The Double Life Of Hot Springs

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Now, as then, the first stop is the tub. A bathing attendant assigned upon entry to the bathing area—a large room with skylights, open in the center and with cubicles along the walls—prepares a deep tub in one of the enclosures. The bather lies back, nearly neck-deep in hundred-degree water that jets in from beside his feet. The overall effect is similar to that of a whirlpool and a hot tub combined—except for the isolation. For roughly twenty minutes you lie in a narrow room that is devoid of any official decoration except for a clock (conveniently placed so that you have to look at it), a room that—rarity of rarities in this Muzak world—offers no piped-in “entertainment.” The only sounds are those of the water and the calls of the attendants checking on their charges: “How you doing, my young man?”—this especially to the oldest clients.

The Spartan austerity of the sweat chambers would satisfy John Calvin, but all around are sinful delights more appropriate to a sultan‘s palace.
 

My attendant, a native of Hot Springs named Bobby Howell, a bathhouse attendant for seventeen years, left me with the instruction “I do the work; you do the relaxing,” a charge that not only made me feel guilty at being waited on but also made me pursue relaxation with an industriousness that was exhausting. Bobby also left cups of warm springwater, telling me to drink, that this would be a purifying replacement for the fluids I was sweating out. (The Hot Springs waters are sterile and were used to hold the first of NASA’s moon rocks back in the days when we worried about contamination from outer space.)

I dutifully drank and, tired of looking at the plumbing (that of the establishment as well as my own) and the clock, I craned my neck to see the unofficial decorations Bobby had hung on the wall behind me, cutout reproductions (two) of Jesus Praying on the Mount —pictures I remember from the walls of rural Baptist churches—a bathhouse calendar, illustrated with two children sitting, of course, on a dock, and a picture of a little girl at prayer. All this is clearly didactic, a reminder that more than the body is in need of purification, a nudge to suggest it was profligation that brought us here in the first place. But Bobby’s pictures are vaguely reassuring as well, a humanizing touch amid all this sterility, a hint that someone is caring for you.

 

After the big tub there is the sitz bath, a perch in a narrow, shallow trough that offers relief for everything from hemorrhoids to lower-back pain. Next come two minutes in a private steam bath, where, in the intense heat, you count off the seconds, leaving the compartment early if you wish but called out by the attendant if you count too slowly.

Outside the bathing cubicles narrow tables have been drawn side to side. Delivered here from the steam, the bather is wrapped mummy fashion, with hot compresses applied to troubling joints and areas of chronic discomfort, then left to sweat and relax some more. The warmth in this phase differs from that of the tubs and steam room and spreads more slowly, working its way into knees and shoulders.

The last stop in the bathing area is the needles, a narrow stall with horizontal jets that spray cool water from your neck to your feet. This is preparation for the cooling room, another line of tables, where, removed from the humid bathing area and cooled by fans, you await the masseur. And the massage is the ultimate indulgence, a concentrated movement of flesh and muscles in which you lie still and someone else moves your body.

All this touches on two contrasting worlds: the world of the infirm seeking relief for failing limbs and the world of the athlete, vital, physically secure to the point of narcissism. The smells of the bathhouse are those of the YMCA as much as of the rehabilitation center, of the training room as much as of the physical-therapy wing of the local hospital. The messages come from both sides to the middle-aged man wandered in off the street, messages both of youth and of old age, of the body triumphant and of the body in defeat.

Outside, afterward, where I felt drained by the sweating and invigorated by the massage, the experience seems representative of Hot Springs more generally, in part because the desperately ill and the exuberantly healthy have historically crossed paths in this valley. At the free bathing pools, in 1885, a not untypical year for the spa in its heyday, the two most common complaints were rheumatism and syphilis—the latter disease bringing a host of paying guests over the years, including Al Capone. At the same time Hot Springs was a favorite training site for boxers, entertaining on various occasions John L. Sullivan, Jim Corbett, Jess Willard, and Jack Dempsey. Several baseball teams came here for spring training, most notably the Pittsburgh Pirates, who began their seasons in Hot Springs from 1901 to 1933. A number of players, including Babe Ruth, came on their own, so great was their regard for the conditioning power of the waters.