Below the waterline, the silence was even more hushed. Though only 80 feet in diameter at top, the space seemed vast, and empty. The few other divers were mere silhouettes.
I sunk slowly to the bottom, as the gray sky began to recede and the shale bottom crept closer. The 360 degrees of serrated rock, forming alien faces in its crags, made me miss the soft seagrass and white sand of the Caribbean, but seeing the goldfish so at home cheered me.
At the Blue Hole in Santa Rosa, N.M., divers swim 80 feet down year-round.
The Blue Hole is shaped like a soda bottle, and when I reached the widest point (130 feet) my right foot seemed lighter than usual: a lost fin, dropped somewhere near the faux tombstone of Joe Cool, who "went down so long, he turned cold and blue." I glided past the cover that marks the spot where divers in the 1970s entered a web of caves that runs south, all the way to Texas. After a number of deaths, the city sealed the entry but kept the Blue Hole open -- 24 hours a day, year-round. Indeed, popular times to dive here are nighttime, when you can lie on the bottom and gaze up at the moon and stars, and wintertime, when snowflakes fall silently onto the surface before melting away.
Circling around to the opposite wall, I went to see what Mitch and Cathy had to say. The two had scribbled their names on the rock face using a remarkably waterproof marker. Then I realized I wasn't alone: SpongeBob SquarePants was grinning at me like an idiot. He's part of the Toy Museum, a collection of diver-donated baubles also known as the Golf Store, Golf Course and Toy Store (no one can agree on a moniker). It included an odd assortment of golf balls, candy-colored toys nudged into the hard crannies, an eerie skull (maybe Joe Cool?) and the porous cartoon figure.
Just as I was trying to read the museum sign -- something about please don't remove the items but feel free to add to the collection -- my air gauge hit the danger zone. I had to ascend, before I too turned blue, from lack of oxygen.
Whereas most popular diving areas like Bonaire and Belize cater to visitors with dressing rooms, concession stands and other amenities that make the water-to-turf transition easier, Blue Hole is quite primitive. A two-room "scuba center" has hard concrete floors, space heaters and a pot of coffee brewed by Stella, who runs the slipshod dive shop. (The town plans to build a respectable facility within the next two years.)
Albuquerque is only 117 miles away, but divers must wait at least a couple of hours before driving back, as the combination of Santa Rosa's 4,620 elevation and the high-altitude commute can cause the life-threatening "bends." Fortunately, Santa Rosa has a history of tending to travelers who are hungry, too hot or too cold, overtired and in dire need of not moving a muscle.
"Santa Rosa used to be an accident stop for people going east to west and west to east," said Mayor Joe Campos, who was making an appearance at his Route 66-era restaurant, Joseph's. "They had to come through here. But now it's becoming a destination."
More than a quarter-century ago, Santa Rosa was a refueling stop for cross-country travelers whose cars were set on autopilot, Route 66 or bust. The iconic Chicago-to-California road was rerouted in 1938, and one portion is now the four-mile strip that slices through Santa Rosa's modest commerce center and parallels the busier interstate. Part of the original Mother Road still zigzags like a drunken sailor through town; one section dead-ends in a neighbor's yard, another rambles through the desert, then pops up as an airport runway. But the main stretch is where dog-tired travelers -- or divers -- can find comfort, and a taste of America's past.
"We wanted to see Middle America and the little places like this one that are fading away and becoming ghost towns," said Alex DuComb, 38, an East Coast traveler who was dining on Mexican food at Joseph's. "This is a vibrant city, just judging by the businesses and restaurants that are open and the number of local license plates in the parking lot."