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.