Saturday, June 20, 2009

How to Make a 95 Degree Day Seem Mild and Temperate

Hot Springs, Arkansas (mile 2,580)
June 18

People have been flocking to Hot Springs, Arkansas to bathe in the waters of its 143 degree hot springs for hundreds of years. Before the Federal Government had a national park system, it set aside land here in 1832 under its reservation system, to protect the springs, the first time it ever had created a reservation to protect a natural resource (most of the other reservations, the ones set aside for the Native Americans, were in places of scarce natural resources). By the late 1800s luxurious private bath houses were being erected here for purposes both medicinal and recreational.

Today, as then, Bathhouse Row is the centerpiece of downtown Hot Springs. Most of the historic bath houses stand vacant, but the most elegant of all the buildings on the row, the Fordyce Bath, is a National Park site which has been restored to its original elegance, although not to its original function—tours are given, no baths are taken. After learning all about the glories of the bath experience during our tour of Fordyce, we (more accurately, I) couldn't wait to immerse ourselves in history at the Buckstaff, the only bath house remaining which provides the traditional bathing experience enjoyed in the heyday of Hot Springs. The Buckstaff has been in continuous operation since 1912, and still gives the same bath today that it gave when it began.

We both signed up for the traditional five stage bath package, then split up, as Dick went to the men's bath and I went to the women's.
Dick got done first. When I was done with my bath, I found him in a rocker on the front porch of the bath house cooling off in the 95 degree weather. After effusing for about five minutes about how wonderful and relaxed I felt and what a great experience I had just enjoyed, it occurred to me that Dick was strangely silent. I asked him how he liked his bath, and learned that this was one of those few times when he and I were not anywhere near agreement on the issue. This is the story of our baths:

Gayl: I was taken upstairs in a vintage elevator hand-operated by a pleasant woman who wished me a wonderful bathing experience. The locker room attendant met me at the elevator, escorted me to a little dressing room, and told me to put my clothes in a locker while she went away to get a sheet for me. She came back, said "Stand with your back to me, dear," then opened the curtain and did a wonderful twisty toga wrap around me with the sheet, and took me to a lounge to wait for my bath attendant.

Dick: I was pointed to the dressing room, put my clothes in the locker, saw a sheet on the bench, called out to ask the attendant what to do with it, and he told me, "Wrap it around you any way you want, it's just for modesty."


Gayl: The attendant took me to my own little marble-walled cubicle with a big curvy old tub that was being filled with thermal spring water at 100 degrees temperature (a very large thermometer was affixed to the foot of the tub). She helped me up a little step and into the tub, then told me to lean forward so she could wash my back, then she washed my arms and legs, turned on a whirlpool, left the wash cloth and soap and the tub full to the top, gave me two cups of hot spring water to drink while I was bathing, said she would be back in 20 minutes, closed the curtain, and left. I rested my head on the big towel she had folded and placed just at the right spot on the rim of the tub, closed my eyes and enjoyed the swirling water and the sounds of the tubs filling and water churning in the cubicles around me. It was very peaceful and relaxing—I lost track of time.

Dick: The attendant took me to the tub. I wondered if they wash these tubs between customers. Do they even empty them between customers? The water was 106 degrees. It's only supposed to be 100, and I thought maybe it would cool off, but it just got hotter. I watched the clock and checked my heart rate every five minutes to be sure I was not getting a heart attack. My head was pounding. I got up and turned off the whirlpool, because its action was making the water hotter.

Sitz Bath:

Gayl: The attendant took me to the bath, put a towel on the bottom, told me this is good for the lower back and hips, turned on a slow flow of very hot water, and showed me how to control the flow. When I sat down, she draped me with towels, and gave me another cup of water to drink while bathing. It was like sitting on a throne with the cushion removed and adding water. The water was a lot hotter than the bath I just had, but I got used to it.

Dick: The attendant took me to a tub with a board across it that looked about 40 years old, and he told me to sit on the board. There was dirt and gravel in the bottom of the tub by the drain. For the price we paid for this, they should at least clean the bottom of the tub. The scalding water flowed from a faucet down my back, then went down the drain. I didn't soak in it; I don't get the point. My head was still throbbing. I was watching the clock, waiting for the attendant to come back. I didn't get any more water to drink after one cup at the first tub.

Steam chest:
Gayl: The attendant put me in a steam chest that looks just like the one from the "I Live Lucy" episode. She took my sheet and draped it around the head opening in the steam chest so all was soft around my neck. She told me how to get out if I needed to, and promised to keep an eye out for me. Sweat was running from every pore like Niagara Falls, but I stayed in the box until my attendant got me after about five minutes. I wonder how many pounds I just lost?

Dick: Your head was out? I was in a tiny room full of steam. I could hardly breathe! My head was throbbing so hard I could clock my heart beat without touching my wrist. I couldn't see a clock, but I counted the seconds, and I got out of there at three minutes.

Hot packs:

Gayl: The attendant led me to a cushioned table, gave me two cups of iced spring water and asked me where I wanted my hot packs. I told her my lower back, shoulders and legs. She folded and wrapped hot moist towels in those spots, then covered me loosely with my sheet, put a cool compress on my forehead and left me for about twenty minutes, as the packs slowly cooled. I closed my eyes and almost fell asleep, it was so soothing and relaxing.

Dick: The attendant put a scalding hot wet towel on the table, straight from the 143 degree faucet, then had me lie on it, put a scalding towel lengthwise on top of me, then wrapped me up so tight in my sheet that I couldn't move. I didn't get anything cool to drink or on my forehead—my head was throbbing. I was counting the minutes until it would be over. I was taking my pulse by the throbbing of my whole body.

Needle Shower:

Gayl: After the hot packs cooled to room temperature, the attendant took me to the needle shower. About a dozen vertical pipes have holes running their full length, so the shower spray comes at you from all angles, gently, not like needles. The water was pleasantly warm, not too hot. I could have stayed in there for a long time, but the attendant called me out after only about five minutes.

Dick: That was the only part I liked, because with the water at 90 degrees, it felt cool. It lasted a minute or two.

For hours afterward as we walked around town in the 95 degree heat wave, we both found the weather seemed far more temperate than it had been before.

Although Dick's bathing experience was not as pleasant as we might have hoped,
throughout Hot Springs history plenty of bathers have been subjected to unpleasant water torture experiences in the name of "taking the cure." On our tour of Fordyce Bath House we saw a set-up of fire hoses with nozzles that could concentrate the water into a stream the diameter of a soda straw. Highly trained attendants wielding the hoses would focus the water on patients in a variety of fiendish ways, depending on the ailment being treated. Electricity was new and novel in those days, and the spas found many ways to impress their clients with its use. One treatment that doctors sometimes prescribed for "nerves" involved the patient donning a metal helmet and climbing into a full tub, whereupon the attendant ran an electrical current through the water. (These spa services are no longer offered.)

A water experience we both agree is rejuvenating and relaxing can be found in the lakes at the outskirts of town.
We stayed in a little hotel on Lake Hamilton, where the water was warm enough to jump right in, but cool enough to be refreshing. While we were swimming, the Belle of Hot Springs riverboat cruised right up to within a couple hundred feet of us while giving its tour, and then turned around, an awesome sight when viewed from water level. While not in the water, we enjoyed sitting in our air conditioned room and looking out at all the lake people water skiing, jet skiing, and cruising the lake in their pontoon boats.


  1. Wow! I want the bath(s) that Gayle got! Sounds fantastic, and cooler than any sunny spot in Savannah today. Sorry Dick, and glad you made it though!

  2. Wow, sounds like Dick has had his own "waterboarding" experience. The prisioners in Gitmo may have had it easier than Dick....hard to believe you paid money for this :)