*This blog post originally appeared on theday.com on July 5th, 2007
When planning our trip across country, two friends who attend the University of West Virginia both told us, separately, that they would “show us some good swimming holes.” So on the drive down Will and I became mildly infatuated with this activity.
We wondered: is frequenting swimming holes a main West Virginian pastime? How many swimming holes are there? What is the ratio of swimming holes to people? And what really qualifies as a swimming hole?
Will and I awoke early yesterday, ready to go. But it took us three hours to rouse our friend, Brendan, from bed and get things ready to go. It takes a long time for people down here to do things. I fear that this will only get worse the further we go.
Along with a few other friends and Brendan’s dog, Bryce, we took an hour drive through the rolling hills surrounding Morgantown to the Arden River, one of Brendan’s favorite places to swim and kayak.
We dropped in and floated down river, wide and easy, with small sections of rapids running around smooth limestone. The native West Virginianers did this effortlessly—feet held high, arms outstretched, probing for rocks. They slid over and around them, through small stretches of rapids. I didn’t. For some reason my butt rode much lower in the water. It glanced off sharp edges and my ankles stuck in crevices, spinning me around and dragging me under the current.
After picking up a few scrapes and bruises we ended up at the aptly and creatively named “Party Rock.” This was one of the most beautiful features of rock I have ever seen on a river. At the same time, it was also disgusting.
The rock, shaped like a whales’ back, runs from the shore to the middle of the river, where it balloons upward and outward.
People of all shapes and sizes lay sprawled on its graffiti-tagged back, tanning, grilling, drinking, smoking. Instead of lichen, beer cans and bottles littered its sides, sometimes dropping or getting chucked into the water.
The first thing we noticed was the rock’s foul stench, as if it had been soaked in a century’s-worth of booze and urine.
A scraggly-haired man, sitting in a lawn chair and smoking a cigarette, casually tossed what Will diagnosed as half-sticks of dynamite over his shoulder into the river and onto surrounding rocks. Sometimes he didn’t watch the result. The explosions sent up mushroom clouds of water and plumes of smoke.
He had a few diesel fireworks too. We came to know him as “dynamite guy.” You had to watch out for him. Sometimes explosions would happen a little too close to where you were swimming.
It was a carnival on a river.
Groups of people jumped and flipped off the rock’s steeper sides into pools of rushing water. Some slid down rapids that ran through caves in the rock’s side.
Every one of the dozens of people there really could have their own swimming hole.
Past the rock, a hike and a scramble through shallow water and flat sections of sandstone, waterfalls poured down twenty feet. A fisherman dropped a hook rigged with raw chicken into a pool below. He let the natural motion of the falls swirl the bait. After every cast he pulled out catfishes bigger than two-liter soda-bottles.
“This is the best day of fishing I’ve had in a while,” he said.
Bryce, who meanwhile was zipping up rocks, jumping into craters, and investigating explosions, tried his best to ruin the fishing-guy’s day by getting tangled in the fishing line.
But we all made it out alive and home. We watched some fireworks over Morgantown and fell asleep early.
Today we drove to Fairmont, West Virginia to see some family. Then it’s off to Kentucky.
We are currently in a McDonalds that has offered free wireless service for the past month. According to the manager we are the first people to ever ask about it. Some people are looking at us funny, I hope because of the Internet thing.
This is a little refreshing and a little strange.