I went through a few real cold spells while traveling through Pennsylvania and Virginia….those cold, damp nights that make you chilled to the bone. I even experienced some snow with temperatures down to 28 degrees, (a number which I would scoff at later.) What kept me going through those achy cold spells was the promise of a weekend stop in Hot Springs, Arkansas for a long hot soak on my way back to Texas.
I first visited the Buckstaff Bathhouse along Hot Springs National Park’s Bathhouse Row in 2011. Since that time, I have longed for the opportunity to repeat my “taking of the waters” experience, so the promise of a hot soak was like a carrot at the end of a stick pointing southwest.
Photos are not allowed in the bathhouse, so I didn’t even take a camera this time around. (All photos are from my 2011 visit to the Fordyce Visitor Center in Hot Springs National Park.)So I will need to rely on my words to convey the bathing experience.
Buckstaff Baths is the only remaining bathhouse in operation out of what were once eight grand bathhouses along Bathhouse Row. It is the longest continuous running bathhouse in the National Park, offering thermal bathing since 1912. They try to keep to the traditional treatments, offering what is billed to be the most authentic “traditional bathing experience.”
My long awaited bathing experience began as I bounded up the wide front porch through the leaded glass door to escape the blustery wind and horizontal pelting rain. Tiny patterned octagonal tiles cover the 27,000 turn of the century bathhouse floors, leading up to the reception desk where everything except the tee-shirt uniformed staff (and the price list!) appears to be as it was back in 1912. After registering for my $64 Traditional Bath Service, I am handed a loofa mitt and directed toward the manually operated elevator for my ride up to the “Ladies Floor.”
It is at this point where one must check their modesty in the locker along with clothes, shoes, and all valuables, as it will be nothing but a sheet, wrapped Roman toga-style from here until the end.
The bathing experience starts in a tiny, tub-sized private room, one of several in a row, each with antique, over-sized, rolled edge iron bathtubs behind white marble partitions. Each tub is equipped with what looks like a turn of the century “trolling motor,” a death-trap looking contraption partially submerged in the tub to provide the Jacuzzi effect. Pay no attention to those electric cords hanging over your toes, just try and relax.
My bath attendant, Latoya gets the 100 degree water temperature adjusted just to my liking. She makes sure I am comfortable, brings me a couple of glasses of the piping hot mineral water to sip on during my soak, and tells me she will be back in 20 minutes to check on me.
This is the moment I have been waiting for through all those cold northern nights, hikes and bike rides getting caught out in the cold wind and rain, when my legs felt like they would never thaw. I don’t miss having a tub in the RV, but I do miss having an unlimited source of hot water to get the circulation going again. So as I slipped my toes into the piping hot mineral water and slid down into the oversized, overfilled tub, I thought back to those times when I would have almost stayed in a KOA just to have a soak in the hot tub. As I lay fully stretched out in the oversized tub, water up around my ears, I wondered, just what is it about a water spout in a bathtub that makes that “Lucille Ball moment” of sticking one’s big toe in the water spout so irresistible?
Latoya comes in to scrub me down with the loofa, the ultimate test as to whether my modesty will stay checked back in the locker with my turtleneck. The attendants at Buckstaff Baths are all well skilled in the art of averting a gaze, always operating from behind so as to avoid any full frontal embarrassment. She wraps me back up like a Roman Goddess in my starched white toga, and leads me to the vinyl cushion covered steel table for the hot pack treatment. We first discuss any “problem areas,” such as my stiff neck and shoulders from too many long hours on the computer, and my aching feet from my four mile hike this morning. Then she wraps me in steaming hot towels like a mummy, limb by limb, ending with an ice cold towel on my face in a triangular fold, leaving only my nose and mouth uncovered. Another 15 minutes passes as I slip further into the intoxicating effects of the mineral rich rainwater from four thousand years ago, heated over a mile beneath the earth’s surface.
Next stop is the old steam cabinet, straight out of “I Love Lucy” with my head left sticking out the top like a Jack-in-the-Box with steam shooting out my ears. The tenuous fine line between pain and pleasure is evidenced by the woman steam cooking in the box next to me, shouting at her bath attendant, “DON’T GO TOO FARRRRR!!!”
The most awkward step in the traditional bathing experience has to be the “sitz bath,” little tiny butt-sized sinks filled with steaming hot water, where Latoya holds up my sheet and invites me to “ease yourself down, prop up your feet on the stool and get comfortable” as she drapes my sheet over me. “Good for lower back pain, hemorrhoids, and lady parts.” It feels odd in a relaxing kind of way. I’ve certainly got no place better to sit on a cold, rainy Saturday afternoon.
Last stop is the needle shower, a foreboding contraption that looks like it could have been used as a model for Auschwitz. I stand in the white tiled shower stall with pipes in all four corners, connecting together right over my head. Each of the four pipes has four shower heads, all sixteen projecting high pressure needle-sized jet streams from all four directions.
The needle shower jets shut off automatically as my time with Latoya has come to an end. She gives me time to dry off before wrapping me up burrito-style, and guides me, shuffling down the hall toward my 20 minute massage, the finishing touch to the Buckstaff Bathhouse Traditional bathing experience.
Now feeling like “Betty Spaghetti,” I was relaxed, revitalized, and rejuvenated. My long time thirst for a hot soak was quenched…..at least for now!