Issue 5.4: August/September 2002

Taking the Cure


by Pamela Frierson
color photos by Greg Vaughn

McCredle Hot Springs, Oregon

Every now and then, I catch a whiff of sulfur
from the volcano just over the hill from where I live on the Big Island and think—not of eruptions and lava flows— but of hot springs. Years ago, during my post-college days as an Island girl in exile, roaming the continental West, I spent a halcyon period living by a wild hot spring, which became nearly as central to my life as work or love, and that sulphury smell always transports me back to that rustic, steaming pool in the mountains of Idaho.

My passion for hot springs began by chance, when I was working for the Whole Earth Catalog, that age-of-Aquarius lifestyle bible for the counterculture. We collectively (we did almost everything collectively, so that one day you might be a janitor and the next the head of R&D) reviewed and selected products for our catalog that seemed useful for living in an earth-friendly and also sybaritic manner.


On what must have been my "head of R&D" day, someone handed me a copy of a U.S. Geological Survey compendium on "natural thermal resources." This weighty government publication listed every known hot spring in the United States. Unfortunately, the book was not only seriously out of date, but the information for locating hot springs was sketchy to begin with. For Calistoga Hot Springs, now a major spa mecca, for example, it gave a location of "225 yards east of depot."

Nevertheless, I set off on my next vacation to do a little hot springs research. In the desert east of Los Angeles, I drove over fifty miles of washboard dirt road to a hot spring that I imagined to be as idyllic as it was remote. The USGS book said nothing about the place other than listing the "flow per minute" as 10 gallons, and the temperature as "79-109F." It was a brisk late autumn, and that sounded all right to me.

What I found at the end of the road was definitely a "wild" hot spring: a bath-sized, algae-lined pond. There was no sign of another vehicle anywhere in that desiccated landscape, but the pond was occupied. A long-haired, naked man gave a friendly wave with what looked like a gallon jug of Paisano wine. I waved back and headed for the next motel that guaranteed a bathtub.

Over the next few years, as I chased down thermal springs across a good part of the West, I discovered that the heyday of hot springs had come and mostly gone. In oak-lined canyons and out-of-the-way places, I found the remains of old resorts, lodges and watering holes, where city-dwellers had once flocked to "take the cure." Not all of these were hot springs, since pleasure and relaxation took a back seat to drinking the mineral-laden water. I came upon one place where nothing remained but the gazebo that once surrounded a fountain of cold, carbonated spring water. Tacked to the wall was a tattered, yellowed paper listing the mineral content, which I remember was heavy on sulfates and bicarbonates.

"I bathed even on days so cold
that icicles formed in my hair."
photo: Pamela Frierson 

Eventually, by the remains of an old resort in Idaho, I found a wonderful hot spring in a mountain meadow, with a pool enclosed by hand-hewn logs and an owner generous enough to share it with the community. I stayed for three years, living nearby through the long winters, bathing every day, even on days so cold that icicles formed in my hair as I sat in the steaming water. I fell out of love and went stir crazy in a log cabin there, but I never failed to regard that earthly gift of hot water with awe.

Since returning to live on the Big Island, I have never quite adjusted to living in an area of so much in-your-face thermal energy, and so little natural hot water. I know of only one Hawaiian "hot spring": a place along the coast of Puna, where warm fresh water seeps up through cracks in the lava into a large salt-water pool. At low tide, I was informed, the water is nicely warm, but at high tide or when the ocean is rough, the "hot spring" disappears. I made a couple of visits, only to find disappointingly chilly water.

So when a recent trip to Oregon gave me a chance to pay a nostalgic visit to a couple of hot springs near Portland, I was delighted. My old USGS guide was long gone, so I checked a local guidebook. The two closest hot springs were Kah-nee-ta Resort on the Warm Springs Reservation, in the high desert southeast of Portland, and Carson Hot Springs, in the Columbia River Gorge. I liked the idea that one offered thoroughly modern-sounding spa "treatments," and the other provided no-frills baths in clawfoot tubs in a building that "has not changed since 1923."

In my hot-springs youth, I never thought of the origin of all that thermal water. Hot water flowing out of the ground was simply one of those magical accouterments of the West: the lemonade springs and soda water fountains, as the song goes, of the Big Rock Candy Mountains. But now, living in the Hawaiian enigma of spectacular volcanic activity but little earth-produced hot water, I wanted to know something about the science of hot springs.

Having read that 90 percent of the hot springs in the U.S. are found west of the Rockies, I asked Cathy Janik, a USGS expert in the "geochemistry of fluids," to explain the link between hot springs and volcanism. Sometimes there isn’t any, she told me, or at least not a direct one: "Water can actually go down deep into the earth, along cracks and fissures, and pick up heat from the earth’s natural heat flow, and then find its way back through faults or fissures to the surface."

However, the two hot springs I planned to visit, she said, were undoubtedly linked to the still-active volcanism of the Cascade Range. Heading off to the Kah-nee-ta Resort, I skirted the south flank of Mt. Hood and drove out into high desert country where towering buttes were striped with successions of lava flows. The resort, I had learned, included a casino as well as a spa, a juxtaposition that had me making involuntary mental puns around the idea of "getting soaked."

When I arrived, Margie Tuckta, a woman from the Warm Springs tribe who is one of the managers of the very modern lodge above the springs, filled me in on the resort’s name. "Kah-nee-ta," she told me, "comes from the name of a Warm Springs medicine woman known as the ‘root digger,’ who used indigenous plants as well as the hot springs for healing."

Hot stone treatment
at Kah-nee-ta Resort

The spa was down along the river, built of concrete and river rock. On the wall, metal letters spelled out an old Native American tale in which all the natural elements of the place are letting Coyote know what they like. "I like to stay in one place and not move," says Rock—a sentiment that seemed perfect for the spa experience.

I was led down into a simple slate-tiled room with two Jacuzzi soaking tubs, and shown how to mix in the cold with the 130-degree spring water to suit my taste. The water felt soothing and slightly slippery, like liquid silk. In a room where drum and flute music played softly over the sound system, I was treated to a "native hot stone therapy" massage. The smooth river rocks taken from a bath of mineral water (kept at a precise heat by use of an electric turkey roaster) were strategically applied to various parts of my body, the most luxurious-feeling being tiny warm pebbles between the toes. The stones, with oils scented with desert sage and mesquite, were used for massage as well, and oddly felt as soft and smooth as the palm of a hand.

Later that evening, feeling relaxed but still restless, I sat on the balcony of my room and gazed out over a sculptured topography of butte and canyon lit by the rose of sunset. A dapper black-and-white magpie landed on the rail, cocked an eye at me, and muttered what sounded like, "four-three-four, four-three-four." A winning number! I thought, and jumped up to head for the casino tables, but then quickly sat down again. I had not won back the memories I wanted at this hot spring, but somehow I didn’t think gambling could help me there. Besides, how could I be sure the bird didn’t work for the house?

Back on the road, I located Carson Hot Springs on the map and headed into the grand scenery of the Columbia River Gorge. The hot spring was up along the Wind River on the Washington side of the gorge, its office inside a three-story clapboard hotel, built in 1901 and still offering rooms to let. I crossed a rickety floor to the front desk and examined a brochure, which informed me that the bathhouse had been hosting eager bathers continuously since 1923, and that the mineral water contained "potassium, sodium, calcium, magnesium, sulfate, ammonia and phosphate." Baths in the claw-foot tubs were followed by something called the "body wrap."

Bagby Hot Spring, Oregon

I signed up for a soak and wrap, offered for a very modest price, followed by a massage. While I awaited a free tub, I examined mug shots of the massage therapists on the bulletin board. They were a cross-section of humanity, including one who was very large, hairy and tattooed, and wearing a sleeveless T-shirt advertising a Montana lager named Moose Drool. I suddenly realized what this place reminded me of: the classic Charlie Chaplin film The Cure, in which Charlie is deposited at a health spa to cure his dipsomania, and winds up in a wrestling match with his burly massage therapist.

The women’s section of the bathhouse was a warren of concrete-floored rooms with ancient pipes and ducts, and whitewashed walls with an incongruous stripe of hot pink running horizontally near the top. I was led by a young, pony-tailed attendant to a row of clawfoot bathtubs screened from each other with plastic shower curtains. Here again, I mixed the hot spring water with cold until the tub was full. A cup was provided, so I dutifully sipped the odorous water, proclaimed on a placard on the wall to be good for everything from "kidney disorders" to "poison ivy."

After twenty minutes, my attendant fetched me for the warm wrap. I was led into another long room decorated with the same pink stripe, and lined on each side with plank cots, where women lay wrapped from head to toe in huge white towels. Each had a rosy face and seemed to be asleep. From the cot next to me rose a gentle snore. The attendant swaddled me tightly in towels and left me to steep.

I had time to think about how "taking the waters" must have been in the old days. Patty McFall, the front desk person, a red-haired woman who had grown up just down the road, had assured me "the bathhouse is run just the way it was from the beginning."

"People used to come here by train," she said, "and stay for a week or two, to take the cure. They were serious about the health benefits. So was the man who originally built the hotel. He died, they say, when he got in a fight with a man who ran down the benefits of the water."

I decided to say nothing denigrating about the place to my massage therapist, who was as brawny as the man in the Moose Drool shirt but turned out to be a quiet, skilled professional from Yakima. In the end, I left the hot springs feeling less pampered than I had at Kah-nee-ta but cured of everything that could possibly ail me.

On my way back home, I began to think again about that warm pond on the coast of the Big Island, located just ten miles away from the active eruption on Kilauea Volcano. In 1950, vents opened not two miles from the warm pond, spewing molten rock and cinder over a purple sea of orchid farms and destroying the little village of Kapoho. In a place where at any given moment you could see the earth’s forces make water boil and witness a steam plume a hundred times the volume of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, asking for reliable bath water is maybe a tad presumptuous. When I returned to the Big Island, I decided to give the warm pond another try.

But first I asked Jim Kauihikaua, a volcanologist at Hawaii Volcano Observatory who is an expert in the "transport of fluids," why I couldn’t expect the volcano to deliver consistently heated bathwater. The extremely permeable rock produced by Hawaiian volcanoes, he pointed out, "means that there are few places where water captures and pools. The warm pond is also on the rainy side of the island. The amount of water that flushes out along the windward coast after a good rain is huge—more output than the Amazon River. Any water heated up by the volcano is likely to get swamped."

I picked a day when it had not rained for a while, the sea was calm, and the tide was low. I arrived at the rock-wall lined pool by the sea in Puna shortly after dawn. Once privately owned and widely known as "millionaire’s pond," the place is now a county park, created to help replace the public beach that was obliterated when lava overran the idyllic village of Kalapana. Even so, only a couple of other people were floating quietly about as I slipped into the water. It was warm—or at least the top two feet of it were. Tiny silver fish darted by me, the sea splashed a mild froth into one end of the pool, and coconut trees flared against the sky like roman candles around the edges. This is it, I thought: no reservations, no bath attendants, sometimes no hot water. Just this pure erratic gift from the cosmos. After all, seawater is mineral water too—so in a sense, you could say all Hawaii is a spa.