Written by

Fifty and Fearless: How Embracing a Transformative Challenge Rewrote the Script of My Life

In the Depths of Midlife Turbulence: Unveiling the 50 Dunks Project

In the face of impending dread at the prospect of turning 50, I decided to rewrite my narrative by embarking on a daring challenge: the 50 Dunks Project. The rules were simple yet transformative – immerse myself in 50 different bodies of water, capturing each aquatic escapade with a picture (or five) and a reflective post. The catch? I had to fully submerge, head underwater, or it wouldn't count.

The genesis of this aquatic odyssey occurred a year and a half before the looming milestone birthday that I had begun to dread. Once an eager participant in the race to grow up – ticking off life's checkboxes, collecting diplomas, establishing a household, and assuming the mantle of adulthood – my late 40s ushered in a profound disillusionment with conventional notions of maturity. The toll of two poignant struggles, my mother's tragic death by suicide and my former husband's arduous battle with cancer culminating in a bone marrow transplant, where I served as his caregiver, coupled with the strain of work, a faltering marriage, and the demands of motherhood, left me emotionally and creatively depleted by the time I approached 49.

As I grappled with the weight of grief, caregiving responsibilities, and the everyday challenges of middle age, the pandemic and devastating wildfires further exacerbated my sense of stagnation and frustration. Amidst the chaos, I had sporadically sought solace in day trips to swimming spots, but the physical, animalistic joys of an outdoor life had gradually slipped away.

Reflecting on my Gen X childhood, where freedom was abundant and water became my sanctuary, I recalled moments of bliss: wading through freezing mountain streams, somersaulting in crystal-clear swimming pools, floating on inner tubes down the Sacramento River, and plunging into the crisp waters of Lake Tahoe. These aquatic interludes were my moments of pure freedom, where I felt most alive and true to myself.

Yet, in the midst of my former husband's hospital isolation room during his bone marrow transplant, the view of mountains from high above served as a bitter reminder of the lakes and rivers concealed within their folds that I couldn't enjoy. Even visits to a family cabin, shared responsibilities with my dad and brother, and splashing in a nearby creek came tinged with the weight of solo packing and planning for weekends with two kids and no nearby grocery stores.

The 50 Dunks Project emerged as a reclaiming of joy, a deliberate pursuit of freedom, and a reconnection with the elemental pleasures that had once defined me. Each dunk became a defiant act against the weight of life's challenges, a celebration of resilience, and a testament to the transformative power of embracing the untamed beauty of nature. As the project unfolded, the waters became my sanctuary, offering a reprieve from the complexities of adulthood and a return to the simple, unbridled joys of living.

Embracing Freedom at 50: The Journey of the 50 Dunks Project

As the shadow of my 50th birthday loomed large, I felt an urgent need to break free from the confines of a life that seemed both constricted and confining. Seeking solace in the simple joys of childhood, I discovered my emancipation in the exhilarating shock of cold water – a force that liberated me from the gravitational pull of responsibilities. Thus, the 50 Dunks Project was conceived, a personal odyssey that would redefine joy and reconnect me with the untamed wonders of the natural world.

A proud Californian, the sight of deep, cold rivers snaking through bone-dry hills never ceased to evoke wonder within me. The prospect of immersing myself in these natural wonders brought me unparalleled pleasure. In the lead-up to my milestone birthday, I resolved to find joy in exploring and embracing natural spaces for swimming, dunking, or soaking – any body of water would suffice. Committed to documenting my aquatic adventures, I chose an old-school approach, maintaining a discreet blog that I shared with only a select few. Unbeknownst to many, this writing endeavor, amidst a creative drought coinciding with the publication of my first book and the challenges in my marriage, became the catalyst for reigniting my creativity.

The inaugural dip of the 50 Dunks Project took place in the frigid waters of the northern California Pacific in March 2021, setting the stage for a journey spanning a year and a half, culminating before my October 2022 birthday. This endeavor required a pace of approximately one excursion per week during the warmer months, although California's diverse weather provided off-season opportunities. My aquatic pilgrimages spanned the globe, reaching as far as Hawaii, Texas, and the south of France, where I swam in the shadows of a 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct.

Among the myriad memorable dunks, a road trip with my daughters to the eastern Sierra stands out, where I shared a hot spring with naked hippies en route to Burning Man while opting for a more modest swimsuit-clad experience with my teenagers. Unearthing a tiny reservoir tucked away in the Sonoma redwoods, a place my long-departed grandfather had once mentioned swimming as a child, added a poignant layer to the project. Another highlight was a day-trip with my younger daughter to a cool, dripping-wet cavern in the Mother Lode on a scorching 100-degree day. Further afield, I swam in Wyoming's Jenny Lake during an extended family vacation, reflecting the grandeur of the nearby Grand Tetons.

The 50 Dunks Project became more than a mere challenge; it became a voyage of rediscovery, a plunge into the rejuvenating embrace of nature, and a testament to the transformative power of reclaiming joy. Each dunk echoed with the resilience to overcome life's challenges, becoming a narrative of personal growth and reconnection with the elemental joys that define us.

Navigating the Murk: Reflections on Unseen Challenges Amidst the 50 Dunks Project

Amidst the enchanting tales of my 50 Dunks Project, some chapters unfolded with less-than-magical moments, reminding me that life's journey is a mosaic of both blissful highs and challenging lows. One such episode involved traversing an active train trestle, nervously evoking memories of "Stand By Me," only to have hot tar weld my flip-flops to my feet. The reward for this precarious journey was a too-warm creek tainted by unsightly algae.

Yet, amid the misadventures, the heart of my aquatic odyssey often beat strongest in the familiar waters of Big Chico Creek, meandering through my hometown of Chico, California. Here, hidden gems revealed themselves—glorious swimming holes, a dammed swimming pool in the local park, and a tiny culvert-fed pool near the creek's headwaters, discovered on Labor Day 2022. This particular find emerged during a spontaneous exploration with my older daughter along dusty dirt roads, where the sight of Queen Anne's lace and willows hinted at the promise of water.

Despite the occasional challenges, the transformative power of water remained evident. During a joyous dip in the newfound pool, my daughter hesitated, anticipating the cold water. In that moment, she shared an observation that lingered in my thoughts: "I've never seen you come out of the water without a smile on your face." Her eventual plunge, gasping and laughing, mirrored my own joy, and I couldn't help but hope she retains that connection to happiness and her essential self throughout her life.

Yet, amidst the aquatic euphoria, the undercurrents of my personal struggles surfaced. As I grappled with salvaging my marriage and reconciling its shortcomings, a stark realization emerged—I had poured myself entirely into the needs of others, leaving a stagnant pool of resentments and guilt within. The profound changes wrought by my ex-husband's illness altered the dynamics of our relationship and family permanently. The divergence in our desires for a fulfilling life became glaringly apparent. While I yearned for outdoor adventures, travel, and physical pleasures, he sought a quieter, less active existence. These disparities, which had always existed, were magnified by the shifting tides of life.

Reflecting on my time in academia, where I pursued a Ph.D. in English, I acknowledged that I had forsaken key aspects of myself. The academic pursuit, while intellectually fulfilling, represented a departure from the child within me who reveled in exploring woods, scrambling down creek banks, and losing myself in the freedom of water. Fear of change, especially in the eyes of my daughters, had held me captive in a life that no longer resonated with my true self.

The pivotal moment came when I applied a simple but profound test: Would I advise my child to stay in this marriage if they were in my shoes? The answer was a resounding no. Liberated by this realization, I confronted my fears and embraced change, acknowledging that true happiness lay not only in the pursuit of personal joys, like those found in the 50 Dunks Project, but also in staying true to the essence of one's being, unburdened by the expectations of others.

Emerging from the Depths: A Year of Transformation Beyond the 50 Dunks

On the pivotal day my husband moved out in February 2022, I sought solace in the embrace of nature, embarking on a hike with a friend. Our trail led us to a hidden pool at the base of a waterfall, its inky waters so chilling that even my pool thermometer couldn't withstand the cold for an accurate reading. Yes, I had ventured to purchase a pool thermometer for my hiking backpack, a quirky yet practical addition to keep tabs on the temperatures of each dunk. In that icy pool, on the very day I confronted the unknown of my changing life, I immersed myself, emerging gasping and shaking—an apt metaphor for the simultaneous plunge into an even more daunting reality.

The final entry in my aquatic chronicles unfolded on my birthday, October 6, 2022. Basking in the warmth of early fall, I orchestrated an unconventional celebration by pulling both of my teenage daughters out of school. Together, we navigated to the clear emerald waters of a cherished spot along the South Yuba River, northeast of our Sacramento home. In the tranquility of a fall weekday, we laughed, swam, and splashed, crafting an unforgettable birthday party. While it might be simplistic to attribute life-altering changes to the simple act of jumping into swimming holes, the truth lies in the profound transformation my life underwent throughout the year-and-a-half-long project.

The 50 dunks, more than changing my routine, altered my fundamental approach to life. Having spent decades primarily in service to others, the decision to pursue personal pleasure became a catalyst for the courage to shape a life that served me. My 50th birthday metamorphosed from a numerical milestone to a true turning point. Even as the structured challenge concluded, my affinity for swimming holes and lakes persists. On hikes, my daughters and I have joyfully plunged into lakes with snow-lined shores, emerging with shared smiles that speak of shared bliss.

Approaching the age of 51, I welcomed the next chapter with open arms, discarding the dread that often accompanies aging. Throughout the summer and early fall, I continued seeking out new aquatic havens and revisiting old favorites. The culmination of my watershed year unfolded with a trip to Arizona in the company of friends. While uncertain about the prospect of setting another grand challenge, I have carried forward the spirit of joy and the willingness to leap into what I love. Impromptu trips, a delightful part-time job at a neighborhood bookshop, and the addition of a hiking companion in the form of an adopted puppy are testaments to the invigorating power of doing something solely for oneself. As it turns out, the liberation found in such pursuits is even more exhilarating than the chill of cold water.

Kate Washington, a luminary in the literary realm, stands as the author of "Already Toast: Caregiving and Burnout In America" (Beacon Press, 2021). Residing in Sacramento, her written tapestry has graced the pages of esteemed publications such as The New York Times, TIME, Eater, Catapult, and many more. Her narrative prowess captures the nuances of caregiving and burnout, unraveling the intricate fabric of American life.

As she continues to sculpt her literary legacy, Kate Washington is currently immersed in a captivating book project. This venture delves into the transformative odyssey of her swimming hole adventures and the profound act of reinventing oneself at midlife. The intersection of personal growth, resilience, and the rejuvenating power of nature converges in her upcoming work, promising readers a compelling narrative that transcends the ordinary.

If you find resonance with Kate's journey or have a captivating personal story itching to be shared, the invitation extends to you. HuffPost beckons those with tales to tell, inviting pitches that weave the threads of individual experiences into the fabric of collective understanding. Discover what HuffPost is seeking and consider contributing your unique narrative to the rich tapestry of shared human experiences. Your story could be the next to captivate and resonate with a broader audience.

In conclusion, Kate Washington emerges not only as a distinguished author with her insightful exploration of caregiving and burnout but also as a storyteller poised on the brink of a new narrative venture. As she embarks on a book project chronicling her swimming hole adventures and the transformative journey of reinventing herself at midlife, readers can anticipate a tapestry woven with threads of personal growth, resilience, and the timeless allure of nature.

Kate's journey, exemplified in her upcoming work, transcends the ordinary and invites others to reflect on their own narratives. Her willingness to embrace change and find solace in the rejuvenating waters of swimming holes serves as an inspiring testament to the transformative power of self-discovery.

Furthermore, Kate extends an open invitation to those harboring compelling personal stories. HuffPost stands as a platform eager to amplify diverse voices and narratives. If you have a story to share, an experience that resonates, consider pitching it to HuffPost and contributing to the collective understanding of the human experience.

As Kate Washington continues to shape her literary legacy, her work serves as a beacon for others navigating the complexities of life, offering insights into the profound possibilities that arise when one embraces personal reinvention and the boundless wonders found in unexpected adventures.