Springs by Southwest
Sometimes the best part of SXSW is those letters on the opposite edge of the compass: the trip home. I can cannonball from Chicago to Austin in 17 hours via expressways, but the trip back along the blue highways takes days, dedicated to languishing among folks who know little and care less about how CDs get made.
The road home this year went through Hot Springs, Arkansas, renowned in the Ozarks for its “action.” The real high rollers are gone; a big horse track and an abundance of strip clubs remain. (Bill Clinton was born down the road in Hope, but he’s really a Hot Springs kinda guy; the locals will tell you this, proudly and often.) Diversions change with the times, but the source of Hot Springs’ appeal remains constant: mineral-rich 143-degree water, some 850,000 gallons of it every day, gushing up out of the ground.
Briefly: Indigenous tribes treated the springs as a DMZ. The first European hide dipped here was Hernando de Soto’s. In 1832 the government made the springs a federal reservation. A channel was dug to aid runoff; a road built over this became Central Avenue, the main drag. The first bathhouses of canvas and wood were prone to rotting and burning; stone ones endured. The first half of the twentieth century became the Golden Age of Bathing (says so on a marker). After WWII, people stopped riding trains to resort towns in favor of driving to Disneyland, and Bathhouse Row fell into gradual decline.
The National Parks Service has preserved some of this history; eight old bathhouses boast restored exteriors. The Fordyce is a lavishly restored museum and visitors center, four floors of polished wood and brass, ornate stained glass, and frightening tools of “therapeutic” quackery. One bathhouse on the row remains operational: the Buckstaff Baths, where for a remarkable $16.50 you get a thermal mineral bath, whirlpool, sitz bath, vapor cabinet, hot pack, and needle shower — just what a body needs after the abuse and intensity of SXSW, I think to myself. Minutes later, I stand draped in a linen toga.
I’ve been in public locker rooms before, pretending I’m no more naked or unsightly than anyone else, but I’ve never had a personal attendant. His name is Walter Wyrick Jr., a native of Hot Springs. He’s in his 50s, looks a bit like R.L. Burnside. His hands are dusted with white mineral residue, like a car after a drive on winter-salted streets. His friendly but authoritative tone derives from 20 years working this circuit, at the defunct Lamar Baths, at the Hilton, and now here at the Buckstaff. If Bathhouse Row were a music conference, Walter would be its best stage manager.
“Hop on in here, big man,” instructs Walter, slapping the side of the biggest free-standing porcelain tub I’ve ever seen, full of steaming water. He turns on the whirlpool jet, an old contraption like a thin black outboard motor, mounted tubside. The needle on the antique temperature gauge (manufactured in “Williamsport, Penna” and long enough ago that a German cross made a good logo) hovers at 104. “Slide down in there, get your neck and shoulders,” he commands; I dutifully comply.
“Where you from?” asks Walter. “Chicago?! Your buildings are falling on people’s heads!” he says. I haven’t read the paper in days, know nothing of crumbling facades in the Loop. After 15 minutes steeping in this water, I’m not sure I even care. If he’d said a leviathan had lurched up out of Lake Michigan to swallow the Hancock Building, I wouldn’t have cared.
Next, in a scene familiar from cartoondom, I sit in a marble-walled box with stainless steel doors, my head poking out the top. Walter turns a lever and steam hisses; soon sweat is pouring down my back and arms, running off my fingertips. I’m melting like a stick of butter on a stove. Unless the cartoons lied, inside this cabinet my body is shrinking down to doll size.
“Had enough, Chicago?” Well, yes and no; the world is a very cold place after a steam cabinet. “C’mon down here, get you wrapped up.” Walter walks slightly hunched, a roll in his gait. I realize I’m doing the same, copying him because I no longer trust my own rubbery legs. My linen sheet goes over a padded bench; I get a steaming hot towel back and front, then the linen folded up over me from either side. I’m a big tamale in my cornhusk wrapper.
After this, it’s a shower in a wraparound cage of pipes, too many jets to count. I’m too fatigued to towel off thoroughly; I’ll just air-dry under those big ceiling fans in the cooling room. I’m Walter’s last client before lunch break, so when I wake up, I see him reclined on his own table at the opposite end of the room. The fraternity of this is pleasing. After I dress, I tell Walter that I’ve found my new annual post-conference decompression ritual.
“Well, it does seem to be getting popular with the younger folks again,” he muses.
Thanks, Walter. See you next March.