The backdrop of my adolescent summers in the early 1970’s was the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. In those days, the Refuge was for the most part wide open and accessible to anyone who cared to venture there. The beauty of the Refuge with its vivid and varied colors of nature remains timeless and offers me solace when the burden of the adult pressures in my daily life becomes overbearing. I have many treasured memories of lazy summer days spent there with my friends that fill my heart and soul with peace and tranquility. I had the best friends that a teenager could ever hope to have and we shared our innermost hopes and dreams for the future with each other while we lingered in the warmth of the sun. Not one of us had a clue about or could possibly have imagined the obstacles and pressures that lie ahead in the adult world that would belong to us soon enough. We were living life by the drop and savoring the taste of each one. To this very day, these memories have sustained me and kept my spirit free.
These days, I return to the Refuge when I am in need of relief that I can only find there. The total serenity that awaits me fills my soul with warmth that can only come from the carefree summer days that I shared with my friends at our favorite place. We knew this place only by the name, Forty-Foot Hole. We never knew why or how this beautiful place got that name, and we never knew how deep the hole actually was, because we never knew anyone who actually touched the bottom. When I hike back to that beautiful place, indulge myself, and let my mind escape to that time, I can visualize the memories in my mind’s eye like snapshots of days gone by. I see my friends and me sliding down the smooth rocks of the waterfall in our worn and frayed Levi cutoffs. I can almost hear the music coming from the radio that we carried up the long hike as it echoes off the boulders that surround the waterfall. Sometimes, when the memories flood my spirit, I can actually hear the sounds of my friends’ laughter and their voices calling to me as we splash and play in the icy cold water. I always feel compelled by some unknown impulse to sit on that same old rock where my first love gave me my first kiss. I often wonder if other people make this same sojourn searching to find that same inner peace in their soul.
By far, the most serene memory of my time spent at Forty-Foot Hole is one that I can physically relive, and sometimes do. When the weight of life shackles my spirit with chains of anxiety and disappointment and I feel a sense of urgency with just taking a deep breath, I know that it is time to seek out the solitude that my spirit desperately craves and that only Forty-Foot Hole can satisfy. Not too long ago, I made that long hike and climbed those huge boulders back to that time and place hoping to experience the same solitude that I had felt when I was a teenager. I wanted to dive into that old swimming hole again and I wanted to see that beautiful image of coming back to the surface once more; I wanted to set my spirit free again.
When I reached the boulder that overlooks Forty-Foot Hole, I stood in nature’s silence at the top of that boulder and I felt something that I had never felt as a kid; the feeling was bittersweet. I could see myself as I was 35 years ago when I had not a care in the world.
I made my way to the top of the cliff and across the loose rocks and cactus to the boulder where my first love and I spent many idle afternoons learning about love, dreaming about our life together and even naming our future children. The notion that these things might not happen never occurred to us. As I sat there, I realized the purity and innocence of that love and it brought a smile to my face and a tear to my eye.
I anxiously moved to the ledge that I had jumped from so many times before and I felt exhilarated as I dove from the top of that huge rock and sliced into the cold water below, hoping to achieve as much depth as possible. The plunge into the Hole is exciting but plummeting into an icy cold and chillingly silent void of darkness is not what draws me to this mystical place. The overwhelming enchantment and fascination of this ritual is not for the thrill of the descent, but rather, for the breathtaking beauty of the deliberate and slow float back to the surface. Amazingly, the water is as crystal-clear as it is icy cold and looking up toward the surface is nothing short of magical and awe inspiring. This wondrous show of nature invokes the desire to linger as long as humanly possible. The pitch-black darkness is interrupted and split by one solitary shaft of light that is created by the sun shining into the Hole between the boulders at the surface. This vivid sight is so beautiful and tranquil that mere words are incapable of describing its hypnotic and breathtaking majesty. Indeed, my spirit is rejuvenated.
The Refuge holds many memories of my teenage summers that are full of reckless abandon and as much fun as I could have possibly endured. In retrospect, I am quite fortunate that I lived through those years without any permanent scars on my physical body or on my moral character. I was not a bad kid, but I did push the limits with every chance that came my way. Although the repercussions of living those years the way I did, made my adult life slightly more difficult than it might have been otherwise, I do not regret even one of the risks or chances that I took. I was full of life and life was full of my free spirit.
The friends with whom I shared my carefree summers were just as animated and free spirited as I was back then. The most weighing concern in each of our minds was how to dive deeper into the Hole on the next attempt. Two of my friends from those days have been a large part of my life and proven to be as sturdy, strong and true as the rocks that we climbed while exploring life as well as the refuge. These two people are now, as they were then, like family to me. The rest of my closest friends from those days have followed their own path and most have reached the top of their own mountain, although a few have been lost to the world or death. Regardless which path each of us chose, those precious memories that we made during our summers together along those hiking trails will remain in our spirits and as free as the breeze that blows over the plains of the Refuge forever.