My cousins and I took a road trip to Hot Springs, AR. None of us had ever been and for one of us, Bonnie, the trip helped her to scratch off one of her bucket list items: to have visited all fifty states.
We are six first cousins ranging in age from 52 to 70. All girls. There were no boys in our generation, much to my paternal grandfather's disappointment; he had hoped for a grandson to carry on the family name. (We now have two generations after us and the boys far outnumber the girls. It currently stands at 14 to 5.) The eighteen-year span in our ages, along with a ten year gap between cousin number three and yours truly, had the three oldest out of college, married and raising kids while the three youngest were in or barely out of elementary school.
Two years ago at a family reunion to celebrate my aunt's 90th birthday, we went to dinner away from everyone else. We had such a good time that we struck a bargain to get together in two more years. With my own mother's 90th birthday coming up, that seemed like the perfect excuse to throw a party for her and afterwards take off on a road trip to somewhere.
On Monday morning (June 15) we left Dallas for Hot Springs. The region is abundantly spotted with natural springs and pools that produce water heated to a very toasty 143 degrees, on average. Despite the name --- it's not Lukewarm Springs or Tepid Pools --- and despite the fact that you can see the steam rising from the water's surface, even on warm days, people stupidly stick their hand, foot, or some other body part into the water, only to jump back and exclaim:
Like Barnum said, There's a sucker born every minute.
Here's an interesting bit of trivia for you to amaze your friends with: the water currently bubbling out of the various springs came from rain that fell in the region 4400 years ago. If you need some perspective, this was about when the Egyptians were building the pyramids. It takes that long for rain to make the circuit from the clouds back to the surface as spring water. How they figure these things out, I'll never know.
People, namely the local Indians, visited the springs for thousands of years for their supposed curative powers. Then the white man came along and decided to make money off what Mother Nature had been providing for free. The result was Bathhouse Row, eight independently operated bathhouses situated on the east side of Central Avenue, below the so-called Grand Promenade, a paved walkway that meanders in the hills above the buildings. From south to north they are Lamar, Buckstaff, Ozark, Quapaw, Fordyce, Maurice, Hale and Superior. The Fordyce is now a museum, the Superior is a restaurant and brewery, while the Quapaw is a millennial take on the bathhouse experience. Only the Buckstaff, built in 1912, still operates much like it did in its heyday in the 30's.
As the saying goes, When in Rome do as the Romans do. So I decided to shed my inhibitions and drop my drawers for a visit to the Buckstaff. Here's a very bad picture of the place:
That's the only picture you will get because the Buckstaff won't allow its patrons to take photos inside, for obvious reasons.
I arrived shortly after 8:00 AM. After filling out a card and paying $33.00 for the basic package, I was escorted up to the second floor via elevator to the women's facilities. At the Buckstaff, the sexes do not mix. The attendant took me to a small changing room equipped with a chair and a locker. I was told to take everything off, stow it in the locker, and keep the key on my person at all times. When I was dressed in nothing but my grown-up birthday suit, the attendant came back with a large white sheet. While I faced away from her, she wrapped the sheet around me toga-style. I noticed immediately that the sheet, while clean, was kind of threadbare, and as I moved from station to station, the sheet got progressively wetter and wetter and what had been opaque became translucent. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
I was handed off to another woman who was to be my bathing attendant. Her name was Julie and she was young and fit. I was hoping for a matronly 250-pounder so I could feel better about my own flab being on display, but I figured Julie had probably seen every shape and size of boob and booty there is, and my own figure, while not the best, is certainly far from the worst.
The first order of business was to tell Julie I was extremely hard of hearing, and to be sure and face me when talking so I could read her lips. Bless her heart. Instead of talking normally, she enunciated each word as if I was not only deaf, but not too swift in the head, either. It was fine, but I had to laugh when her reply to my question about the water temperature was accompanied by hand gestures: ONE (holds up one finger), OH (makes circle with her hand), THREE (holds up three fingers). I said OK (makes universal OK gesture).
Once we got the communications squared away, Julie took me into my own personal bathing suite. This consisted of a big white enameled tub already filled with water, a chair, a small wooden step stool, and a motor thingy --- like a miniaturized Evinrude outboard. I stepped onto the little stool, handed over my modesty, and lowered myself gingerly into the tub. Lemme tell ya, ONE OH THREE is AITCH OH TEE. Had Julie not been there watching, I would have taken more time getting acquainted with the environs, one toe at a time, but my desire to cover myself, even if it was only clear water, was stronger, so I plunged in.
The next order of business was to languidly stretch out, as I'd seen the model do in the advertisement:
But this was impossible because the tub was longer than my 5 ft, 7 in and I couldn't get a grip with my toes at the far end. The result was that I bobbed around on the surface like a dead fish until Julie got some rolled towels anchored beneath my neck and upper back. Once I was stabilized, she whipped out another towel, dipped it into the bathwater and wrapped one long end around my neck, so that only my head was sticking out. Julie pointed to the clock on the wall and made me to understand that this torture was to last TWO OH minutes. Her last act before disappearing, presumably to someplace cooler, like Siberia, was to turn on the mini-Evinrude lurking at the far end of the tub. I'd forgotten all about this gadget in my quest to get anchored down. This was the 30's version of the Jacuzzi and the terrific onslaught of bubbles at my feet very nearly turned me over. I bet Julie goes home with at least one hilarious story to tell the family over dinner each night.
TWO OH minutes is a long time in ONE OH THREE. As I watched the clock hands creep slowly around, I was reminded of an online review I read about the Buckstaff the morning we left for Hot Springs. One lady had given the place a poor rating because, she claimed, her attendant had forgotten about her in the bath. I sincerely hoped Julie didn't forget me.
The next station was a lie down in a room with several cots. Julie placed a bolster under my knees and OH! blessed relief! a cold wet towel on my head and around my face. I think one is expected to relax at this point, but I had a hard time zoning out for wondering what new devilment was awaiting me. This turned out to be hot packs, or more precisely hot wet towels, placed under my back, on my chest, stomach, and one around each leg. This was much more bearable because the towels quickly cooled off, unlike the bath water. Another cold towel for my head and face also helped. If you don't believe time is relative, trust me when I say twenty minutes on the cot zipped by compared to twenty minutes in the bath.
The next order of business was a short walk to the steam cabinet. The victim walks inside, turns and sits down. The attendant shuts the door in front and brings down two flaps that leave only your head sticking out, while hot steam assaults the rest of you. This was a five minute ordeal made bearable because I could at least look out and see the activity going on in the room. Ladies were being led into tub enclosures and out of them, everyone discreetly toga'ed up in sheets. It was obvious that more than a few had been there and done that; they were wearing flip-flops or shower shoes. I wished I'd thought of that.
After the steam cabinet, I was led to the sitz bath. At this point my sheet is soaking wet and sticking to me in all the wrong places, but what the hell. It's hard to describe the sitz bath. It looks like an ordinary shower stall except one side of the floor humped up in a gentle hill. Julie once again removed my sheet and helped me sit down with my legs over the hump and jutting outside, while my business end was uncomfortably immersed in more ONE OH THREE action. She considerately gave me a towel to cover the girls. It was about this time that I realized there were no hand-holds in the place. None. Zilch. Nada. The Buckstaff is run by the National Park Service and you'd think that entity, being part of the guvmint, would have grab bars, rubber mats and printed warnings in six-inch high letters covering all the available wall space. Signs like CAUTION! And SLIPPERY WHEN WET! And NO RUNNING! As I sitzed and sizzled, I contemplated just how in the heck I was going to get into a standing position with no grab bars, a slippery floor and worse, no clothes. Julie came to my rescue once again (she was freakishly strong) and it was off to the needle shower.
Slippery is one of those words that looks weird the longer you stare at it.
Anyway, call me crazy, but I had it in my head that the needle shower would be 1) cold'ish and, 2) sharp and needle-like. It was warm and there was hardly any water pressure in the shower heads. I didn't actually count, but I think there were six heads, all aiming for different parts and doing a poor job of it. Two minutes of that and Julie was back with a fresh dry sheet and a clean towel. My bathhouse ordeal was now over and it was back to the changing room.
I was so hot the last thing I wanted to do was get dressed. Cooling off was necessary, but with no A/C that was problematic. The windows were open and fans were running, so I stood in front of one of the second story windows in my threadbare toga with a fan blowing on me for a few minutes. It wasn't much help. I had renewed appreciation for what folks had to deal with in the days before air conditioning. I always liked what Harper Lee, in her book To Kill a Mockingbird, had to say about how the ladies in Maycomb were like "...soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum." Well, this lady was nothing like a teacake. My hair was in wet strings, my face was beet red, and my deodorant had given up the good fight and died in the steam tank.
Would I do it again? You betcha. And a Swedish massage, too.
Don't forget the flip-flops,
Paris Hilton: when you make a sex tape, you are public domain, IMHO. Idiot.
Lady bather: http://www.buckstaffbaths.com/services.html
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