Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Hot Springs

On Friday, November 9, we drove to Hot Springs, Arkansas. We arrived in town pretty late and we were hungry, so rather than making camp and cooking dinner, we stopped at a CiCi’s pizza place. CiCi’s seems to be a southern thing – all-you-can-eat pizza for $4.49. Brian and some college friends once went to a CiCi’s in Houston before a formal dance, because someone thought it would be more random and fun that the typical ritzy pre-formal-dance restaurant. The pizza was just as acceptable as he remembered – greasy but tasty, with dessert included. Stomachs full, we headed on to Golpha Gulch, the only campground in Hot Springs National Park. There were quite a few people there but still plenty of free campsites – we set up and pretty quickly went to bed.

We woke up shortly after sunrise and realized just how beautiful the park is this time of year – as it turned out, we’d arrived at the peak of the fall colors.

After we ate breakfast, we chatted with a man from Haines, Alaska. He works 80 hours a week during the long summer days fishing and doing other jobs, and in the winter he gets a bunch of time off. Most winters, he rides his snow machine around to friends’ houses, hanging out and drinking beer and whiskey. Sounds like a good life! But this year, he’d saved up a bunch of money and bought a truck and trailer in Michigan, and now he and his wife were driving it around the Lower 48. They’re big fans of hot springs, so they had to check out the national park.

We checked our park map and realized that the visitors center was only a mile away as the crow flies, so rather than driving, we decided to walk. There was a whole network of trails between the campground and visitors center, so we picked a trail and set out. After a bit less than a two-mile walk, we reached town.

It turns out that the visitors center is actually in the Fordyce bathhouse, which was the premier Hot Springs bathhouse when it was built in 1915. Mr. Fordyce had been deathly ill, and one of his doctors, as a last resort, recommended that he make the trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas, to bathe in and drink the therapeutic water of the hot springs. He made the trip – an arduous journey in those days, via rail and stagecoach – and after spending some time in Hot Springs, was indeed miraculously cured. He went on to become a successful businessman, and eventually decided to devote some of his assets to building the most lavish, luxurious bathhouse in Hot Springs. And so he did, and the result was the Fordyce, which eventually was turned into the visitors center.

We had arrived just in time for the 10:30 tour, so we joined in. We found out that a bath in one of these bathhouses is an elaborate ritual that unfolds today pretty much exactly as it did a century ago. Men and women are separated, naturally, and same-sex attendants guide the bathers through each step of the process. First, you spend 20 minutes or so in a bathtub with jets circulating the water:

Then you sit in a sitz tub, with a hot jet pointing directly at your lower back – it’s supposed to work wonders for back pain:

Next is just a few minutes in a steaming hot sauna to get you to sweat and clear out your pores. Then you’d lie down on a cot for 20 minutes or so, with steaming hot towels placed around any joints that were giving you trouble. Finally, you’d enjoy a needle shower, with tiny nozzles spraying fine streams of water all around you, from head to toe:

In the early days of the bathhouses, they were used primarily for medicinal purposes. For many different kinds of ailments, a certain number of treatments at a bathhouse would be prescribed, and the patient would make the long journey to Hot Springs and stay for a few weeks while receiving treatment.

Some diseases got special treatment, though. Syphilis was treated with mercury – rubbed all over the patient’s body, consumed orally, or injected into the bloodstream, depending on the severity of the disease and the doctor’s prescription. This table and tub were used for mercury treatments:

Another interesting treatment, prescribed for various maladies, was the fire-and-ice treatment. These two side-by-side boxes were used:

The patient would get into the box on the right, and then it would be switched on, and many light bulbs inside the box would light up, toasting the patient. After a while of that, the patient would get into the box on the left, which – you guessed it – was full of ice cubes. Back and forth, back and forth – toast, freeze. Actually, it’s not so crazy when you think about it – heat and ice are still recommended treatments today for sprains.

A treatment that seems a little crazier is the electrified bath. A patient would get into a bathtub full of water, and a current would run through the water. People who have had this done to them say that you can actually see the current running along the surface of the water, although it never visibly reaches the body. Afterwards, you supposedly have a new level of energy that you didn’t have before – I’ll bet!

Fordyce was determined that this would be the most beautiful bathhouse on Hot Springs’ Bathhouse Row, so he used only the finest materials – Italian marble, for instance. He also used stained glass – this huge work of stained glass is in the ceiling of the men’s bath room:

On the lavish third floor of the Fordyce bathhouse, the men and women could finally reunite after their baths, fully clothed once again. Although the parlor area had a large mixed-gender space in the middle, it still had separate women’s and men’s areas at either end. This is looking from the central mixed-gender area into the men’s area – note the stained-glass ceiling and the intricate tile work of the floor, laid one tile at a time:

Also on the third floor was a large gymnasium, where the men and women could work out side-by-side with instruction.

After the tour, we wanted to try this bathhouse thing ourselves, so we went two buildings down to the Buckstaff, which is still in operation. We found out that a basic bath (consisting of the ritual outlined above – baths in two different types of tubs, sauna, lying on the cot with hot compresses, needle shower) was $22. We could get a $50 package that included the basic bath plus a loofa treatment and massage, or a $60 package which added a paraffin treatment to all of the above. We thought the basic treatment would be enough for us.

They had stopped admitting bathers for the morning but would resume at 1:30, so we hurried back along the trail to our campsite, ate a quick lunch, and drove back to Bathhouse Row for our baths. When we arrived around 1:30, they were admitting men but there was already a 20-minute wait for women. Process-wise, the treatment was pretty much what we expected based on the tour. They give you a bed sheet when you arrive so that you can undress but then wrap your naked body in the sheet, toga-style. Very soon after that, though, you take off the toga to get into the tub, and then you’re either naked or in a towel until you’re done.

We found it incredibly relaxing. Brian almost fell asleep in the tub and on the cot. You feel like a wet noodle afterwards, not really wanting to stand up, much less do anything strenuous – you definitely shouldn’t operate any heavy machinery immediately after a bath! Sarah decided that we should do this every day, but Brian pointed out that it wouldn’t fit in our traveling budget.

After the bath treatment, we walked around the historic area of Hot Springs a bit. A few of the springs are left open, like this one. The water is upwards of 140 degrees – note the steam rising off it:

Most of the springs, though, are boxed up in concrete painted green. This protects the therapeutic water from contamination.

The spring water was long ago diverted and channeled into the bathhouses, as well as to a few faucets around town, where people can be seen day and night filling up jug after jug of the water to take with them. Many people swear by the water’s therapeutic powers. We filled up a jug and a Nalgene bottle, and the water seemed nice – it didn’t have a foul taste or odor. It’s hard to say if we’re healthier for having drunk it, though.

After our tour of Hot Springs, we went back to our campsite at Golpha Gulch. Tomorrow, we’d head to Tennessee!


famousthecat said...

gorgeous! most of the leaves have rained down onto the ground, cars, unsuspecting cats here by this time, so it's nice to see color again!

can't wait to see you guys in a few days.

Dharshan said...

The fall colors look pretty cool. Man...its all dull and rainy here in Seattle :( Very soon we'll be able to go showshoeing and i'll have Brian to thank for that :)

PunIntented said...

Nine inches of snow fell at Breckenridge over the past 24 hours! We, too, can't wait for winter... :)