angler attempts to quickly land the spastic and aggressive motions of the fish, neighbors on the river yell “Stop messing with my shit,” or “Land that sucker already, Pal!” I have been told, but have never witnessed, that fist fights erupt over fish envy.
Once the frigid winter months roll in so do the steelhead and brown trout of Lake Ontario as they follow the spawning salmon and the abundance of scrumptious eggs they leave behind on their journey upstream. Although steelhead fishing is equally, or in many ways more, fun than the hectic salmon spawn, the freezing conditions keep the river calm and only entice the true psychopaths or the kids like me who still possess some childhood dimwittedness.
I convince my close friend, Ben, to accompany me, and we speed up the interstate to our steelhead calling. Our initial plan was to setup camp and fish the sunset, but with the organization skills of twenty somethings, we arrive to Pulaski, New York without the faintest clue where to sleep, in the pitch dark of night. With the assistance of the local McDonald’s WIFI, we scramble through google earth and find an empty meadow, ironically, behind the Salmon River fly fishing museum. The dirt path takes us a couple of miles off the highway, and we eventually end up in the white circle of pixels that we chose on our iPhone.
The location is perfect, for all the wind is suppressed by dense forest wherever you look. After setting up a fire, Ben makes a steak sandwich and I demolish two boxes of Annie’s mac and cheese, as we sit on the tailgate discussing what is new in our lives. When the fire starts to dim and we are extremely reluctant to search for more wood, we close the tailgate and lean back into our deflated mess of an air mattress. Inside the truck is no more than two degrees warmer, so I regretfully decide not to reposition the sandbag that is digging into my lower back: when I get into my sleeping bag, there is nothing that will move me. We then slowly squirm into a Jim Beam-fueled sleep not knowing that we had made a crucial mistake. We did not check the forecast.
Ben’s alarm makes the miserable atomic bomb warning noise, and we look up to see the windows are fully covered in a deep white hue. Once the tailgate cover opens, we see our campsite has been submerged in 18 inches of lake-effect snow. Unknown to us, the cold front that passed over Lake Ontario in the night gathered evaporated air from the warmer lake water temperatures and dumped on two idiots in a Toyota Tacoma. I say to Ben, “At least we can still fish, the river is only a hundred yards away,” and he quickly responds with, “No, we are getting out of here. This isn’t the hole I want to fish.”
The task of digging out the tires drags on for forty-five minutes and we both agree to just wing it: I will drive and he will push. With my head out the window, I yell, “Start pushing!” and he screams back, “I am, asshole!” After a couple of seconds of delay, with the tires barely making a quarter rotation, I thrust my 150 pound frame forwards, and moments later the truck takes off. I look back to Ben and he successfully dives into the bed as we both erupt with cheers just praying that we are able to make it up the treacherous hill. With the fly fishing museum on our left and the amazing sight of a paved highway in front of us, Ben comes into the cab and we take a five-minute breather of intense relief.
After the debacle, we almost forget why we are in the middle of upstate New York anyway, and then the excitement of what dwells in the roaring river hits us simultaneously. Although my wading boots are almost completely frozen and the laces resemble thick, metal wire than hemp, I don’t think about the cold: I just tie on my fly and smile.
With the thought of the Outlaws fresh in my mind, I consciously avoid having any highbrow mentality towards the crotchety spinner fishermen who give me scowls underneath their thick mustaches. I think, “if you’re catching fish and having fun, then you’re catching fish and having fun.”
The first fly I put on is a massive streamer that resembles both the flesh of salmon and their colored eggs.
Streamer (noun): Large flies that instead of resembling bug life, imitate baitfish, crayfish, or larger entities of a fish’ diet.
On my third cast, I feel a slight hesitation at my rod tip, so I aggressively set the hook, but instead of the charging force of a steelhead, I only sense the power of what has to be a small trout. After I guide the fish to the shore, I net the ten-inch brown trout that had attempted to eat a streamer half its size. The hook had gone upwards through the mouth and out the eye. I keep the fish in the comfort of the water, as I slowly take the debarbed hook out of the pupil. Throughout the delicate process, I gently “tickle” the trout as my grandfather used to do and it begins to accept my help. Once free, the fish slowly swims around my hand and then bolts back into to the warmer depths from which it came. The “trout tickle” actually works. I’ll be damned.
Scene III: 7/6/1967
On a warm summer day, Tom sits at his usual perch in the studio. His young daughter, Alice Dibble, sits underneath his feet. All of Alice’s friends have gone off to summer camp or are on some form of summer vacation, so Tom makes his best effort to transform the Peru home into a playground. Alice has her collection of dolls and stuffed animals piled in a corner of a fort that Tom constructed. A blanket is a stapled to the wood frame of the desk, and a tunnel, made from couch pillows, leads to the doorway. When Tom yells, “Brigid”, Alice knows to go and scurry to the house and grab a Genesee from the fridge.
Brigid (noun): a character that Thomas Reilly Dibble created for his daughter stemming from the Irish Saint. Of the many characters that Tom has created in the Dibble household, Brigid was a cue for the retrieval of a beverage.
Alice pokes her head through the blanket and looks up to her father. She sees a man who is intently concentrating on a whittling project. “Dad, where did you get your scar?” Alice knows the story behind the scar, but she always likes to hear it. Tom doesn’t look away from his wood block, as the shavings slowly fall to the ground, but replies in a deep accent, “Well, funny you ask. I was just walking along one day and Bam! The largest tiger I’ve ever seen pounced on my back. I quickly grabbed the beast by the legs and looked deep into his snarl. I thought my life was going to be handed to the gods at this point, but I never gave in. Once I flipped the cat onto her back, I stood up and stretched my coat out with my arms.” Alice, lying down with her hands on her cheeks, listens keenly. “The cat looked close into my eyes, and I looked closely into hers. Without any hesitation in my scowl, the tiger ran back into the dense forest from which she came. The only mark of that spot in time lies with this here scar. I just wait for the day when I run into her again.”
In actuality, the scar came from a dog bite when Tom was a young boy, but his imagination had run wild on a past bedtime story: the scar was from then on, and always, a scratch from a fierce tiger. Alice begins to doze off at her fathers’ feet and he smiles as he finishes his new knife handle. Across the room, Alexandria, who is also asleep, is settled on the wood handle of Tom’s toolbox: a strategy so she never misses out on any adventure.
Tom sneaks away from his chair and begins to pack his Kelty pack for the journey that will ensue the following morning: he and Alice will venture to Big Branch for a night of camping.
Big Branch (noun): a camping location on the Utley Brook in Landgrove, Vermont. The entryway to the nook is a brushy hill, perpendicular to the river, that requires intense focus. Once the incline is completed, a heavenly river scene lies with a camping stove carved into one of the large boulders.
He places fatwood, newspaper, canned beans, fishing bait, and the rest of the Genesee next to a space blanket for himself and an old military sleeping bag for Alice. The Dibble family may be the first individuals to camp this place in centuries, but they don’t ponder that idea. All they know is that whole world could go to a hell in a handbasket, but they would be safe and at home on the rambling brook.
My mother, Alice, and I linger at the kitchen table after a grapefruit and yogurt breakfast. While she begins to knit a “secret” hat for an upcoming birthday, I tie flies for an upcoming fishing excursion. Our spry and charismatic bulldog, Leo, is fast asleep in between us, adding a constant snores to the conversation.
My loose threads and feathers begin to pile up and I can tell my mom-an interior decorator-has a building irritation with the mess. I stand up to get another glass of orange juice, and with my quick movement, all of the stray materials float through the air and shower over Leo. “Get some newspaper while you’re up, we will cover the table like in the old days,” my mom says with a chuckle as she looks down to see her pup covered in quills, still snoring away.
“When I was young, this table would, more often than not, be covered in a thick layer of newspaper. My father would have all of his crafts sprawled out and there was always one his animal friends that followed him into the house,” my mom recounts. “I remember he would fill a cup with ice, and the racoons would stand and play with the blocks with their small paws.”
In front of me is my grandfathers’ old fly tying box, wicker basket, head cement, and tying materials. I visualize a chaotic scene in which these items are next to a mess of wood shavings, palettes, charcoal, fluttering birds, mouse houses, and furry critters. A different time indeed.
Mouse House (noun): Multi-leveled, cardboard maze constructions. These miniature buildings would possess all facets of a regular home even to the detail of ancestral mouse paintings in the micro living rooms.
My mom continues to knit with a slight grin at the corner of her mouth and I can tell she is thinking of her past in the Peru house. Even though her father tried is hardest not to be a “believer” in the mystical, I ask my mom where she thinks he is today. She looks up and looks at me closely and replies, “All I know is that when I take the dogs out at night and look to the windows of his studio, I can sense something. There will be a starry night and I can tell that he is happy that we are here and living in the place the loved the most.”
I ponder a highlighted section of D.H. Lawrence in my grandfathers’ book shelf which spoke of a “Spirit of Place”. Although it might just be such a joy to be doing crafts next to my mom, our conversation that recalls vivid memories seems to bring out a certain energy, or spirit you could say.
Scene IV: 6/8/1991
After his morning pipe, Tom gets up from his stool and walks out of the studio with Patrick right on his hip. He knows that it is time for one last ramble, or possibly, the start to a whole new era of adventures. Tom cracks the passenger seat door and Patrick leaps up into the cab.
They arrive to the Danby Road in Landgrove and slowly roll to the Big Branch pathway. Tom turns on his Walkman- a birthday gift from his children that he cherishes-and Patrick leads the way down the steep incline, exploring every new smell.
Once they arrive to the camping rock, Tom takes out a paper crane that he had fashioned that morning and places it in the rushing stream. Patrick jumps from rock to rock, chasing the miniature naval vessel downstream. It eventually, like they always do, ends up in a back eddy where it slowly spins in the soft current and wind. Tom daydreams of his favorite novels-Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn- and as he glances down at the twirling papier-mâché, he envisions the open sea. Although he was somewhat isolated to his landlocked, home state, his pipedream was to be deep in the rolling waves of the Atlantic. Similar to a Winslow Homer scene, just and a man, his dog, and distant horizon.
All day, the duo just walk the stream and Tom tries to sight trout in the various pools, until the sunset begins to beam through the dense hardwoods. After a supper of green beans, whiskey, and a banana, Tom sets up a fire and the tarp as a light drizzle begins to come down. With the comforting noise of small rain drops striking the black shelter, Tom stares into the moonlit swirls of the brook. The man covers himself with his space blanket and sets up his boot as a pillow: he then falls into a deep sleep with his canine companion resting on his chest.
On a wet, mid-January, day, I take a drive through the rolling dirt roads of Landgrove, passing the many homes of friends and family, until I arrive at the overgrown path down to Big Branch.
The descent down to the stream is not ideal to say the least. With a complete ice cover, I maneuver from sapling to sapling and just murmur to myself, “Do not fall”, the whole way down. Right as the slope begins to transfer to a flat, I chug water and take off my sweat-soaked, Eddie Bauer pullover.
Once I get to the river, I recognize that it has changed dramatically. The intense hurricanes of recent years, especially Irene in 2011, has transformed the layout of the pools, the shape of the bank, and the overall flow of the stream. I still can make out the waterfall where I experienced my first euphoric experience in the wild; when I first began to swim without my parents’ assistance, I explored the depths of the river with my brother. When we got to the turbulence of the falls, which seemed so very powerful in those days, we, with our small statures, could fit behind the waterfall and watch the fluctuating colors of the falling water.
I begin to think of my experience here and then it extends to broad thoughts of my childhood and of family. I ponder the lives of my relatives and their experiences as children and young adults. I consider my future in this area, and how I would be so grateful to have years upon years of memories in this place moving forward. I then envision the old man that impelled my visit to Big Branch.
Just as those before me have passed into the unknown, so will I. Yet, when I reflect on my grandfather and the time and place in which he lived, I don’t envision death. Just like the trolls he would illustrate, I imagine these characters that transcend time and space and will forever be doing the things that they love in the places they most cherished. I just hope that my life will contain some of that magic, but all I can do is proceed as the way opens.
It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they’re better left unsung
I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air
Dedicated to the Wandering Trolls, wherever they may be….