It’s a rare thing to come across a book that connects with you on a deep level. What Michael Tougias has done in The Waters Between Us achieves that, but in such a special way. The book – part memoir, part novel – is full to bursting with the same enrapturing nostalgia that made so many of us fall instantly in love with the Netflix show Stranger Things.
Waters takes a long, unflinchingly honest look at how unfair we can be as kids towards our parents. Often, it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we realize what giant jerks we were.
Some of it isn’t our fault – kids will be kids. But we do have control over our own behavior, something Tougias is quick to note throughout the book.
As Tougias describes one fiery interaction with his father, “So much of life is spent never knowing the other person’s intent because all we have are words, and they seem to abandon us when emotions are at the boiling point.”
In Tougias’ case, his gift with words communicates the painful growing up we all have to do when we realize that we were wrong, and our parents were right.
Most of Waters centers around the outdoor adventures Tougias had as a young boy, including the events that led up to him buying a cabin in Vermont at age 23. From fishing local ponds in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, to rafting the Huntington River in a homemade death trap, Tougias had his fair share of head-scratching moments. It’s in those moments, though, that Tougias observes his own growth as a human.
When not discussing outdoors adventures, Tougias talks of his relationship with his dad. Like most young boys, he had a desire to be close to his father. Dads are some of the most important figures in our lives, but Tougias’ father worked long hours at a family-owned bakery, and had little time for Tougias’ antics. He wasn’t even impressed when the author broke his middle school’s detention record.
Understandably, the usual acting out of a young boy created friction with a father who worked all day, only to come home to yet another problem his son had created. Add that Tougias’ siblings were relative angels by comparison – none of them were arrested for skateboarding on a rope behind a car, for instance – and it’s understandable that Tougias and his father had a strained relationship.
That relationship is the heart of this book, and what makes it resonate so strongly with me. Over time, as he grew up, Tougias realized why his father played his emotional cards close to his vest, or why he was so frustrated with the author as a young boy. Tougias’ father worked long days doing hard, physical work. He was emotionally exhausted by the time he got home, and expected his kids to be respectful and obedient, if not outright perfect.
Through it all, though, one thing connected both the author and his father – water. Whether it was adventures in the nearby meadows of his childhood home, or on the family vacation to lakes in Vermont, Tougias and his dad set aside their quarrels when water was involved. Nature brought them together, and nature healed the rift caused by Tougias’ behavior, and the lack of emotional communication between fathers and sons in America in the 60s.
Capping off the book is a heart-wrenching tragedy that saw the Tougias family grow only closer together, instead of further apart. In today’s world, when family seems a second thought to so many, it’s heartening to see a book like this get the light of day.
Unlike other stuffy writers, caught in the pretentiousness of their observations of the natural world, Tougias is remarkably down-to-earth. He doesn’t try to give us Thoreau-like descriptions of the natural world that made such an impact on him. He writes directly, putting you in his shoes, making you long for the days when all we had to worry about was what adventure we’d go on next.
Above all, what Tougias does is communicate the reason we all love the outdoors so much, and he does so in a way that’s approachable. You don’t need to be some diehard fly angler or big game hunter to appreciate the insights Tougias shares. Everyone – from the slickest city dweller to the most grizzled mountain man – will find something they can relate to.
The Waters Between Us is for sale here.
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, guide, and bamboo rod builder from Utah. He’s the News Editor for MidCurrent, a columnist for Hatch Magazine, Lead Guide for the Utah Fly Fishing Company, and host of the podcast Spencer Durrant: Unhooked. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.