Two wholly different riverbeds in the United States offer an official rock with a slide.

There are possibly more, and there may soon be less.But we would make sure to dip into these, one in North Carolina and one in Arizona, on our tour around the country.Because we’d been away from American natural spectacles and because an open swimming hole with a rock slide wasn’t actually supposed to exist in this new century, belonging to a rosier, bucolic past since replaced by concrete waterparks and videogame fitness.

So we pushed off as a foursome in a rented camper, our younger daughter setting foot on American soil for the first time though not yet fully aware of it and our older daughter itching to wear her new Nemo bathing suit.She would get the chance almost daily as lakes, streams, campground swimming pools and the saltwater of two oceans all, at points along the way, made for a pleasant surprise at the end of a boiling day’s drive.But a sliding rock was something more.

In the east, we found the first one by way of the Smoky Mountains and the Pisgah State Forest.The staggered bends of North Carolina’s Sliding Rock create chutes with shallow pools between a series of misted, mammoth stones.Among the overgrowth and the symphony sounds of rushing water created by the dozen tiny falls in the forest, there sits the eponymous rock, as wide and smooth as a paved roadway.The stream converges into rapids at the top and then fans out over the surface before it spills into a green pool at its base.

We arrived to find the wooded mountain oasis not the secret I’d hoped.Through the woods, we came upon a constructed viewing platform where friends and scaredy-cats hooted and taunted as others hazarded the slide.People took the plunge on their backs arms crossed over chest, or in a seated position dragging their hands to slow their descent or in a wobbly tandem in which they crashed-landed over one another at the bottom.As soon as they cleared the way, the next rider in line sat down, ready for takeoff.

We worked up the nerve to be a part of the show.My older daughter squealed as she inched forward in the line leading to the top of the rock.Once our turn came, we sat down in the water and, on a three-count, took the descent.

This was the South and this was late June, but it’s tough to exaggerate the shock of cold delivered by the water below.It was freshly melted snow.It stole lungfuls of air.As we paddled out, I asked my daughter if she was okay.“Yes,” she quivered and nodded, then took to hopping on dry land in her plastic swim shoes “Yes!Yes!Again!Again!”

Atop once more, I settled into the stream, motioning for her to join me.But on this second turn, she balked.Her excitement flagged on the memory of the drop.I reminded her of the fun and that I’d hold on extra tight.But she’d begun to overthink, which may be first on the list of don’ts when it comes to a sliding rock.

We let the next person ahead and we walked back down, finishing the day skipping pebbles over the wading pools.Though I was up for more sliding, I had more miles to log in first.

Chugging westward, humid deciduous forests gave way to prairie and a far-flung horizon in Oklahoma, until sagebrush and the bare bones of the continent appeared somewhere on the other side of New Mexico.The landscape grew harsher and the summer hotter.

The next cascade waited at Slide Rock State Park on a greener stretch of the state between Flagstaff and Sedona.Oak Creek flows over boulders and mountain foothills just as in North Carolina, though here the creekbed comes in red sandstone.According to a ranger dressed in a Red Rock Ranger District uniform, Oak Creek Canyon is famous for the purity of its water.

“Artesian springs,” the ranger told us like it was unclaimed gold in the hills.“People come from miles for it.”He explained that the natural springs of the canyon pump out some of the purest mountain spring water in the country and, for time immemorial, the Native tribes of the area have believed that the water contains healing powers.This was confirmed later when we passed a line of cars along the shoulder of the canyon road parked before a spigot that tapped into the hills.Water-connoisseurs filled large cooler jugs that were then heaved back into trunks and hauled away.We stopped to refill too, struck with the thought that Arizona groundwater was fast becoming a luxury.

For now the springs still ran and creek still flowed.We found Oak Creek washing over a festival-size number of visitors of all shapes and sizes.The entrance fee back in North Carolina had been three dollars, again spoiling my illusion of an untamed swimming hole.But this Sliding Rock State Park required ten, like we were paying for movie tickets.

But the nature was still wild and wooly, enough that the afternoon crowds couldn’t overshadow them. Here, the water swirled into rapids in some spots and funnelled into shooting spills in others.At the popular bends, it opened into wide, tranquil pools, marked on the banks by the tall and hardy ponderosa pines.

The two swimming holes on two sides of the nation brought the same unusual cross-section of people together, one that seemed to level class differentials and reduce everyone’s age to eight or nine.By now, I’d compiled a short list of the types most frequently spotted at a sliding rock.

*pre-teen boys who are part-amphibian

*toddlers in the most breathtaking bathtub they’ve ever seen

*a teenager in shorts reaching past his knees who slips on his ass and pretends not to be experiencing blinding white pain in the backbone

*a Christian youth group cheering too loudly as one of their members dives in

* passing hikers who’ve stopped to cool themselves off like they haven’t seen water in days

* a large family speaking a foreign language who grabs the arms and legs of one of their reluctant family members and swings the person into the water, laughing

* a young man standing along the edge trying to decide whether it’s worth getting his new Keens wet

* an older man who seems to be using the river for bathing and personal hygiene

* an infant over-lathered with sunscreen and saddled with sunglasses and hat whom the mother lets touch a few toes to water

*girls in bikinis sunbathing and reminding the guys they’ve come with definitely not to splash them

*a middle-aged woman who is cautious at first but hits the water as a graceful swimmer

Then there were observers like me.I didn’t know where I belonged with this beautiful crowd.  I felt first like a kind of foreigner, trying to find the best point of entry into the water and back into my native wilderness.I wondered how all these people had gotten here, whether it might be a return of some sort like mine or whether they were here every weekend.I wondered how much longer they would – all of them – be fully welcome.I wondered how much longer the churning balance would be greater than the sum of its parts.I watched my girls like a slightly hovering father.  My older daughter now charged down the slide by herself, grown maybe a year in a matter of weeks.

Then, after letting all these thoughts pass, I eased into the brisk water and let it push me down the river with everything else.

The country, the immeasurable whole of it, turned out to be difficult to leave all over again.Though we had another full month to loop back north and east, our road trip peaked from the top of that second rock slide and my last slip down the creek would mark the beginning of a gradual comedown from all the summers that had come before.

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NATHANIEL MISSILDINE lives in Dijon, France with his wife and two daughters. He is the author of the 2012 travel memoir SAVE FOR FIREFLIES as well as a recently completed novel. Online writings, by turns comical and puzzling, are on display over at nathanielmissildine.com.

21 responses to “Of Sliding Rocks and Summer”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    It’s a damn pretty place, this country, isn’t it, Nathaniel?

  2. Yeah it is, and sometimes it takes leaving it for that fact to become fully apparent. Thanks, as always, for your comment Irene.

  3. Andrew Nonadetti says:

    Nathaniel, beautifully written and perfectly timed. I’m heading out on our first family road trip in about two weeks and, much as I love my family, I’ve got a minor amount of “cooped up in car with small kids” dread going on. Thanks for reminding me to look for future memories while I’m cruising along and before time pushes me down its current as well.

    • Remember the phrase “Am I going to have to pull this car over?” tends either to just confuse everyone in the vehicle or result in the answer you weren’t looking for. But good luck and enjoy the ride. Out of curiosity, where are you headed?

      • Andrew Nonadetti says:

        Heh. I tend to rely more on psychotic yelling. You have to work from your strengths, you know? We are heading down to “Texas, Republic of” – San Antonio, specifically. Should be… interesting.

        • Between sing-a-longs and getting truckers to sound their horns, psychotic yelling is a good way to clear the air every few hundred miles. I actually wish we’d spent more time in Texas, oddly enough. We passed through Amarillo. Things to do there include, uh…a Chili’s.

        • Andrew Nonadetti says:

          My five-year-old daughter has discovered “Batman” and there is, apparently, a million-plus bat colony in a cave outside of San Antonio. To my knowledge, the bats have never killed a human or devoured a pelican in front of a large audience but I’m still hoping to make them a memory worthy of competing with our ultimate destination (to my chagrin), SeaWorld.

        • I only wish one of my daughters would have any interest in something like Batman. Despite my best efforts to drum up enthusiasm on superheros or pirates or knights, I’m still drowning in princesses and ponies. Though I gotta say, a bat cave could be intriguing.

        • Andrew Nonadetti says:

          Oh, don’t think I’ve escaped! On good nights, I can convince her to go with Mother Goose or Dr. Seuss (crap – now I’m rhyming) but, more often than not, I’m auto-piloting my way through My Pretty Ponies’ “World’s Greatest Tea Party” or some freak-show adventure starring Barbie (how is it that even drawn Barbies look completely plastic?!?). If I wasn’t the designated nightmare-dispeller, I’d try a little Tolkein or something but not yet… my precious….

        • We have a story in which the whole village must unite to help one pony whose pink horn is simply glowing too bright. I sometimes need to spray Bactine in my eyes afterward.

        • Andrew Nonadetti says:

          I’ve told my wife I’m eventually going to have to rewrite the dialog to one of those things into a “Pretty Pony Porno” just to recoup some man points. I strongly suspect that Kimono enjoys a good spanking and Sweetberry isn’t fooling anyone – she’s just naughty!

          “There must be something we can do to calm down that huge, pink horn!”

        • You wouldn’t need to do much rewriting even, “Someone needs to ride me to the rainbow.”

        • Andrew Nonadetti says:

          We just so should not have gone down this path. Tonight was one of our “daddy-daughter date nights” and, after an exotic dinner of mac & cheese at Noodles and Company, we went to Borders. That was almost uncomfortable, mostly because I couldn’t explain why Daddy kept snickering at half the titles.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          I’m so jealous at someone discovering Batman for the first time.

        • Rainbow Dash and Batman have since had a terrible falling out.

        • Andrew Nonadetti says:

          @Simon: Don’t be too jealous. By the time she sees Ian Somerhalder, he’ll be a star of yesteryear. He gets to be all yours (barring that whole prison thing).

  4. Matt says:

    When I was 11 my family packed itself into a motorhome for a two-and-a-half week trip around the wilds of California. I had a nasty encounter with some poison oak within the first three days, and spent the rest of the trip itchy. And we all wanted to kill each other. But we did get to see some awful pretty terrain.

    Sounds like you guys had a much better time!

    • We did have our moments. Shortly after North Carolina, we discovered a half-built wasps nest under the air conditioning unit of the camper which I was in charge of vanquishing. But we never did sample the delights of poison oak. Maybe next time.

  5. Simon Smithson says:

    Nathaniel, did you know about the rocks first, and plan to go there?

    • Yes, I’d worked it into the pre-planned itinerary and then tried to make it look spontaneous to the rest of the family, like “Hey, look is that a natural waterslide that’s really fun for kids and adults alike? Should we go?”

      I understand you’re on a US road trip of your own soon. Don’t forget waterproof shoes.

      • Simon Smithson says:

        We sure are. OK. Waterproof shoes. Check.

        Man, I like that. Structuring a trip around a sliding rock? That’s some old-school Americana, right there. Or maybe something greater.

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