FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES, MARCH 19, 2009
I WAS conceived into water. This doesn’t occur to me as a conscious thought so much as a body memory while I lie incubating, and shriveling, in a hole of thermal spring water on a high desert plain in eastern California.
But the experience sure seems womblike. Before me, the Sierra Nevada’s jagged crest looms naked and raw, as I no doubt appear in the tub. A breeze blows across yellow-tipped rabbitbrush, cooling my exposed shoulders. There are no other human beings around — none to warn about the dangers of overexposure, none to take my money — so into the soothing water I freely sink, my limbs spread open to a cloudless sky.
Not all hot springs evoke embryonic bliss. Others can be social affairs, resembling a Vegas hotel pool with more sulfur and body hair. Near my home in the San Francisco Bay Area, on occasion, the Pacific tide is low enough to expose a thermal spring trickling into a rocky tub on shore. Experiencing this ephemeral event requires descending a steep, unmarked path from Highway 1, usually at dawn.
The gaggle of bathers that converges there reminds me of those red-faced macaques I’ve seen pictured soaking in snowbound thermal pools in the Japanese Alps — only grooming, as Northern California’s higher primates do, with foot and shoulder massages. If this were New York, the tub might comfortably accommodate 6 strangers, but here, it packs at least 16. Comfort is culturally relative.
I love hot springs like these — undeveloped, natural and free. Nature’s spaamenities are largely immaterial: solitude and human connections, spiritual renewal and priceless views — even adventure. Cheap luxury is undeniably a draw, and when I first dip into a therapeutic spring I usually get giddy, like someone who has found himself and his backpack richly upgraded from a single room into a suite. But the sybaritic appeal goes deeper. The occasionally cramped tubs, the inconvenience of getting to them — these are appropriate compromises for what a pool of thermal water lying bare on the earth’s surface affords: immersion into something ancient and primordial.
The American West is pockmarked with hot springs. Heated by deep magma chambers, much of the water emerges scalding or inaccessible on private property. But in rare instances it arrives at a delightful temperature on scenic public lands where it is available to all comers as a quasi tax return.
My initiation was as a new college graduate on a westward migration. The hot spring, in Oregon, was as much an introduction to West Coast culture as a means to soothe driving-muscle aches. Nude public bathing was foreign to me at the time, but I soon understood that wearing a bathing suit in this kind of spring was like using a fork in an Ethiopian restaurant: culturally awkward, somewhat antisocial and generally antithetical to the underlying idea. The forced intimacy between undressed strangers actually encourages friendly and inspired chatter, as it might between travelers meeting at a remote oasis.
Since I settled in California, books like “Hot Springs and Hot Pools of the Southwest” by Marjorie Gersh-Young and printouts from soak.net have become my faithful road trip companions. (The location of some undeveloped tubs is closely guarded by locals, revealed only after cultural profiling; wearing a fanny pack would probably not help.)
While driving across the desolate Highway 50 through central Nevada, on a trip from San Francisco to Colorado, I was directed down a washboard side road seemingly toward the middle of nowhere. Wild burros grazed in sagebrush. After a cattle guard and a turn, three steaming tubs were suddenly revealed, perched on the edge of the wide, deserted valley with a stunning panorama of the Toiyabe Range. I recall thinking, as a bargain hunter might: Why would anyone ever pay full retail for this? Someone — hot springing has an industrious volunteer subculture — had laid smooth stone seats inside the tubs and wood platforms on the rim. As I settled into the sublimity, my nose picked up a faint whiff of a deer carcass. Or maybe it was a burro. Either way, aromatherapy it was not, but I was hooked.
Every hot spring has its own authenticity, and over time I have developed an appreciation for their diversity of scenes and settings. A spring on the east bank of the Rio Grande, outside Taos, N.M., invites dips in the warm tubs after lazy floats downriver, a cycle I once repeated for hours, until my raisin hands looked like something I should be concerned about.
Just reaching an isolated spring deep in the mountains of Big Sur requires a 10-mile hike through coastal redwoods and chaparral. I visited with my girlfriend; romantic touches — candles left by previous soakers on the mossy ledges of the rock-lined tubs, the babble of an adjacent river — inspired a communion with the surrounding forest.
When possible, I figure hot springs into my travels abroad. Much like, say, birding, visiting hot springs is a conceit for seeing a country off the beaten track, and their universality allows me to transcend the foreignness of a place. Thermal water is comfortable and familiar, even while the geography or culture is not.
The Blue Lagoon in Iceland may be that geothermal hot spot’s most iconic pool of therapeutic water, but my most memorable Icelandic soak was under the dusky midnight sky on rural land owned by a provincial church, which doesn’t make branded anti-aging creams. The only inhabitant around, a half-mile from the unmarked spring, was the pastor himself, who actually lived with a flock of sheep. After my soak, I visited him, and as we spoke he politely excused himself to assist a ewe in labor, which he did successfully, wearing a tweed sport coat.
Paradoxically, it was at a hot spring in one of the most remote and inhospitable parts of the planet where I was made to feel most deeply at home. The Salar de Chalviri, in southwest Bolivia, is a forbidding volcanic region at about 14,000 feet in elevation, where spring water of pleasurable temperature collects in small pools on the rocky, mineral-stained soil. There is a God’s Country quality to the place. When I passed through there one morning on a Jeep tour, the tubs afforded a sanctuary, a geothermal mikva, amid the denuded landscape. The sun’s slanted light mixed with steam rising off the water to produce an ethereal glow, leaving me to bathe soulfully in the gift of creation.