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A Spa just this Side of Romania

Carson Hot Springs [before the re-model]
It’s one of those wild winter days and I can’t think of a windier, more exposed, raw, cold, miserable place to go than up the Columbia Gorge, so naturally, that’s where my friend Georgia and I head. Destination: Carson Hot Springs, an odd little resort featuring mineral hot baths, some fifty miles east of Portland.

We drive up the I-84 along the Columbia River and cross over to the Washington side at the Bridge of the Gods to a little town called Carson and then on to the springs where we arrive in the driving rain. We run through the downpour past a row of cabins, to the lobby of the old hotel to get our tickets for the baths.

The place had been described as “rustic,” but that doesn’t quite capture it. The hotel was built in 1897 and renovated in the 1920’s when adjacent buildings for the baths and the group of cabins were built. From the looks of things, this was the last time anything was done to upgrade, except for the furnishings in the lobby, which looked as though someone scoured a few garage sales in the 1970’s. It’s shabby, but charming in its unmatched hodge-podge way.

We pay for our soak in the tubs and walk outside to the bathhouses. We choose only the baths, but there are all sorts of massages available if one is so inclined. Inside the women’s bathhouse (men and women are segregated), an attendant takes our tickets, hands us thin towels, possibly left from the twenties as well, and points us toward the dressing room, a drab square cement cell with a row of open plywood cubicles designed by someone who may have flunked shop in high-school. We strip and stuff our clothes into the open cubes, there being no lockers. We had been forewarned about the lack of security and so carry nothing valuable with us—only our clothes and a couple of bucks for tips. Shampoo and comb. Oh, and no jewelry: The minerals in the baths are corrosive.

Thus stripped and clad in our clean white frayed towels, we trot barefoot to our tubs. I’m surprised the tubs are actually real bathtubs, enamel with feet. I don’t know what I expected, but certainly not turn-of-the-century bathtubs corroded at the spigots from a hundred years of mineral deposits. The tubs sit in a row, each with it’s own private plastic curtain. We enter our tubs, already roaring full of steaming mineral water, and the attendant closes the curtains around us. We leave the curtain between us open to visit, although we are soon so sapped by the heat, we can’t muster any conversation. Besides, we’re supposed to soak and contemplate.

As we boil in our own private soup stock, we’re supposed to drink plenty of the odious water. They supply us with paper cups in which to do so, but we gag and make faces every time we drink the stuff. We laugh and lie back and soak up the heat. The tub is so deep, that when mine is full, I float, making it difficult to relax totally. I anchor myself by putting my arms on the tub side or throwing a foot over the rim. Actually, I pretty much keep a foot out anyway for temperature control.

I lie back in my tub and look at the peeling ceiling and walls and wonder that we haven’t been transported to Romania or somewhere in Eastern Europe. It’s definitely pre-world War II.

We cook for about twenty minutes until we’re beet red and the attendant opens the curtains and tells us it’s time to get out. Out of our tubs, we wrap ourselves in our towels and are directed to cots where the attendant wraps us up in bath sheets and blankets like mummies. This is the sweating part and you have your choice of tight or loose. I choose loose which is pretty tight. You sweat and you sweat and you sweat.

Your head is wrapped up too so there’s no sensation, no outside stimuli, except for some exceedingly insipid organ music, a relative to pop Muzak faintly wafting from the ceiling. This adds to the other-worldliness of the place. I drift in and out of consciousness and feel like my entire body had turned to liquid. It is incredibly relaxing.

The attendant will come and tell you when you’ve had enough, although my friend and I have already unwrapped a bit before she arrives. You reach what feels like a kindling point where you’ll ignite if you don’t cool off. We cool down in layers so as not to get chilled. The attendant arrives and we plod toward the showers.

Back in our clothes and outside once more in the rain, we look at some of the paths you can hike, which wander through the woods and along the Wind River and look awfully appealing. But once we’ve soaked and sweated, it’s all we can do to crawl to the car.

We drive a few feet and realize we’re famished.

We could go back to the hotel restaurant, but opt for Skamania Lodge, which is only a few miles away. Skamania is grand and beautiful and full of people walking around staring at everything. We have a lovely lunch in the bar overlooking the gorge and don’t really want to leave.

From Carson Hot Springs to Skamania Lodge is a jump from the shoddy to the sublime, but I wouldn’t trade one for the other. In fact, I hope they don’t start fixing things up at Carson. Leave it caught in time. This wonderful, funky, ridiculous place, just this side of Romania.

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