I Completely Dreaded Turning 50 — So I Gave Myself A Challenge That Changed My Life

The author at the South Yuba River on her 50th birthday in 2022
The author at the South Yuba River on her 50th birthday in 2022

The author at the South Yuba River on her 50th birthday in 2022

The rules:

Go to 50 different bodies of water — swimming holes, hot springs, rivers, lakes, tiny creeks and oceans are all equally valid. Dunk, swim, or soak — but immerse fully, head under water, or it won’t count. Chronicle the dunk with a picture (or five) and a post. Complete the challenge by the time I turn 50.

That’s how I started the adventure I came to call the 50 Dunks Project. I kicked it off a year and a half before that milestone birthday, which I started dreading well in advance.

I had always been the girl who was eager to grow up: to check the box, to collect the diploma, to set up the house, to become an adult. But by my late 40s, I felt strongly that adulthood, at least the conventional way I pursued it, sucks.

Two painful ordeals — my mother’s death by suicide, and my former husband’s long cancer treatment and bone marrow transplant, during which I served as his caregiver — combined with the ordinary stresses and inequities of work, a faltering marriage and motherhood had left me exhausted and emotionally and creatively drained by the time I was 49­. It’s probably no coincidence that studies have shown 49 is both the average age of the American family caregiver and the age when Americans hit their lifetime nadir of happiness. Just to add to my sense of stagnation and frustration, the tail end of my 40s coincided with the pandemic and a series of devastating wildfires that choked the Northern California air with smoke.

During the years of grief and complicated caregiving and other obligations and stressors of middle age, I squeezed in day trips to swimming spots, but over time I’d lost touch with the physical, animal joys of a life lived outdoors. My Gen X childhood had offered lots of freedom, which I savored the most in water: wading and plunging in freezing-cold mountain streams, turning somersaults in crystal-blue swimming pools, floating on inner tubes down the Sacramento River, jumping in chilly Lake Tahoe and emerging with teeth chattering. These were the moments I felt the most free, and the most like myself.

From my then-husband’s high-rise hospital isolation room following his bone marrow transplant, I could see the mountains, but I couldn’t enjoy the rivers and lakes I knew hid in their crevices. On trips to a family cabin shared with my dad and brother, I could splash in the tiny nearby creek, but those sojourns also came with the heavy load of solo packing and planning for weekends with two kids and no grocery stores.

The author by a mountain creek on a camping trip, circa 1980.
The author by a mountain creek on a camping trip, circa 1980.

The author by a mountain creek on a camping trip, circa 1980.

As my 50th birthday loomed, I knew I needed something to jolt me out of a life that felt both constrained and constraining. I turned back to childhood joys and found that jolt in the shock of cold water, which loosened the grip of both gravity and responsibility. That’s when the 50 Dunks Project was born.

A lifelong Californian, I never lose my sense of wonder at seeing deep cold rivers snaking through bone-dry hills, and very little brings me more pleasure than immersing in them. On the long road to my birthday, I decided, I would find my joy in seeking out natural places to swim, dunk, or soak. Any water would do.

I followed my rules faithfully, blogging about my swimming adventures. That’s right: I kept an old-school blog, which I told very few people about. It was really just for me. Though I’ve been a professional writer for more than two decades, I was in a creative drought that coincided with the publication of my first book (a memoir and systemic critique of family caregiving) and the downward spiral of my marriage. That blog was almost the only thing I wrote over the year and a half of the project, and it turned out to be the spark that relit my creativity.

I kicked off the project with a March 2021 dip in the frigid Pacific of northern California. That gave me a little over a year and a half to get to 50 before my birthday in October 2022 — a pace of about one excursion a week during the warmer months of the year, though California weather gave me off-season opportunities as well.

My dunks ranged as far afield as Hawaii, Texas and the south of France, where I swam in the shadow of a 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct. Many were gloriously memorable: On a road trip with my daughters to the eastern Sierra, I soaked in a hot spring alongside naked hippies on their way to Burning Man; with my teenagers nearby, I kept my swimsuit on. (Next time, I’ll go alone, or with other grown-ups, and strip.) I found a tiny, secret reservoir in a spot in the Sonoma redwoods where my grandfather, long since passed away, had once told me he used to swim as a kid. My younger daughter and I day-tripped to a cool, dripping-wet, dark cavern in the Mother Lode on a 100-degree day, and I swam in Wyoming’s Jenny Lake, rippling the reflected glory of the Grand Tetons, on an extended family vacation.

Others were less than magical, like the time I walked across an active train trestle (nervously thinking of “Stand By Me”all the while), hot tar welding my flip-flops to my feet, to get to a too-warm creek that ended up being full of nasty algae.

Edwards Crossing at the South Yuba River.
Edwards Crossing at the South Yuba River.

Edwards Crossing at the South Yuba River.

Many of my favorites were in Big Chico Creek, which runs through my hometown of Chico, California, and offers glorious swimming holes, a dammed swimming pool in the local park, and, as I found on Labor Day 2022, a tiny culvert-fed pool near its headwaters. My older daughter and I spotted it one day, bumming around the mountains looking for a new place to dip along the dusty dirt roads. I saw Queen Anne’s lace and willows — greenery that means water — and we scrambled down a bank to the small round pool.

I plunged in right away and came out breathless and dripping, mud clinging to my water sandals, but my daughter hesitated, knowing the pond would be cold. Eventually she turned to me and said, “I’ve never seen you come out of the water without a smile on your face.” She clambered down, ducked, and then flipped her long hair to make a circle of droplets, gasping and laughing, just like me.

I hope that — unlike me — she never loses touch with that joy, with her essential self. As I’d struggled to save my marriage, or at least make peace with the ways I found it unsatisfying, I increasingly realized I’d poured out everything for others, and diverted most of my inner resources to my family, leaving me a brackish pool of resentments and guilt.

My ex-husband’s and my relationship and family were permanently altered after his illness: I wanted to be outdoors, traveling, enjoying physical pleasures; he needed a quieter, less active life. That shift, in truth, only magnified temperamental differences we’d always had.

Although we met in graduate school, getting Ph.D.s in English, he was and remains a true academic, far more absorbed by the life of the mind than I, despite my love of books and reading. I now look back on my time in academia as an abandonment of key parts of myself, most especially that kid who loved to poke around in the woods, scramble down creek banks, and float free in water.

At the same time, I was afraid to change my life, afraid of what people — especially my daughters — would think if I left my marriage. Eventually, I applied an old but simple test: If your child were in this marriage, would you advise them to stay? I wouldn’t. And I didn’t.

On the day my husband moved out in February 2022, I cleared out for a hike with a friend. We scrambled down steep rocks to a pool at the base of the waterfall, to inky water was so chilly I couldn’t hold the thermometer out in deep water long enough to get a good read on it. (Yes, I bought a pool thermometer for my hiking backpack so I could keep track of the dunks’ temperatures.) In I went, emerging gasping and shaking from the iciest water of the entire project — fitting, and memorable, for the same day I had finally jumped into an even scarier unknown.

The author after her 49th swim of the project, in the River Gardon beneath the Pont du Gard near Nimes, France, in September 2022.
The author after her 49th swim of the project, in the River Gardon beneath the Pont du Gard near Nimes, France, in September 2022.

The author after her 49th swim of the project, in the River Gardon beneath the Pont du Gard near Nimes, France, in September 2022.

The last swim I chronicled was on my birthday, Oct. 6, 2022: it was a warm early-fall Thursday, and I pulled both my teen daughters out of school to head to the clear emerald, granite-framed waters of a favorite spot on the South Yuba River, northeast of our Sacramento home. In summer, the river’s more accessible swimming holes are crowded, but not on a fall weekday. We laughed and swam and splashed, and I couldn’t have had a better birthday party than that.

It would be too easy to say that the simple act of jumping into swimming holes changed my life, but my life certainly changed, and dramatically, over the course of my year-and-a-half-long project. What my 50 dunks really changed was my approach to life. After decades in which I lived mainly in service of other people, choosing to chase something that simply brought me pleasure helped give me the courage to live a life that serves me — making my 50th birthday a true milestone, not just a big round number.

Even though my birthday challenge has ended, I head to a swimming hole or lake as often as I can. On one hike, my daughters and I plunged in a lake with snow-lined shores, and we all came out smiling.

As I approached 51 recently, I welcomed my next year instead of dreading it. Over the summer and early fall, I sought out new places to swim and revisited old favorites, and I saw my watershed year of 50 out with a trip to Arizona with friends.

I’m not sure when or if I’ll set another big challenge for myself, but I’ve carried forward the spirit of joy and taking leaps into what I love: I’ve set out on impromptu trips, taken a fun part-time job at a neighborhood bookshop, and adopted a puppy who trots along on hikes. It turned out that doing something just for me, and writing whatever I wanted about it, was even more bracing than all that cold water.

Kate Washington is the author of ”Already Toast: Caregiving and Burnout In America” (Beacon Press, 2021) and a Sacramento-based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, TIME, Eater, Catapult, and many other publications. She is at work on a book project about her swimming hole adventures and reinventing herself at midlife.

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