Editor’s note: “When in Hot Springs…” is a 5-part series running every Thursday in May. Be sure to read Part 1 before diving into this one…
Recognizing the improbability that I would ever be back in Hot Springs anytime soon, I go for it. Andrew and Virginia drop me off on their way out to the lake (laughing all the way, I’m sure), and we agree to meet back up in about two hours.
I’m in line to pay for my first bathhouse experience and reading over the brochure. Being the cost-conscious one that I am, I’m excited at the prospect of a free loofah sponge included with the package as part of the deal! Then I start to think through those implications: Why would they give me a loofah? That wasn’t mentioned in the building tour earlier in the day. Weird.
I’m also curious at the explanation in the brochure that “bathing suits are not required,” though I was relieved I had brought mine with me, and I noticed that the women are all escorted up to the second floor of the bathhouse, while the men are on the first level.
Now, let me say this clearly: I detest communal bathing with a burning passion. I can count on one hand the number of people who have seen me in my birthday suit in the last 29 years, and more than a few of them were doctors. The others were likely on accident. I’d rather wear black in August. I opted to bathe in the river during swim time my first year at church camp because I didn’t want to walk across the cabin area in my skivvies (sorry, mom). But, I do love a good story and cultural experiences and the ability to share wildly embarrassing decisions with the rest of the world. How bad could this be, right? Why I even considered a bathhouse is a mystery for the ages.
Now it’s my turn at the counter. “I’ll have the traditional package, please.” The woman at the counter hands me a form to complete, requesting my name, address, email address, etc. This seems awfully detailed and unnecessary for a bathhouse, but my initial thought was that they were great marketers who would send me a follow-up coupon as their thanks for my participation on this day.
No. I would later learn that the information was not for marketing purposes, but was surely a legal release that undoubtedly included fine print stating that Buckstaff would not be held responsible for any perceived invasion of privacy. I handed the attendant at the counter my credit card, and with it, any sense of modesty I thought I had. She directed me to the Men’s Room on the side of the building and hands me my “complimentary” loofah. And the adventure begins.
I was greeted in the Men’s Room by a gentlemen who I was quite sure had attended more than one biker rally in his spare time. For those of you picturing a modern spa with dim lighting, tropical fragrances and Zen-like music piped through speakers, you couldn’t be more wrong. The whole building itself could have been used as a mental institution at one point with all the chrome fixtures and sterile marble walls. It was clear that “creating atmosphere” was not on the priorities list of the original builders.
“Biker Dude” directed me to a small changing area the size of my pantry, with a locker to store my things and a curtain to create the illusion of privacy. This would be one of the last such illusions for the next two hours.
As I change into my bathing suit, I overheard another customer ask “Biker Dude” if it’s OK that he forgot his swim trunks. He clearly hadn’t thought this through. “Biker Dude” says not to worry—hardly anyone used their bathing suits, and it was better to go au naturale to get “the most” from the experience. It should be noted that these are my words and paraphrase, not his. I hate to judge a book by its cover, but I’m guessing “Biker Dude” has never used the words “au naturale.”
At this point I’m left in a conundrum. Do I want to be “hardly anyone” or do I want to get “the most” out of the experience? The brochure assured me that towels and linens would be provided to cover guests throughout the process, and sure enough there was a towel and a large sheet in my changing area. I had briefly considered the idea of doing this in the buff, but hadn’t really thought it through. Was I really about to do this? Again, how bad could it be? There were towels and sheets, right?
For such an analytic and deliberate person, I made the hasty decision and tossed my swim trunks in my locker. I scanned back through the other men I saw in line, knowing that these would be the people I would be spending the next 90 minutes around sans clothing. I was 20 years younger and at least 20 pounds lighter than almost all of them, save for one or two other guys around my age. They had no grounds on which to judge me. Plus, I had been going to the gym for a few weeks. Mirror mirror, on the wall…“I can do this. I can do this,” I tell myself. “These people will never see me again. I can do this.”
I lock my things in my locker, wrap myself ridiculously tight with the sheet and step out into the locker room…
Be sure to read Part 3 next Thursday.