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HIT THE ROAD

Don’t Forget to Look Down

At Balmorhea, the first jump is the deepest

My fingers wrap around the railing of the high board platform a little tighter, and my toes dig in until they turn white, as if they can anchor me to the fiberglass board. My friend Annie watches from the sweet sanctuary of the concrete sidewalk below and offers up encouragement.

“JUMP!”

Easy for her to say. Let’s put this in perspective: The spring-fed pool at Balmorhea (pronounced bal-mor-Ay) State Park—a lush oasis nestled in the foothills of the Davis Mountains in the otherwise sparse and dusty, shrub-filled far West Texas desert—is not just any pool. The board is almost 10 feet above the water, which is an unbelievably clear, crystalline, aquamarine blue that allows you to see all the way to the bottom. How deep? Seemingly infinitely deep. It’s the darn Great Abyss.

Through the pristine waters, I can see tiny and big rocks, some weighing 300 pounds, lining the pool’s bottom. I can see little fish swimming lackadaisically, blissfully unaware of the human jumper about to invade their space. I can see the grate on the pool bottom directly underneath the diving board, creating the illusion that I’m about to jump into the center of the Earth. I must be nuts!

OK, I tell myself. You can do this.

I let go of the railing. I take a deep breath, hold my nose and leap … into what instantly becomes my favorite place in Texas. What was I so afraid of? As soon as I break the surface, plunging into the 17-foot-deep water beneath the board, I know: I’m hooked. What a rush!

The pool—25 feet at its deepest point—is by far the park’s main attraction, drawing 250,000 visitors annually. Outflow from the San Solomon Springs, a system of eight to 10 springs that bubbles up in the pool’s depths, keeps the water a refreshing 74 to 76 degrees year-round. Even during drought, approximately 20 million gallons of water flow daily through the pool and out to canals that irrigate area farms and replenish the park’s desert wetland and nearby Balmorhea Lake.

Because of its incredible clarity, scuba divers and snorkelers from all over the world travel to this Chihuahuan Desert oasis to explore and check out the aquatic life, including two types of tiny endangered fish: the Pecos Gambusia, which helps keep the mosquito population in check by eating the insects’ larvae; and the Comanche Springs Pupfish (which nibbled on my toes) that’s found only in spring-fed waters near Balmorhea.

The pool was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935, along with a limestone concession building, two wooden bathhouses (now cinderblock), an adobe superintendent’s residence and the San Solomon Courts, an early “modern-day” motel that was our home for two days. RV hookups and primitive camping sites are also available.

With pruny fingers and toes after swimming, Annie and I made our way back to our charming room for dinner. (We had made sure to book one with a kitchen—and to load up with groceries before the trip.) We fired up the barbecue pit, threw on some burgers, and dined in the serene twilight.

In the morning we visited the cienega, the re-creation of a desert wetland, and serenity segued to a symphony provided by coots, swallows and other birds hiding out in the cattails. The desert wetland also supports a wide variety of aquatic life, including catfish, the Mexican tetra fish and the Texas spiny softshell turtle, which can be observed from the viewing deck or by walking down a ramp and peering through a viewing glass built beneath the water’s level.

As we left, we stopped by the headquarters building to view the many photos and memorabilia of the park’s construction and early days. We said goodbye to Office Manager Brenda Iniguez, who has been plunging into these spring-fed waters since childhood and now brings her kids here. “We LOVE to go swimming in the winter,” she says with a smile. “Just remember to bring warm clothes. It’s warm when you’re in the water, but when you get out …”

Guess I know when my next trip will be. Balmorhea 2012 or bust! Next time, I’ll remember my goggles.

——————– 

Ashley Clary-Carpenter, field editor