Sunday Evening, Hot Springs
Kenny had told me we’d be soaking in hot springs, but I hadn’t seen any near Salmon on the atlas. I quickly discovered why.
At first we missed the turnoff. It’s not marked, and though those two had been to it before, a fire had destroyed the landmark they remembered. Once we got to the parking area there were signs and a trail, since it is part of the Challis National Forest. We walked through a wooden fence set up like a static turnstile, meant to keep bikes and horses out, and headed up the trail.
And up, and up, and up. As we crested the first ridge and the path evened out Tarn turned to tell us that was the roughest part. Later I found out that wasn’t true, but like my ignorance on what the National Park Service considered “strenuous” in Arches, I was glad to be misled.
We followed the narrow dirt and rock path along the side of a hill and crossed a bridge over a mountain stream that roared over stones and through a hallway of trees leaned towards each other. Soon we were surrounded by the tallest sage bushes any of us have ever seen. For me that’s not much of a statement, but those three have spent years hiking and exploring the wilderness. Jen and Tarn even met in forestry school.
A golden lab bounded up to me. I noticed its collar and petted it, and then saw a bare-chested man coming up the path, his entire torso red. Even though he had a grizzly beard, his smile was gentle, his demeanor relaxed as he waved at us, and he followed his dog down the hill. He was the only other person we were to see.
We kept climbing and climbing. In spots the path was all rocks and pebbles and boulders. The higher we went the heavier my legs felt, and there were times when I would pick one thigh up with both hands, then pick the other one up, because the path was so steep. The air grew thinner, the path rockier and steeper, the night darker. My heart was racing so quickly I knew I was pushing it to its limits. Even though the air was chilly I removed my sweat-soaked hoodie and tied it around my waist. Finally, when I was afraid my heart and lungs would give up Tarn announced that he’d found it, right next to a bridge spanning several pools. Oh, thank God. I really was afraid that I couldn’t go any further.
We looked for places to change. I crossed the bridge and found a campsite a little higher up. As I put on my bathing suit I found a penny, heads up. That’s one of my quirky “things”: any time I find a coin heads up I take it with me and keep it in a little jar on my dresser. This one, however, I left behind for future hikers. After successfully completing a trek like that, everyone deserves to see a little luck.
The first pool we sat in was a bit too au naturale for my tastes, even after the week I’ve had. I held it in, though, and didn’t squirm when my feet touched the slimy bottom. By this time it was pitch black, so it wasn’t until I shone my light in Kenny’s direction that I saw the steam rising from the water as it spewed out of the mountainside, and saw the black goo dripping from the rocks and the emerald moss. One word came to mind: primordial.
Tarn and Jen weren’t satisfied with our spot. They remembered a larger pool where we could stretch out and really relax. We reluctantly got out and crossed the bridge and headed up the mountain some more. After exploring a bit, we found it, just below the bridge.
I’ve been in hot tubs with angled seats built in and cup holders in the side. In this spot, at the top of a mountain, with water heated by the earth’s core streaming out of its cracks and settling in a pool large enough for six people, the four of us laid back against naturally reclining boulders and nestled our drinks in the rock ledges surrounding the pool. Smooth pebbles massaged our feet, and we tilted our heads back and drank in the stars.
Not until then did I realize how high we’d come. We were sitting at the top of a mountain. The stars hung close enough to reach out and grab. The Big Dipper wasn’t a far off constellation easily picked out. We had to search for the pattern because the surrounding stars were so numerous and bright. The Milky Way seemed so close it felt like I could reach out my hand and swirl it around. I lay back and the water tried to pull my hair into the pool below, combing it with gentle fingers, and I counted one, two, five shooting stars.
I have no idea how long we lay there. After what felt like both minutes and hours, we dragged our soaked and satisfied bodies out of the warmth and into the cold. We strapped on our headlamps and headed down.
The hike down was faster. It was downhill and we couldn’t see anything except for the path at our feet. The sage bushes cast eerie shadows, and when we reached the section that circles the mountain the cliff dropped into an abyss. Tarn noticed a cut on Kenny’s ankle and asked him about it. Kenny whipped around so quickly he slipped over the side of the path, but he quickly scrambled up with just a few scratches. Later, as we neared the parking lot, I fell on the gravel and scraped up my knee. Now I wear it as a badge of honor.
The ride back to the motel was silent. Any words spoken would have diluted an experience that I will hold close for the rest of my life.