The American West in Hot Springs
Several weeks ago, my girlfriend and I took a few days off to celebrate her birthday. We both work customer service jobs (she works at a cute diner; I work at a bookstore and coffee shop), so we wanted to A) get off our feet, and B) interact with as few humans as possible, other than each other. By going to Strawberry Park Hot Springs, we managed to achieve total success.
I’ve been to plenty of hot springs in my life. For a while, I lived in my van and just drove around the Western U.S., hopping from one spring to another. I’ve been to fancy expensive resorts and natural free pools, springs that were pristinely beautiful and others that were full of broken glass and covered in Juggalo graffiti. Never before had I had an experience like we did at Strawberry.
It was perfect.
Strawberry Park Hot Springs is in the mountains outside of Steamboat Springs, in Northern Colorado’s Routt County. Just over three hours from Denver, it’s easily accessible, yet it feels like a world apart. For three days we stayed in a one-room dry cabin, cooked our food on a grill on the porch, read books, and played Scrabble. Whenever we felt like it we wandered down to jump in the hot pools or the just-melted creek. The only thing that could have made the trip more enjoyable and flawless would have been if I hadn’t been quite so hung over the second morning, but that was my own damn fault.
Of course, all of this just made me think about all the other hot springs adventures I’ve been on, most of which involved a significantly higher level of chaos. Here are some highlights:
The Time Ilana Glazer Saw Me Naked
While the majority of hot springs in Colorado have an entry fee, most springs in Utah, where I grew up, are free. My consistent favorite was always Fifth Water Hot Springs. At just over an hour from Salt Lake City, it made for a pretty great day trip. About once every week or two, a bunch of us punks would pile in a couple of cars and drive south then up into the mountains. This was usually on a weekday, when there would be less people around. We were all questionably employed at best. We had time to spare. We’d hike the two or three miles through the forest and spend the rest of the day naked, in nice hot water, smoking cigarettes and drinking cheap booze. It was wonderful.
One day in early spring or late fall (there was snow on the ground as I recall), five or six of us were up there hanging out, telling jokes, and eating a picnic of things we had pulled out of the Whole Foods dumpster. We were drinking Portuguese green wine on the suggestion of my friend Marcos. Those that smoked cannabis were passing around a spliff. All was right in the world. We had the whole place to ourselves.
Then, a party of three appeared on the trail, hiking toward us. We worried that they were either cops or Brigham Young University students who would be disgusted by all the things we thought were fun.
I didn’t chill out until one of them, a pretty lady with dark curly hair and a red Baywatch-style swimsuit, nodded toward the weed and asked if she could hit it.
I turned to my friend Callan and whispered, “Do we know her? Was she at a party with us recently or something?”
“Dude,” Callan said, “That’s Ilana Glazer.”
I gave her a blank look.
“From Broad City.”
Everybody played it real cool. I let her pet my dog, made the usual where-are-you-from, what-brings-you-out-this-way conversation. That sort of thing. None of us mentioned that we’d seen every episode of her Comedy Central show.
It wasn’t until the sun was going down and my crew was all packed up and ready to go that I dug around in my backpack and came up with a couple battered issues of my zine.
I turned to Ilana, not quite finding the guts to achieve full eye contact.
I said, “I’m a huge fan of your work. I’m a writer too, and, uh, here’s some of my stuff.”
I pushed the folded and stapled paper into her hands, and she — God bless her — managed to smile and say “thank you.”
My email address was printed in the back of those zines, but for some unfathomable reason she has never hit me up.
Punching Racist Homophobes in the Face
For a brief period of time, I played rhythm guitar in a surf/garage band with the most unfortunate name: The Brains that Wouldn’t Die. We never recorded anything, and we only played a handful of shows, but for some reason we got invited to perform at some rockabilly band’s album release party in Boise. What else was there to do? We loaded up our gear and pointed ourselves toward Idaho.
Every time I’ve ever been to Boise it’s been a wild experience. To be totally honest, my recollection of the whole trip is pretty hazy. I do remember pouring gin into a cup of Mountain Dew Baja Blast at Taco Bell (don’t try it). I also remember going to Skinny Dipper Hot Springs.
It was after the show, maybe two or three in the morning. My friend Bryce, who lives in Boise, was hanging out with us, and we decided that a hot soak was just what we needed. After a drive of indeterminable length and a steep hike, we found ourselves at the pools.
The only other people there were this wasted couple who seemed incapable of shutting the fuck up. This white dude kept saying “faggot” and the n-word. The one black person in our group tried to very patiently explain why that wasn’t cool, but the concept just wouldn’t sink in.
Finally Bryce lost his patience.
He said, “There’s at least one faggot in this hot spring that wants to kick your ass.”
The dude stood up out of the water, acting all scary and aggressive. Bryce backhand slapped him. He fell down on the rocks, but jumped back up with his fist raised. Bryce immediately popped him in the face and broke his nose. There was blood everywhere. The guy and his girlfriend started crying.
We counseled him to stay out of the water and to get to a hospital as soon as either of them sobered up enough to drive.
We got the fuck out of there.
The sun was coming up as we drove down the canyon and back toward town. We knew it was fucked up of us, but we couldn’t stop giggling.
Three or four days later, when I was back home, Bryce called me. His husband worked at the county jail and looked at his phone every morning to see who had been checked in the night before. He wanted to see what he’d be dealing with so he could mentally gear up for the day. And whose mug shot had shown up? None other than the racist homophobe’s from Skinny Dipper Hot Springs, his nose still broken, his face bruised and swollen.
This Part is Actually More a Story about Going to Las Vegas than it is about Hot Springs.
Way out in Utah’s West Desert, in the buttfuck middle of what might as well be Nevada, is Baker Hot Springs. It’s a ways outside a cool little redneck town called Delta and right next to the geographically beautiful Topaz Mountain, which was the site of a Japanese Internment Camp during WWII.
Again, a few of us had some days off work and nowhere to be really. Between us we probably had about $50, but the gas tank in my van was three-quarters full. I’ve found that most of the time that’s all you really need. So we went, drove some hours, listened to some tapes, soaked. At some point a redheaded naked man wandered out of the brush. He was covered in mud.
He yelled, “My name is Bigfoot, and I’m on eleven hits of acid!”
There’s less to the story of our Bigfoot sighting than you might think. It turned out he was your run-of-the-mill PTSD-afflicted desert rat. Nice guy. It’s likely that he gifted us some sort of crystals or gemstones.
After a while, we decided to leave. There was a punk show we wanted to catch in SLC, and if we hustled, we’d just make it for the last band.
Of course, we were out of gas. At a gas station, the fifty bucks we had got us most of what we needed, but there wasn’t quite enough fuel to get us home.
But it was a problem with an easy solution.
Back in those days, almost nothing could embarrass me.
I unstrapped the red plastic gas can from my roof rack and marched over to the gas pumps, right up to a man who was filling up his F250.
“Excuse me, sir. I’m trying to make it to Salt Lake. Could you spare a splash or two of gas?”
“Fuck off, hippie,” he said.
I walked back to the van, grabbed my Realtree camouflage baseball cap off the dashboard, slapped it on my noggin, and reapproached the pumps. This time, a woman gave me five gallons, filling up my jug.
The person at the pump next to us heard our conversation and said, “When you’re finished putting that in, why don’t you pull up here and I’ll top you off.”
But I’ll tell you what: you very rarely get anything you don’t ask for.
Heading back to I-15, we saw a sign that said Las Vegas was only 308 miles away.
“Should we?” I asked.
A chorus behind me began chanting, “Fuck it! Fuck it! Fuck it!”
So I turned the van south instead of north.
The time we spent in Las Vegas doesn’t matter so much. It was fun. We spent a couple nights with my friend Noah, who is a kind person and a gracious host. He took us to The Strip, and he took us up into Red Rock Canyon. We begged a lot of people for a lot of gas, and we drove all night on the way back because the most uptight among us insisted that he be to work on time on Monday morning.
The real point is that a hot springs is as good a reason as any — better than most — to get you moving in some weird direction. And who knows what even weirder direction you’ll move from there?
Additional Hot Spring Highlights
1. Las Vegas, New Mexico. I call this the Real Las Vegas. There is very little on the stretch of I-25 between Trinidad, CO and Santa Fe, NM. The hot springs in Montezuma canyon are easy to get to and make for a free and pleasant creekside soak.
2. Black Rock Hot Springs, Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico. The area around Taos is the most magical place in the world, and these springs are right next to the roiling black-green waters of the Rio Grande. I come back to them again and again. Look out, though. They can be on the sketchy side. A band I was in had a tour stop in Arroyo Seco, so we chilled at Black Rock during the day, and our drummer’s phone got stolen out of the pocket of his jeans while he was soaking. Bummer.
3. Terwilliger Hot Springs, Eugene, Oregon. The views are even better than the name.
4. Slab City, California. Just up the road from Leonard Knight’s famous Salvation Mountain, this pool sort of serves as a community bath. If this sounds gross to you, you’re right. But boy does it feel good to wash off the party vomit and desert sand.
5. Meadow Hot Springs, Meadow, Utah. The water is so deep that people sometimes bring their scuba gear. Also, I lost my virginity here.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of other great hot springs in the West, but you’ll only truly enjoy them if you hunt them down for yourself.
Nathaniel Kennon Perkins is the author of the short story collection The Way Cities Feel to Us Now (Maudlin House, 2019), a short novel, Cactus (Trident Press, 2018), and the ongoing literary zine series, Ultimate Gospel. His creative work has appeared in Triquarterly, the Philadelphia Secret Admirer, Timber Journal, and others. He is the recipient of the High Country News’s 2014 Bell Prize. He lives in Boulder, CO, where he works as a bookseller and runs Trident Press. www.nathanielkennonperkins.com