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Balmorhea 1

Whether they are classified as arroyos, oases, wadis, tinajas, cienegas, step-wells or swimming holes, collections of fresh water in arid lands — however fleeting they may be — possess an air of holiness, the abundance of life-giving liquid radiating with metaphysical fertility when surrounded by miles of dry earth. Among such human-made temples of Dihydrogen monoxide, the San Solomon Springs of Balmorhea, Texas,  stands as one of the most opulent — though little-known outside of Texas — in all of the American Southwest [1]

Balmorhea is a small town on the great high-desert grasslands of Far West Texas, an outpost of some 527 people that sits just a few miles south of Interstate 10 between Ft. Stockton and Van Horn. The abundant springs were discovered by enterprising Anglos in the early part of the 20th century; the founding of the town Balmorhea quickly followed in 1906. While the exotic nature of the town’s name — pronounced Bal-mor-ay — suggests the stuff of Native American ghost stories (or Western-Gothic instrumental music), its origin is far more mundane. As the story goes, the three land developers responsible for luring settlers to this remote desert oasis could not decide upon a name for their holdings and, as the great-grandson of E.D. Balcome tells Texas Escapes:

According to my father, the name of the town was suggested during a dispute between my great-grandfather, Mr. Morrow and the Rhea brothers by the conductor of the train they were riding on. What little I know of my ancestor and those that joined with him in the venture is indicative that certainly none of them possessed such creativity.

These developers were hardly the first to have discovered these artesian springs, of course. They were previously known as Mescalero Springs, for the Jumano and Mescalero Indians that made use of the water for various agricultural projects. Following that Mexican farmers gave them the name San Solomon Springs. [2]

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The 22-28 million gallons of water that this artesian spring produces on a daily basis collects into a massive 77,053 square foot pool [3]; two long rectangular sections extend from the main circular swimming pond. One of the extensions features a concrete bottom and is shallow enough for children. The rest of the pool ranges from five to 25-feet deep, and the water is clear down to the bottom. A pair of goggles reveals  Mexican tetras, lone Channel catfish, the occasional crawdad and Comanche Springs Pupfish and Pecos Gambusia, both endangered.  The surface is broken by large Texas Spiny Softshell Turtles coming up for air, and by the bubbles discharged by scuba divers [4] exploring the clumps of Chara algae that wave lazily down in the rocky depths [5]. The water temperature ranges from 72-76 degrees Fahrenheit, year round.

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The pool is surrounded by Spanish-style adobe and stone architecture constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late ’30s and early ’40s. The ideology behind the CCC projects fosters a populist utopia here on weekends: Stone shelters and adobe dining halls are full of families celebrating birthdays and reunions, children running over the grass while their parents throw footballs and keep watch on the grills. The water is full of waders staying cool, wandering in the shallows, or splashing about on fluorescent foam water noodles. People stand in a short line to do jackknifes and cannonballs off the high dive. Others roast their backs in the West Texas sun, tracking schools of fish and exhaling through snorkels.

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Weekdays are a different matter: The pool is deserted, and once one becomes accustomed to the nibbling teeth of the Mexican tetras, it’s possible to float quietly for hours, drifting aimlessly amidst the reflected clouds hanging in the sky up above.

NOTES:

[1] Technically speaking, the San Solomon Springs are part of Balmorhea State Park, which is located in the neighboring town of Toyahvale, TX. Though with a shrinking population — 60 people at the 2000 census — travelers are advised to follow road signs to Balmorhea when seeking these waters.

[2] “San Solomon Springs,” The Handbook of Texas

[3] Balmorhea State Park, Texas Parks and Wildlife

[4] “San Solomon Springs,” Dive Training Magazine

[5] “San Solomon Springs, Balmorhea, TX” from The Encyclopedia Earth

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