Unfolding the Map
Are you feeling a little warm? Here's a nice river...why don't you jump in? The coolness of the water will feel so good. Yes, there's nothing like a swim in a river, and William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) takes advantage of it. I've been lucky enough to have my own river, as I'll write below. If you wish to see where this particular river flows, trickle over to the map.
"Somewhere south of Jenkins, population forty-five (five was more believable), I gave in to the heat and pulled up under the trees by a small bridge. A stream, about half the width of the highway, moved through with a good current. I took it to be the Wading River. Bog iron (cannonballs fired at Valley Forge were made here) and tannins had turned the transparent water the color of cherry cola. This 'cedar water,' as it is called, sea captains once carried on long voyages because it remained sweet longer than other waters. Even today, it is remarkably free of pollutants since all streams that flow through the Pines have their source here. I walked up a track into the woods, dead ferns and pine needles absorbing my steps. A silence as if civilization had disappeared. While the quiet was real, the isolation was an illusion: downtown Philadelphia lay forty miles west....
"I came to the stream again, took off my clothes, and went in. There was no shock in the water, only cooling relief. I let the current pull me downstream toward the Atlantic, then I paddled back up, and floated off again. A black terrapin, trimmed in red, surfaced, saw me float by, blinked, and went under. I climbed out and let the heat dry me as I ate."
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 8
Somewhere on the Wading River, New Jersey
When I was growing up, every summer I spent weekend afternoons next to my swimming hole.
That's right, it was my swimming hole. I've written in Littourati before about my troubled childhood and my dysfunctional family that has colored my adult life up to now. But even in the midst of all the trouble, there were moments of the blissful and the idyllic. And much of that bliss came from the fact that I had regular access to a swimming hole.
My father owned a bit of property on the Noyo River in Northern California. It is still in our family. The river constituted the eastern boundary of our thirteen acres. We never knew if the middle of the river was the true boundary line, or if the east bank was. It didn't matter - we claimed a little sandy spit on the east bank, called it our "beach," and hung out there most weekend afternoons. The swimming hole was a 4-5 foot deep patch formed where water, spilling down some rocks, carved a gouge at their base. We augmented the depth, probably illegally, by constructing a dam of railroad ties and plastic every year. Our efforts probably added a foot of water. We had a diving board and, for a time, a rope swing. We had inner tubes to float on. Every weekend, my parents would bring me and my sisters, and a passel of cousins, and we'd tan (or burn) and swim in the afternoons. Because our property had a railroad right-of-way through it, we'd wave at the regular passenger trains on their way to and from Willits and they would sound their horns in return.
It wasn't until I moved away that I realized just how lucky I was to have that. There is nothing like it, on a hot summer day, to be able to swim in a river. Our water was intensely cold and the shock of a sudden immersion could give me a cold headache for a moment. But after that, it was pure bliss. The sun at certain angles either hit the water directly causing beautiful sparkles or, coming through the leaves of the alder trees lining the bank, created a dappled pattern. I loved going in, but what I loved even more was floating on top, on an inner tube, and looking down. The sand and rocks at the bottom became my own personal geography. I constructed whole worlds in our swimming hole and populated them with the little beings I saw moving about down below. Fish became airships. Little bugs which we called helgamites (I have learned that the true term is hellgrammite) were cars or some type of moving equipment. Rocks were hills and mountains, and the crevices in them were valleys. It was like I was on a high flying plane or spaceship looking down upon a world only I knew.
Then, the nuclear explosion as one of the other kids jumped in, stirred up the sand, and I would have to wait for the river to clear once more before I could go back to my reveries.
Today, my opportunities to swim in rivers have been fairly limited, reduced to times when, like LHM, I can pull off the side of a road and plunge in somewhere. I have had occasional chances to jump into mountain streams where the water was deep enough to allow me to float or stroke, but not often. One gives up some of one's access to such things when one lives in a city environment. I also live far from my home, and it has been a couple of years since I have been back to my swimming hole. Because of my childhood experiences, I've been somewhat spoiled. Lakes and pools are nice, but they just aren't the same thing as my swimming hole. I associate swimming with reverie, rather than activity or exercise. Even when I find a river that I can swim in, it's not the same because they are often crowded. Swimming holes are a sought after commodity.
The last time I was back to my property, it had been a while since it was extensively used. The swimming hole was reverting back to a natural state. The pool was in an almost constant shade due to the proliferation of alders. A large log, floating down during the winter high water, had deposited itself on the spit we used to call a beach. The river hadn't been dammed there in a long, long time. I realized how much work it took my father to create that little sunlit area of heaven - to alter the landscape for us. He cut trees, he built dams, and he placed rocks in places in an effort to keep the banks from eroding. I remember that he dug buckets of sand to deposit on the spit to make the beach wider. He kept the inner tubes inflated and even built a raft for us.
Nature has it now. She's taken back what was hers, and that may all be for the good. But she can't have all of it. In my memory, it is still my swimming hole and somewhere in the past, a child floats on an inner tube creating worlds in his imagination. I can almost touch him sometimes.
I couldn't find a swimming hole song or even a swimming in a river song that captured my mood, so I'm giving you instead a very deep cut from Peter Gabriel - I Go Swimming.
If you want to know more about the Wading River
Next up: Weekstown, New Jersey