Love in the land of swimming holes

Early spring, 1999: Our love blossomed in Rutherford County’s Rocky Broad River, along with Scott’s revelation that even 50-degree water is no match for the stirrings of new romance.

The author
Hypothermia is for lovers: The author at Midnight Hole on the N.C./Tenn. line. Midnight Hole is fed by pristine Big Creek, which boasts some of the clearest, coldest water around. photo by Scott Bianchi

Think not shrinkage, but rather its decided opposite.

If you’re picturing our six-year odyssey in and around Southern Appalachian swimming holes as a Penthouse Forum-worthy affair, however, stop right now. Nothing untoward ever occurred in those icy waters. Thanks to my natural prudishness, we only skinny-dipped once, off a trail in Madison County’s bristlingly remote Hickey Fork region.

Anyone who’s experienced one of these pristine spots — the best holes are menders of mind clutter, salves for ennui — knows that being in them is not about getting naked any more than it is about actually swimming. Rather, it’s about padding down the trail together, easing past the waterfall, stumbling down the steep part (perhaps offering up your hand for help even if you don’t need it) and, finally, inching into the iciness, locking eyes with your lover, taking the plunge — and emerging breathless and victorious.

After you’ve baptized yourself in the shocking water — hypothermia hovering close, a snooty glance cast at any chicken tourists lingering at the edge — you can sunbathe on the rocks, sniff for bears and discuss with your companion the possibility that the last dozen American Idol contestants were planted by a government-sponsored talent agency bent on engineering our cultural downfall. Whatever. The point is, you got in.

There may be another point, too. And that would be, at the risk of sounding pop-philosophical, the journey itself. You can only go so many times to popular Skinnydip Falls (more commonly known as “417,” after its mile marker on the Blue Ridge Parkway), or to the always-teeming Graveyard Fields spot, before you decide to hunt down a hole that’s more or less your own.

One of Scott’s and my favorites was one we called the “Not 417″ hole, located at the end of a right instead of a left off the same trail. And then there was Courthouse Falls, which sheltered a hole worthy of a Blue Lagoon sequel. Accessing this piece of Eden required a dodgy drive down a Forest Service road, followed by a short hike. But the solitude was always worth the hassle.

“You’re losing time,” my grandchild-starved mother would moan as each wedding season came around. Scott and I had waded well into our 30s with no nuptials on our summer calendars. It wasn’t that we didn’t love each other, and we certainly weren’t opposed to the idea of matrimony. In fact, I liked to believe that our approach was refreshingly traditional: None of this long-term shacking up before marriage, for starters.

We were just … well … busy. We had more swimming holes to find.

As it turned out, Scott didn’t propose to me at a swimming hole. We were camping at the beach when he popped the question. But a year or two earlier, on an August afternoon, I’d had my no-turning-back moment at the crown jewel of our watery courtship: Midnight Hole, an east Tennessee oasis so clear and cold that it’s never swimmable until at least mid-July.

Midnight Hole features a rocky jumping-off point for daredevils, and as I watched Scott pass through the queue of divers, I also, unwillingly, pictured him smashing his head open on the way down. As he stepped up to the edge, I suddenly realized the difference between infatuation, so easily doused, and real love.

With boyfriends past, I would have paired such a grisly vision with a few inevitable ponderings, along the lines of How will I ever manage to drag his bleeding body back up this trail? or How long will I be expected to play nursemaid while he’s in traction?

But with Scott, all I could think was: If he dies in that water, will they let me follow him down?

[Melanie McGee Bianchi is Xpress‘ arts & entertainment editor. She and her husband, Scott Bianchi, were married last fall. At seven months pregnant, Melanie managed to waddle her way into one swimming hole this summer. She’s due on Sept. 23 — their first anniversary.]


Cold water, warm heart

You still have plenty of time to find love at one of the area’s many pristine swimming holes before they cool off. Actually, they’re always cool — OK, really freaking cold — but you should be able to bear it (and bare it, if you wish) at least till the end of September. Here’s a guide to get you started:

Courthouse Falls: This awesome place was closed after the September 2004 floods but has reportedly reopened. Head north on Hwy. 215, 10 miles from where it intersects with U.S. 64, near Rosman (you can also get there by taking 215 from the Parkway). Turn onto Forest Road 140. Drive three miles till you’re just over the Courthouse Creek bridge. Park and walk the Summey Cove Trail for just a few minutes; you can’t miss it. Begin steep descent.

Not 417: Take the Parkway to mile marker 417; park across the road — you’ll know you’re in the right spot because there’s a spectacular view of Looking Glass Rock. Take the 417 trail and bear right instead of left (left will bring you to Skinnydip Falls). The hike is about 20 minutes.

Midnight Hole: Drive I-40 west to the Tennessee line; take the Waterville Road exit and follow it down to the Big Creek Campground (you’ll pass Mountain Momma’s General Store). The trail to Midnight Hole is at the entrance to the campground’s parking lot, on the right. The hike (about a half-hour) is a popular equestrian trail, so watch out for horse pies.

Big East Fork: This is a nice, private alternative to nearby Sunburst, a popular swimming destination. Take I-40 west to Canton. From Main Street, turn south on Hwy. 110. Turn left onto Hwy. 276 (near the Jukebox Junction restaurant). Drive about 20 minutes; after passing through Cruso, watch for the Big East Fork trail sign on the right. Take the trail on the left side of the creek, an easy 15-minute hike till you see a small waterfall and swimming hole on the right.

Near Sam’s Knob: Just past mile marker 420 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, drive down into the Black Balsam parking lot. Take the trail that starts at the extreme left of the parking lot and hike about 25 minutes. From there on down, you’ll find any number of private swimming holes (this is Flat Laurel Creek, a tributary of the Pigeon River’s West Fork).

Rocky Broad River: Flows by Chimney Rock Park as it heads toward Lake Lure. About a 25-minute drive from Asheville; take exit 9 off I-240 east and follow 74-A. No hike required; just park on the side of the road and pick a spot.

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