I wasn’t thrilled at first.
We had been hunting hot springs southward from Colorado and this was the second attempt at finding a non-commercial spring—a ‘nudie-poodie spring’ as my friend Michelle called it.
The first venture was successful: we found it, but the spring had been washed over by that season’s unusually high water level of the Rio Grande.
We knew that there was hiking involved for this next one: Manby Hot Springs. Well, first there was driving. Rutted, mud-dried roads past tee-pees and trailer homes. Once we hit a crater on the path that even her Big Green Truck could barely handle at more than five miles an hour; when we coasted over it, everything in the cab was airborne for seconds, including myself.
Finally we found the parking lot and the path down, downward to the alleged spring.
The first omen was when we had gotten a quarter of the way down the mountain (unsure that this was even the right path) and turned back. A young man stood on a rock overlooking the Rio Grande. He was shirtless and peaceful-looking: Long hair and an air that he was viewing every encounter as though, if The Buddha were to come to him in some telluric incarnate, he would have his nonchalance down pat. We asked if he knew where the springs were.
“I’m heading there myself,” he answered carefully.
“Good luck,” we scoffed, continuing our upward struggle.
Once at the parking lot again, we reached my second omen: two Latino men who Michelle asked for directions to the springs. They assured us we had been in the right direction and–surprise–they, too, were heading down.
Now, I was visiting from New York City. When one encounters two men eagerly interested in the local naked bathing pool, one can usually assume their eagerness is to partake of the view, and not of the pool’s healing qualities. Michelle had to reassure me on the way back down, “Bathing naked is how it’s done here. But if you’re uncomfortable–”
I had come here to get away from the constraints of Urbania; I told her I was ready to be naked with strangers.
Finally, we reached the spring. There were five people in the small pool when we arrived: the young man we’d seen earlier who must have found his way, three other young men, and a young woman who I noticed—as I was removing my cut-offs, T-shirt and panties—was in a flowery bathing suit. Naked, Michelle and I slipped into the 97-degree water and sat.
We splashed water over ourselves, looked up at the sky, out at the Rio Grande, at each other. Presently, the young woman said, “You know, this is the spring where they filmed that scene in ‘Easy Rider’.”
The pool itself had formed over the years inside an abandoned and now sufficiently eroded stagecoach station. The only portion of the structure that retained some semblance of its original design was an arched doorway made of crumbling rock. The doorway was useless now; it opened onto a mound of earth and stone. The pool entrance of most use was probably once a wall. I perched on a few descending rocks. Maybe they were stairs.
I had never seen “Easy Rider.”
When Michelle and I got back to her house in Denver two weeks later, we made a point of renting it. We sat there, eagerly awaiting our hot spring’s cameo. What I remember is Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda flailing around in the water with a couple of giggly girls. That’s not what happened when we were there.
The heat—maybe the company itself—kept us all from talking too much, moving too fast. I don’t know if there’s a Zen water meditation, but this felt like it. We breathed a lot. We stared. We brought slow, wet hands to our faces and healed ourselves with them.
Conversation among the three men in the pool resumed: something about what their Roshi had said that day in sesshin about purity in practice. Two of them had shaven heads; one, whose name was Rob, protected his bare scalp from the sun by draping his spring-soaked jockeys over it. The waistband fell across his eyebrows, making him look like a frat prank or a deranged Muppet.
I noticed, too, that he wore a necklace of orange string. Hanging from it was something in the shape of the Buddha–stone, maybe jade. Anyway, it was some dharmic charm that he touched every now and again as he spoke, as if to be sure it was still there and not lost to the waters of the Rio Grande. A few minutes later, when Rob got out of the spring to join a game some of the others were playing, I had trouble not looking at him in full nakedness. An eye for an eye, though, I rationalized; they must have watched Michelle and me–all of us–as we got into the pool. I felt silly; there was no great mystery. I knew what to expect and I saw it.
The game evidently was to sit in the hot water for a while, then jump out into the (icy cold) Rio Grande and let the current pull you downstream.
The only problem was a hidden post under the high that one could slam into if there wasn’t a spotter. So, people took turns spotting and floating.
When the young woman went to try and Rob came back to the warmth of our pool–giddy and wired from fighting the cold river current–I noticed on a rock above us, the Latino men sitting with a Thermos between them. They were laughing a good-natured laugh and looking not at us as much as at the rocks across from us in the gorge itself. B
y this time, I couldn’t care. When the young woman returned, she was topless. She had beautiful breasts; I remember them even now more vividly than her face. Full and urged sweetly downward. They reminded me of a bronze sculpture of the Minoan Snake Goddess my mother brought back from Greece and kept on the nightstand by her bed. At the time (I was twelve) I though no woman could have such beautiful breasts as that sculpture. I was now proven wrong.
Half-unconsciously, I slipped my own comparatively mediocre breasts under the murky water and thought—what a perfect combination: three naked Buddhists and a pair of Divine breasts in the same water where I’m bathing. What else could be more symbolic, more beautiful?
But there was more. As I was talking with his friend, Rob, Matt noticed a snake in the doorway of the stagecoach/pool. No one seemed particularly upset. We all said hello with smiles or mere acknowledgement by wading over to look at it. The snake’s head was raised, body on the surrounding rock, licking the air around us to hear what we were up to.
Most of us welcomed the snake with quiet smiles of centered acknowledgement, but my dear fiery friend Michelle waded over to the doorway and stuck her face right in there.
Wow! Would you look at that?” Pure joy! She turned to us: “Isn’t that wild?”
The rest of us had hung back, caught up with being slow-moving, one-with-the-universe. A snake? Yeah. Of course. The wonderful thing was that Michelle went right over there and did the right thing, the thing we all probably wanted to do: Marvel.
Matt must have been watching Michelle’s thick water-walk back across the pool to her spot—her arms raised above the water’s surface, trudging like a Sunday afternoon horror movie monster—when he noticed Rob’s necklace had blanched from its original vibrant orange to milky-yellow. As soon as Matt said the words, “What happened to your…?” Rob’s hand was already clutching at the string. But what could he do? Matt said it for us: “Now your Buddha power’s in the water.”
Maybe no one else took that seriously. I did.
A little wind came with late afternoon. On it, the smell of faraway sage and river-life. The snake stayed on in the doorway, its smart small eyes looking always out at us. The girl with the beautiful breasts put her top back on. Michelle and I splashed the Rio Grande on our bodies a few more times and headed back up the gorge in our sun-stiffened clothes.
Many times as we traveled up I looked back down to see the river, our companions. Not even halfway up the path I missed them.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Renée Picard
Images: courtesy Rachel Astarte