It’s the last afternoon of a week spent swimming through the Arizona Desert. Eight of us amble down an empty road from our ranch, looking for the place where someone saw wild mustangs drinking at dusk. We smell of sunshine and river water. On the ridge to our right saguaro (sah-wah-ros) cacti stand tall, like wise elders on watch. We branch off the road and pick our way down a sandy track with deep fissures created by storm water.
The Salt River winds through the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. At various way-points it is dammed, creating a chain of lakes in which we have spent the last five days swimming: Apache Lake, Canyon Lake, Saguaro Lake. The landscape resembles that of the Grand Canyon a few hours north, but on a more manageable scale. After our days in the still lakes we are looking for one last swim – on the stretch where the river empties out of the reservoir system and flows freely on.
We reach the river. It is clear and green, swirling with weeds, backed by reeds. On the shore a sloping tree, its bark twisted like a wrung-out towel, dangles a knotted rope-swing – the universal sign of a good swim spot. In the distance are red-rock buttes and blue skies. A fisherman is standing in the shallows, hunting the mud with his fingers, then dropping live black crayfish into the pockets of his board shorts.
The call of the water is a siren to us. We strip off our land layers and leap in. The water is silky and cool on my sunbaked skin. There’s an eddy here; the river flows strongly down our side of the river and then pushes back up the other. Instinctively we forge across the current with a few strong strokes, swim upstream, then turn ourselves into the flow for a quick float back down. Nobody suggests it, nobody questions it, no one varies from it. Swim up. Float down. Repeat. I used to mess about in rivers like this when I was a kid. The pleasure is just as compelling now, the happiness it provokes as simple and complete.
As children, my siblings and I devised adventures that took us by river from one end of my family’s farm in Devon in the south-west of England, to the other. Those early trips, navigated with common sense and no adults, encapsulated everything I seek in swims today: adventure and joy, chance and challenge, all in a mile-and-a-half of water that was variously deep, slow and scenic, with obstacles both real and imagined (the waterfalls and rapids were there; the eels weren’t).
I still rely on swimming to rouse the feral part of me – a wordless, wild state that is an antidote to my landlocked over-thinking. Swimming washes the mind clean. Instead of being outside a landscape looking on, I become part of it.
It also, quite literally, takes me off the beaten track. In Mexico, based on the advice of a pump attendant, a friend and I took a path through some dusty, unpromising scrub to find an underground river – a cenote – and spent the afternoon with some locals jumping into it. In Thailand I stripped off to swim in phosphorescence under a full moon, waving my hands around like Merlin as the waves lit up in the night. All over Iceland my husband, two sons and I sat in hot pots – thermal pools – with strangers who soon became friends. Water connects people without the standard social checkboxes generated by class, place or career.
In Arizona we are staying on a family-run ranch. The managers, Sean A’Lee and John, try to work out where in England we live in relation to Gravesend, where Pocohontas is buried; she is their distant relative. It is pouring with rain, water streaming off the porch – not classic desert weather. After dinner the ranch staff come in whooping, carrying a tarantula big enough to cover my face. “We found it because it’s coming in out of the rain!” they holler. After-dinner entertainment, Arizona style.
The next day the 14 of us who have signed up for this adventure-swimming holiday gather on pontoon boats at Saguaro Lake for our first swim. We come in all shapes and sizes, a swimmers’ hall of mirrors. We are in the middle of Tonto National Forest, which is Arizona as most of us picture it: a badland of sandstone, desert, cacti and shrubs. The canyons, ravines, monoliths, gullies, tuffs, spires and crevasses are like a showcase of ways rock can be shaped by wind and rain. Summers are so brutal here that even the ranch horses retreat to the mountains. So far, so Arizona. Except it’s raining.
We slip into the water and start to make its acquaintance. It is clean, warm, green and opaque. I feel sorry for anything trapped: children in classrooms; animals in zoos; water in reservoirs; swimmers in pools. I start to make my peace with this river being contained rather than free-flowing, focusing my attention on the never-ending landscape above the water.
Arm over arm, breath after breath, the rhythm of front crawl works its magic. After the long flight I feel at first like a rag-doll, but soon my body is flexing its way soundlessly through the water. My attention moves onto the landscape. Bald eagles circle in the clouds. We get up close to herons that resemble prehistoric pterodactyls, and look out for great horned owls – “the only things that’ll take out a skunk as they have no sense of smell,” says Mark, our guide. Spider webs the size of fishermen’s nets look like they’ve been thrown over bushes. Turkey vultures sit on weather-bleached wood, their heads red and bald.
We swim for an hour, stop for lunch – beans, wraps, tortilla chips in huge sacks, guacamole and salsa – then swim again, covering about 5km a day. That is how, over the days that follow, we work our way down the Salt River Canyon. As dusk falls we go back to the ranch, hang out on the porch, play cards and then sleep until it’s time to swim again.
Cacti are our constant companions. Strangely human, most line up like soldiers on a ridge. But then there are the outliers that we stop to greet: the jumpers, which teeter on the edge as if they’re about to leap, and the crazies who can’t keep it together, their arms and legs akimbo.
We’re in the midst of a new age of swimming. Swimmers aren’t just swimmers any more, they’re a great global bare-arsed tribe, with sub-groups of wild swimmers, marathon swimmers, skinny dippers and people using swimming to strengthen their mental health. There are specialists: winter swimmers, ice swimmers, adventure swimmers, endurance swimmers.
All types are represented on this trip – including the accidental: Michael is here because his partner loves swimming, and he loves her, so he dons flippers and dives in. Michelle and Amanda are university friends; Karen has been on a score of such holidays.
Leading us are Marlys from Oregon and Mark from Montana. Marlys has a dry sense of humour. On day two, our destination is chosen on the basis of its “somewhat-reduced risk of electrical storms”. On day three – our fingers are apparently now permanently wrinkled by wetness in and out of the water – the dead-pan suggestion that we “go back to the ranch, play poker and do day-drinking” is restorative.
Mark has the smooth, bouncy, hairless skin typical of outdoor types. He gives us advice on our stroke technique, but also gets that we’re here to enjoy ourselves: “Say to yourself – I’m going to think of this for ten strokes, and then I’m going to look for bald eagles.”
Over the week we are divided into three groups with swimming caps colour-coded according to our speed. But as a whole we feel like one aquatic pod, fed occasionally from the boats with gummy bears. I’m in the middle group, the mellow yellows, who like to swim for a bit, then sit on rocks, sprint for a bit, then bob about. We disappear into creeks and shout into caves to hear our echoes – or at least try to, when the darkening water doesn’t lead us to sprint back out, fearful of water snakes (most swimmers have to deal with the terror of mythical water creatures).
We embrace the warmth of the water. At between 23°C and 29°C, all but one of us (a slender triathlete) can swim in costumes, trunks or bikinis, with no need for neoprene. The day I left Britain, I’d done the Hurly Burly in north Wales – a 10km, tide-assisted autumn swim in rough weather, with firepits at the start and hot chocolate to finish, and the in-between bit a race to keep enough blood in your toes and fingers. Here the water is kinder.
On day three we head to Apache Lake, which has the most dramatic canyon walls. It’s raining – I am told this is more rain than they’ve had in 28 years. The highway is empty, and as the cacti absorb water they expand faster than accordions. The rain is getting us down. We were expecting heat. So there’s a grumpiness about us, as we board the boat and sit in our bin-bag dresses, rain puddling in our laps.
We undress as we are reaching the water-in point. The guides apply Vaseline under the straps of our costumes with surgical-gloved hands, to stop our suits chafing, and we pass around a spray bottle of baby shampoo and water (to stop goggles steaming up). And then we’re in.
Or I am in. My swim buddy, Emma, is still standing on the boat, peeved. I have known Emma for 20 years and never seen her in a bad mood. But she’s a sun lover. “Do you think you might cheer up once you’re in?” I call. “I will not!” she says, but then scissor-steps in. In the remoteness the mellow yellows are soon all naked, still swimming, quietly jubilant, the rain forgotten.
Over the week, rain aside, we revel in what we came for: Arizona. One evening a jet-lagged couple see 30 javelinas (wild pigs) grazing outside their cabin. Another night we go hunting on an outside wall for disco critters: scorpions that glow under ultraviolet torchlight.
And then, on day four, the rain is gone. We have a cook-out by the fire with the Milky Way overhead. It is “gala night”, where praise and certificates are given. The ranch manager John has made us trophies: precious river-worn pebbles. If we find our hosts unusual, they find us equally extraordinary: John can’t believe we came to Arizona to swim. “We don’t understand this fascination with water,” he says, admiringly.
Swimmers are the latest in a long line of pioneers to make a home here, and for a moment we feel like mirror images, each set admiring the other for the same qualities: being maverick, courage, self-sufficiency and toughness.
On the last morning we’re back in Saguaro Lake. The mood has changed.It’s Friday and the weekenders are arriving. We find ourselves in company for the first time. Underwater I can hear the high whine of speed boats, and see wake-surfers. Our lunch beach is already occupied: two jet-ski riders are plumped on camping chairs having a beer and a smoke, chilling their feet in the shallows. Upstream Foreigner, White Snake and Def Leppard are being played on a boat with an American flag. We are part of the beach scene, a funfair of neon costumes and bright orange and yellow hats.
After food I breaststroke down the river with my head turned sideways, the water my pillow, looking up at those great canyon walls.•