Barton Springs Pool in the Dark Is Its Own World – Texas Monthly

We’re celebrating 38 ways to get wet this summer. Read essays on Texas’s springs, rivers, lakes, coast, and pools, as well as shout-outs to kayak polo, “boomerang” paddle trips, and Austin’s Party Island.

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. 

Swimming before sunrise, I was in my own body. I couldn’t be tracked or bothered. Sometimes I lost myself in the pool, forgetting how far across it I was. Winter arrived and deepened, even in Texas. When the air was colder than the water, mist came off the surface, and I couldn’t see anything, not swimmers, not the end of the pool, only the foot or so ahead of me. Everything seemed like a ghost ship in the very local fog of Barton Springs.

There’s a white egret, or heron, or whatnot that I see often at Barton Springs, both flying overhead and standing on the shore.

—Elizabeth McCracken (@elizmccracken) on Twitter, 5:10 p.m., November 17, 2020

Swimming at Barton Springs held me together, body and soul. I usually arrived by 5:30 a.m. The pool felt like a book I read most days. It was always the same and also always different. I developed an intense relationship with the plastic ducks. Sometimes they startled me when they emerged from the mist. Once, I saw a real duck cuddled up next to the fake ones. I said aloud, to the actual duck, “Good morning. You’re the real thing.”

The book of Barton Springs is a different sort of book at different times. Sometimes it’s horror and sometimes fantasy and sometimes, only after sunrise, entirely realistic. That morning it was a children’s book, so I said hello to a plastic duck who turned out to be real.

I had not previously been one for nature, and certainly not for birds. They seemed all one species to me, from budgies to emus. Living in Austin had given me a wary admiration for grackles, those cackling, petroleum-feathered former reptiles, and I have a lifelong exception for pelicans. Otherwise, birds have always struck me as untrustworthy.

The first bird I became fond of at Barton Springs was a white heron who usually stood in the shallow end, broad-shouldered and skinny-legged, a teenage girl in an ermine coat. 

At Barton Springs, there’s a sign that says WE RISE BY LIFTING UP OTHERS which I always misread as WE RISE BY LIFTING UP OTTERS, a beautiful mental picture.

—7:51 p.m., January 7, 2021

In the fog and dark, it’s easy to mistake things. There were two brown waterfowl who hung out near the plastic ducks; with their long-necked bodies below the surface, the pair looked like snorkelers. Cormorants, it turned out. The darkness, the early hour, was essential because I wanted to avoid people; because I came to love the eldritch feel of swimming in the dark; because it made me feel tough, and I liked to brag. I invented complicated metaphors about swimming in the dark and writing so I could tell my students about my heroic practice. A book of my short stories came out in early 2021; I managed to mention my swims in every interview. I began to tweet about them—not every time I went but often enough so people would know to be impressed with me. Swimming at sunrise, through sunrise, in sunlight was beautiful too, but the dark made me feel resilient and bewitched. 

Sometimes when I’m swimming in Barton Springs somebody will jump in nearby & then I can taste the perfume of their soap or shampoo & it’s like synesthesia, but for crabbiness.

—7:47 a.m., September 14, 2021

I don’t really hate people. I don’t hate individual people. I don’t hate many individual people. 

There’s one person I have a relationship with because they arrive before me and leave their towel near—not too near—my own favored towel spot. (Amazing how rituals accrue, how I must walk down the sloping path—never the stairs!—leave my towel in the same place, enter the water by the long ramp, splash my hands on the surface, and take a little jump to submerge myself as I think, It’s too late to turn back now!) I don’t know who the person is, only that I nod at their towel every morning. I don’t recognize most people who swim when I do, but it’s nice to know they’re there. Once I get out I might see, depending on the season, the man in the red sweatshirt who does tai chi at the top of the western slope or the visitors who photograph the Egyptian geese and their spring goslings, avian paparazzi.

The only people I really hate are the occasional backstrokers, who forge on, hoping the rest of us will look out for them, or the fast swimmers who angle across the pool and occasionally bump into me, or the large groups who all jump in at once.

One day I encountered a man who didn’t look as if he’d been swimming as he left through the entrance. I stepped out of his way. He mumbled at me under his breath, then shouted, “I’ll outlive you, lady!”

Neither of us will know if this curse comes to pass. I don’t hate that guy. I do think about him often.

Early morning Barton Springs swim report: two geese at the shallow end swore a blue streak as I walked past them on the deck. I broke some law of goose etiquette. They did not accept my apology.

—10:23 a.m., November 10, 2021

The pool is a book. Sometimes there’s foreshadowing. 

Early morning Barton Springs swim report: hazy light. The pool like an Eakins. By which I mean, an entirely naked man jumped off the diving board.

—9:48 a.m., January 29, 2022

Before 8 a.m., when the lifeguards arrive, it’s swim at your own risk. One woman goes topless as a naiad. Some people cover up, and some wear bikinis. At first I swam in running tights and a long-sleeved swim shirt, for modesty, not warmth. Isn’t it cold? friends asked me. I loved answering that question: yes, but I can take it. Once the air temperature dropped below 40, I ordered a pair of water shoes because the only thing I found intolerable was the cold concrete beneath my feet when I got out. I have never been so devoted to a pair of shoes in my life. Now I don an ordinary swimsuit, immodest because I can believe I am invisible. 

I learned to swim at my Massachusetts YMCA, where I progressed from Polliwog to Guppy to Minnow. There I stalled. I never made Fish. I can swim forever, just not beautifully. I stick to the breaststroke at Barton Springs so that I can see all things as they come upon me. I am ploddingly slow and aware of it. Sometimes I’m so deep in thought I stop kicking; sometimes I think of nothing and go faster. I write lines of fiction in my head or polish up ordinarily land-borne grudges. 

barton springs swimming
The pool after the sun comes up. Photograph by Nick Simonite
barton springs swimming
A swimmer greets the day. Photograph by Nick Simonite

Early AM Barton Springs swim report: sunbeams cut through the turbid water exactly the way the beams of a movie projector cut through the dark in a movie about movies.

—9:58 a.m., February 6, 2022

On the clear mornings I prefer, the pool is very dark. On overcast mornings, the clouds reflect the city lights down to the pool, and you can see more. There’s nothing to observe in the water until the lights come up, and even then the view is as variable as it is above the surface. Sometimes it’s pistachio green or glowing like jade; sometimes it’s so clear you can see the little fish that look like packs of cards. I have never seen a single salamander, not the Barton Springs nor the Austin Blind. Are those crawfish scuttling beneath me? Who else have I overlooked?

At the pool, I have seen all manner of birds, the cormorants regarding the late-arriving grackles like Venetians snubbing their noses at tourists. I spotted a yellow-crowned night heron, preposterous and gorgeous, looking like a character in an opera about to deliver an aria. An owl in a nearby tree; a hawk at a height. On the deck I have startled a baby raccoon and a full-grown possum, though mostly the raccoons hang out in the parking lot or near the changing rooms. I’m not afraid of raccoons. Perhaps I ought to be.  

Early morning Barton Springs swim report. Well, golly. I was attacked by a pair of geese!

—7:38 a.m., April 15, 2022

I noticed the geese upon the water as soon as I arrived. Not my beloved dun-colored Egyptian geese and their goslings. These were geese I’d never seen before: storybook, white, long-necked, at the far end. My friend Yiyun Li, who loves geese so much that her next book is called The Book of Goose, was visiting Austin the following day; we planned to swim together. New geese seemed like a good omen. Around them humans swam and all seemed in harmony. I started toward the deep end, where the geese paddled and fed among the swimmers. 

Still, I’m no fool. Geese are geese. I decided to turn back before I got to the far wall, even though touching it was part of my ritual. 

I was well clear of the geese. I want to make that clear. Also: I was not near their eggs. The geese, and I, were in the middle of the pool. If they had a nest—or if they’d Airbnb’d a nest, since they’d just arrived—it was not nearby. Who were they, these strangers, in my beloved place? They must have been Californians—surely the most Texan thought I have ever had.

As I turned around, I felt something on my foot and heard a fluttery, watery commotion. And then I was being attacked by geese. First one, then the other. They were on my head.

And here I’d like to make clear that I know that, for some reason, a human woman being attacked by geese is somehow funny. When I tell this story, most people laugh. Me too. But at the moment all I could think was, passionately, I’m never coming back here again. Were they biting me or kicking me or striking me with their heads and wings? Even now I’m not sure. I called for help as I tried to get to the side.

Movies had taught me that, were I in trouble in a pool, fully clothed men would dive in to save me. A line of men stood on the deck and regarded me and did not dive. Later I would realize that they could see my rescuer, a guy in a wet suit and snorkel, heading toward me, but at the moment I hated them almost as much as the geese, who had somehow removed my goggles. “Help!” I informed the men. Then my rescuer pulled the geese from me and yelled haaah! haaah! in their faces. They understood him. They backed off. I clung to the side of the pool.

“Are you all right?” one of the standing men asked me.

“I think so,” I said, a lie, though I couldn’t feel any pain yet.

“You’re bleeding,” he observed. He pointed to his own cheek. “Oh. Both sides.” He touched his other cheek. 

I hauled myself out. “I’ve never seen those geese before in my life,” I told the men fervently. I’d meant only to sound outraged, but it came out as though I were explaining that the geese and I, despite appearances, didn’t share an unhappy history involving money or love or traffic.

As I took the long walk back to my things, another man asked me if I was okay. Then he said, “I’ve been coming here two years, and I’ve never seen those geese.” I thanked him. Somehow it felt gratifying to know that he too saw them as tourists.

Morning Barton Springs swim report. Sun trying to wear a hole in the clouds. All the little fish beneath and all the weird birds above giving me the side-eye. Me, them, too.

—8:46 a.m., May 7, 2022

For a day or two I looked as if I’d been lightly mugged, one cheek swollen and red, the other mildly punctured, a red welt by my eye. Despite everything, I brought Yiyun the day after the attack, though we didn’t swim. We saw the geese on the hill. “They’re beautiful,” Yiyun said. “I’m sorry. Villains can be beautiful.”

“Did you see the Facebook video of another goose attack?” people asked me that week. That video was not a goose attack but a thwarted one, interrupted mid-flap by a lifeguard. I talked to a TV reporter who’d seen my tweet, though I decided not to do a Zoom interview: those geese didn’t deserve the publicity. They won anyhow. Barton Springs is a federally protected natural habitat, and so the geese could not be moved. It’s my habitat too, I thought.  

I took my first post-attack dip a week later, in the daylight—I could not see the geese anywhere—and the vegetation running its green fingers down my forearm made me jump; all birdsong made me jump; the white bathing caps on the swimmers impersonated my nemeses and made me jump. The next week I swam my usual two lengths, but unhappily. The week after that, in the dark, things were almost normal, but not really. I am not yet myself. 

I’m never coming back here, I’d thought as the geese battered my head—not a declaration but a terrible revelation, as in a book. In books, I don’t mind unhappy endings. My doctor had prescribed a tetanus booster and a goose for Christmas dinner. I went back to swim because I loved it, and because I had already agreed to write this article, and because that’s what happens, isn’t it? Something terrible occurs, and you think it’s the end of everything. Slowly life goes back to normal, not because life is normal but because what else can you do? 

No, not normal, but a close-enough facsimile.

Elizabeth McCracken is a best-selling author and the James A. Michener Chair in Creative Writing at UT-Austin. Her next book, The Hero of this Book: A Novel, will be published by HarperCollins on October 4.

This article originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Before Sunrise.” Subscribe today.

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