Getting into hot water

A mysterious woman’s naked body stands out as one of my earliest memories. Submerged in a steamy current, the bewitching form seemed to bob up and down in the heady water. Naturally, my child eyes were transfixed, following that ship’s progress atop the gentle sea. And then, the vision ended abruptly, as the entire nude shape rose from the inky waters like Venus on the half-shell and vanished into the smoke.

Needless to say, things haven’t been quite the same ever since.

Like all good hippie parents, my dad introduced me to an all-nude hot springs at a young age. A few weeks after my third birthday, he loaded me (sans car seat) into the Volkswagen bus. As I wandered around the back of the bus and he tuned into the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman,” we puttered out of Telluride, over Lizard Head Pass and toward the nearby Dunton Hot Springs. Courtesy of that visit, my eyes met not only Botticelli’s Venus, but a whole sea of naked bodies, all adorned in an excess of mid-1970s hair. Together, we huddled inside what seemed like a cavernous mining shack, immersed in the hot medicinal waters. I alone sported swimwear in the form of a pair of teeny Fruit of the Loom underpants.

I guess it should be no surprise that I’ve been chasing hot springs through life.

Not too long after that landmark visit to Dunton, I was crazed by curiosity. Feeding the itch, I led a group of Telluride pre-teens on a raid of the Boiler Room, an all-nude bathhouse located in the basement of the Sheraton Opera House. Legend held that the Boiler Room’s inside was dressed up like a Sultan’s perfumed garden. All manners of exotic treats and temptations allegedly waited on the other side of that huge, iron door. Unfortunately, I never saw the beaded curtains, velvet divans or steaming waters. None of us could muster the courage to open the front door. By the time, I’d grown into a little grit, the Boiler Room was long gone, a victim of Reaganomics and the roaring 1980s.

I’ve spent plenty of time in hot water between the Boiler Room and present day. I’ve soaked naked and inebriated along the edge of Idaho’s Salmon River; poached the secret source of the Ouray Hot Springs; gone neck deep in the wilds of the Yukon with a dip into the magic waters of Liard Hot Springs; and spent the entire night getting pruned in the Penny Hot Springs alongside the Crystal River.

I’ve also paid several visits to a favorite springs in Northern New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains, where the hot mineral water bubbles straight out of the rock and into a series of natural pools. The most recent of these visits was just last week, and my Fruit of the Looms would have come in handy.

As we cruised the Land of Enchantment on a combination road riding/green chile/high culture tour, I realized it was time to fulfill my hippie parent destiny. I secured my 3-year-old daughter in her car seat, pointed my four wheels for the Jemez and am happy to report that the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman” was conspicuously absent. After a little finagling, we found the unmarked pull-out and unloaded, my wife Rachael and daughter Skyler clutching onto their swim suits like life preservers on rapidly sinking ship.

“You two can do whatever you want,” I said with an air of heavy arrogance. “But this isn’t that kind of hot springs.”

That kind of hot springs was actually the first thing that came into view as we crested the short but steep hike. Immediately, my jaded eyes flashed on a pair of full coverage swimsuits fashioned from thick, dark material. We offered the couple in the lower pool a warm greeting but received no reply. The discomfort level escalated when I dropped trou and let the proverbial cat out of the bag. The two bolted seconds after my shorts hit the deck.

The scene was a little more accommodating in the upper pool, where a threesome of over-the-hill gents from Santa Fe was in no danger of bolting. Like the couple, they were wearing swimwear. But unlike the vanishing act, their fake-bake tans, died blonde hair and enormous pots were covered by the only male g-strings I’ve had the misfortune of viewing. As my birthday suit slipped into the waters, I was greeted with a trio of “hello theres” and immediately had the audience’s undivided attention.

Four others, including a college couple and a man and his aspiring photographer son, showed up seconds later. They all plopped on their suits, climbed in and started making small talk, trying hard not to stare at the dude and his 3-year-old in the corner. What followed were 20 minutes of only-naked-man-in-the-room paranoia and the biggest laughs Rachael and Skyler had tasted in months. In the end, I was more than happy to get dressed and leave one of the West’s most pristine hot springs behind.

Back in the parking lot, a fellow searcher almost seemed to be waiting for us. “Is it crowded today?” he asked point blank.

“Is it ever,” I answered. “There are probably eight bodies floating up there.”

He flashed me a knowing grin, held up his swimsuit and chuckled, “Eight eh? Things are different these days. You’re just lucky you missed the big family reunion last weekend.”

– Will Sands



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