The Double Life Of Hot Springs


At one end of the Row the most spectacular of the uncapped springs tumbles, steaming, out of the hillside. It is a dramatic exit for water that began a journey four thousand years ago from the earth’s surface, seeping through breaks and pores in the underlying rock down into a highly heated zone only to be driven back upward to where we see it now. Four thousand years is not so long an absence in geologic time, but for us it is nearly beyond imagining. Ground water that departed during the height of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom returns in the last days of the twentieth century. Our changes are more rapid. This water, valued by our grandparents for being warm, for its mineral content, even for being “radio-active,” we view differently. (The 1917 guide to the area that praises it as “radio-active” presented this as a virtue and seems to have associated it with carbonation.) In our world hot water is commonplace and the chemical composition of the springs has been coolly reevaluated by scientists; it is no longer thought especially beneficial, and radioactivity is, of course, viewed with a somewhat jaundiced eye. Its presence, from radon gas emanation, is relatively common, and its levels at Hot Springs are in no way health-threatening.


What is remarkable today, the principal reason that people carry water from the Hot Springs fountains by the bottleful, is purity, even in nature. The old irony continues. What our ancestors marveled over for the special things it contained now seem miraculous for what is missing.