The Springs (ongoing)

I have been swimming at Barton Springs my whole life. Walking distance from my house, it is the spring-fed, crown jewel of Austin, Texas. Its chilly 68º F. temperature makes it an irresistible escape when the muggy summers hit triple digits. 

Despite locals’ desperate pleas to “Keep Austin Weird,” digital tech wealth has replaced the city’s casual small-town feel. Yet, the springs still offer an oasis where tech bros find themselves outnumbered by unashamedly eccentric weirdos. At weekly drum circles, half-naked dancers gyrate to the rhythm of West African djembes and Texas cowbells. Locals dive in for a free dip after 9 pm and howl like wolves and banshees when the moon is full. 

As my city’s tech industry mushrooms, Austin’s old endangered hippies can still be spotted at 5 am, when the unguarded pool opens to “swim at your own risk.” Many old-timers ascribe healing powers to those waters—I am inclined to believe them. Early morning dips do more to relieve my mom’s migraines than Big Pharma’s pills. 

When cold winter nights hit the relatively warm water, an atmospheric fog rises from the springs. As the sunrise projects golden rays through the trees into the fog, it is nothing short of magic. This quiet moment may be the city’s best-kept secret. Few are crazy enough to wake up pre-dawn to brave the cold for this spiritual cleanse.

I didn’t have one dull conversation with the more than 50 people I made portraits of at Barton Springs. Each had a personal relationship with the waters. Like me, many grew up swimming there. Some recalled nearby Austin High School’s 1960 “swim-in” to protest the pool’s segregation. Others laughed as they recalled the mass panic caused by an exposé that toxic runoff had breached the springs. Some celebrated when the pool installed a diving board—or when topless sunbathing was legalized in the ‘80s.

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