Iíve never lived very far from the water.
I grew up in the Missouri Delta, where the mighty Mississippi takes a slightly more docile turn, spreading out a bit and taking things a bit slower than it does farther north.
As a child, I swam in its water, caught fish from its depths and watched as tugboats pushed long strings of barges up and down the silver road that stretched off into imagination.
I read the stories of Mark Twain and imagined floating down that road myself, and the adventures I might have along the way. Iíve had its mud between my toes and its sand in other, shall we say, less comfortable places.
Iíve traveled its waters in boats both large and small, from the S.S. Admiral to a bass boat or two. Iíve played cards on a riverboat casino and drank whiskey out of a Mason jar under a star-filled sky on its banks. Iíve been sung to sleep by the sound of waves, insects, frogs and night birds and been kept awake by the buzzing of mosquitos and gnats.
Iíve crossed it too many times to count, from Iowa to Louisiana. Iíve traced some of its tributaries as far east as Pennsylvania, where the Allegheny rolls out of the northeast before joining its brothers on the way south and west.
Iíve seen the roiling waters like a giant speed bump where other rivers ó the Ohio, the Missouri and the Arkansas ó join its flow. Iíve seen where it ends, pouring into the Gulf of Mexico like the lifeblood of the world.
Iíve seen its awesome beauty and its terrible power.
Many of my fondest memories revolve around it. I caught my first fish in the river when I was 5 or 6, a big silver carp that almost stole my pole, and me with it. I wanted ó no, demanded ó to eat that fish. It wasnít great, but I caught it, so I wanted to eat it.
I remember riding with my grandfather as we drove to Cairo, Ill., to get barbecue from this old, somewhat rundown place he liked, watching the river out the window as we drove across the bridge and him explaining why the water looked so rough below us as the Ohio merged with the mightier river.
Some years later, the members of my Boy Scout troop camped along the bank near a pond that was so full of fish we couldnít call it fishing. It was catching.
I still remember everything about that trip. To this day, the slightly moldy smell of old canvas takes me right back.
I remember us taking sticks to a monster snapping turtle that claimed the pond ó and anything in it, including our stringers, heavy with all the fish we caught ó as his own. We beat back the dragon and saved most of our catch, putting our fish in buckets thereafter and daring each other to stick our toes in the water.
After what seemed like a perfect day, the smell of the smoke from our campfire and the mouthwatering aroma of the fish we caught earlier that day frying over the fire pulled us back from our swimming in the shallows (of the river, not the pond; that turtle was still in there) and we all ate till we were fit to burst.
That night, amid occasional stops for símores and rigging juglines for catfish, we watched the boats traveling up and down, getting a thrill as the searchlights from the tugs swept over us on the bank and the helmsmen goosed the horn as they passed.
As I got older, my memories took a different turn. Fishing was not foremost in my mind. Boats sometimes played a part, as did the occasional bonfire, but I was chasing other things. Iíll keep those memories to myself.
Now, in the middle years of my life, I still find myself on a river, even closer to the water. Itís not the same river, but it gets there eventually.
Then again, even the big river is never the same. Thatís its nature ó ever flowing, ever changing. Old Man River just keeps rolling along. Like time. Like life.
Thatís both comforting and a little disconcerting. I donít like change, but I love the river. I always will. Itís predictable in its unpredictability. It reminds me to keep going, keep striving, and that itís OK, occasionally, to get a little mud between my toes.