Wabi-Sabi Journeys
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Wabi-Sabi Journeys

Eat, Nap, Soak…(But Mostly Soak)

There is a ritual in taking a soak. First, you brace for the sting of warm water, at the opposite end of the temperature scale but similar in sensation to diving into an ice-cold lake. Th en, you make a slow, incremental descent, with the inevitable inhalation — an “ahhhhhhhh!” — sound, followed by the release — “oooohhhh” — as you immerse up to your neck.

The water’s heat has a way of taking charge, pushing all irrelevant thoughts to the backroom of the brain, as you focus on the here and now. You must breathe slowly and deeply. Soak for a while and you’ll feel the tightness in your body dissipate, muscle by muscle. You may feel heavy … or light. Whatever you feel, it is good.

I’d never heard of Pagosa Springs, Colorado, until my husband and I spent a week there last fall. We needed a break from work, chores and myriad “to-do” lists. We wanted to hike, ride horses in the mountains, read, nap … and soak.

Pagosa Springs lies in southwest Colorado, nestled in the San Juan Mountains and surrounded by 3 million acres of national forest. At an altitude of 7,000 feet, it might take a day to adjust, but when you do you’ll find it’s not as cutesy as Breckenridge, glitzy as Vail or star-struck as Aspen (in fact, it’s more of an anti-Aspen).

The heart of Pagosa Springs is the Great Pagosa Hot Spring. You can’t sit in it (at 144 degrees, you’d fry), but it branches off into a number of smaller springs and supplies a source for the town’s geothermal heating system. The springs were considered sacred waters by the Ute tribe (Pag-Osah, place of healing and peace), and the Ute and Navajo tribes clashed over possession of the springs. The federal government eventually took possession (no surprise) and deeded it to private citizens (white, of course). The first public bathhouse was constructed in 1881, but major developments have come only in the last few decades.

Pick a Spring

For the tourist, Pagosa Springs offers several springs from which to choose. The Spa Motel has indoor pools for naked soaking if you prefer (separate for men and women), plus an outdoor couple’s pool (bathing suit required). The Spa Motel has a funky feel, and some locals claim it as more “authentic.”

The most recent soak spot is the Overlook Hot Springs Spa, in the middle of downtown, with rooftop tubs, splendid views, on-site massages and a “private-tub” option.

But we were seduced by The Springs Resort. Visualize 23 rocksoaking pools, all different sizes, holding from two to 15 people each, nestled along the San Juan River. Some are perched on a cliff terrace, others at river’s edge. Pool temperatures vary from a bathtub 95 degrees to a decent soak temperature of 105 to the blistering Lobster Pot (my husband’s favorite) at 114 degrees. The pools — each with its own name — are open to the public from early morning to late night (1 a.m. on weekends). The Springs is also a spa resort, with lodging options from budget to the luxury suites of the brand-new and greener-than-green Eco-Luxe hotel — and all lodging includes 24-hour access for guests to the springs.

Almost all locals have an annual pass to The Springs spa pools, and tourists not staying at the resort will find the weekly pass (beginning at $65 for the first adult) the best bargain. Book a massage at the spa and springs admission is included.

There is a metallic smell, soft rather than intrusive, around the springs due to the high mineral content of the water (potassium, magnesium, silicon, iron, lithium, zinc to name a few), the “healing properties” of which are absorbed through the skin. Minerals aside, a soak makes everything feel better.

Beyond Soaking

Each season at Pagosa Springs offers its own attractions.

Winter (which can last six-plus months) activities mostly begin with “s”: skiing, snowboarding, skating, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, sledding, sleigh riding, shopping. Plus, of course, soaking. With Wolf Creek Ski Area just outside town and more than 38 feet of average snowfall, the area never requires the artificial stuff and is an all-natural playground. Ponds are cleared and maintained for ice skating the old-fashioned way (and for free, though you might wish to rent skates) once the ice is 4 inches deep. Nordic skiing is popular, with more than 50 miles of groomed trails.

Late spring, summer and early fall activities are diverse: hiking, fabulous fishing, trail riding, biking, golf (27-hole course), ATV-ing, hunting and rafting. Float down a river in an inner tube. Take a hot air balloon ride over the mountains. Read in the crisp mountain air (which is different than reading in the flatlands). Sit on a blanket overlooking a heart-mending A River Runs Through It valley and let your mind go still.

The annual turning of the aspens is a statewide activity, with aspen websites and aspen alerts on the evening television news. This is also an ideal season for hiking. Trails are clearly marked with helpful descriptive guides taking you through aspens, along rivers, up mountains (well, not really “up” very much). We did a half-day horseback ride with Crazy Horse Outfitters that provided splendid vistas about 20 miles outside Pagosa Springs.

Back to the Dry Life

On our last night at The Springs, we went out for one final night soak. We walked, bathrobes wrapped around wet bathing suits, to our favorite pools: Waterfall, Tranquility, Serendipity and Cozy Cove. In the day, you can see the mountains, people strolling downtown, men fishing in the river below. Conversation flows easily among strangers. Groups of friends or large extended families come to soak together, and laughter drifts across the water. But at night there is a quiet that comes with the darkness, and soaks feel more private — sensuous yet meditative.

We sat in the pool, steam rising into the night, under a globe of white moon, immersed, wishing that “Let’s soak” could be a part of our daily conversation.

And since it can’t, at least not now, we expect we’ll be making an annual pilgrimage to Pagosa Springs.

This article was originally published in Lawrence Magazine in 2011.

The photo featured in this article was taken by Susan Kraus. Please do not repost without permission.

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Susan Kraus

Susan Kraus

Novelist. Therapist. Mediator. Genre-bender. Tenaciously curious. Travel writer. — susankraus.com & mediationmakessense.com