When I was 10 years old, some of my most dramatic childhood memories were fertilized in and by the mouth of the Klamath River in Northern California. With my father Hugh and Grandpa Harry, my brother Steve and I fished for large salmon with Native American guides. The sounds of the Requa tribesmen yelling, “Fish on!”, the taste of the crisp grilled cheese sandwiches and steamy tomato soup in the coffee shop by the dock, and the images of the fishermen cleaning their catch (and dock dogs waiting for slithery roe) are blackened into my mind. Thanks to the Klamath.
When I was in 8th grade, I leaned against the gym wall and dreamed of a cute guy working up the nerve to ask me to dance to Andy Williams’ romantic song, Moon River. It never happened.
As an American literature teacher for 36 years, I have guided students down the Mississippi River in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, along the Big Two-Hearted River with Ernest Hemingway, and of course, explained George’s agonizing decision to end Lennie’s life beside a Salinas river in Of Mice and Men.
Rivers are major symbols.
This past week, I spent several days by and on the McKenzie River in Oregon. Moving down this frisky waterway, commandeered by our guide Dean, in a syncopated rhythm of oars, my mind wandered from osprey nest to beaver dam. Life is usually perfect and clear on a river. I thought of life’s journey and the many rocks and other obstacles that sometimes upend our goals. The many creatures, predators and prey, toyed with my sense of justice. We caught 40 trout but threw all but seven back to swim again.
We ate the seven for lunch.
Our guide Dean was born in Blue River, the son of another guide, who began guiding in the 1920’s. Dean has probably shepherded down the river 5000 of us who wish to commune and ponder the journey. He is a true native trout (not a plant) who knows every eddy, fishing hole, and rapid on the McKenzie.
It’s funny how a major statement of nature, a river, can crystallize and settle all of life’s big questions.
Where are we going?
Why the troubles?
Who are the victims?
What is the meaning?
How do we get there?
The river with its power, direction, velocity, and steady course answers those questions.
I looked in the rear view mirror, and I saw a young girl with a 45-pound salmon, hoisting it up as far as she could muster for a Polaroid snapshot that now is yellowed in a scrapbook.
I looked in the rear view mirror and saw an awkward teen hoping to make a connection.
I looked in the rear view mirror and saw a young, vital teacher hoping to transfer knowledge and passion.
The swish, the froth, the clarity and movement of the river remind us that the journey is eternal.