Opening my eyes into the stark, late-summer sky revealed clouds which would never harm a picnic. If white is gauged by absence then those nebulous bodies were barely there. The river's current was picking up pace. Rapids laid ahead in wait, but first a friendly denizen. He was piling flat stones atop one another, his gray chest hair shamelessly displayed, while his wife looked on in innocent bliss from her perch on a creekside boulder. "That's not a rock," I jibed, floating by, as he approached his zen creation with a two-foot piece of yellow-painted driftwood. "I'm bending the rules a bit," he replied. His submarine had landed. He knew right where he was. His wife, in her modest one-piece swimsuit, crossed her legs and winked my way--or maybe it was a reaction to that far-off furnace blinding her left side.
After the accelerated ration of ripples I came upon a fisherman, clearly from out of town. His pole was too long for the limited casting distance, his waders were too new to have experience behind them, and his gait within the water seemed as though a frog had stood erect. I pitied his doomed excursion and empty creel. The net tethered to his hip would not be needed today. I anticipated a glance and was ready to silently point upstream, then lift four fingers to indicate the number oncoming tubers, but no such look was given. His polarized lenses stayed in the eddies made by rocks. I wanted to warn him in case of collision. Instead, he focused on trout out of sight that would have laughed him back to Long Island if such a thing was possible. The Esopus carried me closer to Phoenicia. I didn't argue.
The next peaceful stretch was a lesson on the stubborn. I was just as guilty since I'd ventured north alone. It seemed a sad break in tradition to not enjoy this rustic pleasure I'd indulged in for fifteen years due to a lack of constant company. Abstaining from my annual tubing adventure would be silent confession to the sin of getting old. Thirty meant Reality, but thirty wasn't Dead. Neither was the river. There were strangers I could talk to. There was Nature, always listening. And as the case has always been the words played in my head. A heron, not so cheerful, watched as I approached. The shallow pool she hunted would soon be disturbed by my presence. Her four-foot wingspan opened and she floated, airborne, thirty yards downstream. A few half-hearted pecks at the water yielded no stabbed sustenance. From the corner of her eye she saw that dreadful human. I smirked apologetically. She lifted off again. The pattern repeated for what felt like ten minutes before she flew into the forest. I felt bad for my trespass. I knew the pang of hunger.
There are themes throughout our books and lives, though none of them as strong as redemption. The second fisherman I saw was a poem by Robert Frost. His sway matched the current, man and momentum as one. His clothing and gear were older than the teenager who rented me the tube in town. A pipe was pinched by the corner of his wrinkled mouth, giving him a mild resemblance to Popeye, and if the fish knew what was good for them they'd acknowledge this man's talent. I lifted my limbs from the water to avoid stirring up the muck or spooking wary trout. My right index finger found its way to my pursed lips in the international symbol for "Shhh" to imply I was aware that trout fishing's more like hunting. The old timer smiled with his eyes, creases jutting towards his temples, as he lazily let his lure plop into a hole he trusted. "If more people went down like you I might actually catch something," he said above the din of rushing water. "I thank you." I remained silent for the duration of my passing, well knowing that his modesty was not founded in truth. He'd had his shares of beauties. Those who have don't talk about it; still the sailor shares his day.