Barton Springs Pool in the Dark Is Its Own World
Swimming before sunrise became a necessary ritual for novelist Elizabeth McCracken during an uncertain time. And then came the strangers.
I was never indifferent to Barton Springs Pool, but like many Austinites, I had a mostly summer relationship with it. The beloved landmark is both artificial and ancient, a man-made pool fed by natural springs, three acres of water in the middle of the city. I am a stout, middle-aged woman endowed with both buoyancy and insulation against the cold. Moreover, I’m originally from Massachusetts. During my first summers here, I liked to stand up to my New England waist in Barton Springs and openly mock Texans inching their way into the water, which hovers at 68 to 70 degrees year-round. “Come on in!” I’d tell big men cuddling their own torsos mid-August. “It’s not so bad when you get used to it.”
I didn’t really swim in Barton Springs until the fall of 2020, after our national summer of nothing. A couple of times I went with my daughter, Matilda, before Zoom middle school. The weather was cold, and most of the swimmers who showed up wore wet suits. They could not be mocked. Sometimes a dozen wet-suit wearers arrived to take a dip together, including one guy with a loud voice who liked to set up a speaker by the pool to play music. We called him Foghorn Larry. “When I showed up, there was no party, but when I left, there was a party!” he bellowed one day.
“Maybe they threw it to celebrate you leaving,” my daughter said quietly, to me.
For Matilda the allure of the springs wore off. Not for me.
I decided that autumn to embrace the outdoors by swimming in Barton Springs almost every day. I live about a fifteen-minute drive away, in Hyde Park—just north of the University of Texas campus, where I teach—in a converted bungalow with three human beings I love and one cat with whom I have a decent working relationship. I began arriving earlier and earlier. Generally, there were others there, but the pool is so large that I sometimes wasn’t aware of them at all.
In those early days, the other swimmers and I masked up on the concrete deck bordering the water. We nodded at one another. We swam alone, together. The diving board had been taken down to discourage congregating of any kind, but the staff left the two plastic ducks tethered to the pool floor—marking the board’s territory until it returned—as well as the third plastic duck with a sign on its back telling visitors not to touch the rocks beneath, for fear of disturbing one of the springs’ two endangered salamander species. I touched nothing but the water and, to turn around, the wall at the far end. I felt safe at Barton Springs at a time when we had no idea what safety meant.