by Johanna McCloy
There's this thing I have about immersing myself in cool mountain water on a hot summer day. The idea is to find an area of water where no one else can be found. A bend of a creek or an inlet of a lake where I can celebrate my communion with Nature in absolute blissful silence. No machinery, no voices, no music or car engines. Just the sound of the water and the birds singing beyond and over me, making their way from branch to branch, looking for a way to feed their chicks.
Some friends have called it my "baptism" and perhaps it is just that, because when I do it I have a sense of connection and wholeness unlike any other moment in my life. Even if there's mud squishing between my toes or mosquitoes lurking over the water's surface waiting to consume me, it's still Eden to me. It's entering Perfection. Because they're part of the whole deal.
I was in Inyo County in California, heading toward a friend's home in Bishop, when I came upon a small lake off the highway. It was picturesque, with the backdrop of a majestic, snow covered mountain, and that mountain's reflection rippling over the water's surface, like a breathing water color painting. I knew I had to go there. I turned the radio off, exited the freeway, and found my way to a spot where I could park my car. When I stepped out, I could hear birds singing to each other and the sound of wind stirring leaves in tree branches. Occasional cars sped past on the freeway behind me, but I opted to selectively focus on what was before me. A public rest room, dirty and probably unused for a long time, was at the far end of the parking area. I brought my bathing suit with me and put it on inside. Then I walked to find a spot by the lake where the pavement wasn't visible.
A man and a young boy I believed to be his son, walked up from the sandy embankment and nodded hellos in my direction. I smiled and pondered their story for a few minutes before moving on. I could see where they had been. It was like a small, private beach, very soft and sandy. Just large enough for an entrance to go swimming. I put my towel down on some rocks, slipped off my sandals, and smiling from ear to ear I made my way toward the water. Never had I gone swimming like this alone. There was the automatic desire to turn to someone and giggle or comment, but as time passed I found my silent inner contentment to be extremely spiritual and fulfilling. I did look around me a lot, checking to see if anyone might be watching me. The self-consciousness came whenever I wished I could share a thought or an observation or a feeling with someone. I was alone and this was a first.
The sandy embankment turned goopier as I neared the water. I walked in, ankle deep, and the cold water brought me to life. What a contrast to the temperature outside! As I stood there, marveling at the mountain and its reflection around me, I felt my feet slowly sinking, until the mud had practically covered them. The civilized part of me wanted to pull out and say "oh well," muttering about the mess and the dirt in my toe nails, but another part of me simply wouldn't budge. I thought about being five years old. I thought about sensory pleasure. I took another couple of steps, mumbling and giggling a little to myself as I did this. I wanted to be that 5 year old kid. I didn't want to be the grown woman, scared to be alone, self conscious about what she looked like, and concerned about the dirt in her toes. Each step I took seemed to loosen my rigidity just a little bit more. I felt like I was freeing myself from limitation.
Finally, once I was waist deep in the water, I plunged completely underneath, stirring up the mud and sensing the little gnats and mosquitoes going abuzz around me. I came up a different person. I felt utterly alive; aware only of the moment. I leaned my head back to rest it on the water and looked up at the sky. It was blue with a few white clouds, puffed and round like cotton balls. I picked my feet up and began to gently back paddle toward the middle of the lake, noticing how light my feet felt after being liberated from all that mud. I cocked my head and looked at my toe nails. The dirt made me smile.
What is it that prevents us from re-experiencing such simple pleasures from childhood? Why do we get so trapped by conformity and structure and organization? It seems to me, we lose sight of what is real when we do that. We focus on what's next all the time, completely missing the potential magic of the here and now. This thought lurked as I slowly meandered on my back, kicking gently and waving my arms through the now warm water. I thought about how no one was with me and how I was feeling this kind of pleasure and contentment alone. I felt grateful for that.
Voices interrupted my calm and I immediately turned into Quasi Civilized Girl again, becoming overly aware of myself. I looked to see who it was, and spotted two older couples just beyond a cluster of trees, making their way toward a picnic bench. I stepped outside of the water and quickly wrapped the towel around me. Self consciousness was starting to get the best of me again. I sat down and took a few deep breaths, taking in the vista before me and reconnecting to what I’d just experienced. It doesn't have to be over, I told myself. You continue this experience right now.
After several minutes, I stood, put the towel around my waist, and made my way back to the car. The man and his son were standing at a car beside mine as I approached and we smiled our hellos again. I sensed the man wondering about me as I opened the car and got my video camera. I liked being intriguing. I liked this person I was being. It was like I was enjoying my own company in a way I wasn't used to. A team of one.
I went into the public restroom to change out of my bathing suit. When I saw myself in the mirror, I stopped and looked for a minute. It felt like I was looking at someone else, but this was me, all right. I thought about how I liked this person's company and found myself smiling again as I changed clothes.
As I walked back toward my car, the man and his son drove past me and waved. I waved back. What, I wondered, did they make of me. I thought about how much I liked myself in that moment and I leaned on the top of the car for one last look. A few deep breaths later, I opened the door and got back in. I turned on the ignition, rolled down the windows, and slowly drove back toward the freeway. As I accelerated and felt the wind in my wet hair, I felt like I’d come back on it a new, revitalized version of myself. I knew then that mountain water would become a necessary part of my days on the road. My daily communion.
After visiting with friends in Bishop overnight, I continued my drive North, toward Yosemite. The heat started to blanket the car and I found that smile re- emerging on my face. It was time to look for water. The Merced River began to accompany me on my drive, and I took my time choosing the exact location for my next communion. It would have to be further from the road. Even more isolated than the last one. I had thought ahead that morning and put my bathing suit on beneath my clothes, so no restroom was required. The freeway split, and I found the perfect spot just beyond that turn off. The sound of the water flowing past rocks and through crevices was beautiful and the birds were still singing their songs. My solo journey through the mountains continued for a week and I communed this way every day. It became addictive.
That was five years ago and I've communed this way every summer since. Two years ago, I made a solo trip to Idaho and communed in gorgeous mountain lakes, that smile once again taking over my entire being. Last June, I returned to Idaho and camped there with two girlfriends. One muggy and hot afternoon, I lured my friend Ilse into the wild and cold waters of the Lochsa River. We screeched and we laughed and we celebrated. We were deliriously happy and utterly alive.
When your inner voice talks to you, do yourself a favor and listen. Dare yourself! By taking heed, you may discover an exquisite sense of freedom you never had before.
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