When we first visited Balmorhea, it was like the start of this video – we were crossing the blasted desert looking at the red tornados of dust devils. Suddenly, there was a dive shop, and then the incredible pool of San Solomon Springs.
I wrote in July of 2000:
We drove the Interstate to Pecos and then turned south towards the distant blue wiggly line of the Davis Mountains. Watching the mountains grow, we drove through the most isolated and blasted looking territory yet. Nick and Lee were delighted by the enormous dust devils that the sun spawned across the desiccated fields. Looking like brick-red tornadoes these wandered across the flatlands. We drove through one and it was powerful enough to worry me about the trailer pulling behind, but it only gave the van a good shove and didn’t cause any real problems.
It was an easy drive and by mid-afternoon we arrived at Balmorhea. The park there is an oasis in the desert edged up against the foothills of the Davis Mountains. The rain that falls in the highlands percolates down and emerges from an artesian spring, cold and clear. Back in the thirties, the government took the wild spring and built a gigantic Y-shaped concrete swimming pool. The parks boasts the swimming pool, a nice little hotel, a recently constructed desert wetlands – the San Solomon springs Cienega (labor supplied by the Texas Department of Corrections) that provides habitat for two endangered species of tiny fish( the Comanche Springs Pupfish and the Pecos Gambusa), and a loop of nice little campsites each with its own quaint little fake-adobe shelter.
I had one of the most frightening experiences of my life the next day at that pool in Balmorhea.
From my journal, July 3, 2000:
We came back down to Balmorhea in the late afternoon and decided to go swimming. We talked to Lee about his fear of the fish in the pool and, as I suspected, it was mostly that he was tired and hungry yesterday. Some rest and some food and he was ready to hit the water.
He didn’t really do any swimming. What he preferred to do was to put on his goggles and stretch across his inflatable inner tube and let me swim and pull the tube around the big pool. He’d take a deep breath and stick his head into the water and look at the bottom. The pool is very large and there was a lot to look at. He would have requests like, “Swim me over to that end,” or “let’s go out to the deep part,” and I’d oblige. He’d plunge his face and come up with a report of what he saw: a school of fish, or some rocks, or a turtle, or a place where some kids had inscribed their names into the algae growing on the bottom.
After the crowded holiday that day before, only a handful of swimmers and some scuba divers were there. As I pulled Lee around Nick dove off the high board and swam until it was his turn. Lee wrapped in a towel and walked back to the campsite. Nicholas put on his goggles and I started swimming him around on his tube. We went into the deep end to try and spot the place where the copious flow of water erupted in a bed of white bubbling sand.
We came up against the stairs on the far side. I was getting tired and cold, the spring water is very chilly, it was late, I’d been swimming a long time and it was taking its toll. I asked Nick if we should walk back, around the pool or swim across. We did have his inner tube – I felt confident we could make it across one more time. We decided to swim. It was a mistake.
Nick looped his goggles around one shoulder and took hold of one side of the tube while I grabbed the other and we started to swim. Not too far from the side, but at the deepest part, maybe thirty feet deep, Nick called out, “Oh, oh, there go my goggles.” In retrospect I should have let them sink; but I took a big gulp of air and took off underwater, diving as deep and as quickly as I could. Maybe twenty feet down I saw a sinking orange blur, frog-kicked over to the goggles and grabbed them. Then I swam back up to the surface.
When you start reaching well into your forties, like I am, there is a fundamental change in the relationship between you and your body. What has been a good friend over the years, a partner, something you are… well, attached to – suddenly turns traitor. Abilities you have taken for granted for decades disappear. No one tells you about this. As a youth I could swim underwater with the ease and comfort of walking across a field. I took this for granted, the ability to hold my breath, come up for air and refresh myself. I discovered tired, and cold, and old, and fat… this is no longer true.
When I came up and handed Nicholas his goggles and put one hand on the inner tube and started kicking and swimming I realized that I was not going to be able to catch my breath. It came on with awful speed. No matter how hard I tried, my breathing became more and more labored, shallower, moving my arms and legs in the cold spring water was becoming extremely difficult.
It was horrifying.
With amazing clarity of thought, I knew I was not going to drown. I did have that inner tube for a float, even though I was rapidly becoming so weak I could barely hold on to it. There were some scuba divers in the pool that had finished diving and were sitting on the steps talking over the day’s sights and I knew I could call to them and they would haul me out of the pool. I came within a hair’s breadth of doing that.
The main fear I had was I thought I might be having a heart attack. I had never felt like this before. There was no pain, but I simply could not breathe, I could not get enough oxygen into my body to keep my arms and legs moving.
I don’t know what Nicholas thought, holding on to the other side of the inner tube, my son’s face only a few inches from mine. I must have scared him a little because I know I was flopping more than I should, trying to hook my arm into the tube and was unable to get it done. I didn’t want to frighten him unnecessarily so I kept my rising fears to myself.
Slowly, we continued to move across the wide pool, and finally I was able to reach down with a toe and touch the bottom. That didn’t help as much as you’d think because I was too weak to stand in the water and the energy used to hop and get my face above water made my breathing more impossible. Finally, the floor became shallower and shallower and before I knew it I was on the steps.
I released the tube and the brisk wind blew it away. “Could somebody get that please,” I asked, and a scuba diver caught it with a couple strong sure strokes and brought it back to me.
I didn’t have to sit beside the pool for very long before I felt fine. The fear and panic quickly drained away and left me with a slight elation even though I was still a little tired. I told Nicholas to take his towel and walk back to the popup at the campsite, I’d catch up in a minute.
Looking back on it now, I realize what I was feeling, in addition to simple exhaustion, was hypothermia. The spring water was cold and I had been in it for hours. There had been no pain, but I had felt a thin sliver away from death.
Walking slowly back to the camp, enjoying the last purple glow of the set sun, following the channels that the water followed as it coursed out of the pool, roaring down the irrigation ditches on out of the park, I felt fine. But the memory of those minutes of fear, the feeling of helplessness and drowning, are still with me. I had never felt like that before and I don’t look forward to feeling like that again.