Bathhouses of Hot Springs: Buckstaff

Recently Lewis and I took the family to Hot Springs National Park. This little gem of a park is tucked into the Ouachita National Forest, where very, very hot water flows like honey.

It’s also the only national park chockablock full of naked folks who have no idea what’s happening to them.

Beginning in the 19th century, a series of bathhouses appeared, ostensibly to harness the healing powers of the springs. They evolved over the decades until the 1910’s when they pretty much became what they are now. Today, two remain operational as bathhouses. The Arlington Hotel, once the fancy place to stay if you were a mobster, pro-ball player, or Tony Bennett (apparently), also has a bathhouse.

We visited all of these, thanks to our wonderful au pair Jessica, who kept our underage kids in the afternoons. Each steamy, naked experience was it’s own unique mixture of total relaxation, awkward mooning of strangers, and fear that you were more or less naked than you were supposed to be at any given time. If you ever plan to visit the baths, I recommend you stop reading here, because the element of surprise definitely adds to the fun.

Day One, Buckstaff.

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Buckstaff, still outfitted in blue stripe awnings, like a mid-century resort on the French seaside, is the only bathhouse that does not take reservations. It allows entries twice per day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. The line starts forming about an hour in advance, and will extend out the door and down the sidewalk by the time the the first-come-first-bathe service begins. 

There is no other spa service in the world that begins this way, to my knowledge.

While you wait, you can study early 20th century photos of patrons, neatly arranged in rows, shrouded in white, smiling attendants behind them. It looks like an infirmary. Like they are being prepped for organ donation, or sweating out the plague. Behind them in these photos are a few metal boxes with heads sticking out through a hole in the top. The whole thing is as intriguing as it is unsettling.

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The other thing I noticed in line was that the Buckstaff, like every other National Park experience, draws a really eclectic crowd. Like really eclectic. And we were about to get naked together.

The bathers are divided into men and women, women go upstairs in a cage elevator run by a wizened bathhouse attendant in a blue t-shirt rather than a man in a fancy suit and hat. 

Your entire experience is guided by a tiny slip of paper with your name written on it. The elevator operator takes it first, and she hands it to the lady in the second floor lobby, who escorts you into the locker room. Advice: don’t tip every single one of your handlers or you’ll go broke. 

Lest you be picturing rows of lockers and benches, remember that there is nothing modern about a bathhouse, including the locker room, which is a series of curtained stalls, each with two full size, public high school style metal lockers. You go in, take off your clothes, lock them in the locker and poke your head out to let the locker room attendant (your third handler by this point) know that you are naked. She then comes tells you to face the locker, opens the curtain, and wraps you, toga-style, in a sheet. It’s like prison, but instead of a cavity search, you’re dressed for a fraternity party.

Then, you sit with the rest of the Roman senate and wait, trying not to see through anyone’s sheet.

Seated next to me was one nervous NPS visitor whose pre-toga attire had screamed “hiker.” She sat bolt upright, and her eyes darted around the dated (though very clean) room. The whole facility is built on a 1912 activity using 1952 technology and 1972 interior materials.

The hiker, whose heels tapped compulsively, blurted out, “I hope this is worth the wait.”

I shrugged. They’ve been in business since 1912, I wanted to say. But I stuck with, “I’m sure it is…”

“I mean, the line is one thing, but now having us wait in here?” she went on about not having much time in Hot Springs. I shrugged again, trying to look sympathetic. There’s not a lot else to do in Hot Springs National Park, unless I’m missing something.

“Oh well, I just hope the floors are clean,” she said.

Sister, I wanted to say—but didn’t (remember we were wearing sheets. It seemed like civility was of utmost importance during this unfamiliar social situation)—sister, you may have picked the wrong way to relax this afternoon.

Eventually a bath attendant (your fourth handler) steps into the room and calls your name. This is the woman who will be administering all of your…treatments? Rituals?

My confusion over what to call the series of bath activities gets to the heart of the experience. In the United States, we prefer to be by ourselves while naked, and we prefer a total sensory immersion with the right smells, music, and lavender tea accompanying our spa ritual. However, in 1912, being fancy was more Old Worlde, and the baths were billed as a healing treatment, and, if the grainy black and white pictures all over hot springs are any indication, it was one of those highly clinical environments where the well-to-do subject themselves to a lot of undignified pseudoscience in the name of progressive wellness.

And sometime in between, someone invented fluorescent lightbulbs.

Walking into the giant bathing room with marble panels, hanging fluorescent office lighting, the first thing you notice is that there is steam all over the place, and nothing looks particularly luxurious. Piles of towels, the occasional bucket, and pipes everywhere make the place look a bit like an institutional laundry room. Then you remember that you’re wrapped in a sheet, and begin to wonder if you are in fact about to be laundered.

It’s also fair to note that none of the bath attendants are anyone you’d want to cross. My guess is that it takes a particular constitution to usher naked National Parks visitors around in a steamy laundry room all day.

First stop is the whirlpool. The attendant takes away the sheet, which is momentarily awkward, but then you are in the tub. This is a pedestal tub with what looks like a turbine motor dropped into it. I was afraid the entire time that I was going to lose my toe or be electrocuted. This jet/agitator device, however, is not dangerous at all, and, once you slide in, a very well-placed jet stream gives some clue as to why bathhouses may have been so popular in the pre-battery era.

That particular 15 minutes goes by quite quickly, and the water feels glorious. It’s about 102 degrees and has just the right sting as you get in.

The attendant pops back in, however, and then it’s time to get out and put your sheet back on. You shuffle through the Agora of other women in white (now damp) sheets, over to what is essentially a row of massage tables, each the kind one would find in a college athletic facility.

Aha! The row of mummies from the photo in the lounge!

Yes indeed, covered in heat packs (piping hot hand towels) and one ice-cold head towel, I basically took a sublime 15 minute nap.

My attendant managed to wake me without startling me, which tells me I’m not the first one to fall asleep in the mummy lineup.

Now into the Sitz bath. I had assumed sitz was some sort of mineral or something. Now I’m wondering if it’s called that because you sitz in it. It was like a little water throne. My husband compared it to a janitor’s mop sink, which may be because his (male) bath attendant wiped it down with Ajax just before he got in. I can’t say I’m crazy about the sitz. It was nice, and if I had lower back issues, it could have been helpful.

The sitz baths do offer a great view of the room though, so I could observe the system of human laundry, and man what a system.

After the sitz, it was time for steam. My attendent led me to a little closet with a split door. The top was frosted glass, and open. The bottom was stainless steel. She opened it to let me in, and invited me to sit on the little bench inside.

She took my sheet, which made getting adjusted rather unpleasant to watch, I’m sure. But she swung the door shut and then folded two stainless steel panels down over the top of me with just a cut out for my head. Final mystery solved. She wrapped my sheet around my neck, and I sat for five minutes like a disembodied head on a metal box. Inside the metal box, the rest of me was being delightfully sauna’d. Truly, one of the better sauna experiences I have had, as my head was nice and cool.

Because I had opted not to be massaged, I was taken to the needle shower, which is infinitely more pleasant than it sounds.

The needle shower is a web of pipes wrapping almost 360 degrees around you. Water comes out everywhere in pleasant “needles” which are more tickly than prickly. There was a shower curtain, but by this time my attendant had seen my bare ass and twice-post-nursing breasts enough times that she barely made a show of trying to give any privacy, and I made very little show of caring.

The needle shower was delightful and refreshing and I want one very much. In my house. Lewis didn’t even fully inhale before saying “they’re hugely wasteful of water and against code.”

Guess I’ll have to come back, then.

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