One day, my older son, Jason, announced that there was one more thing he wanted to do before school started. This was a long time ago. As we left the dock, we felt the cool air coming up from the water. Fishing air feels and smells like no other air. It cools your face and gets in under your shirt, and everything is left behind—all work, all worries, all the static of the city.
“Remember last time?” asked Jason, as he let his line out behind the boat. I did. Here, we had seen the strangest sight: at the very end of the lake, violet hills and green pastures and scattered cattle and a little river running through the willows, a valley that seemed to recede from view as we approached. “The closer we get, the farther away it seems,” I had said to him. His eyes had grown wide. The light had turned red and begun to fade. We had turned back.
“This time, I’d like to go find the mystery valley,” said Jason.
So, just after dawn, we headed straight for the endless arm and the valley at the end. It took a long time to get there. As we approached, Jason said with awe, “It’s like Africa.”
The foothills looked like pink sheets plucked up by invisible fingers, and a stream ran between them and out of another century, meandering slow as Sunday morning through willows and cottonwoods, oozing eventually through a marsh and into the lake. “Look!” said Jason. Ahead, we saw the fields of mustard grass and cattle and two white egrets standing tall, lifting their feet in slow motion, watching the surface of the water. We moved through the shallows and into the stream. Running the outboard slowly, I slid the boat between drowning bushes. Minnows shot ahead and to each side. The air closed in.
Jason’s job was to watch for stumps and hidden obstructions below the surface. He knelt on the front seat and leaned over.
“Dad, a log…Dad, an…alligator!”
He straightened up, eyes wide. “I thought it was a log, but then the log moved forward real quick and ate a minnow.” He said the thing was as long as the boat, or almost as long.
Probably a big catfish or carp, I told him. “Water magnifies. But then again it could be…”
Pause. “…the monster of mystery valley.”
Jason rolled his eyes. Nine-year-olds do a lot of eye-rolling. But I could tell part of him believed in the possibility, and that he was pleased.
Irecalled a similar morning on the Lake of the Ozarks. It is one of my earliest memories. I had looked up at the sky as my father and mother had loaded rods and tackle boxes into the boat, and had seen a sun so swollen that it had seemed to fill half the sky. An optical illusion, I’m sure, but to this day, part of my mind still believes that on certain magical days the sun approaches us like an eye at the other end of a microscope.
Jason and I moved forward, got stuck a couple times, poled out with an oar. And far up the stream, where the air grew silent, we banked the boat and got out. I wanted to see what was in the line of trees; perhaps it was a deeper channel. So we headed across a mushy field of high weeds, through drifting clouds of green, newly hatched flies. Our feet sank down now, six inches below the surface, then more…
At the edge of the trees was a shallow pool of muddy water where something moved beneath the surface. As we approached, a phalanx of panicked life charged away from us, churning the water. We waded on, beneath the trees, where the light was coming down in a kind of sunfall through the branches, and then we stood, awestruck in the silence.
As far as we could see was what appeared to be a field of glowing, green snow. We reached down, both of us, and scooped up fistfuls of duckweed, each plant with the delicacy of miniature clover. Both of us, I think, stopped breathing for a moment, and we stood there for a long time looking out across that scene, and finally we let out our breath.
After a while we headed back to the brown pool, and knelt in the water. “Feel around,” I said, moving my hands in the muck below the surface.
“Really, do it.” I felt something moving and came up with it in my hand: a squirming, fat bullfrog tadpole.
Jason, excited and proud, caught one, too.
We made our way back to the boat, and Jason climbed in. I took my rod from the boat, and waded along the stream, pulling the boat behind me. I saw a flash of color and a good-sized bass hit my fly just below the surface. And, of course, I hooted and hollered and fell sideways into the stream. Jason pointed. He could see an even bigger fish following the one on my line. A few minutes later, I held the bass in the water and stroked its belly and we watched it slowly swim away.
I made a wish: that when Jason reached my age, he would still believe in the monster of mystery valley, and that he would know that, sometimes, the closer you are to a place, the farther away it can become.
We turned the boat and moved back down the stream. Jason again scouted the shadows in the water, watching for danger until he could no longer see the bottom, and the valley disappeared around a bend.
Richard Louv is chairman of the Children and Nature Network. He is the author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” “The Web of Life,” and other books.
Illustration by Dave Mollering