A river runs through me

Mole from The Wind in the Willows

“Oh, it’s all very well to talk,” said the Mole, rather pettishly, he being new to a river and riverside life and its ways.

A river, even one as dammed and sluggish as the Colorado in Austin, is a great place to ponder the power of nature, the insignificance of man, and other Very Deep Thoughts. Humans have always loved rivers; our bodies, after all, are 60 to 70 percent water. Rivers connote baptism, cleanness, purity, replenishment, power, life itself. When I stand in or next to running water, I find it impossible not to think about travel, and possibility, and change; the water now passing by me probably began its journey hundreds of miles away, and that journey probably won’t end for more hundreds of miles, in the ocean. Rivers are simultaneously linear and cyclical, a conundrum I find inexplicably pleasing. (And how can a river “empty” into the sea if it’s always full of water?)

When I was a wee lad, my favorite book was The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame’s masterpiece of pastoral Edwardian anthropomorphism, featuring Mole, Rat, Badger, and of course the insufferably self-important Toad. Much of the book concerns itself with life along an unnamed river (presumably the Thames, on the banks of which Grahame passed a happy childhood in the village of Cookham in Berkshire), which appealed to me immensely and perhaps helps explain my subsequent fascination with rivers.

Here are some of my personal favorites: the Rio Grande, the Blanco, the Mississippi, the Hudson, the Columbia, the Arkansas, the Roaring Fork, and the Frying Pan; the Thames and the Derwent; the Tiber and the Arno, into which I scattered my mother’s ashes many years ago.

But the river that is closest to my heart, both physically and emotionally, is the Colorado—the Texas Colorado, I mean. We Austinites take an inordinate pride in our river, even though it’s much the smaller of the two by that name in the American Southwest. Indeed, the Colorado and its various natural and manmade tributaries and manifestations (Barton Springs, Hornsby Bend, Lady Bird Lake, Lake Austin, Lake Travis, et al.) are the true center of the city, more than the Capitol or the University of Texas or even Scholz’s.

People engage in all kinds of activities in and on and beside the river: canoeing, kayaking, rowing, jogging, walking, biking, fishing, and picnicking. (And those are just the legal ones!) Even those who don’t spend a lot of time on or near the water (like me) take comfort in knowing that it’s there.

To return to The Wind in the Willows, I’m definitely more Mole than Rat (or at least Mole early in the book, before he’s learned to love the river). I’ve never been much of a swimmer, and Jaws pretty much put me off the ocean for good.

I’ve never been much for water sports, either, but a couple of months ago Heather (who’s a dedicated rower) and our daughters decided to try stand-up paddling, which has become very trendy in Austin. They had a great time, and Heather and Thea have tried to go once a week since then, but until this week I had stubbornly resisted their invitations to join them. Having missed those initial lessons, I knew how frustrated I’d get when Heather and Thea went skimming on ahead of me, standing gracefully on their boards, while I struggled (and occasionally failed) to keep my balance, legs jittering like a sewing machine as my board bobbed helplessly in their wake.

Perhaps I was addled by the early summer heat, but I finally took the plunge (haha!) on the Fourth of July. Of course the lake was crowded with rowers and canoeists and kayakers and stand-up paddlers, all of whom looked considerably more competent and confident than I. We headed off from the Texas Rowing Center dock and up the river to Red Bud Isle; I paddled out from the dock on my knees, and finally, tentatively, managed to stand up on the board. I fell off a few times, and I never did figure out how to get any speed going—Heather and Thea got up there and back way ahead of me, and on the way back, with the wind hitting me in the face and my arms feeling heavier with every stroke, I felt like I might actually be moving backward (which hardly seemed fair, since I was supposed to be heading downstream). I began to wonder if I would ever actually make it back to the dock on my own, or if they’d have to send a motor launch out to tow me in. When I finally made it back and staggered onto the dock, I tried not to sob openly in relief.

“Are you all right?” Heather asked me.

“Oh, yeah,” I gasped, smiling wanly.

I was, of course, lying. At that moment I wanted to curl up and lie down in an air-conditioned room and never, ever go outside again.

A few days later, however, there I was again, standing knee-deep in the river on the north side of Red Bud Isle, facing Tom Miller Dam, with a fly rod in my sweaty hands. Heather and I had decided to try our hands at fly-fishing without the beneficent guidance of Tink Pinkard. Soon after we set up and started casting I looked over and saw that Heather was taking her rod too far back on her back cast—one of the few observations about anyone’s casting that I’m even halfway competent to make—and, like a dummy, said something about it to her. I regretted opening my mouth even before I’d finished speaking.

She glared at me and said, with some asperity, “Would you like me to tell you what you’re doing wrong too?”

Needless to say, I backed off and shut up. Later she apologized for snapping at me, saying that hearing criticism from men, especially men who were no more competent than she, concerning athletic endeavors was one of her particular bugaboos.

I couldn’t blame her, of course; I probably would have reacted exactly the same way, or worse, had she said something similar to me. But of course she never would; I’m the one afflicted with Male Answer Syndrome, after all.

My faux pas aside, the casting went pretty well, at least for a while, but I had gotten no action on the fly I was using (some kind of tan thing that Tink had given us) and finally decided to switch over to a black woolly bugger. (My friend Bruce, a recent convert to fly-fishing, had been going to Red Bud Isle three nights a week, and said he’d caught several fish on woolly buggers.)

I nipped off the old fly and started to tie on the woolly bugger, but my extremely limited knot-tying skills suddenly deserted me, and I couldn’t for the life of me tuck the end of my leader back through the loop…. I stood there, sweating and cursing silently, for about fifteen minutes, trying to tie that knot, before I gave up, took my rod apart, and went in search of Heather, who’d waded around to the other side of a little point. (Consider the words of Jack Ohman: “If you’ve got short, stubby fingers and wear reading glasses, any relaxation you would normally derive from fly-fishing is completely eliminated when you try to tie on a fly.”) I stood and watched her for a while, looping her fly out with stately, calm casts, and realized that this might be yet another activity at which I might never be as good as she.

On the other hand, I’ve found very little to match the satisfaction to be derived on those rare occasions when it’s all working, when you’re casting beautifully and rhythmically, the rod is loading, the line is singing, the fly is rolling out in a perfect straightening curl. At such golden moments, catching a fish is really beside the point; the esthetics of the experience are paramount, and the rhythm, the Zen calm. You’re in the zone. It may not happen often, but it’s a feeling I want to experience as often as I can. So if you come looking for me over the next few evenings, while Heather’s visiting family in Colorado, you may find me on Red Bud Isle, struggling with knots and trying to unsnarl my line. After all, there are worse ways to spend a punishingly hot summer evening than up to one’s knees in a river.

“And you really live by the river? What a jolly life!”

“By it and with it and on it and in it,” said the Rat. “It’s brother and sister to me, and aunts, and company, and food and drink, and (naturally) washing. It’s my world, and I don’t want any other. What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing.”

What we’re reading
Mary Doria Russell, Doc
Martin: Josh Wilker, Cardboard Gods: An American Tale

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4 Responses to A river runs through me

  1. It’s true that there is nothing so soothing as a river. And don’t even get me started on Huck Finn!
    Could it be that this Pinkard person is the one who took my license plate? When I applied for a vanity plate in Texas, I was told that “Tinky” was taken…

  2. Janis Monger says:

    Martin — This is one of your loveliest columns. I feel the water, the breeze, the lazy feel of summer. I particularly love the title. Rivers run through us … and we are better for it. Thank you for sharing! Janis

  3. Tink Pinkard says:

    Great post! Martin, lets get together this week and do some angling!! Tinky it was not me who took the vanity plate, promise!!

  4. susan farrimond says:

    I loved this article with the tales of your trials and tribulations on the Colorado. Being a child that grew up on the banks of the Texas Colorado, I have always had the greatest respect for the river. The people of Smithville never viewed the Colorado as having any recreational value. The house from Hope Floats was at the end of my street. I was never tempted to wander to the river because the banks of the river were covered in high grass and the mention of cottonmouth water moccasins was all it took to scare me away. Since the black children had no swimming pool, they swam in the river. Someone was always getting bitten by a snake or drowning. Not for me. I think I would have walked on the water to keep away from the snakes.

    We did get a weekly treat from the river, however. Many people who fished in the Colorado would take their fish to the grocery stores and sell them. Hence, when my grandmother made her morning call to Shirosky’s Grocery, she was informed of the freshest item they had, and when ordered it was soon delivered to our house. When that item was fish, we always had fried catfish and hush puppies for lunch that day. Our main meal was at lunch, supper was leftovers.

    Thank you for writing such good tales. They conjure up a lot of memories and sometime they even manage to make the wheels in my head turn.

    The people of Austin were always more citified so they found something in the river that was recreational. I swam at Barton Springs and in the Austin lakes and never feared a water moccasin. Go figure! Same river, just wider.


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