After The Fall
Cliff jumpers find a daredevil's paradise in Monterey County's swimming holes.
Thursday, September 20, 2001
And I did the sissy jump.
That particular jump was off a bridge near the eastern Appalachian town where I grew up. During the summer, I frequented numerous swimming holes found in the rivers and streams throughout my home county. The best spots varied quite a bit in terms of location and style, but they all shared at least one opportunity for bodily harm. Usually, this was a cliff face 20 feet or higher, or at least a nice rope swing so that you could get up a good head of steam before plunging into the water.
I spent my youth watching mulleted drunks perform amateur circus acts at these holes. In vain I tried to imitate them, but my sanity and desire to see my next birthday prevented me from approaching the big jumps with quite the stupidity...er...bravado they did.
By the time I got to college, I didn''t do too many jumps anymore. Neither did I frequent swim holes with the enthusiasm I once had. That all changed, however, when I got to California.
For a coastal county, Monterey is incredibly blessed with plentiful swimming holes. Most are in the big country to the south, but a few dwell in close proximity to the urbanized north. The trick to finding them is simple: pick a river, hike up it and keep an eye out for clear, deep holes surrounded by cliffs. A topographic map can help.
One of the most popular of the northern spots is Arroyo Seco. As far as specific directions there, well, it involves a labyrinthine series of dirt roads before you even get to the part where you turn left at the trash can. The water depth there is safe for jumping from cliffs--local law officers practice search-and-rescue dives there--but 60 feet is still a long way to jump.
When visiting there, I refused to jump off the cliffs, but two friends of mine did. The first guy wore a wetsuit and emerged from the water with the soles of his feet sore from slapping the water, as well as a headache from hitting the water at a slightly awkward angle. The second guy was less fortunate. Clad in a standard pair of swim trunks, he executed a magnificent feet-first plunge, only to emerge screaming, "Water went up my ass!" So I guess the lesson there is: wear protective clothing.
There are problems with nearby spots like Arroyo Seco. Easy access translates to bigger crowds. And crowds bring with them problems, often in the form of beer. Drunken belligerence is bad enough, but broken glass can all too easily ruin an outing.
Now Arroyo Seco is fine for the urbanized, thrill-seeking variety of river rat. But, for the above reasons and more, a connoisseur like myself prefers swim holes in the back country. Earlier this summer I spent two days (during the week, so as to avoid tourists) at one of the best swim holes I''ve seen in my entire life. The hike in is only five miles up the Big Sur River, and the swim hole is less than 100 feet from an established camp. The hole itself is hidden in the bottom of a redwood canyon. Because of the redwood filter, sunlight only hits the spot a few hours out of the day, illuminating the turquoise water to a velvety hue, like something out of a Hollywood movie about a lost paradise.
And into the middle of the pool pours a waterfall, 20 feet of gushing life. After a quick investigation--generally I like the water to be at least half as deep as the jump is high--I climbed up a trail to the top of the waterfall.
It''s never easy to disregard the body''s urgent advice to the contrary and throw yourself off a cliff, especially when you are five miles from the nearest road and 40 from the nearest emergency facilities. But, as the masters attest, with deep breathing and closed eyes you can overcome anything. And after hitting the water, I thought, "Gee, that wasn''t that bad at all."
My companions watched my success and then quickly searched out a higher jump, this one about 45 feet above the pool. For that one my friend had to jump out far enough to clear an overhanging rock, but not quite so far as to plaster his body onto the boulders marking the far side. And all this careful planning from a perch of loose dirt and leaves. Thankfully Bob came away unscathed, and a day later we hiked out from the camp, not having seen one person the entire trip.
And where is this promised land of swimmin'' holes, this redwood mecca? I couldn''t tell you. But I can guarantee that there are spots just as good, if not better, speckled throughout the back country. On the hike out from the waterfall spot, Bob told me the story of an encounter he''d had with a dreadlocked old man east of Sykes Hot Springs. The two had hiked together for a while, with Bob having to deliberately slow his pace to accommodate the older man. After going several miles, the two sat down to enjoy a snack and a smoke. The man then revealed that he was dying of cancer and had been trying to visit a favorite swim hole one final time. Still miles away from the object of his quest, he realized that the cancer had weakened his body too much for him to make it, so he had turned around. Eyeing my friend, the man said that he would impart the location of the pool so that, even if he couldn''t make it back again, it could still be enjoyed. Solemnly, Bob memorized the directions. And then, after returning from the hike, promptly forgot them. All vows aside, that''s probably a good thing. Now forgotten, it''s ripe to be rediscovered, most likely by a hiker who will think she''s found Eden all over again.