Hot Spring Nation
As Sue and I relaxed in the mineral spring water hot tub at an RV park outside of Palm Springs, California, the thought occurred to me that we are experiencing a different Palm Springs than what attracted Bob Hope, Dean Martin and Zsa Zsa Gabor to this desert hideaway 120 miles from Los Angeles.
The thermal water source may be the same, but I doubt that Bob, Dean or Zsa Zsa ever shared their tubs with a dozen Canadian-winter refugees. And, if they did, the Canadians in question were likely buff, tanned, blonde and nearly-naked, not doughy, sunstroked, bald and, thankfully, somewhat clothed like our companions.
While the authentic Palm Springs experience was not to be found at the RV park, several months earlier we were fortunate enough to have experienced the authenticity of another hot spring, that being the curative waters at Hot Springs National Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Mineral-laden waters have been big business since man first discovered natural springs seeping from the ground. From the Romans to Ponce de Leon, baths have spurred civilization and exploration. In America from the 1800’s to the end of World War II, Hot Springs, Arkansas was ground zero for those in need of hot water and high society. Conditions such as lumbago, consumption, gout and melancholy that we now treat with opioids, antibiotics and antidepressants were battled with weeks-long regimens of baths, massages and a liberal dose of humiliation.
Whether the “patient” was a captain of industry, a gangster, a professional ball player or a politician, the regimen never varied. No matter who you were, the waters at Hot Springs were the answer to whatever ailed you. They were the CBD oil of their day, and even more expensive.
Eager to be cured of whatever ailed us, Sue and I entered a Bathhouse that was built in 1912, with not a thing done to it since. We selected the complete package of services, because if we were going to be cured, we were going to be completely cured. We then received our commemorative loofah mitts and headed off to our respective bath areas. Modesty between the sexes was as important in 1912 as it is today at an authentic Hot Springs bathhouse.
Bathhouse modesty within the sexes, however, was as unimportant in 1912 as it is in modern times. This was not some frilly downtown day spa experience. This was a medical treatment. Stripped of clothes and dignity, I wrapped myself in a 30-thread count, whitish sheet and proceeded to the bath area.
I was directed to a Babe Ruthian-sized clawfoot tub that had just been scrubbed down with Comet, Bonami or some other non-Ajax, Ajax-like powder cleanser. At the far end of the tub stood what looked like a stainless steel 1920’s outboard motor. I believe silent film star Mary Pickford was the original celebrity endorser for this massive hydrotherapy water pump.
After twenty minutes of desperately trying to keep my head above swirling waters, the attendant took my commemorative loofah mitt, loaded it with hospital-grade disinfectant soap and scrubbed me so thoroughly as to bring into question the precise language of the release form Sue and I signed prior to entering this establishment.
In quick succession came the “Sitz” bath, a small sitting tub containing just enough hot spring water to parboil one’s nether-regions and the “Needle shower”, so named for its needle-like jets of water. In 1912, the many jets targeted the entire body. One hundred and seven years and many mineral/non-Ajax cleaner clogs later, the only working jets hit my eyes, mouth, ears and little else. Andy Dufresne had an easier time during his delousing at Shawshank prison than I had in the needle shower.
Thankfully, next came a massage. Over the years, I have purchased many Groupon discount massages. The best of these featured hot stones, scented oils and piped-in sounds of beating butterfly wings to soothe the body and the mind. It is a place to which I tried to retreat from the smells of disinfectant and the refrains of “Dropkick me Jesus through the goalpost of life” as the masseuse hummed-sang along to the music playing on his clock radio.
When Sue and I walked away from the Bathhouse, I tried to gauge her experience in the women’s wing. Ours was a conversation that would have been familiar to couples on that very street over a century ago. “Did they,” I warily started to ask before I caught the look in Sue’s eyes and realized that complete and utter silence was in order.
Some may question why Hot Springs, Arkansas is a National Park, alongside the likes of Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion and the Grand Canyon. But, within this park lies a history worth saving, and if brave enough, experiencing, not only of the hot springs, which are rightly protected, but of the Bathhouse industry that filled a gap before modern medicine supposedly caught up to the diseases and conditions that afflict us.
As to whether the waters of Hot Springs offered cures for the various ailments its bathers suffered, there certainly were fewer complaints, presumably due to fear of being prescribed another round of treatment.
“Dispatches from the RV” documents the traveling adventures of Daniel Island News Publisher Suzanne Detar and her husband, Tom Werner, who are currently exploring the country in a motorhome. Last fall, they hit the road to take in an inner loop of the USA, and this year they are focusing on an outer loop, including America’s national parks and all the concurrent and surprising sites along the way.