The Joy of Soaks
Story by Donna Clayton Lawder
I like to say I'd have moved to New Mexico for the hot springs alone.
Truth is, I didn't really know how heavenly a spot of relaxation and rejuvenation a hot spring could be until moving to Silver City just over two years ago.
About two-thirds through the trip from Princeton, NJ—car crammed full of the bare essentials, two cats complaining loudly from the back seat, the rest of the household goods in a moving van somewhere en route—hubby and I made the brilliant decision to stay "just an extra day" in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Feeling road-weary after several days in the car, the glory of Graceland behind us, the thought of sleeping in the same bed for two nights in a row was appealing in itself. Besides, during our afternoon of sightseeing, the locals had turned us on to Bathhouse Row, in particular a "European style" temple of naturally hot mineral water sure to ease our tight hamstrings and aching backs.
Josephine Tussaud's Wax Museum, just up the street, would have to wait.
I had a date with a dip.
A day pass gave us unlimited access to the soaking pools of various temperatures, some with submerged chaise lounges—soak, go have lunch, come back and soak some more. Cool off with a natural mineral-water shower. In the middle of our day of strict R&R, we managed to schedule one-hour massages. And then we soaked some more.
Soaking in Hot Springs, Ark., did more to me than ease the rest of the trip to my new home in New Mexico. It uncovered a passion in me for finding hot water and peace under brilliant blue skies.
I think of myself as "hot springs hardcore." I can't imagine a day too cold or too hot to soak. I grab a beach bag, always packed with sunscreen and a towel, fill a water bottle and a small cooler pack with snacks, and head out to soak, read, do crossword puzzles and generally forget about the world for hours on end.
I consider hot springs part of my health-insurance plan. Making the time to regularly immerse myself in hot, pure water eases my mind and untangles my body, helping me feel healthier on all levels.
Fortunately, New Mexico abounds with hot springs. When visiting Santa Fe, one can immerse body and soul at Ten Thousand Waves, a posh resort with a decidedly Japanese feel in the mountains. Truth or Consequences, "home of the sacred springs of the Apaches," according to my guidebook, boasts a number of bathing experiences, including tubs in private rooms at the Artesian Bath House and Trailer Park, gravel-lined pools at Hay-Yo-Kay Hot Springs, and Marshall Hot Springs, the latter a growing health spa with mud holes for therapeutic foot soaks.
But closer to home, we in the Silver City area have a variety of soaking experiences right nearby. On the way back from seeing the Cliff Dwellings, I stopped and sampled Gila Hot Springs, a year-round vacation center with lodging and camping facilities. The natural hole-in-the-ground hot pools did wonders to ease my muscles, tight from the hike up and down from the dwellings.
Other natural soaking experiences can be had at Melanie Hot Springs and San Francisco Hot Springs, both just north of Silver City. Both springs take a little doing to get to, the hike to Melanie involving 10-12 river crossings, passable only in the low water season. The rock soaking pools on the edge of the Gila River, with streams of hot water cascading from the face of the cliffs above, create a magical soaking setting worth the effort.
The one-hour hike in to the San Francisco (Upper) Spring is decidedly less arduous. True, the trail is steep, particularly the last half-mile, but the sandy-bottomed pools located under a spectacular cliff are a wonderful natural and scenic soak. Though the Forest Service bulletin board posted at the trailhead clearly states "No Nudity!," I could tell the young couple that showed up when I was there was disappointed to find company. Totally lacking bathing suits, he stripped to his boxers and climbed in, while the young lady merely rolled up her pants legs and sat on the edge of the pool, sighing with some frustration from time to time.
Faywood is 25 miles south of Silver City, off Hwy. 61 near its intersection with Hwy. 180. I don sunglasses and pop something into the CD player. Cruise control gets me past Bayard without a ticket. At Hwy. 61, I make a left and go up a couple of miles, then make the left onto the winding dirt driveway that leads to Faywood's door. This is one of those compacted dirt roads, so I turn off the CD player to keep Bruce Cockburn from skipping, and silently, thankfully, enter into The Soak Zone.
Just a half-dozen cars in the parking lot this morning. A quiet day.
Today I decide to take the plunge and buy a 10-pass. Faywood's regular all-day soak ticket costs $12 for adults, $6 for kids under six years of age. By shelling out my $96 plus tax today, I get two all-day soaks for free. The 10-pass is valid for six months, and I think it's better than a good bet that I'll be here at least nine more times before December.
Faywood also has private pools, individually fenced and naturally landscaped, for $12 per hour per adult, minimum charge $24. The private pools are equipped with chaise lounges and chairs and a shower, and are nice for couples and small groups. The private pools all are "clothing optional," and for those who like to soak au natural, but not in public, this is the perfect solution.
"Quiet day?" I ask Wanda Fuselier, co-owner of Faywood, with her husband Elon Yurwit. "Not a lot of cars out there this morning."
"Good number of guests, though," she says. "Campers and cabins."
Ah, that's right. The overnight guests' cars and RVs are out of sight, parked at their accommodations, tucked into Faywood's treed nooks and crannies just beyond the public soaking pools. Though I live so close, I've considered staying at one of the cabins for a sweet three-day weekend retreat with my significantly hardworking Other.
Faywood has all the basic accommodations, with tent camping at reasonable rates (one adult person, $18; two for $29; children under 12, $10 each; weekly and monthly deals, too) and even has a papier mache teepee for hire. Campsites have a grill, running water and picnic table, and all are shaded and level.
Tent camping is nice, and I've done my share, but for that romantic getaway, I'm planning on one of the sweet oak-and-cedar cabins. There are six at Faywood. All are one-bedroom, but the loft makes a convenient second sleeping area for perhaps a couple of couples traveling together, or a couple with kids. Each cabin has a queen bed, completely equipped kitchenette, heat and air conditioning, plus a quirky little selections of novels on the shelves for that vacation reading.
Furthermore, in addition to all-night access to the public pools and an hour per day of private pool time, overnight guests have a special pool area available to them, in a lushly landscaped courtyard.
I can imagine pulling up to Casita Consuelo, settling in, and not leaving the property for three long days. Indeed, that's what folks do, Elon tells me. Manhattanites are known to get off the plane in El Paso, take the shuttle to Faywood's front door, and not budge from the cabin-to-pool-to-cabin routine.
"A lot of folks just need to unwind for a few days, then they're ready to get out and see what's there," Elon tells me. He's checking the temperature of the pool I'm soaking in, something he does every couple of hours.
"I tell them about City of Rocks, send them to Silver for the restaurants and such," Elon goes on. "They have a fun day and then come back to soak under the stars."
I imagine the fun we could have if Steph and Mario came out for a visit, our northeast friends who now live in Arizona. If my family came to visit, we could have a reunion in the gorgeous rustic clubhouse that overnight guests get to use. Weddings have been held there, it's so pretty, with a wood-burning fireplace, heavy wooden tables and chairs, and big windows that let in views of the surrounding property. I imagine a game night with my brother's four kids having a blast.
But today it's just me, again, looking forward to the deep rest that comes from a good soak and nothing much on my mind.
At the crest, I have the choice of two paths that lead down to the fenced enclosure around the bathing areas. One door leads to the "clothing required" public pools, and beyond them, the private pools.
The other door opens to the "clothing optional" public pools. I won't divulge which wooden door I choose, but I will tell you that I drop more than my cares and worries when I enter a hot spring pool.
Each of the public bathing areas has three pools: a really hot one at the top, temp about 108 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, a middle pool at about 104-105 degrees, and a cool pool at just around 100 degrees at the bottom.
The water at Faywood Hot Springs comes out of the earth at about 137 degrees Fahrenheit. The pool temperatures are regulated by adding stored mineral water from the towers up on the crest of the tufa mound.
The temperature at which the water comes out of the ground is more than hot enough to kill Naegleria fowleri, the deadly parasite talked about so fearfully in the warnings often posted at hot springs. Faywood's natural mineral water is pure enough to drink, and was sold bottled back in the good old days. As health-department restrictions tightened, Faywood's previous owners eventually stopped selling the water to the public, but that didn't stop the true believers from drinking it right from the taps all around the property.
The spring's current owners since have taken all necessary steps, including having the spring head capped, to have the water certified as pure and drinkable. Visitors are free to fill their water bottles from the taps of flowing hot mineral water. One devotee soaking with me in the middle pool tells me that he likes to drink only the hot mineral water when he is soaking, so that what is going into his body is the same temperature and rich mineral quality as what he's soaking in.
"You don't want to soak hot and drink cold," he tells me, raising his Nalgene bottle in a toast.
I always start my soak at the cool pool, rinsing my feet in the adjoining foot wash basin. After about 10 minutes of lying flat in the warm water just covering my body, I join a few other folks enjoying the bigger middle pool. This concrete basin is several feet deep, and the steps leading into it and the concrete seats in the corners allow bathers to sit with the water comfortably at shoulder height.
This is where I spend most of my soaking time, chatting and working a crossword puzzle (my addiction—I often do three a day), alternately sitting on the edge of the pool to cool. It's a sunny one, and the shade cloth, giving 73 percent UV protection, is pulled across the shade frame above us. Crossword puzzles and magazines let me to break my concentration easily and enjoy conversation with other soakers, though I also bring along whatever novel I'm into, in case of a more solitary day at the pools, and I have even written short stories here.
Other days, I have enjoyed a massage in the middle or at the end of my soak. Faywood has two licensed massage therapists on staff, Samantha Adams and Renee Setaro, who work in the facility's rustic adobe cabin. Rates are standard: $60 for a one-hour massage, with half-hour, 90-minute and two-hour sessions also available. The Faywood Gumbo massage is a session tailored to the recipient's needs and wants, and can include Swedish massage, deep tissue work, reflexology, shiatsu and more.
When the new visitor's center is completed, there will be a coffee bar and cafe serving all manner of juices, salads and wholesome fare, Elon tells me. He's given me a tour of the nearly completed structure, and it's impressive.
The new entrance to Faywood, just a bit farther up 61, will bring visitors to a beautiful round building, with a sunny center courtyard, lushly landscaped with native plantings. Elon says the new building will be open by this fall.
"It will be a nice place to hang out with a cappuccino, waiting for a friend to join you for a soak, or for your massage appointment," he says.
There will also be a conference room, for groups that want to gather and do their business in paradise. The Faywood Hot Springs mini-museum, with photos, artifacts and information about the place, will colorfully tell its story.
Quite an investment, the old business reporter in me is thinking, and I prod Elon for some numbers. He estimates, off the top of his head, that some 15,000 paying customers come through Faywood each year. The place sees better than 20 percent growth per year, nearly all of which has been reinvested in the property, year after year since Wanda and Elon bought the place in 1993.
Living off savings and keeping to a simple lifestyle, the couple has provided a nice quality of life for their young family (two girls still at home, 6 and 13 years of age) and slowly built up a dream, out of a love of hot soaks and a vision.
It's now well past 3 p.m., and having soaked and stretched to my satisfaction, I bid my pool acquaintances goodbye and head out and up the hill. Passing the current visitor's center, I wave a blissful goodbye to Wanda and head home.
Next time you're looking for a quick getaway and some deep relaxation, think hot spring. If your quest for the perfect afternoon soak brings you to Faywood, chances are good you'll find me there, soaking, chatting, doing the crossword.
After all, they, uh, see a lot of me there.
When she dries off, Donna Clayton Lawder is a freelance writer and arts administrator in Silver City.