Although I had been swimming on and off since moving from southwest Montana back to San Francisco in mid-January, my new season officially started on April 17th, the day I turned 60. It was a bright afternoon, the sun partially obscured by high thin clouds, gusts churning the surface of Aquatic Park, a humanmade cove bounded by curved piers on the waterfront. That's where I swim, along with others whose notion of a swell time is plying chilly San Francisco Bay while wearing nothing but a cap and a Speedo. And chilly it was that day—water about 55 degrees, or 30 degrees cooler than the average municipal pool. Whatever pleasures await the cold-water swimmer—and they are incomparable, even, at times, transcendent—reaching them entails a certain amount of discomfort. Every swim begins with a double leap—the physical act of plunging into the water, the mental act of deliberately submitting to pain.
How long it takes for the body's internal heat to counteract the penetrating cold varies widely, depending on several factors—metabolism, conditioning, overall acclimation, how hard one swims. But whether the interim is measured in seconds or minutes, a kind of alchemy is at work, converting the forbidding into the ecstatic. What makes the shift possible is conviction, the belief that eventually the sting will recede, the shock replaced by something that cannot be experienced anywhere else. The longer one is away from cold water, the greater the need for conviction. On that windy afternoon in April, I hadn't been swimming consistently for months. In mediocre shape and not yet generally acclimated, I didn't venture far, following a line of buoys anchored a hundred yards from shore. A full seven minutes passed before the cold loosened its grip.
I completed two laps, then added a few extra buoys, maybe a mile in all. Not bad. Within weeks I'd extend that half-hour inaugural swim into sessions lasting an hour and a half to two hours. I was intent upon that. Leaving the bay wanting to lengthen the swims, wanting to return soon to do so, is how I knew the season had begun. Like any deeply enjoyable activity, distance swimming readily becomes addicting. The high is real. But swimming entails another kind of attraction as well, one whose locus is the medium itself. Since boyhood, I've been drawn to water, especially open water—rivers, lakes, seas, and in a visceral way. Mere contemplation won't do. The first time I saw the Pacific Ocean, on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, I was seized by a desire to taste it, to feel it on my skin, to surrender to it. "Exultation is the going," as Emily Dickinson wrote, "Of an inland soul to sea." Though the poem refers to sailors, I know well the going it celebrates. I also know well the hunger for going that haunts some land-born souls.
Immersion doesn't entirely satisfy this hunger, which then moves outward, fixing on the horizon, an undulating, ever-receding border between endless sea and endless sky. "Past the houses, past the headlands, Into deep eternity!" Playing it safe during my birthday escapade, I looked—rather than swam—across the cove, toward the opening that connects it to the bay as a whole, where sailboats and ferries, tugs and container ships were visible. After I've increased my stamina and grown accustomed to longer stays, I'll trace successive mile-long circuits, swimming along the interior perimeter. I especially enjoy passing through the opening into the zone where the smaller chop inside the cove mixes with the larger, more energetic chop outside. There I pause and tread water for a spell. Sometimes I tremble slightly, not in response to the cold but in recognition of the wildness of the place, its power, immensity, and indifference to my interests or well-being, which is exhilarating, surprisingly enough, but also scary. I gaze at the Bay Bridge; Treasure, Alcatraz and Angel islands; the Golden Gate Bridge and, beyond that, the Marin Headlands. A crazy yet almost irresistible urge takes hold, the same urge that arises whenever I'm in the ocean, with nothing but water in front of me—to swim farther out, and farther still.
We all create experiential maps—singular, emotionally charged geographies in which what holds the world together, giving it form and meaning, is neither calendar time nor geometric space but the lasting impressions certain occasions make upon us. According to these interior bearings, something that occurred, say, 35 years ago and a thousand miles away can possess a stronger presence, and feel closer in every important respect, than what happened yesterday.
My map of the West is noteworthy for its many aquatic benchmarks, starting with formative lake and river swims in Montana. Among the most memorable are nocturnal larks: The moon momentarily suspended in the still surface of a lake; the surrounding silence, so pure that a whisper is the only proper utterance; the water, crystalline by day, now another kind of night, and into whose darkness I let myself sink, slowly, until my lungs can stand it no longer. For sheer excitement, by contrast, it's difficult to top being propelled downstream in a river, headlong, submerged. From the bank I'd first scout a section, making sure it was free of treacherous snags or boulders. Then I'd walk back upstream, enter the river and slip into the current. Surfacing only to take breaths, I'd remain underwater most of the time, as close as possible to the bottom, gliding by surprisingly placid trout.
As much as I savor freshwater swimming, however, the sea's allure is stronger, more insistent—more primal. Some explain it simply as sublimated nostalgia for the womb, which probably isn't entirely wrong, though it fails to account for my aversion to warm water (and by warm, I mean above 70 degrees). Poet Paul Valery, in an interpretation closer to my tastes, referred to swimming as "fornication avec l'onde." Leave it to a Frenchman to eroticize his encounters with waves, but one would be hard pressed to find a more sensual experience than being virtually naked while enveloped by water, water that's alive, dynamic, continually changing shape, sometimes gently, other times violently. Of all possible relationships with the natural world, immersion, I believe, is the most intimate—my skin, every inch of it and all at once, caressed by the sea.
That so much of the Pacific Coast is open to the public makes the West particularly well-suited to those seeking such experiences, and I've taken advantage of the opportunity at every turn. From Canada to Mexico, my ever-expanding aquatic geography includes dozens of unforgettable spots, their names now incantations, that conjure up some of the most satisfying outdoor experiences of my life: Long Beach, Vancouver Island. Ebey's Landing, Puget Sound. Sooes Beach, Makah Reservation, Olympic Peninsula. Oregon Dunes. Limantour Spit, Point Reyes National Seashore. El Capitán State Beach, Calif. Punta Rosarito, Bahia Santa Rosalita, Baja. Whenever I drive coastal highways, I look for promising water. Some days it's enough to crash through the breakers, then turn over on my back and float, eyes closed, arms outstretched, on the tilting swells beyond. Other days I swim until I'm exhausted.
Thirty-five years ago and a thousand miles away: Punta Rosarito, north of Guerrero Negro and Scammon's Lagoon, where every winter West Coast gray whales gather to calve. The trans-peninsular highway was only a year old. Rarely did one see another traveler, and more rarely still another American. Restlessness and curiosity had brought me, my girlfriend, and her two children, ages 4 and 6, halfway down Baja; an appetite for improvisation kept us there. For several weeks, we roamed back and forth between the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez, camping in my VW van. Besides being virtually uninhabited back then, both coasts border one of the harshest deserts on Earth, home to little but rock and cacti, beneath an unforgiving sun—a place of stunning but desolate and sometimes dangerous beauty.