With a solid, metallic bounce—a real bounce, not the aided hop other boards give you—I launch into open space, take a split-second glance at the lifeguard tower across the way, then tuck and untuck my body quickly enough to complete the arc before impaling a floating colony of algae. As I enter, ornamented by bubbles that swirl and cascade up my skin and shut eyelids, I can’t help but thrash my head. This reverses my momentum back up toward the surface, but it’s mostly to expel my shock at the water temperature.
No matter how long you wait in line to use the board, no matter how many times you make the same giant dive, you never really get used to the temperature flowing out of Barton Springs. With these waters, every time feels like the first.
For most of my life as a provincial San Antonian, I had often heard about this wondrous place called Barton Springs from Austinites who met my puzzlement with a look that said, “It’s an Austin thing; you wouldn’t understand.” How strange that now I, proud Austinite of four months, find myself playing the springs card when my old high school buddies tell me how cool College Station and Nacogdoches are. The pool’s cold waters have become a joyous part of my summer routine.
I visit Barton Springs several times a week with my older brother, and recently we brought along our 66-year-old father, a Schulenburg native who came to Austin with his family as a child, occasionally making the trip down to these waters. Barton Springs Pool is aesthetically the same as it was in 1932, when an upper dam was added to complete the picture (the sidewalks constructed in 1929 also remain today). The pool itself is a dammed-up section of Barton Creek, but not just any section. As you tread water at the surface, 27 million gallons of water (a steady 68 degrees engineered by Texas to be cold in summer and warm in winter), are pumped everyday from “the Bartons,” Parthenia, Eliza and Zenobia, named by settler William “Uncle Billy” Barton after his daughters. But the springs were enjoyed long before Barton built his cabin nearby in 1837. Spanish friars, recognizing the springs as a gathering place, established temporary missions at its waters before relocating to—you guessed it—San Antonio.
Though the friars and settlers have been replaced by overtan European expats and sorority girls, a sense of anachronistic communal gathering remains. The physical place seems somewhat frozen in time, its patrons continuing the tradition of living moment to carefree moment by the water. I get the feeling that our father is one of the few visitors to recognize naturalist Roy Bedichek, folklorist J. Frank Dobie, and historian Walter Prescott Webb preserved near the main entrance in a spirited bronze discussion, much less remember the days when these three Texans actually gathered at the park. Similarly, most visitors pay little heed to the volunteers behind the Save Our Springs desk. Salamanders are important and all, but I need my three bucks for pool admission, ma’am.
We always enter the pool area through the back entrance, off Robert E. Lee Road and somewhat secluded among baseball diamonds littered with players of kickball and Ultimate Frisbee (one of the great Austin pastimes). This side is shadier and allows for a nice survey of the water and a diving board to whet aquanauts’ appetites as they approach the banks. Barton Springs Pool is exactly what it sounds like—a hybrid of nature and recreation that features bona fide springs and wildlife, but is dammed up on both sides and bracketed by sidewalks for those of us out of our natural habitat.
Barton Springs feels like any other pool when you lie out on your towel among the many other lawn-dwellers. It feels like a pool when you drink from the water fountain, dodge glances from the sentinels in lifeguard uniforms, or have a go on the diving board, bouncy enough to give even a wimp like me the guts to pull off a front one-and-a-half flip. But as soon as you land in those startling waters, you remember that this place is so much more than just a pool. Dive down wearing goggles to pick up rocks or meet face to face with one of the Barton sisters (the other two springs, named after the other two Barton sisters, are located elsewhere in Zilker Park). Snorkel in the shallow areas among tiny blue fish that flee from your path. Just watch out for crawfish. The critters can’t do much damage, but it’s a good idea to watch out for their pinch, anyway (for some real fun, grasp one with two fingers behind its pincers and surprise your sister). In what other “pool” can you combine stringy seaweed and floating algae—a mixture my brothers and I affectionately call “floam”—for the perfect amorphous projectile?
There may be more tattoos these days, and the jagged apex of the Frost Bank Building may poke out above the trees to the north, but you get the feeling that the smiling faces populating the area are nothing new to these cold, sacred waters.