Last Saturday morning, I found myself in quite the peculiar place: Completely submerged in the Animas River.
I wasn’t rescuing a child or a dog (are you crazy?) or raising money for a charity. It was just me and some friends and colleagues in swimsuits jumping into the frigid river because … well, I don’t really know exactly.
Being in such cold water is unlike any other sensation I’ve experienced. I was so tense and mentally hyped, which, added to the shock of the cold water, creates a feeling that is nothing like feeling cold or hot but something altogether different, something unrecognizable that your brain and nerve endings don’t quite have a label for.
I took the plunge for the first time last January, only then it was 10 p.m. and 13 degrees. Any plunger will tell you, submerging yourself in the water is not the hard part (though, with my plunging crew, you have to go under all the way, head and all, for it to count … count for what, nobody knows). The hardest part, the part that makes me shout obscenities, curse the gods and question my intelligence, is what happens once you get out of the water. Last year, I was so hurried and frantic trying to avoid hypothermia that it clouded my judgment (beyond how far my judgment was in the toilet already). It was dark; my hands weren’t functioning. I put my Bean boots on first, then my robe and then my sweatpants, which I struggled to get over my boots. In my haste, I’d put my sweatpants on backward, making it so I couldn’t tie the drawstring and had to hold them up with my damp hands that were quite literally beginning to freeze.
Saturday, thankfully, it was 10 a.m., bright sun and solidly in the 30s, practically balmy.
When I told my parents about the plunge, my dad’s response was one of bafflement and concern-approaching-anger. He used his “What, did you take stupid pills?” voice for the first time in years, asking if I was actively seeking a heart attack or just wouldn’t mind getting one. I downplayed it, as I do with all the stupid stuff I do, but the most compelling defense I could muster was that my 81-year-old former colleague Dale Rodebaugh plunged as well. Granted, Dale has the stamina and cardiovascular system of a pre-teen nonsmoker, but when an 81-year-old commits to the plunge, it makes it hard for me chicken out for any reason whatsoever.
Yes, there are some dangers. Across the country, some people have died over the years, I’m sure a handful injured, some in need of resuscitation. But, as far as I can tell, these catastrophes have been experienced by people with pre-existing health/heart conditions jumping in and submerging themselves all at once (as opposed to the careful wade-in that we here in Durango practice). But, c’mon, these are probably the same people doctors advise against riding roller coasters, entering haunted houses or watching Republican debates. The only injuries suffered on our plunge were a few early plungers’ legs being sliced by some stray ice (I don’t think it was terribly painful, but boy, did the blood trails running down their legs look horrifically gruesome).
So why did I do it? There was some peer pressure involved, the threat of being hassled, heckled and made fun of for an entire year by the people I work with. I did it because of the other people doing it, most are responsible, respectable adults with kids and stuff. They’d all done it before and, as far as I’ve heard, all survived. I did it so I could say I did, to break the monotony of living, to shock myself out of life’s haze. But primarily, the only reason I wouldn’t have plunged was because I didn’t want to be uncomfortable for 15 minutes. And that’s never a reason to not do anything.
Oh yeah, it also makes a great story.