Chouinard, for his part, is being driven to his usual fits of ingenuity. Crouching on the bank in stealth postures, he tries sinking lines, then floating lines. Every few minutes, I hear him: "Ah, shit! Missed 'em! "Then: "Jesus, did ya see that fish!" It's an endearing lecture to himself, filled with wonder, as he catches one glorious fish after another. He walks up to me, smiling, and sits on the bank. "What a day we're having," he says. "We haven't seen another footprint. What a day." Winding up the slack on his reel, he stares at his rod, then finally gives it a jiggle. "This," he says, "is one of the best days of fishing in my life. Fabulous."
Before long, Chouinard is up again, walking and casting. At one point, a swallow lands on his fly rod, mistaking it for a tree branch, then disappears in a frantic burst of tiny purple wings. Chouinard catches so many fish he loses count: 45, 50, 65... . I can just barely see him now, walking downstream, bobbing in the waves of heat boiling from the valley floor.
Resting on the bank, I recall something Chouinard read to me, something he'd written about a climbing experience he'd had on El Capitan when he was young: "Nothing felt strange in our vertical world. Each individual crystal in the granite stood out in bold relief... . After a period of time, the artist gets caught up in the sculpture, and the material comes alive."
That afternoon, when we are driving out, picking our way down the valley and looking for our hidden passage back up through the beech forest, I point from the car window at the distant silver river threading through the green valley. Chouinard is staring at it, too – he has been glancing at the river the whole time he's been driving, not saying a word.
He turns slowly, as if he has just remembered that I'm in the car. His eyes are bloodshot, his lips are cracked, his face is baked red. He's been wasted by sun and wind. We both have.
"Tempted?" I ask.
Sitting up, he says, "Oh, yeah, I am definitely ready to play."