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Take a plunge

Find a good swimming hole to sort through life’s choices
Written by Barbara Rodriguez. Photographs by /illustration by Michael Witte.

TravelMattersJune

Throughout my life, in every neighborhood, on every summer's vacation, road trip, or nature hike, there has been a memorable swimming hole.

Plunge into these swimming holes

Some were big enough to classify as small lakes, complete with floating platforms and lap lanes. Others were closer to cauldrons, where I happily abandoned myself to bobbing up and down like a potato in a pot. Looking back over the years, remembering everything that makes dunking oneself in water a joy, past and present, I've made my list of druthers for a swimming hole that is just so.

First of all, the best water is not so easily accessible that every Tom, Dick, and Billy Bob with a Styrofoam cooler shows up Saturday afternoons for girl-gawking. This makes holes on private property the best, and I prefer property that's related to me by kin or friendship. Fortunately, Texas is so blessed with water-filled parklands that it isn’t necessary to own a pond to enjoy one.

Weather and circumstances count. The right conditions can make even a mediocre swimming hole a fine one. When it's white hot, not a lambkins cloud in the sky, the picnic is reduced to crumbs, the wine skein is dry, and the locusts are droning me into a coma, the path to any pocket of air-clear water can be the road to heaven.

Some shade is important, but at least half the water has to be exposed to the sky to keep unadulterated sunstroke an option. More important than the shade is the type of tree creating it. Were I designing a splash pad of my own, I would hem it in regal, mile-high cypress with porcupines wavering in the branches. The tree roots would grow broad and blocky, splitting open like wide-mouthed Bedouin tents to serve as shaded docks for floats. Give me oaks at a distance and pecans fairly close, but only a cypress may put its feet in my pool.

Flowing water in shades of emerald green, chalky blue, or anything close to aquamarine rates top marks. However, crystal clear water demands pristine views; no rusty cans and no duckweed, please. Bubbling blue holes close to a mother spring are preferred, but can flash freeze your bones. I prefer the gentle shock of water 72 to 78 degrees to anything more polar. A drop of a few degrees, down to the steady 68 at Barton Springs, the perennial favorite of Austinites, sends me into cardiac arrest whether I inch or cannonball my way in.

The best water of all falls from some height, giggling, guzzling, and singing as it tumbles.

Which brings me to the plunge. Some people say a swimming hole isn't a swimming hole unless you can dive in. I say that's a diving hole. A swimming hole requires enough depth to allow standing about buck naked without shame, but the fathomless depths that encourage rope swings, savage screaming, and — heaven forbid — spouting snorkelers, is just too much of a good thing. Hours spent at a swimming hole should be a fifty-fifty blend of paddling and sun-sloth. For that reason, the perfect swimming hole is bounded by boulders, rounded and smooth and near enough to the water that I can sink in silently. Not that a good swimming hole is deathly still. It buzzes with cicadas and clacks with frogs and wheezes with crickets. And, the best water of all falls from some height, giggling, guzzling, and singing as it tumbles.

If I am to be denied broad backed rocks as entry points, I want gentle grassy banks—no oozing mud, and nothing prickly or slimy. It's okay if I have to make a hard trek to reach a hole, but when I get as close as five feet to the water life should turn easy.

Even better than shore rocks is a couple rising up mid-water. Fish like such rocks, which brings me to wildlife: An ideal swimming hole has mossy-back bass hovering about the bottom, lizards doing jerky push-ups in the sun and stacks of turtles. I'll have no domestic ducks in my swimming hole, honking and paddling. Domestic ducks attract charity and soggy crackers.

In fact, when it comes right down to it I'll admit I don't like to share my swimming holes with strangers. From time to time I do delight in grandly public incarnations. The spring-fed and compelling Barton Springs, the desert oasis that is the Balmorhea State Park pool, and other peopled puddles in state parks along the Rio Frio or Sabinal have won my heart. But generally you don't pay to get wet in the best swimming holes, you discover them while you're foraging for mushrooms or tracking dinosaurs or pursuing a picnic.

A just-so swimming hole tempts ordinary people, grandmas and preachers alike, into shucking their drawers. No doubt the elusive Fountain of Youth is a swimming hole, a mythical, ever-changing place that never seems to be in quite the same spot from visit to visit. What other shimmering places take you back to the contentment of the womb? Go ahead. Strip off on the banks and get right on in.

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