I grew up next to the Pacific Ocean. We were drawn to the water’s edge. Summer weekends were spent racing sailboats with my father. First dates might end with an awkward kiss on the beach. The calm of an ocean view and the sound of the surf helped me through difficult life transitions. I learned to navigate around town by always keeping in mind the direction of the ocean. A view of the Pacific was a mandatory first stop for landlocked visitors from the middle of the country. I wondered at a life without the constant presence of the ocean.
On a recent trip to Missoula Montana, I rediscovered what I already knew at heart: that people everywhere are drawn to the water. The Clark Fork River flows right through town. When the afternoons get hot in the middle of summer, people flock to the water. Floating down the river is a favorite local pastime. As I watched from a footbridge, it seemed, at the same time both familiar and exotic. The California beach is a destination. We arrive with our coolers, blankets, umbrellas, and chairs and set up camp; digging in; staking a claim. Whereas the river run is a journey. We start at one end of town and end at the other. We bring all manner of devices: purpose-built or makeshift, solo or lashed together; floating, creating a grand, impromptu parade.