I was melting.
Were it not for the late afternoon breeze, I was sure I’d dissolve into a puddle of my own sweat right there on the side of the road. I could almost hear the rubber on the bottoms of my flip flops sizzling against the asphalt. Heat rose in waves from the blacktop, or was I hallucinating from dehydration?
Where did Spring go, I thought as I inflated my Hala stand up paddleboard.
My sunglasses slid down my nose. Streaks of sunscreen stung my eyes. In the distance, I could hear the water lapping along the shoreline, taunting me as I cooked in the sun.
When the board was inflated, I practically ran to the river’s edge. The SUP slapped the surface of the water. I leaped from the banks, stumbling forward and nearly smacking myself in the eye with a t-grip. After a few wobbly strokes, I cruised out into the current and found my rhythm — stroke, stroke, crossbow stroke, stroke, stroke, crossbow stroke, switch.
Soon, the roar of traffic along county road 676 eased into the breeze. It was quiet, save for the slurp of water filling in behind my blade and the chatter of birds in the trees. A blue heron lifted off from a branch above me and gracefully sailed across the reservoir.
I stopped paddling and closed my eyes, feeling the wind gently push me along. I took a deep breath.
Three words came to mind: this is home.
Of course, it’s not really home. I don’t consider Charlottesville, Va., and certainly not the South Fork of the Rivanna River reservoir (where I was currently paddling), home. Even the house where I grew up doesn’t feel like home. It’s where my parents live, it’s in my hometown, but it’s not home.
No. After a year of living on the road, I’ve come to realize that home is where the heart is, which is why those three words came to mind as I floated along the still waters of the reservoir.
This is home.
For all of my life, water has brought me peace.
As a child, I wandered the 400 acres of pastures and woodlands that surrounded our one-story farmhouse. The property, which was a fully operating thoroughbred racehorse farm at the time, was home to a pond that once provided water to the houses and barns. It now sits dry and empty, like a colossal crater leftover from a meteor. Even as a kid it was never entirely full. Truth be told, it was more of a big mud puddle that sat where a pond once was, but to my youthful imagination, it was a vast sea filled with mythological creatures. I’d go and sit by the pond for hours, catching tadpoles and sinking up to my knees in rich red mud. Sometimes I’d wait in hiding for the farm’s foxes and deer to come to the pond for a drink, imagining that I could talk to them, and they to me.
We eventually moved away from the farm, but not away from water altogether.
The Shenandoah River was just a few minutes from our new house, and as I grew older, I’d often take the gravel road that paralleled the river on my way to school. I pulled off at the same bend in the road every day just to sit by the river, listening to the gurgle of water tumbling over rock. On weekends, my girlfriends and I would grab our inner tubes and float downstream, tanning and gossiping.
In college, the South Fork of the Holston River became my new sanctuary. Where bodies of water in the past had brought me peace and stillness, the class II-III rapids on the South Fork gave me something different — challenge. It was here that I learned to navigate whitewater and hone my kayaking skills. I swam through its benign rapids more often that I care to admit, but it was in that challenge of learning to kayak that I found a different kind of peace. It was one more of acceptance, both for who I was and who I strived to be. The river taught me patience, humility. It taught me that I was stronger than I had lent myself to believe for the past then-19 years.
From there, the New River Gorge pushed me even further. I was no longer surrounded by the close-knit family of paddlers I’d amassed in southwestern Virginia. I was on my own, a small fish in a relatively big sea of talented raft guides and class V kayakers. I paddled solo, or “soul boated,” for my first time ever on the New River Gorge. I was scared shitless, but it made me a better boater and a more confident person all-around.
My relationship with water has only continued to blossom over the years. From the Upper Yough to the Russell Fork Gorge, I’ve learned that rivers have a lot to teach, if one will simply stop and listen. My love of water has since transcended from a ‘want’ to a ‘need.’
That’s why I call it river therapy, because it’s here, on the water, where I feel at home. Whether lake or creek or big volume river, my heart is where the river flows, even if it flows nowhere at all.
Where is home for you? Leave a comment below! I’d love to know where you find peace and beauty and, sometimes, a big ol’ slice of humble pie.