When boyhood friendships were forged outdoors

After his friend’s passing, a writer reflects on a life spent chasing fish and toads.

 

My good friend passed away in December of 2012 at the age of 54. Steve Van Hoose was a business guy. I’m a science guy — a biologist and hospital pharmacist. As boys, we had more in common, mostly reptiles and amphibians. We became friends in 1970, when we were both living at the Quantico Marine Base in northern Virginia, where our dads were stationed as Marines. On summer days, we rode our bikes to Chopawamsic Creek, where we hopped from rock to rock, searching the water for turtles and frogs and snakes. The woods and streams of Quantico seemed like paradise. But military life is a nomadic existence, and our boyhood friendship ended scarcely a year after we met, when my family left for Massachusetts and Steve’s for California.

Some 10 years later, out of the blue, Steve called me. He had recently graduated from college and decided to reconnect with childhood friends. Over the next 30 years, we got together often, exploring the deserts of the Southwest, hiking, camping and fishing in Yosemite and other parts of the Sierra Nevada. We especially liked “herping” — looking for the same kinds of reptiles and amphibians we had searched for on Chopawamsic Creek. Even as adults, few things excited us as much as finding snakes, from 12-inch garter snakes to five-foot rattlers. In this way, Steve introduced me to the West, to the plants, animals and natural history of California and the Southwest. From ocotillo and Joshua trees, to horned toads, hawks and hummingbirds, he was a fountain of knowledge.

Two boys look for creatures to catch.

For most of the last 20 years of his life, Steve lived in Ripon, a small town in the Central Valley. The Stanislaus River flowed near his home, and he spent many hours wading, canoeing and casting his fishing line into its cool, clear waters. Steve would take me to the Stanislaus whenever I came to visit.

We’d park at the local golf course and walk through groves of walnut trees. Steve would follow a well-worn trail through the brush that led to the steep, sandy bank. Wearing shorts, he'd kick off his shoes and wade ankle-deep into the river, casting his fishing lure into the gently flowing current.

He’d often shout, “Hook up!” whether he had a fish or not, adding a loud “Zzzzzzzzz!” to imitate the sound of a fish stripping line from his reel. “Look at this place, Lyman,” he’d say. “It’s incredible!” “Yeah,” I’d reply, but inside I’d be thinking, We have the whole damn state of California to explore, and you always drag me to this river?

I came to realize that the simple pleasure of fishing gave Steve a respite from the pressures of his job as a sales manager for General Mills. The cottonwoods, brambles and vines that grew along the Stanislaus were more than a refuge for birds; they were also a place of solace for Steve. The river gave him a chance to reconnect with his boyhood — our boyhood — and to strengthen our bond as adults.

On all of our trips, wherever we went, I began to notice something: We seldom saw kids out there exploring and playing the way we did when we were young. Not long ago, I read Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, where he describes “nature deficit disorder,” and the ubiquity these days of digital indoor entertainment. “Many members of my generation grew into adulthood taking nature’s gifts for granted; we assumed that generations to come would also receive these gifts,” Louv writes. “But something has changed.” And not for the better. “In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy, and privacy: a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace.”

Steve and I found our separate peace long ago. We carried it into our adult lives and used it as the foundation for a lifelong friendship, fishing the river, herping the desert, lost in the moment in some wild place. We breathed in that world and let it fill the empty spaces in our souls.

Steve passed away in Ohio, where his parents were from and where his brother and sister-in-law helped care for him during the last year of his life. The following June, I travelled to Columbus to attend a “celebration of life” event. Mourners were asked to gather at Darby Creek, Steve’s favorite boyhood fishing hole, which flowed near the cemetery. We gathered on the bank and tossed red roses into the current. “Steve loved to fish here,” his brother, Gary, told me. “When we were kids, he’d ride his bike down to the creek every chance he could.”

I watched the roses float down the shallow, muddy waters, and my thoughts drifted back to Quantico, to a summer day and a 12-year-old chestnut-haired boy splashing through a stream, and to the many adventures we later shared. Look at this place, Lyman. It’s incredible.

Don Lyman is a freelance science journalist, biologist and hospital pharmacist. He has been published in the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, Undark, Southwest Airlines Magazine, Earthisland.org, and elsewhere. He also freelances for Living On Earth, an environmental radio program. 

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