Swimming holes, like certain foods, are best kept local. My favorite natural pool gathers in a quartzite crevice somewhere on the Shenandoah Valley slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The access trail snakes through a gorge racing with snowmelt. Early one May, during my family’s first visit, we crossed three times, boots in hands, icy needles stabbing my feet, our six-week-old daughter strapped to my chest and toddler son clinging to my back. Rounding a crag, we paused on a pine-needle carpet and peered into a sapphire hole beneath a rhododendron-covered cliff. The beauty was visceral, an exquisite, gnawing pain. I stripped off my clothes (and our newborn) and jumped into the icy clarity, the hurt now physical but followed by a glow that began as I air-dried in my boxers and lasted for hours.
Thus began our summertime pilgrimages. We’ve learned to press on past the first plunge pool, scaling a small stone face to a lesser-known basin. After spreading blankets, we leap from ledges, stare at trout through swim goggles, crunch across a pebbly beach, and sprawl on boulders, passing penknife slices of farmers’ market peaches. We leave cooled to the core, even on the hottest days.
Once, while hiking to the falls, I met a striking young woman with a long, dark braid and calf-high military boots who asked if we’d seen any rattlesnakes. Turns out she hunts them and sells their skins to hatmakers. She carried a derringer and had a hound who traced figure eights around our ankles. I walked on, listening for a pistol pop that never sounded.
By custom, fishermen and relic hunters keep quiet about their honey holes. So why even mention this swimming hole? Haven’t you ever loved something so much it hurt? I had to jump.