FREE-SIDIN’ BARTON SPRINGS
Not a scent of Nag Champa. Or of patchouli. We were walking past the soccer fields and the great ‘Mother Pecan,’ known to all hippies as the “Monkey Tree.” Drum circles, incense, and dances will abound tomorrow underneath that pecan tree. But tonight, on a Saturday night, in Austin, it was just us three. A suburban family walking up the sidewalk carrying around our own fragrance, a scent of freedom, of peace and love, at Barton Springs.
You could hear my son’s sandals clapping against his heels and the concrete, happily on beat, like someone clicking the roof of the mouth with the tongue. The clicks slowed. Then stopped. I saw the pages taped to the kiosks flapping up and down in the breeze. We stood, mouths open, by the locked gate in front of Barton Springs. We dropped our bag with our speaker and snacks, and our purple and yellow towels fell out. POOL CLOSED. Written in red. The color of finality. I could picture an Expo Marker in the fist of the hand of a lifeguard as he pressed down hard, like he was carving letters into a tree with a knife, almost tearing the paper with its wet, red ink. I rattled the bars of the fence, myself, just to get out a little frustration. Closed due to the rains the prior week. But I was in a pickle. A common pickle for parents. How do you save a day? An outing that fizzles out like broken neon, like a dreaded ‘CLOSED’ sign flashing in front of your face? You tell your kid you’re going swimming or somewhere fun, only to arrive and wham! The place is closed. What do you do? Get back in the car with all those faces of disappointment in the rearview, your kid looking out the window in the back seat? No way. My sandals started to lightly clap again, in a pitter-patter, the soft claps of patas picking up speed. I pulled out my little solar lantern and walked down the sidewalk by the fence like a pioneer walking to the barn at night. The silhouettes! O, the rows of cottonwoods in the moonlight! And below, I could see all of the secret lovers, too, lying together on blankets in between the bushes whispering kisses and pledges, I’m sure. I know that’s what I’d be doing, and I smiled to myself.
I read the info centers about Bedichek and Dobie and Billy Barton, the original owner of the Springs. And, of course, the icemaker, Andrew Zilker. My wife and son were getting bored, so I stopped reading and said, “Let’s walk and see what we can find.” Instantly, my son winced. He soured on hiking a long time ago. I can’t blame him. But I wanted to get moving. We hiked with our bags and beach towels, my son’s swim trunks still dry.
I asked my wife, “Hey, have you ever been here before?”
“No, I haven’t,” she said.
It was terribly dark, but I just followed the treeline until I saw a large patch of grassless dirt. “Hey, is this the way down to the other side of Barton Springs?” I asked.
“I think it is.”
I ventured down stepping over swarming roots that looked like legs of squid with my lantern light. The boughs of the trees seemed to spiral in a circle into a black tunnel for us to walk through. I turned back to check on my family under the haze of the lantern light. I could hear the water rushing out of the chutes behind me.
“This is it!” I exclaimed.
Two ladies with their dogs were heading out. We stepped aside so they could pass. I told my son to go ahead and walk down to the famous ‘free-side’ of Barton Springs. He stepped down onto the concrete beach and gazed at the famous spillway. We had it all to ourselves.
“Get in, man!”
“What are you waiting for?”
My son had his Pacer Test in football the previous day and he was sore. 81 sit-ups, he said. He took his time to tip-toe in, but in he went. He took a seat in the water and iced down his sore muscles with swirls of cold water from the spillway. I gave him the lantern so he could play with the light and peer underwater for rocks and fish and uncover his own mysteries.
My wife and I spread out a blanket. We lounged on the beach and talked, listening to night sounds and the rapid water. And we just took in all of the mystique of the dark, purple night, under moonlight, on the other side of the fence, on the free-side of Barton Springs.