A Beautiful Idea


It’s hard to not feel stupid at the beginning of the Cap2k Open Water Swim.  I’m 59 years old, this water is really cold, it is early on a Sunday morning, and I am surrounded by people who are very good swimmers.  They don’t look like very good swimmers.  They have body fat.  That is why they are laughing and talking, while I am shivering.  Bobbing around out there at that imaginary start line between two giant buoys, surrounded by people very happy to be right where they are, right then.  It is a beautiful thing, to be surrounded by these laughing people.

Well, here I go again.  By the time you read this, it will all be over.  It’s a long river, but I only swim 2 kilometers of it, from Redbud Isle to the Rowing Dock by the Mopac Bridge.  I did it at first because blowing blood out my ass piqued my interest in prostate cancer (the race is a prostate cancer awareness and research fundraiser; see my post from 2012 https://georgeschools.wordpress.com/2012/02/28/swimming-with-my-prostate/).  I’ve swum it twice with my son Chris, back when he was able to use his legs.  His record slow finish–the cutoff time is one hour, but despite his legs cramping up and then going numb, he gutted it out, crossing the finish surrounded by those amazing support kayakers in 1:07–was the proudest I’ve ever been of him.  Finishing last, unable to stand, but unwilling to quit.  Fatherhood did not turn out as expected.Cap2k_finsh_2012_087 I’ve swum it with Dave Shook, who I served with on Embassy Duty in Barbados so long ago.11181734_10206198400066613_5302446038558257308_n  You are a fortunate man, to count friends across space and time who are still there for you.

I’ve swum it with a woman who loved me and suffered me, and one day forgave me when I couldn’t even forgive myself.  Smarter than me, clearer of purpose and thought, truly good, and she came all this way to freeze and choke in the river with me, just because it is a beautiful idea.

When I picked up my race packet this morning, Sandy Neilson, the race organizer, was visibly pleased to see me.  She couldn’t stop smiling, and at first I thought she was just stalling because she couldn’t remember my name, but then I thought for a moment that she was either going to cry or hug me so I said “it’s George.  George Schools.”  “I know, George,” she smiled.  “How many have you done?”  Number six, this one, looking forward to seven.

It is a pretty cool swim.  The start is always terrifying, bobbing around out there in the middle of the river, surrounded by so many people yet feeling so isolated, completely alone.  You cannot know what is in their hearts, but they are there, in the water, with you.  Just you in your little swimsuit, swimcap and goggles, all alone.  The first 250 yards or so determine whether you make it or quit, as you try to master your breathing and get into a rhythm. You are either able to breath amongst all those flailing arms and legs, or you literally cannot.

The rest of the swim is, in my case, simply endurance.  The pack thins out, you try and hold a straight line, and just hold it together until you make it to the finish dock.  Most years my entire body will contract as soon as I exit the water,


My 2013 finish

pulling me forward into a ball barely able to walk or stand.  Every year I will begin to shiver uncontrollably, violently, but gently warm by the sun and the surrounding finishers, all still so happy to be right there, right then.  No one else ever seems to be suffering in the least.  Last year, the adipose guys who had finished before me laughed when I came out blue, one saying with a smile “I bet you miss that body fat now!”  There is a picnic after the race in nearby Eiler’s Park.  It is pretty laid back, and honestly the food is sort of an afterthought, but I love each year to sit there in the grass, submerged in the feeling of friendship, almost family, surrounded by these strangers.  That is where I first met Sandy, who had worked so hard, and mothered us all through, and made me feel so strongly why you want to thank people like her.

I had to skip the picnic this year because I needed to jump immediately in the car and drive up to Dallas to visit actual family, which is a great treat for me.  But I hadn’t realized the deepest reason I love doing this race until my wife said “the picnic sucks anyway,” and I crumbled .   I don’t like to crumble.  “I don’t do it for the food,” I said.  “I love these wonderful strangers.”  You cannot always know what is in the heart.



Dongan Hiengu


In 1988 I was standing on the wooden deck of Thakurufaan, our dive dhoni, somewhere in the middle of North Male Atoll.  “Here is the big reef–you can see the hole in the top there.  Then the little one at the end, and the third one out there to the side.”  Hussein, the captain–a man who had never put on a mask or a scuba tank–was describing for me in detail Okobetila, which is now quite a famous dive site in the Maldives.  All I saw was water.  As far is you could see in any direction, nothing but water.  And down–a lot more water.

“You take this rope, dive down and pass it through the hole in the top of the reef, and bring the end back up to tie off the boat.”  I had no idea what I was going to dive down into, but Hussein seemed to see clearly something I did not, and I trusted Hussein absolutely.  That was my 505th dive.

Nineteen ninety-four, dive 2,629, the northeast coast of New Caledonia, near Hienghene.  Hienghene is one of those places in the world you really have to want to get to.  It’s not near anything else.  But I had seen a lot of water by then, and every time I looked at what had become living, moving, breathing water, I thought of Hussein.

When we got the opportunity to open a dive center in Hienghene, I didn’t really need to dive there first to know if the diving was going to be any good.  If you know which way the wind blows most of the time (New Caledonia sits in the trade winds), and understand water, and had paid attention to Hussein, you could stand on the shore with a nautical chart and take a pretty good guess where the coral and fish would be.

Most people may not know this, but a lot of the ocean is not particularly interesting.  Diving in New Caledonia, you had to hit a pretty exact sweet spot:  exposed to current, near deep water but with an accessible top not too deep, and moderately protected from waves once the wind picks up.  We’d asked the local kanaks where they thought diving would be good when we first arrived, but whenever the sea was calm and I had time, I’d take the boat and my chart, and go look for sweet spots.  I dove multiple times almost daily with paying customers, and should have rested, but when one of those incredibly rare calm days came by–the sea literally like a sheet of glass, clear skies–and we had no divers, I decided to drive the five nautical miles out to Passe de Hiengu (I’m going to use the French/Kanak place names now, because that’s what they were to me), and I asked Helene, the equitation instructor, if she wanted to come.

Helene was and is beautiful.  It is mostly in the eyes, where you see her intelligence and will, but the rest sort of knocks you back on your heels, too.


Helene is second from the left. Itzel, Helene, Didier, Veronique, Mustafa, Jean Philip, and Noriko.

Helene and I took the boat to Donga Hienga, the west side of the pass, first.  It looked like a pretty easy dive, just a double barrier facing northwest, about 10 meters deep on top and then a vertical drop to perhaps 30 meters, and deep water very gradually offshore.  I did not realize it at the time, but I dropped anchor at precisely the best point on the whole reef, right next to a small chimney descending straight down through the reef top, turning 90 degrees, and exiting the reef on the wall through a gorgonian-lined cave facing the morning sun.  I would learn over many dives at Donga Hiengha that the channel inside the double barrier was one of the few places in the world to consistently find ribbon moray eels,


murene ruban

and that the top of the chimney housed extremely rare Rascasse de Merlet.


Rascasse de Merlet, taken by the guy I eventually sold the dive center to.

It was not generally a dive for big fish, but it was where I saw my first Tiger Shark,  a 20-footer who swam directly over me near the end of a later dive without showing any particular interest, but left me with a lifetime sense of humility.

The day was still beautiful after the dive, so Helene and I took the boat to the other side of the pass, which is actually just a pivot in a very large reef structure, anchored by a reef named Dongan Hiengu:  between Donga Hienga and Dongan Hiengu you have the North/South-running Passe de Hiengu, but then from Dongan Hiengu the lagoon swings out directly north, where the barrier rises six miles further out at Recif Doiman.

map 002Dongan Hiengu was not going to be an easy dive.  The sea was calm and clear, and I could make out a series of submerged reefs extending seaward from that pivot-point, and I could also see all that water roaring by both sides, the falling tide exiting the lagoon via both Passe de Hiengu and the transversal Grande Passe north of the reef.  Two great oceanic rivers, pouring out to sea.  We dropped anchor on top of one of these faint glows beneath the surface, and as I paused to consider our options I was embarrassed to realize I had been momentarily transfixed by Helene’s beauty, sitting there across from each other on deck, and Helene had shyly looked down when she realized it as well.

More to change the subject than anything else, I asked Helene if it would be ok with her if I just went down very quickly alone to see what was down there.  There was obviously enough current to make the dive a challenge for an experienced diver, and Helene–new to diving–looked at me with those enormous green eyes, and even 24 years later I can’t remember what she said but I can still feel those eyes.

The current was so strong that I was forced to go down the anchor line hand-over-hand, and was only able to scan briefly the area around the reef–patate in local parlance–for a few minutes before I had to ascend.  A small reef shark flew by in the current, gorgonians bent like willows in a wind storm, thousands of Fusilier swarmed above the coral.  Definitely a place to explore further, so a few days later–after waiting out the moon so that a smaller tidal variation would weaken the current–I returned to Dongan Hiengu with Helene, and this time my wife, Nathalie.  I found again that glow I had seen from the surface the first time, explained what to expect to Nathalie and Helene, and then waited on the boat while they became the first people ever to dive Dongan Hiengu.

Waiting on deck, I had the leisure to look at the water, the reef nearby, the patates, that glow.  Something looked different.  And when Nathalie and Helene returned, the incredible dive site they recounted did not resemble what I had seen briefly only a few days before.  I realized that the first time, I thought I was diving at the spot on the map where we were today, but that I had actually been closer to the visible reef marking the pivot in the lagoon.  This day, I had returned to what I thought was the same spot I had been before, but had accidentally ended up where I had intended to dive that first day.  And Dongan Hiengu remains one of the most beautiful spots on Earth I have ever seen.  Five separate reef structures, aligned perpendicularly to the strong current, covered in hard and soft corals that attract hundreds of species of reef fish, hundreds of thousands of individuals, and then of course all the way up the food chain.  Arches, caves, occasionally very large bull sharks, plenty of smaller ones–a pulsating concentration of life, invisible from above.

Today, Helene lives in a castle in Saumur, France.  Dongan Hiengu is still there, probably will be long after I am gone.  For a time, if you knew where to look and zoomed in enough, you could spot my little boat via Google Earth moored there, alone in that big, empty sea.  And I was standing there, seeing all that water, seeing it roaring by as clearly as if each strand of current had it’s own texture and tint, seeing that glow where the life was strongest, seeing first the big reef here, the second, smaller one there, and the other three, heading off toward deep water.



Santosha and the Apple


  1. 1.
    a category of people or things having common characteristics.
    “this type of heather grows better in a drier habitat”
  2. 2.
    a person or thing symbolizing or exemplifying the ideal or defining characteristics of something.
    “she characterized his witty sayings as the type of modern wisdom”

You show up early at Barton Springs often enough, and you eventually realize you are becoming a type:  There are a lot of healthy old people.  They actually like to swim their laps.  There are usually a few younger guys (in their 30’s-40’s), always alone, but very natural and fast swimmers.  They don’t waste time, in and out.  A few triathletes, usually women, who really seem to take all the joy out of swimming.  They look like very dry sticks, but I honor their quantity of work and have compassion for them, for that day when they ask themselves “why?”

I was talking with Lou–“call me Lou, please.  Lou, from Long Island”–in the dressing room, which always reminds me of a Roman bath.roman bath  Lou is one of the healthy old people.  I thought “I hope I look sort of like him when I get old,” and then I realized he was about my age and reconsidered.  “I swim every day.  Swam all around Long Island.  But this is nice here.  You look like you swim a lot.  It’s great, isn’t it?”

Yes, it is great.  I’m getting ready for the Cap2K again.  I swim a lot of pool laps, which I enjoy, but once a week or so I come to Barton Springs to swim in cold water, water without nice straight lines to follow on the bottom, water closer to what I’ll race in.  I go for a run after, because it’s a beautiful place to run, and then usually come back and swim a little more.  And I always come away from it amazed at these wonderful strangers.  And cold.

I’ve read a lot lately about people up in the Arctic, people functioning at -40 degrees and happy for it.  It has caused me to think about what “cold” is.  If you’ve lived your entire life above the Arctic Circle, and don’t know what “hot” is, does “cold” even mean anything to you?  It is like Adam in the Garden, with no knowledge of good or evil, and no conflict between what you want to do and what you ought to do.  You have to be expelled from Eden to know sin.

And now, unexpectedly, I am not “cold.”  Oh, I shiver after the swim, and turn a little blue, and when I was finished this morning all the muscles on the right side of my body contracted together and stayed that way, but while I was in the water I was ok with that.

“So this is what cold feels like.”  Not “I am cold, and wish I was warm.”  I mean, I know what warm is; I’m not Adam in the pre-Apple Garden.  But once I let go of wanting to be warm, I discovered that cold can be a good place, an interesting place.  You just have to stop comparing it to someplace else.  I’m learning to be at peace with whatever circumstances I find myself in–santosha in Sanskrit–which is not the same as happiness, but it sure gets you closer.  You can be afraid, or happy, or heartbroken, but instead of wanting the fear to go away, or worrying that your happiness will not last forever, you gain the peace of discovering “so this is what heartbreak feels like.  I understand heartbreak, now.”

Despite being naked, I don’t suppose Adam knew “cold.”  He just wandered around the Garden with Eve, and was.  Unlike Adam, I could not swim in that water forever if I’d just follow the rules, because both hypothermia and exhaustion are very real physiological processes that have nothing to do with contentment.  But near the end of my swim, I fell into pace with another swimmer, one of those natural, fast types there alone, an all-business type of swimmer.  We weren’t really racing, but sometimes you just fall in sync with someone and it draws you both higher.  We finished together, got out of the water together, and stood there breathing in that morning air and bathing in that light you only get around tree-lined water.  Smiling, he said “this is wonderful,” to no one in particular, I think.


Mr. Bad Decision

GMNP2018 002

Call me Honey Badger

During the eight hour drive to Guadalupe Mountains National Park I decided that I had had enough of obeying the dictates of time and distance.  “I need to be on the trail by 2 P.M. to make it up to Bush Mountain and set up camp before the sun sets and it gets frickin’ cold and dark.”  Bullshit.  It’s fucking oppressive.  So I just let go of one of those constraints, and it didn’t really matter which.  Just not both at the same time.  Never again.

I struggled with this dilemma as I passed Ozona, Texas, which for reference is the last place to get gas before you make it to Fort Stockton, an hour and a half away.  Or 108 miles, if you’re keeping track of distance, too.

Sixty miles beyond Ozona, immersed in the flow of time, I checked my gas gauge, which cares only for distance.GMNP2018 001 With 48 miles to go across that emptiness to Fort Stockton, all I could quietly say was “I hate to make mistakes.”  West Texas is not a place to make mistakes in your car .GMNP2018 005

There really isn’t any Plan B out there.

“It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation”

Have you ever heard of Bakersfield, TX?  Neither have I.  It is not on the map.  It was not on the road between Ozona and Fort Stockton all the other times I’ve driven out there.  But there it was, right at the exit ramp as I ran out of gas, consisting exclusively of a gas station.  It was not there on my return trip.  Call it Trail Magic.

Later, heading up Tejas Trail, I felt strong.  I flew.  I was so grateful for my body, all it does for me.  I carry a little Tiger Eye stone with me most days for the positive vibes, but I’d left it in my car before heading off because I didn’t want to lose it.  I felt so good–joyous, and overwhelmed with gratitude.  “My Tiger Eye must be going crazy back in my car, this is just so incredibly good!”  At the top of Tejas, after the hard climb, I stuck my hand in my left pocket . . . and my Tiger Eye was there, love made tangible in the palm of my hand.GMNP2018-2 062

Bush Mountain is another couple of hours past the top of Tejas, but by the time I reached it I was asking myself why I needed to go that far the first day, why not stop at Pine Top, and maybe just spend two nights up top instead of three?  That whole section of trail is nothing but unstable limestone and incline, and the 25 pounds of water I carried for three days out was kicking my ass.  I no longer flew, and was not strong.  That evening I collapsed in my tent.

Honey Badger is my trail name.  Rob Graham bestowed it on me somewhere near Greys and Torreys years ago, but at the time and since, I didn’t feel I deserved it.  Real backpackers have trail names, people who thru-hike the PCT and AT.  Rob and I were going up Mt. Taylor in New Mexico a couple of years ago and met some thru-hikers:  “What’s your trail name?,” to which Rob could answer authentically  “A Lo Hawk,” while I just looked off and pretended to not hear the question.  I knew the truth, that I had not committed to Honey Badger.

“I quietly take to the ship.”

I’d decided I needed to get as far as Bush Mountain the first night, because I wanted to make it all the way to McKittrick Ridge by the second night, so that I could come out through The Bowl and Bear Canyon my last day.  Time and distance.  Fucking oppressive.  And it occurred to me that I had decided to make this hike because I had also decided to not do something else, and so this trip needed to damn well be worth whatever I had decided to give up.  It was easy to push myself after that understanding–everything I do needs to be worth what I choose to give up.

New to me, McKittrick Ridge was beautiful.GMNP2018-2 034  The trail had actual soil in it, not just rocks, and there hadn’t been any fires up there for quite some time.  I flew.  I decided that evening to leave my bag of trash in the small foyer area of my tent.  Around 3 a.m. I was awoken by a sound my brain instantly recognized as a small trash bag being pulled out of a tent, and yelled “Bring that back!”  Got out of the sleeping bag and tent in time for a stare-down with the biggest ringtail I’ve ever seen.  “Just walk away, wanna-be raccoon, just walk away.”  Ugly-ass; that’s right, just keep walking.  Fuck with my trash?  I don’t think so.

I let go of time.  The miles are hard in GMNP, scrambling up and down crumbled limestone trails, and then there’s all that water to carry, and a cruel sun.  But the time–the time just is.  For those of you who know me, you might be surprised to learn I have problems with linear time.  I’m pretty good at showing up for appointments and work on time, but it really doesn’t register with me that one thing might precede or follow another.  Time is a great, flowing river; I jump in and out, travel along in my stream, passing by and through other streams of time, each very real and tangible.  I feel immersed in all of it, but my relationship to it is a human construct.  It has caused me a lot of sadness.GMNP2018-2 027

From McKittrick it was a pretty easy shot out to Pine Top for my last night.  Every step became an imperative:  make this moment worth what I chose to give up that brought me here, to this place right now.  I offered myself a few additional miles by looping off the main trail through The Bowl, hotter and drier than I’d expected.  “Why did I decide to do this?,” but I knew that answer.  That evening, situating my tent, laughing after two brief loses of consciousness followed by partial blindness, I rewarded myself with 16 ounces of water and an early dinner.  It had been a day worth living.

That last morning out I was up very early.  The trail down from Pine Top is practicable in the dark, and walking down a desert mountainside under the stars fills me with a deep sense of peace and contentment.  About half way down, my headlamp caught a radiating glow on the trail, the eye of a nighthawk sitting quietly as I passed, invisible save for that eye.  When she realized she was not, in fact, invisible, the silence of her taking flight was remarkable–no beating of wings or rustling of brush, only a silent transition from stillness to flight.  Further down, I passed through a trail section of quartz, and a thousand twinkling flecks reflected back my light underneath a thousand-starred night sky.

I reached the trailhead and my car right at sunrise, where everything was luminous, if not yet clear.GMNP2018-2 065

Like Ishmael, clinging to Queequeg’s coffin.  Call me Honey Badger.