There's a story in my family. It's about me and a pair of purple swimming trunks. They were bought at Target, made of polyester and knit tight to stay snug on an 8-year old's skinny hips. And stay they did. For one entire summer, Memorial Day through Labor Day, those purple trunks were my sole undergarment. To the best of my, or anyone else's recollection, I never took them off.
And why should I? Our family spent part of nearly every day on the small Ozark river that bordered our farm. In the morning we fished; in the evening we barbecued and in the hours between no tadpole was safe. Whether skipping stones, diving off logs or doing spectacular parabolic exits from a rope swing, wet was the only way to stay during humid midwestern summers. A boy had to be committed to his swim shorts.
It was natural to start exploring creeks and canyons when I moved to California, and explore is the right word. Traveling up wild waterways often produced startling discoveries. In contrast to the mountain vistas most people associate with hiking, swimming holes are physical enclosures. When hiking up a mountain the peak is nearly always visible, but swimming holes sneak up on you. Turn a corner and BLAMO! there's some glorious piece of liquid jade surrounded by alders.
The arcade of trees that so often tops rock walls lends a feeling of privacy. It's the outdoors' indoors and perhaps why stories of love recurred so often when I asked people for swimming hole anecdotes. Mountain panoramas turn a mind outward while the enclosing comfort of a canyon turns thoughts inward. Rather than stretch out your arms you want to wrap them around something.
Oddly enough, it's not the water that makes a swimming hole great; it's the rock. The best ones have an architectural quality. Southern California has superb sandstone bowls built like a Roman forum. There are dark metamorphic pools in the Mendocino National Forest that have the feel of a private bath house. The Sierras have classic granite holes containing so many water worn shapes it's like walking through a garden of abstract sculpture.
Locating the swimming holes featured in Day Trips with a Splash wasn't always as much fun as it might sound. I left a cozy apartment on the beach and a cushy job as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times to spend nine months on the road, covering California from Oregon to San Diego County. I put 25,000 miles on my truck, thrashed two pairs of sport sandals, one GPS and ate more Powerbars than anyone should have to.
I also met an awful lot of people having fun. It left me with the impression that most guide books are too reverent. A weekend outdoors can be a spiritual experience without sounding like a trip to church. It's supposed to be fun. Swimming holes are fun. The sun starts getting hot, the laundry comes off, and instead of quoting John Muir you're doing cannonballs into a cauldron of emerald water.
I'd even argue that swimming holes are the most complete trip to the mountains. Hiking alone isn't. There is always space between the hiker and the trees, always a separation between us and the ground we travel over. But water touches every part of the body with the perfect contact of immersion.
That's why people form attachments to these places. Several times I met parents spending summer vacation with their young children camped near a swimming hole they had been coming to since they themselves were kids. Beyond fun, there's a metaphor here. Think of the stream as the work week, all noise and repeated motion. The swimming hole is the weekend, a place where the pace slackens, the issue gets broader and the water grows quiet enough to show a reflection.
Follow the maps and see for yourself.
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