What Really Happens at the River


We were paddling around in this nice clear pool. It was peaceful and calm and other than us there were only two dudes, somewhere in between the genre of local grower types but possibly Oakland hipsters, swimming around. Then their two pit bulls jumped in. They looked like nice enough pit bulls but they seemed to be getting rather close to us and their paws — which probably each weighed about three pounds — churned the green water like turbines. We gave the pit bulls wary smiles even though pit bulls don’t understand wary smiles.

One of the grower/possibly urban hipsters spoke up then: “Oh, yeah, sometimes they scratch while they’re swimming, so you have to watch out for them.” Now we gave each other wary smiles. Then he and his friend got out of the water and only we and the dogs remained. We treaded water, occasionally darting this way and that to avoid them, and giggled as we composed proper responses to his warnings, like, “Oh, wait, I thought making sure your dogs didn’t scratch us was your problem,” and, “Yeah, so, I’m going back through all the things I have learned about personal responsibility in the last 40 or so years and I’m having trouble locating a lesson or even an anecdote that makes any sense of what you just said to me about your dogs,” and, “So when I go to have the gash in my ribcage sewn back together can someone take the stick out from between my teeth so that I can tell the doctor, ‘they didn’t mean it?’”

Later on, I was lying on my back floating with one ear out of the water so as to eavesdrop on two young heavily-tattooed guys having a very deep conversation: “Yeah, at one point, I didn’t think I was going to make it,” said one.

“Dude,” said the other, “I was pulling for you, honest to God. We were all pulling for you.”

“I know bro, and I could feel the love and it was getting me through.”

“That’s what it’s there for, you know?”

“For sure. Anyway. After a while I was like, screw it, and went into granny gear and just chilled for a while and then I finally crested and I was like, ‘Whoa, the fuckin’ Buttes!’”

I realized they were talking about mountain biking, not life, and dove underwater.

The next day, a girl swam up to us. “Look,” she said, and handed over a large white crystal, about the size of half a baseball. She was about seven, with small, earnest hazel eyes and freckles across her nose. She hadn’t gotten out of the water since we’d arrived an hour before and had likely been in it all day. “I’ll show you where I found that,” she said, and we followed her, swimming upstream a hundred feet or so, watching her madly kicking feet, which were kind of big compared to her skinny ankles. She dove down into the depths and came up with a larger crystal. She handed this over to us as well. “You can make these really strong,” she said. “But you have to charge them.” We asked her how you charge crystals. “You put them in spring water,” she said, “Or you can put them in the sun.”

The girl left with her parents and two smaller children and two small dogs. We swam down to the end of one pool and then clambered over some warm, dry rocks into another pool. I was climbing into that pool very carefully because my numbers 3 and 4 fears in life, behind getting attacked by a shark or a mountain lion, is smashing my kneecap or my anklebone onto a rock. I used to be really afraid of snakes, but then for some reason, they stopped freaking me out. I was thinking about this when I looked down and saw a stick floating between my thighs, and I marveled at how the stick was so perfectly curved and then it became clear that what I was actually looking at was not a perfectly curved stick but, in fact, a snake. Instead of immediately leaping out of the water, I stared at the snake, transfixed, as my mind leapt back and forth between two thoughts: a) how should I get away from it without startling it into biting me, and was there a way to do that and b) it was amazing that I wasn’t as afraid of snakes as I used to be. I actually made some sort of decision that went something like, “I have to believe that this snake doesn’t bite, otherwise I will kind of be too afraid to move.” And then, I leapt out of the water screaming, “Snake, snake, snake!”

Toward the end of the day, the sun was low, the air was still hot, and I was sitting on a rock spacing out when I heard someone paddling through the water at my feet. It was a man, about 50, a complete stranger. “Pardon me,” he said, “Do you have any Grey Poupon?”

Previously: A Swim in Scotts Flat Lake

Sarah Miller is the author Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn and The Other Girl. She lives in Nevada City, CA. Follow her on Twitter @sarahlovescali.