I have recently discovered swimming. Most people discover swimming at six or sixty, which sheds light on the fact that I am officially closer to sixty than six, but a prevailing injury has pushed me into the water. Benefits include: zero-impact workout, a break from the ungodly hot weather, and the discovery of my new favorite place – a place where cigarettes are still enjoyed without public shaming, cut-off jeans are not ironic, and gold chains catch rays of sun on tattooed bare chests. Welcome to the East Gallatin Recreation Area, or the “Bozeman Beach.”
“Ew.” That’s the response I usually get when I tell people I swim at the large pond/mini lake. (Let’s call it a ‘plake.’) Built in the 1980s by the city, the plake was created by diverting water from the East Gallatin River over to a large gravel pit. Reports claim that two refrigerators and an upturned car were the only tenants of the pit. But people seem to believe, through rumors and folklore, that the beach was built over the dump. No, the dump was adjacent to the plake but is now buried. Big difference.
Three or four times a week I ride my bike through our meandering trail system or, even more fitting, I drive over in my gold ’98 Ford Windstar minivan, and stake out my small spot on the shore. The ‘beach’ is really just remains of the gravel pit, and there are more children than I care to surround myself with, but I have found a quiet little grassy spot protected by trees and bushes. I usually come packing a cotton towel, flip-flops, trail mix, water, and a book, but I rarely need the book since the real entertainment comes from observing humans in their semi-natural habitat. High school kids come to knoodle in the gravel; small children lathered in sunscreen dig tributaries; guys with frosted tips cruise the parking lot with their truck windows down. There’s a different ‘scene’ here, and the level of Bozeman Cool is very low – comfortingly low. These people aren’t flashing their expensive drift boats. They don’t wear flat brim hats or vintage swim suits, (unless it’s the only one they purchased back in 1979.) Kids eat chips and drink pop, old ladies with visors sit on folding lawn chairs. The smell of the park barbecue floats over the beach. Kids scream and splash in the water. Think back to being your childlike self and visiting the city pool, trembling with excitement until you could take a giant leap into those cool waters. “Mom! Watch me. Watch my hand stand. Watch my cannonball. How high was my splash?”
Nearly every day I am at the plake I see a group of high school boys wearing baggy basketball shorts as swim trunks, some of them extra skinny or slightly plump, hovering right around teenage puberty. I used to work at the middle school they attended and saw their apathy, their anger and frustration towards the school system. They weren’t involved in clubs, they didn’t reach out to make other friends, they rarely smiled. But everyday at the beach they find their spot on the little dock and spend hours perfecting their flips and dives into the water. They laugh hysterically, push each other in, discuss the nuances of each bend and twist of the body into water. They have even collected a gaggle of children who look up to them for inspiration as they themselves try jumping off the dock in floaties and life jackets. These boys never found their niche in the school system, and they never may, but out here they thrive.
Last week I watched a kid, early 20s, park his truck and let his Alaskan Husky dog jump out. He tied him to a tree in the shade and went back for a styrofoam cooler. From it he pulled out a blanket, which he lay out under the tree. He pulled off his shirt and pulled out a bottle of champagne – ‘POP’ – and started enjoying some personal bubbly by the beach. Yep, this guy’s got it figured out.
So each day I lie baking in the sun, or relaxing under the shade of a poplar tree, watching the ducks float by. The babies are getting bigger. I spend only about an hour, a short break between work, just enough time to wash away any stress or worry. I kick off my sandals and step into the muddy water. With the sun overhead, kayakers exploring, and children’s laughter as the soundtrack, I push off into the deep end and float away.