Why I Risk My Life Diving Into Swimming Holes
The secret places that bring me closer to nature, to my friends, and to myself
By Bryan Derballa
“Turn left onto a dirt road about two miles after you pass the crumbling barn. Keep going up the hill and take your second right. Park at the first gravel patch, under the old oak tree.”
“Search through the tall grass until you find the trailhead; it gets wider as you go down. Cross the stream three times — the first two are over logs but you’ll have to take off your shoes for the third one. Then climb across the rocks, following the sound of the waterfall until you get there.”
Pretty much every weekend in the summer, my friends and I hang out at swimming holes that we reach via directions like those: vague yet tangible, and weirdly reassuring. I’d much rather be a wanderer in the woods than a blue dot on a Google map.
I live in New York City now, but I grew up in Western North Carolina. As a teenager, spending time at waterfalls was like a natural extension of skateboarding: The same brain defect that made me want to fly off sets of stairs on my board made me want to hurl myself off cliffs into water.
After moving away for college, I didn’t make it into the woods as often. I got caught up going to music shows and house parties. I rode the bus or my bike all over town, but I couldn’t get far enough out to find a good waterfall.
More recently, though, I bought a car. And now I can escape the city, I’ve rediscovered my supreme form of diversion…
I’ve spent the last few years asking friends, friends of friends, locals, and teenage bad-asses for good information about swimming holes.
I’ve also searched around on the internet, which is refreshingly unhelpful. These are beautiful, isolated places and I believe they should have an element of secrecy. They’re not for everyone—and particularly not for those who can’t bother carrying out their own beer cans.
That’s why I’ve chosen not to publish the names or locations of any of these spots. If you really want to find that gorgeous thundering waterfall in the Appalachians, or that rope swing into a slow-moving river under a bridge in rural Kansas, ask around. If it’s worth the trouble to you, and you’re not bothered by frigid water or mosquitos, you’ll be a welcome visitor.
A good swimming hole has a big deep pool of cold, clear water, with some element of recreation like a cliff jump, rope swing, or sliding rock.
The best ones are so perfect, you’d think they’d been designed for human enjoyment. I’ve been to a waterfall that cascades with just the right pitch and smoothness; you can sit on it and slide the length of a basketball court, eliciting equal parts fear and exhilaration, before being spit out into the pool below.
There’s something special about jumping into water. The fact that you could fall 30 or 40 or 50 feet (for the record, 75 feet was my highest) into liquid and still swim away feels like you’re cheating death. And that feeling isn’t entirely untrue; there is some danger involved.
But that’s part of the appeal to me. I’ve never been one for a sanitized life of caution and safety. And as I’ve moved into my thirties, I crave that recklessness more than ever. Given all the responsibilities of adult life, there’s something oddly comforting about distilling my decision-making down to whether or not to jump. It’s completely irrational, yet massively life-affirming. And so I take the plunge.
The thrill of survival prevails over my inbox, invoicing, and IRA. It’s a connection to my youth and to nature and to my friends. Sharing those intense experiences helps to form bonds that I don’t find in the city.
When summer ends and the leaves begin to shake free from their branches, I get a little melancholy. No matter how many trips I’ve been on, it’s never enough. I scroll through my photos from the season and anticipate the warmer times when I can throw on a pair of swim trunks and climb to the top of the cliff, ready to go again.
All photos by Bryan Derballa.