I’ve spent most of my life along the bank of one river or another, including the San Lorenzo in Santa Cruz and the Tiber in Rome, but the river in which I’ve washed away my most of my sins is the Delaware.
I’ve lived in tiny towns on Delaware’s eastern banks and the largest city on its western shore. I’ve seen it from its most picturesque to its filthiest, and have certainly smelled its remarkable spectrum of aromas.
From ages 10 through 17, I lived directly on its banks. When my family arrived in the ‘70s, we landed in the village of Titusville — the site of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. Over the centuries, it’s been a town of lumber mills, mule barges and summer homes for the wealthy. At the time we moved, it had evolved into a sleepy working-class hamlet. The main road was paved with gravel and lined with three churches, two bars and a soft-serve ice cream joint. Not much has changed since then except for the gravel — it’s now asphalt.The Delaware looks like a murky stew of factory run-off, convenience store bags and goose poop.
It was a strange and insular place to grow up. The postmaster knew everyone’s business and the pastor knew everyone’s troubles, regardless of religion.
But the question I’m asked most often about life growing up on the river is this:
YOU SWAM IN THAT THING???
Because sure, viewed from Philadelphia’s Penn’s Landing, Trenton’s waterfront, or the horseshoe crab-paved beaches of the Delaware Bay, the Delaware looks like a murky stew of factory run-off, convenience store bags and goose poop. But north of Trenton things clear up. The water goes from gray, to green, and finally to crystal. And we were IN it. We waded in it, fished in it, swam in it, canoed in it, water-skied in it and in the winter when it froze, we walked on top of it.
But most fun of all, we tubed in it.
Tubing, if you haven’t tried it, is just about the most relaxing thing you can do without memory foam and an Ambien. You grab an old inner tube, or anything that floats (raft, water ski, boogie board), and you walk it upriver to the boat ramp. Better yet, you ask someone with a truck to drive you up.
You smear on some sunscreen. You bring a floating cooler with drinks. If you’re with friends, you bring along some rope to tie yourselves together into an island of feet and giggles. Then you let the river draw you into itself, and you watch time stand still.
Maybe you’ll see the pair of bald eagles that live on Bald Pate Mountain. Maybe you’ll see blue herons and white egrets on the wing. Certainly you’ll see sleepy turtles sunning themselves on trees felled by last year’s storms. If you’re lucky, you’ll see teenagers hurling themselves into the water on rope swing by John’s Island, fueled by wine coolers and their parents’ schwag.
Mostly you’ll think you’re in paradise.
Because you are… until the iced tea runs out and the sun turns brutal and your underarms get tube-rash from paddling towards shore.
But it will all be worth it. You’ll haul your tired body up onto a wooden dock, wrap yourself in a towel and lie under the tree shade. Soon enough, you’ll start thinking about another trip.
When I was a kid, that river was like church for me. I would bring our big yellow dog — curled awkwardly on my lap like a wet bag of hammers — and a book in a Ziploc bag. It was just the three of us, including Jane Austen or the occasional Bronte sister. For a super-dork with a face full of braces and a head full of questions, it was sanctuary.
Now that I’m grown and have a face full of botox (kidding) and a head full of answers (some of them even correct), there isn’t much time for lazy afternoons. Plus my current dumb-ass dog is terrified of water.
But my family is still on that river, and every year, when the days get warmer and the spring floods recede, I can’t wait for that afternoon when I say to my son and my nieces and nephews, along with any neighborhood kids who happen to be around, “Ready for our first tube?”
And that big wheel, it keeps on turning.