Diving Into the Mystic Waters of Memory

(By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
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By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 30, 2008

Shhh. Listen. A half-mile clamber up a steep trail of smooth boulders, a trickle of crystal-clear water spills over a wide, flat rock into a silent pool. The unbroken surface reflects a grove of arching pine trees swaying in a gentle late-summer breeze. The smell is distinctive. Fresh. With a hint of mud.

Welcome to the Mountain Run swimming hole. It's the kind of place Tom Hillegass has spent more than a decade looking for. He wades in. The water is cold enough to take his breath and numb his legs and deep enough to disappear into.


Or at least, according to his scale, an 8.5 out of 10.

"It's like being embraced by nature," he says. "Or about as close to an embrace as you can get."

Hillegass, a retired Department of Transportation civil engineer who for 12 years has run the Web site http://swimmingholes.org out of his Alexandria home, is about as close to being an expert on swimming holes in America as one can get. And with the swimming hole a fixture in the nation's mythical identity since at least the times of Mark Twain, that's saying a lot.

The first thing Hillegass wants people to know in this age of square concrete pools with chlorinated water and plastic splash parks with whistle-wielding lifeguards at every turn is that swimming holes still exist. There are not as many as before because cities and suburbs have swallowed up rural areas, and developers and landowners have fenced off beloved haunts. And the ones left are often so far from cities that people don't visit them like they did in more innocent times, when Twain lazed the summer away with every other kid his age at Bear Creek in Hannibal, Mo. But they're there, waiting to be found again.

Hillegass has documented 77 such places in Virginia. Twenty-seven in Maryland. The District, which once drew entire neighborhoods to the swimming beaches of the Tidal Basin, has none.

There are the more-isolated swimming spots favored by hikers and outdoor types, such as Mountain Run, which can be found amid a confusing tangle of country lanes and gravel fire roads near Harrisonburg, Va. There are fathomless quarries with Tarzan vines and zip lines. "Let go, Morgan!" friends screamed at white-bikini-clad Morgan Collins, 14, last weekend as she clung to the rope at Milford Mill quarry outside Baltimore and swung perilously close to the jagged rock wall. Eyes wide, she released the rope at the last minute and hung in the air for a beat before flopping and screaming into the greenish water.

There are clothing-optional swimming holes. Gay- and lesbian-leaning holes. Family-friendly holes with rock ledges and the iconic rope swing that Hillegass always feels obliged to try. And holes where, as in Twain's time, nearly everyone in town can be found on a hot Saturday afternoon.

The Blue Hole of Bergton, in the Shenandoah Valley near the West Virginia line, is that kind of swimming hole. At least in late June and early July, when the water's running high. But on a Saturday in late August, after a long dry summer, the creek had slowed to a trickle, and only April Chacon, 23, her boyfriend and her three daughters were splashing in the water. Wayne Hall, 24, had just returned home after being away for a few years, and this was the first place he wanted to come.

"I think I can jump," Hall said, eyeing the cliffs and unusually shallow swimming hole, where the girls were dog paddling. "I used to jump when it was only five feet deep."

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