Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Swimming in melted snow

After several days in a row of disappointments, rejection slips and discouraging news, I decided it was time for me to go in search of tall trees, rushing streams, and birdsong. It’s true; where I live, I needn’t go farther than my front porch to find those ingredients in the formula for serenity, but I craved a long walk in a deep canyon as well… and a swim in a mountain pool.

So I drove to the Santa Anita canyon hiking area. I was happy to see few cars in the parking lot, and as I headed down the trail, I could see that most of the hikers were following the path which leads to Sturtevant Falls, a beautiful waterfall at the end of a pleasant walk down. I opted for the small single track trail to Hermit Falls, a much smaller waterfall—really, just a section of stream where the water slides over a tall boulder but splashes into a very deep pool before it continues on its way, running down the mountain.

The narrow trail follows a series of switchbacks down, down, down into a very steep canyon where the tree canopy is so lush, you are always walking in shade, no matter what the time of day. Because it is still early summer, I walked past wildflowers of lavender, pink, yellow and pale blue. I moved slowly along the trail, breathing in the scent of wild sage, remembering lines from Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” poem, the treatise he wrote for his sister about the immutability of Nature. Things change. People change. These “rocks and rills” remain the same for countless generations.

When I reached the falls, I was only mildly disappointed to find that a group of young people had arrived before me. I had barely arrived when a young couple approached and asked me to take their picture. I obliged, playing the role of serious photographer for a moment, then moved as far away from their group—and the wafting pot smoke—as I could, nestling down onto a smooth boulder next to the emerald water of the deep pool.

I hadn’t hiked alone in this canyon for many, many years. Usually, I go at least once each summer, always taking a male friend… just in case. But yesterday I was alone… because I needed to be. For a few moments, I sat on the rock, venting my feelings in the words that poured into my journal. The sun was hot as it reflected off the surrounding rocks, and it didn’t take long before the lure of the water drew me in. I stood up, removed my shoes and socks, remembered my truck keys in my pocket and placed them safely in my backpack, then stepped ankle-deep into the water.

The first ten years I hiked to this spot, I never swam in the pool. The water cascades down from the San Gabriel mountaintops, and it is comprised primarily of snowmelt. It’s freezing cold. When I first started hiking in the canyon, I would go in spring or fall, because it can be perilously hot hiking out on scorching summer days. But finally, some years ago, I took a friend along, and he patiently waited with me until I mustered the courage to jump in. (I told him he had to be there in case I had a heart attack—so he could let my kids know I died doing something I loved.)

Yesterday, as I stood on the rock feeling my ankles go numb from the cold, I contemplated not going in. I just didn’t want to feel that first immersion into the aching cold. Yet I knew if I didn’t go, I’d be angry with myself all the way back up the trail. And I would feel defeated. If I needed anything at that moment, it was to feel victorious over something, anything in my life. I crouched over… and slipped in.

The first shock is never pleasant, but the joy of having it over with, of being free to swim in clear water with nothing but a blue sky above, is delicious. I swam several laps of the pool, then floated on my back for a few tranquil moments. Finally I pulled myself out, shorts and tank top dripping. The warmth of the rock spread through my bones as I leaned back comfortably to dry out and eat some lovely cheese and a few crackers. As I finished, another group of young people arrived, challenging each other to jump into the pool from the rocks above, and I knew it was time for me to head back up the trail.

Yes, at times, life sucks. I have no idea what changes will occur in my life in the following year. But one thing remains constant, and that is the beauty of that deep mountain pool. If the forces of the universe are willing, I will return to it again next year and somehow find the courage to dive into the icy waters… to taste that wild freedom once again.


  1. That was definitey a good tale. I knew from the beginning you would jump in,, lol.. It would have been OK with me had you not, but YEA for you. Thnx//

  2. "Swimming in Melted Snow." What a seductive title. This must (one day) be the title of a book. You are wise. When my niece was young, I told her: "Find something you love that will never let you down (by which I meant something non-human!): nature, art, animals, sports -- something that will be a source of solace and strength when everything else disappoints. Clearly, you have found that, Kay. I hope my niece found that as well.