Clothing Optional

Before you visit your local hot springs...

by Hannah Fleming; illustration by Heidi Flores

Before you visit your local hot springs, it’s common sense to find out whether or not it’s “clothing optional.” It’s also common sense not to visit local hot springs that put advertisements in downtown bathrooms. 

But I always read the ads. As I sat in the ladies room of the Perk, peeing on a work break, I marveled at the idea of visiting an al fresco location that didn’t involve bagging a peak. The zinger? The place cost $15 for a day’s worth of magical healing waters in a “serene natural outdoor environment.”  

That Saturday, my boyfriend Jack and I packed a lunch, loaded up Bert the Landcruiser and headed to Desert Reef Hot Springs—it was easy, driving wise. A straight shot down CO-115, a short trip on 120. Then we came to a county highway, which was a dirt road marked by a low metal fence.  

There was a truck parked 200 feet from the entrance. As we approached, we heard gunshots. To the left of the truck, small puffs of sand exploded in the air. 

To its right was a painted pastel sign in the shape of a cactus. “Desert Oasis!” it declared. We were headed in the right direction, despite the man shooting at apparitions from the front seat of his Chevy. 

I’d lived in Colorado for the past year, steadily feeding a romantic vision of small forest communes and hippies lounging in geysers. I hadn’t even been to a pool that summer, and I wasn’t about to let a harmless gun show ruin our day of relaxation. 

The first thing we saw when we turned into the parking lot was an empty desert vista complemented by a small clay statue of a naked baby. A couple pulled in after us, and together, we tread on gravel to the entrance. 

The front room had an old ceiling fan and several pictures of tan, blonde men. The walls were turquoise. At the counter, a scaly man with squinty eyes had already struck up a conversation with the male of the couple we walked in with: something about business during the summer. Lizard Man had a terse laugh, slightly wheezing and it seemed as though he’d spent a little too much time either sunbathing or dropping acid. 

He took the cash slowly, opening a box hidden deep behind the counter. His leathery hands resurfaced with a laminated rules sheet, written in all caps. 

The conversational smile disappeared. He took his time knitting his eyebrows together, pointing a cracked nail to the page. This man would tell us the goddamn rules. 

“Rule number one,” Lizard Man said. “Bathing suits are required on Fridays.”

I checked my watch. It was a Saturday. Bathing suits? 

“Rule number two,” Lizard Man continued.

I skimmed ahead, noticing important points such as “NO LIFEGUARD ON DUTY,” “NO MEN UNESCORTED BY A FEMALE WILL BE ALLOWED IN THE FACILITY” and “NO CAMERAS OR PDA.” 

He must have noticed I’d jumped the gun. His fingertips went white against the counter. “That means no kissing, no canoodling, no touching, no hand-holding. If I come out over there and I see it, you’re out.” 

Jack look stunned. “Thank you,” I said. Lizard Man emerged from behind the counter, wearing only a towel. Jack took one look and decided to get a spot at the pool while I searched for some towels of our own.  

It was like walking into the ‘70s and realizing that it hadn’t been the ‘70s for 40 years. The toothpaste and soap bottles in the bathroom were a nice shade of beige, the floors linoleum and the outdoor walkways lined with the kind of carpet they use at Motel 6. There was a greenhouse just behind the main shack. Lizard Man emerged with a stack of bleach-stained towels, just in time for a tour. “There’s a refrigerator in there where you can put your lunch,” he said as he pointed to the greenhouse. I was hesitant to peek inside. 

As we headed down the walkway, silence descended. Granted, we were in the middle of nowhere. It was the kind of silence where you can imagine mildew forming on the edges of things and almost hear the sun pressing into hot sand—the kind that can either make you feel calmer than you’ve ever felt, or more afraid. 

The most shocking thing that can happen to a person in this kind of silence is to arrive at a pool surrounded by 20 human bodies, all of which are naked and most of which seemed to have survived mid-life crises with comfort food. Some of the bodies straddled noodles in the water and grunts and sighs echoed across rickety lounge chairs. A plastic hose sent magical healing water from the desert through the mouth of a dragon. 

Lizard Man handed me the towels and reached down to swat a fly on his leg. 

“Die, die, DIE!” he exclaimed, furrowing his brows and carefully examining the remnants on his hand. 

I nodded, taking the towels and heading across the pool towards Jack. He had managed to snag the only two chairs left in the sun. As I walked, all eyes turned towards the young girl walking across the pool with a swimsuit and towel. 

Jack looked happy to see me. “Let’s get in the water,” he said. We refrained from holding hands, descending side by side into a seemingly clear pool. The bottom was slick with a tan substance.  

As we lounged in the sun, still waiting to feel comfortable, I decided to take off my clothes. Across the pool the couple we came in with were feeding grapes to one another. They did this for the next 30 minutes—as the day wore on, hardly anyone moved from the chairs. Jack and I eventually found some water in a Gatorade cooler with lemons that had gone sour, and a woman with hot pink lipstick invited us to eat mayonnaise sandwiches with her inside the greenhouse. 

There was an unspoken mantra between us: “We spent $15 on this.” So we stayed, rooted to the spot, subjected to screeching laughs and extreme heat, in and out of the water. The excuse to leave came when two old men sat down at a table nearby. 

My right ear buzzed with their conversation. It was like a fly I couldn’t swat away. They cracked terrible jokes. I sat up to rub my temples and noticed them staring at me.  

“Don’t mind me, just the mind of an old man!” one of them said to me, laughing. “Some things never change.” He had a wheezing laugh and a beaked nose and sat in front of a sign that said “tan naked.” 

If you’re going to visit your local hotsprings, it’s a good idea to not come alone and know that if you’ve been singled out by a strange old man, it’s a good time to leave. Jack felt the same way. 

“What did that guy say to you?”

I smiled politely at the old man and began to put my clothes on. On our way out, Jack and I spotted a beautiful, older hippie couple that we’d missed earlier. The woman wore a long flowing skirt and smiled radiantly at her husband. Perhaps we just didn’t have the right mindset. Lizard Man didn’t either. He watched us exit, his eyes beady and his brows furrowed as though we were the first-ever customers to come and go in the space of three hours. 

As we drove away in Bert, we saw a large statue of a nude, kneeling person, modeled after ancient Southwestern art. It was in a kind of thinking pose, guarding the sighers and the groaners, keeping them stationary in its shadow. 

Jack drove quickly over the dirt road, which was now Chevy-free. I dangled my hand out the window. 

“I think that was the best $15 I’ve ever spent,” I said.