The Windmakers


There was a secret about those mountains that looked down on us. Grandpa said one day I’d understand.

The Windmakers

From the front porch of my grandparents’ home, I could see the dark blue, spiny-backed ridge line of a mountain range. The road atlas called them the Clear Creek Mountains, but my Grandpa McClary said they were the Windmakers, though I never heard anyone outside of our family refer to them by that name.

“Why do you call them the Windmakers?” I asked my grandpa one summer evening as we sat on the porch, watching the sun’s last rosy light creep higher on the mountainside.

“Feel that breeze?” Grandpa replied. I did, a cool little gust that ruffled my hair and sent a shiver down my shoulders. Grandpa leaned back on his chair and wrapped his fingers behind his head. “That puff comes right from those mountains. I can tell you almost the exact spot, right up that big canyon next to that feather of snow,” he nodded. “Every day about this time, the wind blows down from those mountains. That’s why I call ’em the Windmakers. Someday I’ll let you in on a secret I know about those mountains.”

“Secret?” The word grabbed my attention, as it would capture the interest of any nine-year-old boy talking with his grandfather.

“Yes, secret. When the time’s right, you’ll understand it,” he promised, a trace of intrigue in his voice. “Don’t try to get it out of me; I won’t tell.”

So I had to be satisfied that I’d learn the secret of the Windmakers at a later time. But it was always on my mind when Grandpa, my father, and I made our annual fishing trip to the mountains.

The trip actually began 300 miles away from the Windmakers, in my hometown. On the first weekend in August, my father came home from work at noon, and we began a ritual honed to perfection through the years. We packed our car and said good-bye to my mother and little sister, Melissa. Then we began the long drive to my grandparents’ home in Springvale, a small town in the shadow of the Windmakers.

On Saturday morning, we’d spread out our camping and fishing gear in Grandpa’s backyard. Then we’d pack all of the equipment in the back of Grandpa’s pickup truck and pull a canvas tarp over it. One of Grandpa’s neighbors, Mr. Dahlstrom, always peeped over the fence during our preparations. “So, Jess, looks like you plan to do some serious fishing this week,” he’d greet. “That we do, Henry, that we do,” Grandpa replied happily.

It took all morning and some of the afternoon to get everything ready, carefully organizing every fish hook, tent peg, and frying pan. We never took much food. “We’ll live off the land, by our wits,” Grandpa winked. When we finished packing, Grandpa always looked solemnly at his truck and pronounced final approval. “We are now ready to go fishing. To the mountains, gentlemen.”

After that, my father turned the truck around and parked it front first in the driveway. “To make our getaway even faster on Monday,” my father explained. “When it comes to fishing and your grandfather, every second counts.”

Sundays, of course, we went to church. Although it was the ward my father grew up in and most people there knew our family, Grandpa took special delight in introducing us to anyone within earshot. “This is my son Richard, and his son, Jason. You remember Richard from his days as a deacon here. He was the ornery one in the bunch, but he turned out all right somehow. Credit his mother for that, I suppose.

“Anyway, he and Jason have come this week to exact a fearsome toll on the fish of the nearby mountains. Next week, I’ll let you know who was victorious—the fish, or the fishermen,” Grandpa pledged.

Early on Monday, when the sky was still black, we’d arise. Grandma McClary always had a huge breakfast on the table for us. “Last decent meal you three will get until you come back,” she teased. After eating, we were off, three generations spanning 50 years, yet close enough to fit snugly on the seat of a pickup truck. Our destination: the Windmakers, their dark outline only now taking shape against the pink morning sky.

The excitement of those mornings still lingers: Grandpa’s unfailing good humor; all of us singing on the drive to the mountains, always very loud and off-key; the fragrance of a forest morning, fresh pine and dew; and the conversation between my father and grandfather, always about good friends, good memories, and good lives.

Ninety minutes into our drive, two tracks of dirt veered away from the main road. We followed the little road a few miles to a small meadow at the foot of a dozen large trees. It was there, with the stream close by, that we pitched camp.

“In the name of our honorable family, I christen thee Camp McClary!” Grandpa exulted while jamming a shovel into the ground.

It didn’t take long for us to set up camp, a tribute to Grandpa’s meticulous packing. After the tent was up and everything in place, we broke out our rods and reels and tugged on our waders. Soon we stood at the water’s edge, casting Grandpa’s hand-tied fishing flies into the riffles and pools.

We worked our way upstream, hopscotching from boulder to boulder, from one bank to the other. Most years the fishing was good, and when one of us caught a fish, the other two invariably let out a whoop. We kept only what we needed. “It would break your grandmother’s heart if we came back a few pounds heavier,” Grandpa said.

The best memories of all, though, are of Grandpa. He was tall, white-haired, and handsome. On our outings to the Windmakers, he always wore a tattered blue hat with a dozen fishing flies hooked to it. He called it his lucky cap, and said it was as important on those fishing trips as his rod and reel.

Late in the afternoon, we hiked back to our camp. Grandpa fried our trout in his homemade lemon butter. Nothing ever has tasted quite as good as those high mountain meals cooked over a campfire. For dessert, Grandpa always had a bag of gingersnap cookies, though I never saw him pack them. We’d sit on the edge of the creek, the three of us, eating cookies and going over the day’s adventures. When the breeze kicked down the canyon in the early evening, Grandpa would lean back and announce: “The Windmakers.”

Tuesdays and Wednesdays were spent fishing. When Thursday came, the truck was loaded, though not quite as carefully as the Saturday before. We drove back to Springvale, arriving about noon. Grandma treated us to a sumptuous lunch, and we took turns grumbling about how bad the food was on our trip. “We stared starvation right in the eye,” Grandpa dead panned. “But your meal here, Sarah, has brought us back from the edge.”

“We were so hungry that we almost forced ourselves to eat some of Dad’s cooking,” my father chimed in.

On Friday, Dad and I returned home. Grandma and Grandpa stood in their driveway, waving good-bye until we turned a corner and went out of sight. We got home a little tired, with some trout in our ice cooler and enough wild tales of our adventure to the Windmakers to last until next August.

I started accompanying my father on the trips to the Windmakers when I was five, and for a decade, the trips varied only slightly. Never did I think that things might someday change. Then, suddenly, they did.

On a late spring day the telephone roused me from a peaceful sleep. I groggily looked at my alarm clock and saw that it was five in the morning. I knew that phone calls at that hour usually don’t bring good news. My father rustled downstairs and I listened.

“Oh no, Mom. I’m so sorry …” his voice trailed off, and I heard a long, deep sigh. Instinctively I wondered if my grandparents were okay. My father spoke again. “Yes, I can get there. I’ll leave this morning. I’m sure that Maryanne will come, too. You rest, if you can. I know there are things to arrange, but leave them to your home teacher. … The kids? Yes, I think they can make the trip.”

As he spoke those words, I knew that I would not go fishing again with my Grandpa McClary in the Windmakers.

As the weeks passed, I wondered if I would ever visit the Windmakers again. Grandpa McClary was so much a part of those trips, from the packing ritual on Saturday to the gingersnaps each evening at water’s edge. I knew how difficult it would be for me to look upstream and not see him smiling and waving, the old blue cap perched on his head The trip wouldn’t be the same; therefore, I reasoned, it wouldn’t be as good. And the secret of the Windmakers? Maybe Grandpa was just talking. Maybe there was no real secret. I made up my mind: no more trips to the Windmakers. It was a part of my life that was over. All good things must come to an end, and this was one of them. I congratulated myself on my maturity. I was learning some lessons early in life, or so I thought.

School let out, and I got a part-time job at a grocery store. August was coming fast, and to my satisfaction, nothing had been said about a fishing trip with my father. Certainly I wasn’t going to bring up the subject.

Then my mom stepped in.

I was at the grocery store one Monday afternoon pulling cans of corn to the front of the shelf, my thoughts a million miles away.

“Excuse me, sir, but where may I find the canned corn?”

“Right here—oh, hi Mom! I didn’t recognize your voice. Guess my mind was wandering.”

“Thinking of a vacation? Tahiti? Paris? Fishing with your father?”

“Tahiti sounds fine, but I don’t think I’ll be going to the Windmakers without Grandpa.” A slight look of disappointment flickered across her face, but she quickly recovered and smiled.

“Oh, I see,” she said. “I suppose it wouldn’t be quite the same. But have you thought it might be a great trip for just you and your father?”

“Yeah, maybe,” I answered with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

She turned her head as though looking for something farther down the aisle. “Do you have a break coming, Jason? I’d like to talk with you for a few minutes.”

“Sure, I can take a few minutes. Let me check with Bill. Then I’ll meet you outside.”

Mom was sitting on the curb along the store’s parking lot. “Pull up a chair,” she said, motioning to the space next to her on the curb. “You’ve been on your feet since you came to work, I imagine.”

“You’ve got that right. So what’s up, Mom?”

“I’d like to talk about Dad’s vacation. I know that he’s just waiting for you to drop a hint about going back to the mountains. He’d take you up on it in a second, if he thought you wanted to return to the Windmakers.”

“But that’s the point, Mom. I’ve thought a lot about it, and I’ve decided I don’t want to go back there. That whole trip depended so much on Grandpa. He did everything.”

Mothers everywhere, I’m sure, are among the most persistent people in the world, and mine was no different. I could see by the look she gave me that she wasn’t about to let the subject die.

“Do you know why Grandpa McClary always took your father to the Windmakers?”

“Well, the fishing was always pretty good.”

“Think, Jason. That was much more than a fishing trip, and you know it.” She straightened her back and looked directly at me. “Your great-grandfather McClary was a miner. He was a hardworking man, and I guess a little bit stern. Maybe he had to be, because there wasn’t much room for frivolity in those days. Don’t mistake me, he was a good person and provided well for his family during some very lean years. But there was a price. He didn’t get as close to his children as he might have, particularly his oldest son, your Grandpa McClary,” Mom explained softly. “There was a distance between them, even though I know they loved each other.”

I’d heard only a little about my great-grandfather. I knew he worked in the mines, and that not a man in the county could hold out long against him in an arm wrestling match. But that was the extent of my knowledge about him.

“Grandpa McClary very simply did not want any distance between him and his son,” Mom continued. “He wanted to be close, just as your father wants always to be close to you. The fishing trip was one way of accomplishing that. It wasn’t a gimmick, understand. It was a tradition—a family tradition, started with a purpose.” Mom reached over and put her arm around my shoulders. “Jason, I just don’t want to see a third-generation legacy end.”

My head was down. “I didn’t think of it that way,” I said. Maybe my newfound maturity was really no more than an old-fashioned case of selfishness. Strong families have strong traditions. And I was on the verge of ending one that began 30 years earlier with my grandfather and father. I looked at Mom. “I’ll talk with Dad tonight.”

“Thanks, Jason. This means a lot to him,” she said, standing up. “You’d better get back to work now.”

It was a family custom to talk about the upcoming week and make plans after home evening. When the lesson was over, Dad looked at each of us. “Business?” he asked. “How about you, Maryanne?”

“A stake Primary meeting on Tuesday. That’s it for me.”

“Melissa?”

“Kristin asked me to come to her house on Thursday. Mom said it was okay with her if it’s okay with you,” my sister said.

“I don’t see why not, as long as Kristin’s parents know about it. Jason?”

“I’m only working Thursday and Friday of this week, so everyone should see me around a little more,” I said.

“Good. We haven’t seen enough of you since you started your job,” Dad said. He closed the family home evening book and started to stand up.

“Dad, there is something else,” I said. “I was wondering what we were going to do about our vacation in August.” I spoke slowly. “I’d like to go fishing again in the Windmakers.”

My father sat back down in his chair, a startled look on his face. “Are you sure, Jason?”

“I’m sure. It’s something that I don’t want to give up.”

Dad leaned all the way back in his chair. “This comes as a surprise. I didn’t think you wanted to go, so that’s why I never asked.” He looked at Mom and Melissa. “How about you two?”

“I think it would be great if you and Jason went to the mountains,” Mom answered, not trying to conceal her excitement in the slightest way. “Don’t worry about us. Melissa and I don’t exactly sit around and mourn your absence. It’s a time when we can do some things together, too.”

Dad’s enthusiasm was bubbling like a pot of boiling water. “Of course I need to check with Grandma, but my guess is that her only question will be why it took so long to ask. I’m sure we can find all the gear. Yes, I think we can work it all out.” He took off his glasses and bound out of his chair. “I’m going to the garage to begin sorting through some of the equipment.”

I can remember few times when I’d seen my father as happy. He reached the door leading to the garage and turned back towards me. “Jason, we’re going to the Windmakers.”

And so we did. Two weeks later, we left for Springvale on a Friday afternoon. Saturday morning, Dad rummaged through Grandpa’s basement. He found everything we needed for camping. He even came across Grandpa’s fishing hat and tried it on. “Naw, let’s retire it,” he said while glancing in a mirror. “Only Grandpa could wear this thing and make it look right.” We spent all afternoon packing. The results weren’t up to Grandpa’s standards, but we guessed he would have approved anyway. Dad pointed the pickup truck toward the street, so that we wouldn’t lose precious seconds Monday.

On Sunday we went to church. In priesthood meeting, Dad stood and introduced us. “I’m Richard McClary, and I grew up in this ward. This is my son, Jason, and it’s a family tradition for us to go fishing here at this time of the year. We’ll be back in our home ward next week, but I’ll be sure to have my mother tell you who was victorious—the fish or the fishermen.”

Monday, we arose before dawn and ate a big breakfast with Grandma. We drove to the Windmakers and set up our camp just as we had in all the previous years. We fished all day. In the evening, Dad took over the cooking chores. “You’re not as good as Grandpa, but you show potential,” I told him between bites.

After dinner, we went to the edge of the stream. Right on cue, Dad pulled a bag of gingersnaps from his coat. We climbed a couple of boulders, munched on cookies, and talked for hours as the sun dropped below the ridge line and the stars took their places in the sky. The wind came huffing down the canyon, like an old friend calling.

“The Windmakers, Jason. I’m glad we came.”

“So am I.”

With the wind on my face, sitting at streamside, it seemed that Grandpa McClary wasn’t very far away at all.

That first trip to the mountains without my grandfather was 14 years ago. I now have a son. He turned five this year. Last week, we returned from his first trip to the mountains. Grandma McClary is now well into her 80s, so my mother comes each year to visit and help with the meals.

I watched my little boy this year as one discovery came upon another. I saw his wide-eyed amazement when he caught his first fish. I saw the excitement in his face whenever he gazed upstream and saw my father—his Grandpa McClary—waving to him.

I know the secret of the Windmakers now. It doesn’t have much to do with tall mountains, clear streams, or old blue fishing caps. The secret is about fathers and sons, and how they stay close.

The first evening, as the three of us sat at stream’s edge eating gingersnaps and listening to the water rush by, the wind began to blow. I pulled my little son close to me and softly said, “Your great-grandpa used to call these mountains the Windmakers. Do you want to know why?”

He said yes, so I began to share a secret and a tradition with a new generation, father to son.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Mann