Going Online for a Splash of Nature

Tom Hillegass has made it his mission to let travelers know about such oases as Mountain Run, north of Harrisonburg, Va., in the George Washington National Forest.
Tom Hillegass has made it his mission to let travelers know about such oases as Mountain Run, north of Harrisonburg, Va., in the George Washington National Forest. "The water feels good on your skin," he says of swimming holes. (Family Photo)
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By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 2008

Tom Hillegass has been called the swami of swimming holes. (Seriously. He has.) A man who "swoons" for a swim out in the middle of nowhere, clad or un-. A guru with a gospel. And his holy book? It's his Web site, actually, http://www.swimmingholes.org, with photos, precise Global Positioning System coordinates and directions down to the tenth of a mile to more than 1,000 lush and secluded swimming spots across the United States -- 77 in Virginia.

Click on the map on his Web site, and up pops a forest of blue dots for swimming holes, red dots for hot springs and green dots for what he likes to call "roadside" dips just off the interstate.

For the past 12 years, Hillegass, 65, a retired civil engineer for the Department of Transportation, has been virtually single-handedly spreading the word about swimming holes from his home near Landmark in Alexandria. He has visited many, if not most, and tested the waters himself. He figures he gets into a natural pool at least twice a month during the spring, summer and fall. (The weekend before last, he lazed with his wife and friends in a small, crystal-clear pool in the Shenandoah Valley called Mountain Run. And a few weeks before that, he was out in California "researching" 25 or so in the redwood forest.)

The more he quietly yet persistently publicizes the wonders of swimming in nature, as in the days before the proliferation of baby-blue-bottomed concrete swimming pools, the more people seem to be listening. And remembering. He estimates his site gets 30,000 hits a month.

"We are all missing out," he said. "People should go to swimming holes. They just don't know about them."

That's where Hillegass comes in.

Since the days when Mark Twain swam with his boyhood pals in Bear Creek near Hannibal, Mo., the best swimming holes have been among a community's best-kept secrets, part of the closely guarded lore. But Hillegass, a man of few words, is determined to share the wealth so everyone can experience what he has referred to as "returning to the womb."

"It's really the surroundings," he said. "The water feels good on your skin. It smells good on your skin. I spend most of my time in a swimming hole looking around, at the rocks, the trees, the cliffs. It's all just very beautiful."

This is Tom Hillegass's perfect day: Camping out somewhere far in the country. Taking an afternoon hike of a mile, mile and a half. Finding a great swimming hole by 3 or 4 p.m. and soaking for an hour or so. Returning to the campground for a glass of wine and dinner. "If it's a hot springs, then you can stay in until 9 or 10 at night and go back to your sleeping bag. The warmth stays in your body practically all night. It's a nice experience. Laying in a hot springs under the stars . . . "

Like many boys growing up in the 1950s, Hillegass spent his summers at a little swimming hole near his house in Philadelphia. "There weren't a lot of swimming pools then," he said. "And that was in the polio scare days. My mother would not allow me to go to a swimming pool. But at the creek, the water was moving. So I guess my mother thought that that was all right."

But after he grew up and moved away, he forgot about swimming holes. He married and raised three children. When the kids were little, they joined a swim club just across the street and spent their summers splashing around in the chlorinated pools.

Then the family moved to Oregon for two years, while Hillegass was on a job exchange program between the federal government and the transportation department in Portland. In the verdant Pacific Northwest, Hillegass rediscovered swimming holes and discovered his life's obsession. The Hillegasses swam in the Clackamas River, jumped off rocks into the Sandy River, rafted along the Deschutes River. They soaked in natural hot springs, slid down waterfalls and swung from any rope swing that presented itself.

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