"I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown," said John Muir, "for going out, I found, was really going in."
I am five years old. My parents have taken my brother and me to our first real amusement park—not the one on the boardwalk by the beach, and not the one at the church in the summer or on saint's days. This one is the next-best thing to Disney World: Sesame Place.
My father beckons me to jump into the ball pit. The kids in the pit are all having a good time, moving their arms about like they're doing the backstroke, tossing blue plastic balls at each others' heads. My dad is smiling.
I take my shoes off and gingerly climb in, then quickly realize the depth of this pit; my dad is up to his chest in blue plastic balls, though he's sitting down. My stockinged feet slip on the balls beneath me and gradually my toes wedge in between them, sliding down towards the bottom. I am up to my chin in sweatsock-scented plastic. I panic.
My dad realizes his error in judgment and scoops me up, wades us over to the ladder and places me on it. I hang onto the handles with my little arms and pull myself out to safety. My mother shows up to take our picture, but my dad is the only one smiling. My face is pale and wet with sweat and tears.
When I first read item 24 on my father's list, "swim the width of a river," a thought that occurred to him immediately after writing item 23, "run 10 miles straight," I imagined he'd gotten the idea from reading Mark Twain, his favorite writer, or maybe Jules Verne.
For Twain, the Mississippi River represented freedom. He grew up in Missouri as Samuel Clemens, and dreamed of working on a steamboat someday (and he did just that, briefly, before he became a writer). So when he took his pen name in 1863, naturally he took it from the river. "Two fathoms, 'mark twain,' is the point where dangerous water becomes safe water or the point where safe water becomes dangerous water," explains Ron Powers in Ken Burns's Mark Twain documentary. "I think Mark Twain was always on that margin. That's where he lived, on the edge, between the lightness and the dark. Between safety and danger. But always on the flow of the river."
Twain published Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884, when he was almost 50 years old, and the Mississippi is a character in its own right: "Two or three days and nights went by; I reckon I might say they swum by, they slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely," Huck narrates. "Here is the way we put in the time. It was a monstrous big river down there—sometimes a mile and a half wide; we run nights, and laid up and hid day-times; soon as night was most gone, we stopped navigating and tied up—nearly always in the dead water under a tow-head; and then cut young cottonwoods and willows and hid the raft with them. Then we set out the lines. Next we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the daylight come. Not a sound, anywheres—perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bull-frogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line—that was the woods on t'other side—you couldn't make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness, spreading around; then the river softened up, away off, and warn't black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along, ever so far away—trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks—rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by-and-by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there's a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t'other side of the river, being a wood-yard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh, and sweet to smell, on account of the woods and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they've left dead fish laying around, gars, and such, and they do get pretty rank; and next you've got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the songbirds just going it!"
When my dad was near Huck's age, he fell out of a tree once, breaking a leg and both arms. He was bed-ridden to recover. Years later, he always told that story to my brother and me when he warned us about tree-climbing. But I think it was one of the best things to ever happen to him. That forced bed-rest was what made him a reader, and later a writer. He might not have fallen in love with the stories of Mark Twain and Jules Verne otherwise.
I learned about Verne as a kid watching Back to the Future. Verne is mentioned a lot in the third film in that series, the one that usually nobody enjoys, but it was my dad's favorite. In the film's beginning, 1955 Doc Brown tells Marty how much he's always wanted to travel back in time to see his favorite writer's era, the Old West.
It doesn't surprise me that one of my dad's favorite authors wrote a book called Voyages Extraordinaires.
But "swim the width of a river"? I mean, it's not 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea territory, but it's not exactly the Lazy River at the local water park either.
We used to make fun of my dad when he took us to the water park in Wildwood, New Jersey, because while my brother and I loved the fast water slides and raging rapids, he just wanted to tube all day down the Lazy River. Lots of our excursions with him culminated in his falling asleep. In movie theaters. At the beach. Once he lay there in the sand, half-watching us and half-napping, so close to shore that the tide lapped over his immovable body. A stranger walked by and uttered under his breath, "Get a life, buddy." My dad laughed heartily, but it didn't inspire him to get up. He repeated the phrase for the rest of his life.
His favorite stroke was the backstroke because it meant he could just float along and relax. He tried to teach it to me but always failed because I was too sensitive to maintain it when the water seeped into my ears. He usually concluded that my chest cavity wasn't large enough—one needs to be able to fill up with air to stay floating. But he had no problem at all filling up with air. He'd float along, singing "Old Man River" and warning us to avoid the ocean's warm spots.
When we swam in our local pool, my brother and I raced each other, trying out different strokes. The only one I ever beat him in was the breaststroke, which was fitting, I suppose, with my being a girl. My father's enthusiasm over the one thing that made me competitive always turned my disappointment over losing at everything else into pride. When I swam the breaststroke, I was the queen of the waves.
The mere notion that I could compete with a boy at swimming wouldn't even exist, of course, without the first Queen of the Waves, Gertrude Ederle, who on August 6, 1926, became the first woman to swim the English Channel.
Ederle learned to swim as a kid on the Jersey Shore in the early 1900s. She nearly drowned in a pond at age eight, so her father tied a rope around her waist and tossed her into a river. By 12, she was a competitive swimmer, and by 15, she'd won a three-mile race across New York Bay. In 1912, women were finally allowed to swim in the Olympics, so in the 1924 games, Ederle earned a gold medal and two bronzes.
Between 1921 and 1925, Ederle held 29 national and world records. When she decided to swim the English Channel, she was arguably the best female swimmer in the world. But swimming the Channel wasn't an attempt at feminism. It was just the only challenge she had left.
Most people said a woman could never do it. In the 30 years prior, it had only been swum successfully by five men, fewer than had climbed Mount Everest. That's because swimming it looks far easier than it actually is. The weather over the Channel is extraordinarily changeable.
Ederle's first attempt in 1925 was a bust. Midway through, she started floating face-first, so her coach reached in and pulled her out. She later claimed she "wasn't drowning, but resting," and he had no business saving her. Before her second try, in 1926, she told her father, who'd be watching the swim by boat, not to let anyone pull her out unless she requested it. The weather over the Channel was terrible that day. The waves were so turbulent, in fact, that when Ederle reached the other side, she'd swum a total of 35 miles, not the 21 the swim should have taken. But even with the weather working against her, 20-year-old Ederle still beat the best swimmer's record by two hours. Her total was 14 hours and 39 minutes—two hours faster than any man's.
Ederle's coach called her feat "past human understanding." Writer Heywood Broun said when she "struck out from France, she left behind her a world which has believed for a great many centuries that woman is the weaker vessel...and when her toes touched the sands of England, she stepped out of the water and into a brand-new world."
She met the president of the United States, joined the vaudeville circuit and inspired a movie (in which she played herself), a dance step and proposals from hopeful suitors all over the country, but her most lasting influence was on the women she emboldened to swim. The next year, the American Red Cross reported a huge uptick in the number of female enrollees who wanted swimming certificates.
Ederle spent the rest of her life teaching swimming to the deaf (she was partially deaf herself). She taught only a few blocks from my office in New York City, in a facility now named after her, so I decided to train to check off this list item there. But then I ended up at the YMCA a block away instead, when I realized it was free the first three visits. The YMCA's indoor pool was built in 1930, so it resembles one Ederle would have trained in anyway. Its blue tiles look like the Roman Pool at Hearst Castle.
I walked up for my first training session one night after work in April, a month after my L.A. Marathon run. I'd chosen a river to swim in that was the polar opposite of Gertrude Ederle's Channel, a river the most people have swum in, not the least: the French Broad. And despite its misleading moniker, it's only 500 feet wide (my dad never said how wide it had to be, so I decided 500 feet should do it).
I chose the French Broad because it was near Marion, North Carolina, where Steven and I were headed on Mother's Day weekend to attend our nephew's high school graduation. And for some reason, river swimming just struck me as a sentimental Southern activity. I pictured a Norman Rockwell painting—an idyllic setting with a rope swing, a soft, glassy water surface, maybe a "lift" a la Dirty Dancing (filmed at Lake Lure, not far from the French Broad).
And then of course the river's history appealed to me, too. The French Broad is the third oldest river in the world. Only the Nile in Egypt and the New River have it beat. It's said to be even older than the Appalachian Mountains it runs through, and they're 480 million years old, so that's a pretty old river. It's so old that it's nearly devoid of fossils.
Early settlers decided to call it the French Broad because it drained into territory held by the French. Even-earlier settlers, the Cherokees, had other names for it. One meant "racing waters." Another meant "the chattering child."
If this doesn't sound like a calm river to you, you'd be correct in that assessment. I, unfortunately, had yet to learn this.
The French Broad runs 210 miles south to north—this information was easy to find. But I couldn't figure out from looking at Google Maps how wide the widest part might be and which part allowed swimmers. Also, until the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the French Broad's water quality was sorely lacking. But since then the river has returned to a clean refuge, where families spend weekends camping, picnicking, kayaking, renting canoes, fishing, paddleboarding and (my dad's favorite) tubing. The French Broad was also the river General John Sevier, a founding father, lived on two centuries ago. Family legend on my mother's side says we're related to Sevier (and Davy Crockett, too!), so I hoped this might bring me some luck. Like my DNA might see this river and know just how to navigate it.
I wanted to stay warm (as my uncle said, "that's mountain water!"), so I bought a rash guard on sale at J. Crew. Inspired by Gertrude Ederle (and the rules for the West Side YMCA), I purchased a bathing cap, too. Ederle's little red cap was the only thing spectators could see for much of her Channel swim—it was how they kept track of her. My bathing cap was maroon with an orange Nike swoosh on it, the same colors I wear while running, and I also got orange water shoes, just like my orange running shoes. So now I felt like a sponsored athlete.
I decided I ought to train in the rash guard, so I yanked it on over my torso in the YMCA women's locker room, where many young girls seem to feel just fine walking around completely nude. All month, whenever I had time, I taught myself swimming jargon—the difference between a length and a lap, etc. My knowledge was passable enough that I could figure out how many times I had to swim the length of that blue-tiled pool to have completed a mile. I traversed it 36 times my first session, which barely equaled half a mile of swimming. It took me about half an hour to do. At that rate, and all other conditions being equal, it would have taken me 35 hours to complete Gertrude Ederle's Channel swim—and that's not even considering the fact that my body would have given out after only 30 minutes.
I felt pretty proud of myself for swimming even that far, and for doing it with only one eye open for most because my goggles hadn't arrived in the mail yet. But this was a different kind of feeling than the one I get after a good training run. Instead of feeling psyched and energized, I felt calm.
Swimming is meditative. Coaches recommend paying attention to the alignment of your body in the water and breathing correctly and trying not to get too lost in thought while doing it. So that's what I tried to do. Though I attempted remembering how to swim freestyle and sidestroke, I found myself sticking to my tried-and-true breaststroke. It was the one I was most confident in. Halfway through my session I noticed I was in one of the faster lanes, but I tried not to let the rookie maneuver bother me. (And here I thought the other swimmers were staring simply because I was wearing long sleeves.)
My brother Dave sometimes tells me why he loves to play basketball, and I think it's similar to this feeling. I didn't have music on like I do when I run. The only technology was the clock on the wall, telling me how short I'd come up if I were competing with Gertrude Ederle. And it was such a freeing feeling. I'd entered the Y that day troubled by an issue at work and also something personal, but when I left I felt just fine, like there was no reason to be worked up about anything.
I might have been experiencing what the writer Wallace J. Nichols calls "blue mind": "a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment. It is inspired by water and elements associated with water, from the color blue to the words we use to describe the sensations associated with immersion." In his book Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How being Near, In, On or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected and Better at What You Do, he suggests that water unleashes our subconscious minds and our intuitions—it helps us go beyond conscious decision-making to get in touch with empathy. In other words, it puts us in touch with our inner selves. Something he says our addiction to blue light-emitting screens interferes with.
Hence, if we spent more time in our days cultivating "blue mind" or mindfulness in general, we might experience fewer casualties from our dependence on technology. Hence, my dad might still be alive.
Cold water immersion enthusiasts like Tim Ferriss and Wim Hof take this one step further. They believe that if the water therapy you indulge in is also ice-cold, the meditative effects give way to motivating and mood-boosting benefits, too.
This isn't anything new, of course. In the first century B.C., Romans took ice-cold baths to cure headaches and stomach problems. But it's seen a resurgence in popularity. According to Tony Robbins, who takes a dip in 57-degree water every morning, "When practiced on a regular basis, cold water immersion can provide long-lasting changes to your body’s immune, lymphatic, circulatory and digestive systems that enhance the overall quality of your life."
Since I only had time for one YMCA swim before I swam the river, I took three Epsom salt baths in April. Epsom salt was the closest thing I had to the salt of the sea, and I was curious about its detoxifying effects, something supposedly the river would also do for me.
Epsom is a place in England that has natural springs. According to WebMD, in water, Epsom "breaks down into magnesium and sulfate. The theory is that when you soak in an Epsom salt bath, these get into your body through your skin." It's supposed to relieve pain, muscle cramps, inflammation, asthma and migraine headaches. It's also known to heal cuts, soothe sore muscles and aid in digestion.
Every Epsom salt bath I took made me so relaxed that I had to get out and use the bathroom a few minutes after sitting in it (I have IBS). I hoped to God this wouldn't happen in the river, too.
A week or so before our trip, I started worrying that the advice I'd gotten from the French Broad Outfitters didn't ensure that nothing untoward might happen, despite my "training." Five-hundred feet of swimming seemed easy enough. But there were other things to consider. "You have to think about the bacteria and other organisms in the water," a friend at work said. I joked with her about how open-water swimmers traverse the Hudson all the time and supposedly exit still smelling like the Hudson, an odor that stays with them for two weeks. She pointed out that they'd better hope they finished that swim without any open wounds, a welcome mat for infections.
So I rapidly found a website run by the French Broad Riverkeeper, Hartwell Carson, which measures the toxicity of the water at any given point. I hadn't known that "riverkeeper" was a real occupation, but it made sense that if someone were to do such a thing, his name would be Hartwell Carson.
A person whose job it is to "keep" the river probably knows best where I should jump in, I thought, so I emailed Carson and asked which part of the French Broad was the widest, and which part the deepest. Carson responded: "I would say anywhere upstream of Asheville would work. I would skip the Long Shoals area, because it is shallow. Right there is a good bit of water and I think almost anywhere would work. If you are in Asheville you could try Hominy Creek access. Good luck!"
Next I studied the River Paddling map provided online by the French Broad Outfitters, who were probably getting annoyed by all my questions at this point. Because now, thanks to another friend at work, I'd come up with a brand-new concern: snakes.
My Facebook message exchange with the French Broad Outfitters went like this:
Me: "Hi! My husband and I are planning a trip to Asheville and would like to rent a kayak or do some tubing. I'd also like to swim the width of the river, which I guess is between 100 and 400 feet? It's for a bucket list I'm doing, myfatherslist.com. Do you ever permit anyone to swim in the river, even for a few minutes? Thanks so much! Laura"
French Broad Outfitters: "Hi Laura, you are welcome to swim, water temp now is about 57 degrees. We aren't quite tubing yet but you are welcome to rent a boat (load and go) or to schedule a float trip. We offer a 6 and 12 mile float. $40/60 and 2.5/4.0 hours."
Me: "Great! Would you say it's a relatively easy swim? Just going from one side to another at your takeoff point? I noticed further north up the river looks pretty choppy, but it seems calmer where you're situated. What is the temperature typically around May 12? That's when we'll be traveling to Asheville."
Two days later, they responded:
FBO: "Currently 58F. My guess in a month it would be 65-68. Check USGS river gauge-French Broad River-Asheville for a more scientific guess."
Me: "Thank you!"
Eight days later, I wrote to them again:
Me: "Hi again! Was wondering if you could tell me the width and depth of the river, at least near where you're located?"
FBO: "704 riverside is knee deep 150 feet. But go upstream and it's deeper. 230 Hominy location deeper but only 50 feet across."
Me: "Thank you! Is there a river in Asheville that is deeper and wider than that? Was hoping at least chest-deep."
Seven days went by with no answer. And then...
FBO: "The French Broad is the widest river in Asheville, and varies in width and depth throughout its course. It sounds like the easiest thing for you to do is when you arrive, drive along the river and find a spot that suits your swimming across the river needs. I hope this helps!"
Me: "Sounds like a good plan! Thanks!"
And then, a week before the swim:
Me: "Hi, had one more question for you—I was reading about wildlife in the river and your website said there are venomous snakes. Is it safe to swim 50 feet across the width of the river, or am I just asking to be bitten? Thank you so much for all your help!"
FBO: "You are all good."
The morning we arrived at French Broad Outfitters, and I asked yet again about how to determine the best place to jump in for a swim, the 20-year-old behind the desk looked at me over her glasses and said, "Are you the one who sent the emails?"
My work friend brought up the snakes because there are indeed venomous snakes in that region of the country. (Then she told a story about how she'd once danced with boa constrictors under the tutelage of a snake charmer at her dance camp, and I said, "Can I please point out that you're worried I'm going to be bitten by a snake and you supposedly once danced with snakes that could kill you?", to which she responded, "Well, yes, but they weren't fed live animals," as though that makes a difference over whether or not they'll constrict you to death.)
Through my own research, I learned the snakes in the French Broad typically hang out on low-hanging branches. "As long as you keep your boat away from those," the site said, "you'll be fine."
What boat? I thought.
The day before I left for North Carolina, a man in one of the distracted driving awareness groups I belong to on Facebook added me as a friend. When I looked at his profile, I learned that he lived only a few miles from the French Broad. So I wrote him immediately and asked him if he knew much about the river.
Dan Dry is a fisherman and also a writer, who often publishes his articles in Angler magazine. His daughter was killed by a distracted driver before her senior year of high school.
He told me I could call him after he was finished with church, so I did, excited that I'd finally found an expert on the snakes. By then, I'd also read reports about a rogue alligator that came up from the Gulf in 2015.
"It's not the snakes you have to worry about," Dry explained. "They usually stay down in the more Southern rivers. If I were you, I'd be concerned about the cold."
Dry told me that the river temperature was much colder than normal that week because of all the rain they'd had recently. Then he reminisced about going tubing on the river with his daughter. "She always used to tease me about how cold I'd get."
I told him I was sorry about his daughter. When I told him I was headed to North Carolina to see my nephew graduate, he remarked that his daughter had never made it to graduation.
Dry told me to let him know if I needed anything before I did my swim, which I thought was kind of him, and maybe also fatherly, but was most likely the result of Southern civility.
We set off for our hotel in Asheville at 3 a.m. Friday, a day before my swim. My husband loves road trips and suggested he drive down all night and then rest all afternoon when we got there. My nephew's graduation was Friday evening. Then I'd wake up Saturday morning and jump in the French Broad. I put my suitcase in the car after a late night at work and then drifted off to sleep. When I woke up a few hours later, we were in Virginia. I walked into a convenience store and ordered my first biscuit breakfast sandwich of the trip (there would be many).
As we sailed through the Blue Ridge Mountains, we listened to NPR. It was the Friday after President Trump fired the head of the FBI. His reasons for doing so had changed in that time. He'd just been interviewed on NBC, claiming that he'd done it because of the Russia investigation after all.
As we got further away from New Jersey, we got further away from NPR.
Steven was excited about more than just seeing my nephew graduate (though there are very few things in life I've seen him get more excited about) and photographing my swim. Our trip meant we'd be spending a few nights in Asheville, a place he'd always wanted to visit. We'd booked the first two nights at a nondescript Best Western and then Sunday night at the Grove Park Inn, a place that was famous in Gertrude Ederle's day for attracting the well-heeled.
Here's how Michael Kruse described it in 2014 for Our State magazine: "[Edwin Wiley Grove] was a Tennessee pharmacist who moved to St. Louis and heaped a fortune making and hawking over-the-counter drugs, most notably a concoction called Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic, six-ounce hits of quinine, sugar, and lemon-scented syrup. He came to Asheville in 1897, seeking to alleviate bronchial difficulties with the restorative air of the picturesque peaks. It was the reasoning for many of the arrivals of the late 19th century and into the early part of the next. The sanitariums served their purpose. But Grove’s signature structure wasn’t built for that. The most ’20s thing about the Grove Park Inn was its specific pitch. It wasn’t for sick people. It was for rich people. 'If you are a Big Business Man…' one early come-on began. The Inn, said a local newspaper report, 'will bring here many people of wealth…' And it did. In the ’20s, guests played tennis and golf and got massages, brochures urging them to 'laze away in dreamy hours.' Tea was served in the late afternoon. Dinner featured Consomme Neapolitan, Chesapeake Bay oysters, prime rib or filet mignon. People gathered in the 'Big Room' for organ recitals and movie nights. Alcohol was illegal, of course, but the hills made house calls and the bellhops worked for tips. Still, this was not the same party as the one at Gatsby’s in West Egg—at the Grove Park Inn, the scene was elite but effete, much less youthful and not at all rowdy."
I first learned about the Grove Park when I watched Ken Burns's documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea a few years ago. Appalachia and the Great Smoky Mountains were made famous by the writer Horace Kephart and photographer George Masa, a Japanese immigrant who was a Grove Park Inn busboy and valet. Kephart and Masa spent their weekends together mapping the massive future national park and documenting its beauty. Their work protected the land from developers.
F. Scott Fitzgerald stayed in the Grove Park, too, in the 1930s. He'd just published Tender Is the Night and was worried his writing well had dried up. While staying at the Inn, he drank 30-some beers per day (a supposed cure for kicking harder stuff) and flirted with the wealthy female clientele. All the while, he was staying there so he could be near his wife Zelda, estranged and in a mental institution. After a few depressing years (he wrote one of my favorite essays, though, "The Crack-Up," for Esquire during this time), Fitzgerald moved to the Garden of Allah in Los Angeles (I need to rename this project "Chasing Fitzgerald," since I seem to stay in so many of his haunts—that's L.A., Paris, Key West and Asheville, now, not to mention the night I was in his dorm room at Princeton). He died three years later.
Fitzgerald shared an editor, Max Perkins, at Scribner's with the most famous writer to come out of Asheville, Thomas Wolfe, who also died young—two years before Fitzgerald. In the early 1930s, more was expected of Wolfe than of any of his contemporaries, and that includes Hemingway and Faulkner. When Sinclair Lewis became the first American to accept the Nobel prize for literature in 1930, he said he suspected Wolfe may become not only the greatest American writer but one of the greatest world writers. Wolfe was the only novelist at the time who'd left behind such long novels still to be published posthumously. When he submitted his original manuscripts to publishers, they were typically thousands of pages.
His life was plagued by the backlash his first novel received from the town where he grew up. Two hundred of his characters in Look Homeward, Angel were easily identifiable as Asheville residents. He received death threats over it and couldn't return for eight years.
Wolfe took issue with the greed and glitz that led to the success of a place like the Grove Park Inn. He once said in a letter to his mother, "When I was a child, I daydreamed about having five or ten million dollars and spending it on steam yachts, automobiles, great estates and swank. Now I know that happiness is not to be got at in that way: the only way I know is to find the thing you want to do with all your heart, and to work like hell doing it.”
To prepare for my river swim and visit to his hometown, I picked up Wolfe's second book, Of Time and the River. It's 1,025 pages long. I know I'll get through it some day. But as a well-read friend of mine said, "It's a lot more 'time' than 'river.'"
A year after I learned about the Grove Park Inn, my friend Amy told me that she actually used to live there. Her father was the Grove Park Inn's winter groundskeeper. So she knows its stories better than most, including that it's definitely haunted. This made us want to stay there even more.
About an hour away from the Best Western, the sky opened up and rain started pouring down. It was just straight gray as far as we could see, so Steven slowed down the car and turned on the weather report. A tornado warning blared for the town we'd just left. Grateful to have missed it, we kept on driving.
But it didn't bode well for river conditions.
I've decided to have a Best Western breakfast before every list item I check off, so it was fortunate that we stayed in one that night. And this Best Western served something I'd never tried at 10 a.m. before: biscuits and gravy. While Steven toured Asheville's best vegan cafes, I enjoyed a leisurely meal and perused brochures. We hoped to visit the Biltmore Estate (designed by the Vanderbilts, the same wealthy family who erected the New York YMCA I trained in!) during our stay, and maybe the Thomas Wolfe house.
Around 11:30 a.m., after I'd put on my suit and rash guard, packed a towel from the hotel and covered up in jeans (there was still a spring chill in the air), we left the Best Western and drove off to find a dock for me to jump off of.
Never in my life have I smelled honeysuckles so pungent or in such abundance as there were lining the banks of the French Broad. After a quick stop at the River Outfitters, we determined a boat wouldn't be needed and drove up the river, north of Asheville, to find a decent spot. The window open on the passenger side, I reveled in the honeysuckle smells but then braced myself when I saw the sewage plant.
We chose a spot called Walnut Island River Park. It wasn't a campground like some of the others—it was a small piece of land with a few picnic tables strewn about. The first thing I did when we parked the car was check the Riverkeeper's website for toxicity. Walnut Island had been given a green light that day, so I knew I'd be OK.
I pulled off my jeans and threw them in the backseat and got out my bathing cap, goggles and towel. I wiped my legs with bug repellent. And of course I left my phone in the car.
Steven walked ahead of me as we approached the water. The current was pretty swift, which the woman at River Outfitters had warned us about. But it didn't look like anything I couldn't handle.
"You have an audience," Steven said. I looked to the left, to where he was pointing, and saw a gaggle of Canadian geese resting on a sandbar in the very middle of the river, squawking away.
I posed for a photo, pulled on my bathing cap and gave Steven a kiss after he wished me luck. And then I got in.
The water was cold, but not so cold I couldn't stand it. It was a deep grayish green, which meant I could never see what I was stepping on, but I quickly realized it was mostly rocks. Slippery rocks.
My orange water shoes suddenly seemed one of the smartest purchases I'd ever made but also one of the most foolish, because they kept slipping off. I spent half my swim pulling at my right heel to slip that one back on.
And it wasn't just the rocks that were knocking them off—it was the speed of the water. Which was far more overwhelming once I was in it than when I'd been standing on its banks.
The deepest the water got was in the center of the river, and even then it was only about thigh deep. I kept my body fully immersed as much as I could, but that often proved too difficult with the current, so at times I just stood up and walked.
I'm getting over there one way or another, I thought.
The problem with walking though was that the rocks were so unwieldy that if it wasn't the current knocking me down, the rocks would do it. And every time I fell, I fell square on my knees, which I was sure were gushing blood or bruised all over by the time I reached the halfway point.
My mom couldn't believe I was attempting this at all when I told her about it. She said it was something that she could never do.
In 1957, when she was 10 years old, she attended a summer camp for the first time. One day the counselors asked the campers to jump into the pool to show everyone how well they could swim. She jumped into the deep end with the others despite never having swum a day in her life. She didn't want to seem like she didn't know what she was doing, she says. She just wanted to fit in. They had to pull her out with a pole.
By the end of that week, she'd learned how to swim. My grandfather picked her up from camp and then took her to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Proud of her new skills, she showed off for her dad in the ocean. And then a massive wave swooped in, picked her up and tossed her out.
Afraid she'd almost died, she never put her head under water again.
I've never really seen my mom swim. She'll paddle a little, but her hair and makeup always stays perfect as she makes her way across a pool. In the ocean, she only goes shin-deep. When I was a kid, my brother and I had to be sure that we never went out too far. She usually just kept a sharp eye on us from the shore.
Not wanting my brother or me to have this limitation, she made certain we both learned how to swim. In her mind, she says, there are only two kinds of people in this world: those who can swim and those who can't. She was determined to make sure we were the first kind.
And that's why I could make it to the other side of the river. It was because of my mom.
When we arrived in Asheville the day before, I took a call at the Best Western from a producer at CBS Sunday Morning. They wanted to do a segment on me driving a Corvette, they said, to check off the most challenging My Father's List item. This was only one of many interview calls I'd been getting, which was miraculous and wonderful, but at the same time, I'm not a person with any real broadcast news training. And I'd gone on three TV shows by this point, some of the interviews lasting eight minutes or longer, like this was a perfectly normal thing for me to do.
As more and more people were getting involved in this project or in the promotion of it, I was beginning to feel a bit confused about its focus. And so every time the French Broad's current knocked me down or my feet slipped on those unseeable rocks beneath me, I'd pull myself back up, narrow in on those trees over by the marshy banks, just below the railroad tracks, and remember that I'd set a goal for myself and it was up to me to complete it. The same as what I'd done when I set out to complete the list.
Whether it was getting a ton of attention or no attention at all, I couldn't let anything sway me.
As I neared the other side, I was several feet upriver from where I'd intended to land, but it was just as well. That's how life works sometimes.
I scanned the branches around the other side for reptiles and when I saw they were clear, I swam on. Once I climbed out onto the grass, I stood up and turned around and threw my arms up into the air triumphantly. I yelled across to Steven, "I did it!" He couldn't hear me because he was 500 feet away.
And then it dawned on me. I had to somehow get back.
I had realized starting out that I'd likely have to swim the width of a river twice. When we saw the other side, just grass and railroad tracks, Steven and I couldn't figure out how to get the car over there to pick me up. It just felt different, knowing this, after the first half of the swim was over.
When I jumped back in, I began to feel foolish. "This is crazy, this is crazy..." I said out loud to myself. And then I asked my dad, yelling, "Why did you want to do this??" Only a few steps in, I met the toughest current yet. It knocked me off my feet and l had to hang onto a rock with one hand. I was holding on for dear life (well, probably not, but it felt that way), and realized the best plan of action was no action. I just held on and let the current pass over me, let my body be pulled with it. I kept picturing Lois Lane being washed away by Niagara Falls in Superman II (apparently many of my imaginings of impending doom involve these movies).
And then something shifted in me. I started laughing. I was having fun.
This time last year, Steven and I had just returned from our desert honeymoon. The temperatures reached 120 degrees the week we were in Arizona. We spent most of it hanging out with my family by the pool (my mom had turned a vacation share into an extended part of our destination wedding). On the last day, the day before they were headed back to the East Coast, my brother Dave and future sister-in-law Jaime decided to travel with us to Sedona.
Sitting by a pool in 120 degrees, surrounded by rooftop misters, is one thing, but trying to climb dusty rocks the color of hell in that heat is another. After we hiked the Red Rocks, Dave and Jaime cooled off by visiting a vineyard. Steven and I decided to ride roughshod down a naturally made water slide Goonies-style. Well at least I did. Steven mostly just watched.
It was 5 p.m. when we drove to Slide Rock State Park, and they were closing at 7 p.m. Of course I decided it was worth the $30 entrance fee. I changed into my suit in the little ramshackle bathroom but kept on my shoes. Steven trailed a bit behind me as we walked towards the slide—he was nowhere near as excited about this as I was. We walked past some strangely placed apple trees—the slide is a part of Oak Creek Canyon, dug to irrigate an orchard 100 years ago—and then we reached the top of the 80-foot slide with a seven-foot decline, worn into the sandstone by the century. It's the algae on its rocks that makes it so slippery. The Travel Channel named this place one of the top 10 swimming holes in the country, but with no lifeguards on duty, you swim at your own risk. Its Web site also recommends wearing shorts, but I decided that was just a suggestion.
We realized when we reached the top that there was no place to store our stuff. And by the time we slid all the way down and climbed all the way up again to retrieve it, Steven reasoned, the park might be closing. So Steven volunteered to carry our clothes and walk along the edges of the slide while I traveled down it.
If there were a way to experience the sensation of being a leaf or a twig, a product of nature with no volition or free will, just pure instinct, just pure life and oxygen and matter, being carried along by forces you know not of, then this would be it. At first it's scary giving up that much control. I took off my shoes, and then didn't know what I was stepping on. At one point, I had to climb out of the shallow pools that succeeded each other down the hill and out of the water, up onto a rock, and the act of doing so, barefoot as I was, made me feel like a puma or mountain lion. A creature emerging from the ooze.
I giggled and smiled most of the way down. After a while it was all I could do, because despite my roughed up spinal cord and behind, the novelty of it just brought me so much joy. And all the while I was experiencing this rush of water carrying me down, down, down, I was looking up, up, up, flat on my back, at these towering red rock stone formations, these solid historic masses reaching to the sky.
At the slide's base, I swam across the cool pool over to the side. I didn't feel like I ever really needed to ride it again. But there was something about that one time of being that close to nature, closer than I'd ever been before, that made me want to keep it that way, and on my way out of the park, I hugged one of the apple trees when nobody was looking.
While I was on my back, letting the slide take me where it wanted to, I let water seep into my ears. It was my first enjoyable back float.
I tried to channel that as I hung onto that rock with one hand in the French Broad.
As the current died down I decided to risk walking a little again. I stumbled a few times and was now getting impatient. I was standing close to the edge of what might be a waterfall to the left of me, I wasn't sure. But I couldn't see what was below the precipice. And then I decided to try to stand still and not be knocked over, just to see what might happen.
And then I closed my eyes and prayed.
Please calm these waters, I said silently.
Like some kind of Jedi mind trick, it worked. I suddenly felt warm, and I opened my eyes and saw the sun had come out. As it blanketed its yellow rays on me and the river around me, a butterfly flitted by, over the now calm waters.
I looked around. I was only one swimmer, one person, standing in the middle of this vast body of water, surrounded by mountains and sun. I was the only person experiencing what I was experiencing right where I was—well, except for Steven and the family picnicking on the shore, who I was certain believed I was a lunatic at this point. But they weren't there in the water with me. My viewpoint was mine alone.
It made all the risk to reach that point worth it.
As I walked forward slowly, every time I fell didn't hurt as much. Whether the waters stayed calm or not didn't matter. What mattered was I believed they were.
When Gertrude Ederle finished her swim in 1926, the last leg was the most challenging. She got through it by singing. The tugboats carrying spectators and reporters were playing jazz on gramophones, so she sang along, the rhythm of her voice mirroring the rhythm of her strokes and breaths. Then, 200 meters from her finish line, the currents suddenly calmed.
When my dad used to back float in the ocean, he was always singing. Whether "Old Man River or "Moon River" or some other corny song.
Johnny Mercer wrote "Moon River" about the river he grew up near in Savannah. It was meant to emphasize Holly Golightly's modest upbringing, an easier, simpler time. "Moon River, wider than a mile, I'm crossing you in style some day...." She made it to New York despite her origins. This was part of why I chose this one to play as I walked down the aisle at my wedding. Because my father loved to sing it, because my husband and I are "after the same rainbow's end," because he's a "huckleberry friend," at least to me.
A "huckleberry friend" is someone you experience life with in an easy way. Someone with whom you can be your total self. Much like Mark Twain's Huck and Jim. They find their true selves on that river. When I reread it this summer, I remembered why my dad would have liked it so much.
As I reached the last few feet of the river, I again scanned the branches for snakes, and then I made it to the banks.
I never would have made it across that river without my mother's influence, but I never could have found my way back without my dad's.
My mom made sure I knew how to swim. But my dad made sure I knew when to start singing.
When I reached the other side, the one I'd pushed off from, I was still several feet from Walnut Island River Park, where Steven stood waiting. Instead I was on a sandbar. He nearly had a heart attack when I disappeared, he said. He had to think fast. If something had happened to me, he said, he considered jumping in. Then he briefly thought about calling for an ambulance.
Then something in him told him I'd be OK, so he decided to wait.
I had to get back in the water once again to walk back to where he stood, so I put my feet in the thick sand of the edge...and then they both started sinking.
I didn't panic. Instead, I sat down and pulled both feet out of my sinking shoes. Then I pulled both shoes out of the sand with my hands. They were completely covered.
In my favorite essay of all time, "The Country Below," Barbara Hurd explains that it's the sinking sensation of water, the swamps of the world, that causes most hydrophobia. It's one thing to get in and brave a current. It's quite another to get stuck.
Once when I was 11, I was up visiting my cousins in their new development, full of half-built houses. The landscaping was only half there, too, but I didn't know that, and my 2-year-old cousin and I took a little walk.
When we neared a clearing and a dried-up lake, I decided to walk across. I figured it would be just like ice, a frozen-over lake in winter. Instead, a few steps in, I saw the mud hadn't set yet, and I started sinking. I gradually sank all the way to my knees, and it was slowly getting worse. The more I pushed into the mud with both hands, the further down I went. My poor little cousin was scared as she watched me struggle. Even worse, I was sure I was serving as a horrible example for her.
After Stephanie ran off for help, I was left all alone, a much scarier place to be. And then a man walked over to the other edge of the mud with his little dog on a leash, who scampered across it just fine. The man saw my predicament but said and did nothing. This was probably for the best, because it helped me pretend everything was OK. I learned that if I pushed one hand in at a time very calmly, I could pull one leg out at a time. And then I extricated myself.
By the time my cousin came back with my uncle, I was already free. My aunt and uncle found some plastic wrap and lined the back seat of the station wagon, the one facing the street behind us, with it. I sat back there, covered in mud from the thighs down, the whole way back to their apartment (where they were living while the new house was being built).
Twenty-three years later, my cousin Stephanie and I laughed about this as we stood on the shore of Sea Isle City, New Jersey, our feet sinking more and more into the wet sand. We were talking about a lot of things, but what we mostly discussed was how important it is to be true to you. And how funny it was that at 2 years old, she knew how to save me. She doesn't remember any of that stuff happening of course, she was far too young. She only knows about it from being told the story so many times. But I bet if she were stuck in mud, she'd figure out how to get free pretty easily. She knows how to save herself. She knows how to save everybody. It's just how she's made.
I told Stephanie that day on the beach about the first time I made an unpopular decision but one that meant being true to me—when I moved to New York City. I made that move on Mother's Day.
My nephew who was graduating that weekend also wants to move to New York. At his graduation party, he told me he'd been in the French Broad River numerous times. Which is how I know he'll be just fine.
There is something to swimming in wild, open water like that and actually enjoying it, to having enough courage to jump in even though the waters might be rough. Water is an unpredictable element. In Huckleberry Finn, it brings the protagonists freedom, but with that freedom comes a great many challenges.
My nephew Andrew is a writer, and he's also an actor, so he has a better grasp on his emotions than most. He knows how to process them and he's not afraid of how deep they might go. He knows he has to be willing to explore them if he's to use them as an actor, or to convey ideas as a writer, to help make his audience feel things. And because he's mastered this, he'll be able to go a lot of places in life that are off-limits to the less brave.
Andrew seemed to appreciate the Grove Park Inn more than the rest of my family when they visited us there the next night. He marveled over the glass case that held Fitzgerald's typewriter. Then he shared with me the essay he wrote about how he feels on stage, the one that got him into his chosen college. It reminded me a little of a quote by Thomas Wolfe, his fellow North Carolina writer, in Of Time and the River: "At that instant he saw, in one blaze of light, an image of unutterable conviction, the reason why the artist works and lives and has his being—the reward he seeks—the only reward he really cares about, without which there is nothing. It is to snare the spirits of mankind in nets of magic, to make his life prevail through his creation, to wreak the vision of his life, the rude and painful substance of his own experience, into the congruence of blazing and enchanted images that are themselves the core of life, the essential pattern whence all other things proceed, the kernel of eternity."
Though he's only 18, Andrew already understands this.
As I neared the grassy banks of the French Broad River, I caught Steven's eye and smiled. I laughed at how ridiculous I looked. He was laughing out of pure relief that I was still living.
Even as I panicked in the ball pit at Sesame Place, my dad was still smiling. As he put me on the ladder, I couldn't get myself out of there fast enough.
But as Steven reached for my hand and yanked me out of that river, all I really wanted to do was stay in.
"I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown," said John Muir, "for going out, I found, was really going in."
Epilogue: We didn't find any ghosts at the Grove Park Inn, unless you count the "pink lady," who supposedly fell to her death when visiting someone in the hotel (hence why she's not on any hotel records and remains unnamed). We saw the "pink lady's dress," set in a glass case near Fitzgerald's typewriter, when my family came to visit us there. Luckily, the dress was covered in red roses, because by then I'd concocted a story with the help of my nine-year-old niece, Savannah, that the pink lady was scattering rose petals everywhere she walked (it was Mother's Day, and patrons had been handed single red roses throughout).
When we first entered our very well-kept room, though, I noticed a strong smoky wood smell. Steven said this could be explained away by the six-foot-tall hearths in the great room. But when I told my friend Amy, who used to live in the Grove Park, I liked her explanation better. "Oh, I know that smell," she said. "It's from Zelda Fitzgerald's mental institution when it burned to the ground."
The smell mysteriously vanished after those first few minutes.