Saturday, May 21, 2011

Hot Springs, Snakes and Comets

Water slides like silk around my skin as I slip myself slowly into the steaming pool. My hair webs out behind me as I submerge my head and in the silent undertones, my mind slips loose from worry, drifts free from doubt, stretches out lovely and long beneath the surface tension.  I release in tiny bubbles the weight of the day with muted relief and savor the luxury of a solitary moment.

Water is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? The sound of it, the look of it, the feel of it. Being three-quarters water myself, I have a keen appreciation of it. So much so that to “Live Liquid” has long been my favorite mantra. Water streams over rocks, around fallen branches, under floating leaves, down mountains and into valleys, cutting across plains into oceans. It trickles, it gushes, it pounds, it rolls and it froths. As anyone who has stood on the precipice near Niagara Falls well knows, the flow of water is a serious force of nature.

Although a longtime fan of hot tubs, my first experience in a natural hot spring was outside of Taos, New Mexico. As the sun was setting over the mesa, I climbed for an hour on a narrow, steep, precarious trail down 800 feet into the Rio Grande Gorge that sits west of town.  The Rio Grande is so named because of its length not its width. To look at its width, you’d think it a stream rather than a river that stretches about 1,800 miles from just east of the Continental Divide in Colorado’s Rio Grande National Forest to south west of Corpus Christi into the Gulf of Mexico. It is, none the less, part of the American Heritage and the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Systems.

It was dark when I finally got down to the water’s edge. By the light of a full moon and the Hale-Bopp comet (that lit nighttime skies for more than 18 months in 1996-1997) I saw three small but steaming pools along the edge of the river.

The day before, I had hiked into the La Junta Canyon at the Wild Rivers Recreational Area to the north where the Red River meets the Rio Grande. In a mist of sunshine infused spray I sat on a river worn boulder that cupped me like a giant hand. The amount of water from the springtime melt off was substantial and the roar from the force of the two engorged rivers joining was deafening. It was hard to see how this babbling brook in front of me could be that same river.

Chilled by the cooling evening high desert temperatures, I wasted no time in getting undressed and submerged in the 105 degree-ish water. I remember thinking life was pretty divine as I looked up at the clearly visible Milky Way in my private comet crossed canyon; I remember feeling very blessed.

Red-Ringed Snakes

Since then, I aim for hot springs when planning my trips. And for the record, although some of the undeveloped hot springs I’ve soaked in were boiling with snakes, (discovered after the fact), they are by far my favorite. Should you be drawn to explore those in the wild yourself, in order to distinguish between the shy but fatally toxic coral snake and the non toxic Mountain King, Milk or Corn snake look-a-likes do become reacquainted with the child’s rhyme: Red touching black is a friend of Jack; Red touching yellow can kill a fellow. Not that it matters much once you are sitting comfortably among them as they wrap around your legs and spin themselves in the length of your hair.

Preference aside, it should be duly noted that I have had the good fortune to stumbled upon some truly incredible developed hot springs as well, some in the form of public pools others hidden behind thick adobe walls at private spas. On a recent trip through four deserts, for instance, I came across a few that I’d promptly add to my list of favorites.


Emerging from a week camping in Death Valley, I had planned to visit the public hot spring fed pools in Tecopa. One drive through that town though sent right back up the highway to Shoshone. Aside from China Ranch, Tecopa, in my view, is white bread: tasteless and barely nutritious.  I’m not a fancy, gotta-have-posh type of woman; I’m OK with “rough around the edges”. But, I’d like something quaint or at least endearing; something eclectic; and something definitely out-of-the-box and off the beaten path. I like spice, color and texture; I appreciate layers and depth. Shoshone’s got all the above and I picked that much up first pass.

A blink of a town whose population is sixty at best, I’m certain many don’t. Aside from serving as the southeastern gateway into Death Valley, there really isn’t much else that lends it distinction by many people’s standards. The town consists of all but one inn, one café, one pub, one gas station, one market and one camp ground. I chose the campground, on account of the grass.

East coasters may find that amusing, but truly, grass--expansive lawns--are a commodity in the southwest where water conservation isn’t just a feel-good-do-good option employed by the eco-holy-roller crowd; it’s serious business. Besides, I had just been camping on rocks for seven days and that grass looked better to me than a hotel mattress. For $12 a night, not only did I get my cushy grass pad, I got a hot spring fed stream and pool, too. Very sweet deal.

It gets better though. The entire town is owned by one woman. She inherited it from her grandfather who having heard a highway was going to be laid through town bought up all the land on either side of the road from one junction to another. The highway never came.

I Walked to Zion: True Stories of Young Pioneers on the Mormon TrailBut, the people did. Still do. From all around the world. Some of the earliest settlers to these parts had been foreign immigrants given the Mormon Trail cut through these parts. 
Located between Las Vegas and San Francisco, I came to realize that Shoshone sits along a thorough fare for globe trekkers on tight schedules wanting to see a lot in a short amount of time. 

The Crowbar Café and Saloon is a good place to sit and watch the international mix stream through day after day. One of two eateries in town, the café and pub have a minimal menu and basic bar but hands-down one of the all time best people viewing platforms. Comfortable with ample outside seating that extends around the corner to a side performance stage area fully equipped with strawbales for overflow seating. It’s got good food and c-o-l-d drinks, (if not sometimes slow service), and both are a godsend in the desert. But, slow’s OK with me; I’m not in any rush and remind myself that it’s good for me to practice patience anyway. Gives you time to look around and time to chat with those sitting there. Nancy, the barkeep originally from Tinsel Town, assured me that there was rarely a dull moment.

Later that evening, I met two Belgian couples at the Crowbar (Saloon side) who had the day before landed in Las Vegas to do just that. They were celebrating birthdays, making a weeklong dash through Death Valley, Yosemite, and San Francisco. They had already “seen” the Grand Canyon before driving west into California. They were asking me what to see while in San Francisco. I asked them what they planned on seeing in Death Valley. They shrugged and indicated that they had thought it would be enough to just drive through it.

I paused before answering, thinking that maybe they were asking the wrong person. Here I had stumbled upon this tiny town in the middle of nowhere, fallen in love with it and was in no rush to leave. I travel by a different rhythm and for a different reason than most. What’s a woman like me to say to foreign travelers trying to make the most of their week holiday in the massive USA, not knowing them or their interests? Did they want to experience America as it is or Americana, the image of how it once was?

So, I did what I always do; I told them my story, of my experiences in those places, of what I saw, who I met, what it felt like. I gave them my maps of Death Valley with places circled and side notes scrawled in the margins. Told them that there was still snow in many places in Yosemite and that other areas, like the cave, were currently closed. Showed them where they’d get some awesome views of the peaks along the way to the City and told them how I’d see San Francisco if I had only two days to see it in. Shrugging back at them, I smiled and closed with the disclaimer, “But that’s me.”  They smiled back. Probably just being polite.

Café C’est Si Bon, a one room vegetarian bistro-style café with an array of outdoor seating is tucked behind a drapery of mesquite trees on the corner of highways 372 and 178. When I mentioned to the proprietor that the town had the feel of Taos, New Mexico, he informed me that a woman—a fine art photographer—had moved there a few years back from Taos. A sweet, attentive and compassionate man by the name of David Washum, his café is unpretentious and all about the “OM”.

Sitting beneath the trees, waiting for my crepes, I watch his pig named Pizza roll in the muck inside her pen trying to get comfortable for a midmorning snooze. Then, as I slowly scanned his property, I notice it. IT being the sense of spirit he’s infused into the décor and surroundings. A rusty metal toy truck, a shutter hanging off kilter, a worn antique leather bound edition of Charlotte’s Web all placed, at first glance, randomly. If you give it a moment though, the art of it all comes through. Each turn of the head is a still life, a glimpse of life and lives lived in the Oneness of Being. Bamboo and cattails grow in a shallow ditch along the periphery of his front porch where a steady steaming stream of hot spring water trickles.

The Montana couple (outfitters and teachers by trade) I had met at the campground had informed me that there were Long-eared Owls nesting around town. Later, they arrived to show me that one of the nests was in David’s Athel trees out back. 

Along a migratory path, Shoshone is winter breeding grounds for the Long-ears. This year, seven feathered couples had been spotted. Avid birders, they had the good fortune to participate in a tour conducted by a local ranger for the Red Rock Audubon Association (from Nevada) the day before. As tiny a village as Shoshone is, it’s just added to its staff a naturalist, Len Warren, who my new found friends said was a rare find. Must be; he’s developing ecotourism for the village based on the wetlands surrounding the Amargosa River that runs through Death Valley. Great idea.

I finally did meet the woman from Taos. Turns out, Laura Campbell had lived there after I had moved away so we hadn’t known each other during that chapter of our lives. We did have a mutual friend (Lenny Foster, DC born photographer) still living there though. She works exclusively in black and white and with traditional mediums (thus earning her the “Fine Art” part of her professional title). When I saw her photo of two shoes entitled “Size 8,” I knew our crossing paths had been more than the coincidence of two Celtic lasses born on the Pacific shores of California meeting years later in America’s outback.

As has been said, life has a way of taking you were you need to go. Resistance only results in rug burn. So I go willingly these days, blowing where the wind moves me. And am ever humbled by the sanctity of those moments when things seem to align—past/present/future, mind/body/spirit.

My last day there, I again went to have breakfast at Dave’s café where I met Laurie Naiman, another photographer. Not surprising that the area draws serious photographers given the austere beauty of the place represented in the photograph’s Ansel Adams took of Death Valley. Formerly a practicing physician, Laurie now shoots award winning photographs.

He told me that his wife Judy Palmer Naiman, also a physician, was currently writing a book on the history of women in Death Valley. I had been collecting books on wild women of the West throughout my trip and was excited to learn of yet another in the works.

I filled up on David’s Passion Fruit Iced Tea for the road. Wished I had taken a gallon.

29 Palms

After hiking Rattlesnake Canyon and parts of the Boy Scout Trail in the North West corner of Joshua Tree National Park, I had spent the night in Indian Cove camping beneath batholiths. I had come for the monzonite (latite) boulders to be found in this section of the Park and to see the Wonderland of Rocks, which thanks to Minerva Hoyt are publically preserved and accessible. Surrounded by the long leaning shadows of the mammoth rocks at sunset with an expansive view of the Mojave and picturesque vista of snow capped San Gorgonio, I was a happy woman.

I set up camp, changed out of my sweaty clothes, and heated up some water to make myself a cup of double bergamot infused Lady Grey. From vacuumed packed packages, I scooped some lime-cilantro rice and chana masala into my bowl for dinner.  I leaned back into my portable recliner to read while I ate and to watch the sunset. And as the sun dipped below the horizon, the drumming began.

Somewhere amidst the prehistoric rocks and thorny bushes, a group of drummers pounded the skins by campfire. Very primal and it couldn’t have been more perfect. I had seen some interesting things and heard some great music in my travels, all seemingly very fitting for time and place and this was no different. The moon rose and galaxies appeared. I climbed the boulder behind my tent and put out my arms to the heavens, smiling, elated for such small blessings. THIS is the America I would have shared with my new found Belgian friends if I could have.

After an excellent night’s sleep, the first without wind, I made myself breakfast. Another cup of tea, this time with dehydrated lemon tossed in. After eating some raw oats in almond milk with freeze dried berries and fruit I broke camp. I had noticed murals in 29 Palms and wanted to go back there to explore, having just driven through town on my way to the Park. Barstow had murals, too, and I was curious noting an obvious trend. Turns out, both towns along the old Route 66 have walking maps guiding tourists to the murals along their “Main” streets. Most are historic in nature, although not all. The paintings in Don Gray’s “Dr. Luckie” mural as well as John Whitalk’s “Dirty Sock Camp” mural are so realistic they look like a series of vintage photographs.

Aside from the murals, the town was an interesting find and I’m really glad I bothered to backtrack. Situated strategically between the Mojave and Joshua Tree, the small town serves as the gateway into some of the country’s most desolate windswept sand fields. Good thing the area also affords unsurpassed beauty, clear skies and thermal hot springs. It was named after twenty nine palm trees that surrounded Mara Oasis when the gold diggers first rolled into the vicinity. After centuries of providing shelter for the local inhabitants, the trees were promptly logged by the mindless meandering miners. 

Although the world's largest Marine Base is also located there, I saw no evidence of it anywhere. I figured this was a good thing.

Out of sheer curiosity, I made my way over to the 29 Palms Inn, where U2 wrote Joshua Tree—really, because how could I not. An eclectic spread of historic buildings that comprise the ‘rooms’, many which were relocated to the property, the Inn has long since been a hotspot for Hollywood starlets. A vintage house boat floats in the palm shaded Faultline Pond so named because it sits right smack on top of –you guessed it—the San Andreas Fault. The restaurant serves fresh produce grown out back in an expansive garden fenced with the fallen piney palm frond stems.  I had the Black Bean Tostada out by the pool, which was really good.

Desert Hot Springs

Coming out of the Mojave, there is a stupendous view of the snow capped San Gorgonio peak in the San Bernardino Mountains to the west and Mount Jacinto to the south. Having left the Wonderland of Rocks in the North West corner of Joshua Tree National Park earlier in the day, I decided to find a place to stay in the town of Desert Hot Springs (DHS) on the recommendation of a friend of mine. Garmin identified lodgings within the vicinity as I drove into town. When I saw the name Highlander, I hit “Go” on my GPS.

Two things about the Highlander. Firstly, it’s not there—it doesn’t exist regardless what the weathered billboard in the back of the property advertises. Not anymore. In its place stood the Tuscan Springs Hotel and Spa, a sixteen room boutique hotel. One of the many inns with hot (115 degrees) mineral water fed pools, Tuscan Springs is tucked into the San Bernardino foothills north of Palm Springs. Secondly, the Highlander’s replacement was closed for renovations, which landed me at my second choice, Hacienda Hot Springs Inn.

Standing at the locked wooden door in the adobe wall while I waited for someone to open the door for me, I listened to water trickling. This was a good sign. Once the door swung open to the smiling bright face of the Brit born onsite manager, I was led through a terraced garden with hot spring fed pool, hot tub and waterfall. Past nooked outdoor dining areas, fire place and kitchen interwoven into a lush and stunning garden. As if that in itself wasn’t heaven, I entered the French doors to my room, crossed it to another set of French doors that opened onto a private walled patio equipped with a hammock.

As I kicked off my shoes and stripped from my dusty hiking clothes to put on my bathing suit, eager to have a nice long soak in the hottest pool out there, I heard the prettiest finger picking I had heard in a long, long time. I quietly opened my door even wider to hear better and dallied a bit in the room. One of two other guests there, luckily for me, played the guitar masterfully. Took a lot to tear myself away.

While I was in the hot tub, which by the way was surrounded by a lavender hedge, the host brought over a glass of wine. The music drifted through my neighbor’s open windows and lulled me as I absorbed the beautiful surroundings and slowly melted into nothingness. Why would anyone ever leave the place, I wondered. And honestly, I think that’s the point to the continued success of the otherwise unimpressive desert town. Therapeutic indeed.

Desert Hot Springs Hidden PleasuresDesert Hot Springs Hidden PleasuresFounded by Cabot Yerxa who had stumbled upon a hill sliced by the San Andreas Fault that poured hot mineral water from one side and cold water from the other, DHS is an easy two and a half hour drive from both San Diego and Los Angeles. Recognizing the potential of the hot springs that can percolate at temperatures up to 180 degrees, Yerxa spent the last twenty years of his life singlehandedly constructing the four story 35 room pueblo style building on his property on Miracle Hill to accommodate the tourists he knew would come. 

By the 1950’s, the town just north of Palm Springs with award winning drinking water and non-sulfuric therapeutic springs had become a well known hotspot for celebs and city escapees. More recently, the town was featured in the 1992 movie entitled The Player starring Tim Robbins. There are 20 boutique style spa hotels in the town of less than twenty thousand residents, which is but a quarter of those that had been operating during its boomtown heyday just a few decades earlier.

But, there’s a bonus to coming here beyond the water:  the 40 foot tall 20 ton Waokiye carved from a 750 year old Sequoia stands sentinel over the incomplete 5,000 square foot pueblo now a museum offering guided tours for ten dollars year round. The 27th  of 70 statues included in The Trail of Whispering Giants, (some of which are cataloged in the Smithsonian’s Art Inventory), “Waokiye” was carved by immigrant sculptor American Indian activist Peter Wolf Toth. The first in the series, coincidentally, was carved in 1972 into a sandstone cliff at the base of Windansea Beach in La Jolla.

I first learned of Toth while living in Burlington, VT where #47 “Chief Grey Lock” was erected. Many of his statues, none of which he apparently received payment for, have become public landmarks such as those I bumped into years later: #21 “Nanticoke” in Ocean City, MD and # 69 “Chief Little Owl” in Bethany Beach, DE. There is at least one Toth Giant in every state in the Union. 

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