The Baths in Hot Springs aren’t exactly what one might expect. This ain’t no Canyon Ranch. Instead, everything about these bath houses harkens back to the time when these natural mineral waters, and the treatments one took in them, were medicinal, clinical, therapeutic–not to be confused with the indulgent pampering of today. Not by a long shot.

Everything in the place we chose was clean. Scrupulously so, it seemed. But all of it had seen better days. Neglect is evident everywhere. Water-damaged ceilings that someone stopped looking at a long time ago. Cracked tiles. Original-issue furniture.

The equipment is all sturdy and unromantic: Big old serviceable iron tubs. Industrial-strength immersion whirlpool machines that look for all the world like a huge Hobart stand mixer. A steam cabinet…well, we’ll get to that.

One disrobes in a private, curtained locker cubicle. The lockers are chipped; the hangers inside are wire, bent beyond recognition. An attendant wraps one in a white sheet, “roman style” and escorts the bather into a room lined with the big bathtubs I mentioned, each in its own curtained cubicle. Any New Age delusions of pampering die a little death, right there.

In the tubs, one is loofahed by the attendant, back and legs, “to get the circulation going.” On goes the Hobart-mixer whirlpool. Water temp is adjusted by request. Then the whirlpoolee is brought two small cups of hot mineral water to drink, “to detox the system.” Yeah. And to work on the kidneys, at least for me, like the gateway to Niagara Falls.

Next, the sitz bath. Not as interesting as it sounds, and exactly like it sounds. One sits in a tile cubicle tub of EXTREMELY hot water that soaks your butt, hips and lower back. One is handed a very steam-warped magazine and two small cups of mineral water, iced this time. Ten minutes in there.

Next part was kinda fun. Arms/shoulders, legs, lower back and “any problem areas” are wrapped in hot, wet towels. One is covered with another sheet, and an ice-cold towel is draped over the forehead. There one lay for about ten minutes, steaming in one’s own juices like a big sous-vide cooking project. The needle shower that rinses the bather afterward was more like a “yarn shower”, flaccid and lifeless. But then….

THE STEAM CABINET. (Insert dramatic music here: dum dum dum duuuuuuuummmmmmm!) Anyone who has ever seen The Lucy Show know what this is: a cabinet out of which one’s head protrudes, while the captive body is steamed to the tenderness of a slow-cooked pot roast. Not bad, really…roomy enough in there to move…except that the thing was built into a tiny, broom-closet-sized space with a glass half-door that was left, mercifully, open.

More sheets.  More towels. And then, a massage. New Age calm did not rear its elfin head, even here. The woman-who-wouldn’t-stop-talking could not take the hint that I prefer to enjoy a massage, not palaver all through it. I heard a lot about cats, including treatment of possum-wounds with glue, and what a puncture-wound to a kitty’s head looks like when a hawk tries-and-misses carrying a cat away. I love massages. But I came away from this one more exhausted than before the treatments started.

Last, a paraffin treatment for the hands. A curious thing, looking like the subject of a Vincent Price movie, hands dunked in a vat of lavender-scented paraffin, then wrapped in plastic and covered with little thumbless mittens. When the plastic is peeled off, the wax comes with it (but not the skin, fortunately). Hands are nice and soft…enough to make up for the ouch of the initial dunk. I know that this is done in high-end manicures. But it was very, very strange.

It was a fascinating experience. A delightfully wet-noodle feeling. Would I do it again? At $66, the cost of this two-hour cure, probably. But I think I might need the scented-candle-Enya-music-soft-voiced New Agey thing first. The Baths are not exactly for the faint-of-heart.

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