The River You Touch: Making a Life on Moving Water by Chris Dombrowski

The River You Touch: Making a Life on Moving Water is the latest book from poet, fly-fishing guide, and author Chris Dombrowski. In it, Dombrowski recounts and unpacks his life decisions to become a guide, to become a husband, to become a father, and throughout, to become a writer. It is a memoir of sorts, though thematically it is the story of many of us; the story many of us spar with on a daily basis.

I know that the true knowledge of the land, the dense and durable kind, can only be gathered at the landscape’s pace – why do I expect to suddenly attain the accrued intimacy of someone like Dixie, who has traversed these ridgelines for several decades?

In some ways the book can be thought of as two parallel stories – the first, a young man trying to find his way in the world. Trying to understand and embody his vocation and to make peace with the sacrifices demanded, and joys provided by, that work. I speak and write of “vocation” often, but I don’t think it’s improperly used in this instance. Dombrowski, of course, has chosen to be a poet and fishing guide, endeavors which many of us dream of but lack the mettle to pursue them, damn the torpedoes. But Dombrowski has walked that lesser traveled path because he must. He cannot not – the very definition of vocation.

It would take me years to understand that the artist’s life is always, societally speaking, under siege, that most of us work day jobs to earn our time at the desk, or beneath the red-orange darkroom bulb, as the case may be. Colando planted that seed: you went to the work regardless, because your survival depended on it.

Within this first narrative are his experiences becoming a Montana fly-fishing guide, learning his craft in a region that is not his own, but to which he craves to belong. He writes honestly and openly of favorite clients contrasted with the shoulder pain that comes with a long season at the oars. In this story too, are reflections on the importance of friendship and friends who become family. We read of friends coming to the rescue during periods of strife and of borrowed guns and tools, when times are not so fraught. We listen in to intimate conversations over lovingly prepared game meats and backyard produce, nurtured like offerings to the gods. We learn of neighbors and acquaintances, hunting partners and dinner companions, of life, death, and birth. What Dombrowski teaches us in this story is that our common life, our shared life, is not the stuff of life, but the stuff of living. And in case it’s too subtle a message, the experiences Dombrowski recounts so richly are available to all of us, regardless of our location, occupation, or vocation. It is through living his life on his own terms that Chris Dombrowski encourages us to live ours.

Were these folks who lived with wise urgency, who cobbled together lives in lieu of careers, somehow intellectually more liberated, as anthropologists suggested, for all the open space the West afforded? They appeared to be.

 The second story, transposed atop the first, is the journey Dombrowski takes as a father – discovering his wife is pregnant with their first child and all the subsequent fears and joys that come with such news.  Not only become a father – the easy part – but the process of learning to be a father along the way. Dombrowski writes authentically about the struggles of being a new dad, of making ends meet, of the panic that flashes like lightning through our lizard brains when our child is in danger, while writing lovingly about the warmth, the smell, the comfort of a child – your own child, flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone – snuggled up under your chin at the end of another day of toil.

“You can let go a little,” Mary said, gently, as if reading my mind. She waited to see how I would take this comment. “A tight grip can’t hold much.”

But these are really the same story, that of self-exploration and sacrifice, of coming to terms with who each of us become by virtue of our choices, both good and bad, and no small measure of luck, both good and bad. It’s the story of growth and, dare I say it, maturity. In writing it, Dombrowski allows us to see the life arc of another, how multiple streams in our lives often meet at a confluence that we never could have foreseen or imagined. He encourages us to look at the arcs of our own lives too, observing how so many experiences, both good and bad, have made this present moment possible.

To this oarsman there is nothing quite as riveting in the riparian corridor as confluences – holy places, I might say, were all places not so endowed.

In his book, Body of Water: A Sage, a Seeker, and the World’s Most Alluring Fish, Dombrowski first writes of his struggles with his chosen vocations of poetry and guiding, revealing his anxieties and self-doubts, using the character of David Pinder as something of a lens or maybe a mirror, Pinder having long since made peace with who and what he is. In The River You Touch, Dombrowski seems to still be wrestling, as perhaps most of us should, but in a way that is less combative and self-loathing, and is instead more forgiving and loving. The contrast, I think, is that in Body of Water, Dombrowski largely writes as a man while in The River You Touch he writes as a father. This is a subtle distinction but I think it makes all the difference in these books and, I suspect, in Chris Dombrowski as a human being.

Through it all we are lavished with Dombrowski’s descriptions of place, both Montana and Michigan. His love for moving water and his time on it is both palpable and inspiring. We can feel the cool mountain water swirl around our ankles, hear it as it riffles, basking in the warmth of the sun on our face, alongside the author as he plies his trade. But with a poet’s sleight of hand Dombrowski uses the land, the water, friends, and family to hide the fact that his true love isn’t water or fishing but language and writing. Like a hand-tied fly’s mimicry of an insect on the surface of a stream, this isn’t a book about fishing at all, but an author further refining their craft, the culmination of Dombrowski’s life and work thus far.

Practicalities and affirmations aside – “poetry is a fire in the summer,” wrote Basho, “and a fan in winter” – I can’t abandon the practice, which has become, for better or worse, a matter of finding sustenance in language. If I’m not gathering such food my spirit starves.

The River You Touch: Making a Life on Moving Water by Chris Dombrowski is a terrific book that I recommend without hesitation, but be careful, dear reader, lest you read too quickly, too superficially, and miss all that hides beneath the surface.

“I’ve thought about it for a while and it’s better to fail on your own path than to succeed on another’s.”

Listen to my podcast episode with Chris here.

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