On Labor Day – the last REAL day of summer in most young boys’ minds – I went swimming with my grandsons, Ethan & Cade. Ethan is seven; smart and sensitive, he has juvenile diabetes but takes it like a man; he loves skateboarding and has been my BFF since he was born. Cade’s 3 – going on 6 – energetic, talkative, rough-and-tumble; so tow-headed and dimpled cute that he can just give you a look and you are wrapped around his finger. We swam and splashed until the boys’ mom said, too soon, that it was time to go. We pretended we didn’t hear her at first, but, like Old Man Winter, Mom can’t be put off forever and we dragged ourselves out of the pool and out of summer. It was time for summer to go too.
Ah, the extraordinaryness of an early September pool day! Clear sky so blue your eyes water; the sun glowing like your own personal space heater in the dry and cool 80° air; a brisk breeze just begging you to launch a kite, lay in the grass and name the clouds on their lazy journey East. But the breeze kept us in the perfect-temperature water – just cool enough for a summer day and just warm enough to keep you in the pool and out of the goose-bumping wind.
The time wafted by like the breeze that carried the screams and shouts and laughter along with the clean smell of chlorine down the ridge and away into autumn. Just like in the movies, I flashed back on five decades of growing up and misted over with a nostalgia strong enough to bring back the smells of my childhood. Summers smelled like the Ragweed that grows along the ditches and roads of Colorado; it smelled like chlorine and wintergreen locker-room disinfectant; smelled like a light rain – barely more than verga – on a dusty field; like a lake with carp and crappie in the middle and cattails and goose poop on the edges; like freshly laid blacktop and freshly mown grass; sunblock on the nose of the lifeguard you can’t take your eyes off.
I rode my bike a couple-three miles to the Loveland Municipal Pool where baskets cost a dime but the swimming was free. The water was icy cold – I don’t think the pool was ever heated except by the sun. We dove and swam hard off the low board at poolside. Dive in; swim to the edge and clamber out; run-walk around to the ladder to go again – an endless circle that kept us busy till the rest-time whistle blew. We lay blue-lipped in the mile-high wind, our legs shivering and stiff and our toenails scraping on the rough concrete without a towel to soften the scratches. The concrete was blistering, but the lifeguards were even hotter. We goofed off on the middle board, trying to get the lifeguards to notice us. When you’re 12, getting a 17-year old to notice you (in any way you could) was a major accomplishment. Much time was spent (and wasted) in this endeavor, creating silly “dives” and basically trying to impress with a 3-stooges style of adolescent geekiness. Then finally, someone would get double-dared to go off the High Board and the game got serious. The high board was for hot-shot divers and had more people chickening out at the top than people who actually took the fast way down.
We didn’t dive off the high-board – that took more skill than we possessed. But we could pull off a booming cannonball (when I was younger) and a high-splashing can-opener (when I learned it looked cooler, splashed higher and didn’t hurt my butt so bad!) The crowning achievement of the day would be pulling off a can-opener that caused a big enough splash to soak the lifeguard. That always got their attention, though it sometimes got us kicked out too, or at least banished to the baby pool until the next whistle.
We snapped at each other’s legs with towels wound tight. Loud pops that, if carefully aimed, would leave nasty welts and the promise of revenge when you least expect it. The age-old bonding ritual of boys hurting boys. Testosterone just beginning to course through our teenage veins.
So many of the memories of summers are floating on the waters of my hometown. The pool of my childhood lifeguard fantasies is also where I took swimming lessons every year. I was a fish – I loved playing at that old pool; racing in the local swim meets; plunging headfirst (when the lifeguards weren’t looking) down the curving slide; hanging out in the warm water of the kiddie-pool on the cold days when the air temperature was actually lower than the shallow water temperature, heated by the sun and probably, now that I think of it, by the effluence of the littler kids. Yuck!
But as we grew older, the pool wasn’t cool enough and so we took to the irrigation ditches. In our early teens, the ditch was the place where we traded our flip-flops and swimming suits for cut-off jeans and tennis shoes and floated on old inner-tubes to where the fence across the ditch saved us from being sucked down the underground pipe to the lake. We had no fear of that imminent death, but jumped and squealed like little girls when we chased crawdads out from under slimy rocks.
When I got my license, we drove to Chasteen’s Grove on the Big Thompson River where we stood on the dam and jumped off the falls into a rock-lined pool that one of the guys promised didn’t have any hidden boulders under the surface. Luckily he was right, or at least we missed the hidden skull-busters and survived. Later, there were the reservoirs where we partied around campfires and skipped rocks and played music and danced in the moonlight. So much of all my summers revolve around water. Being a mountain boy, though, the river is still my favorite place to be. There is no place as beautiful and restful as the beaver-dammed headwaters of a glacier-fed stream at tree-line.
Last weekend, Marcia and I took the (probably) last hike of the summer. The sky was a piercing blue; the only cloud was a spider-web of moisture the size of a quarter at arm’s length. The river at the trailhead was talking fast as it ran with the melted snow of two nights before—clear and clean. I filled my filter bottle from a small cascade that gurgled into a pool almost big enough for a grown man to sit in after a hot hike. I filed that fact away for later, and took a deep breath of the smell of the water. Icy fresh with a hint of river willow and wet dust. You’d think that there is no water purer than this, yet it’s not the drinkable mountain water of my youth. Giardia – a nasty little anaerobic flagellated protozoan parasite that is carried by Rocky Mountain Goats who, like the littler kids in the pool don’t bother with finding an outhouse up on the high snowy peaks – poisons the water for humans. I was glad I had my water purifier because this is the best-tasting water in the world with or without the flagellated parasites. It’s a leap of faith that my purifier will screen out 99.94% of viruses in the water which means that bacteria stoppage should be even higher. Taking that leap with barely a thought, I drink deeply.
We drank deeply of the day. Hiking a thousand feet and enjoying the lung-popping exercise and the breath-taking view. The sun at 12,000 feet feels amazingly good, even though I know it’s a melanoma waiting for a breach in my sun-screen. As we stopped to catch our breath for about the twentieth time, we marveled that it had been almost 20 years (and 20 pounds) since we last trekked this path with a family group of about 20 people. The trail was dusty except where it crossed a couple of snow-melt seeps—each one bringing that mountain-river smell and lowering my stress level another 38 degrees – coincidentally about the temperature of the water that flows fresh off the snow fields. Life is often breathless and tiresome; it is often dusty and rocky and steep. But it seems to me that life is good by the water.
The pool closed last week – kept open late this year by the record-breaking heat of this long, hot summer. That heat is now fading into nights cool enough to warrant an extra blanket on the bed as we are not ready yet to sleep with the windows closed. The world turns and the cycle moves on. The snows that will eventually feed my rivers are only weeks away from starting to pile on the slopes and fill the high valleys. Ethan and Cade say that they are going to learn to snowboard this winter! So, when the boys of summer are gone, the boys of winter will be riding and schussing the slopes of Loveland Basin and that will bring on a whole other set of memories for this mountain boy…
Author’s note: in researching Giardia, I discovered that I am still another week away from being sure that the little critters didn’t adhere to my stomach lining and are biding their time as they gather their forces; waiting to send me on a 2-week crash diet characterized by gut-wrenching vomiting and explosive diarrhea.
Wish me luck!