Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Bear, Some Bats, and a Poorly-labeled Trail: A National Park OdysseyDay 7


On Day 7, we woke up early again, packed the car, and readied ourselves for another long drive.  As we went in and out of our little cabin at Chisos Mountain Lodge in Big Bend National Park, the spring on the old-fashioned screen door meant that we made more noise than our fellow guests appreciated.  I started thinking about how long it had been since I had stayed anywhere with a real screen door - not the soft-close, partially-glass versions you see today, but the ones your great-grandmother’s house had.  I realized then that I’d never told my own kids, “Don’t let the screen door slam!” as they ran outside to play, bare-footed and laughing. 

I spent a nostalgic moment longing for simpler times.  But then I remembered that I’d spent the night with no covers on, half-clothed, trying to stay on my own side of the bed since it was far too hot to be touched and decided that modern A/C trumps screen-door nostalgia every single time.
Early morning sunlight on the Chisos Mountains

With the car packed, we began to make our way out of the park and down to lower elevation.  Just as we left the lodge area, we were shocked to spot a small Mexican black bear by the side of the road!  These bears only returned to the park from Mexico in the 1980s, so we didn’t expect to get to see one.  (Incidentally, the Mexican black bear is evidently ursus americanus.  My friend Andrew made fun of me for calling it a Mexican black bear, asking me if I checked his passport or if he spoke with an accent.  But I promise that the rangers and placards in the park called it a Mexican black bear.)
The bear conveniently appeared right beside the bear crossing sign.
I took many crappy pictures of this bear.  This one was actually really good and has Casa Grande in the background!
We were surprised that this bear was so slender.

Anyway, no one else was around, so we took lots of pictures and some video before leaving the little guy alone and driving away, thrilled with our luck.

About an hour and a half from Big Bend is Marfa, Texas, an art enclave in the middle of nowhere.  Several New York artists moved here and started their own little piece of awesomeness in the west Texas desert, and I wish we had had time to explore it more thoroughly.  I’ll just add that to my list of places to come back to sometime.
An art gallery in an old gas station - just one of the may Marfa art galleries

Outside Marfa is the area’s most famous piece of art, Prada Marfa.  This installation was the brain child of artists Elmgreen & Dragset and is not an actual store though it displays a wall full of real Prada shoes (all European size 37) and six bags (with the bottoms cut out to discourage would-be thieves).  Beyonce made a pilgrimage here with her entourage in 2012, lighting up Instagram with her photo, and the little building has been pictured repeatedly in countless fashion and art magazines including Vogue
Me in front of Prada Marfa
Spotted windows, dusty bags and shoes, and even dead moths on the floor inside are all part of the art of this installment.

Not to be outdone, a tongue-in-cheek Target appeared recently nearby, evidence of the wit of the locals.  Leave it to Texans to hold their own with New Yorkers.
A recent addition to the local landscape

About three hours later we arrived at our third park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  We had bought our tickets in advance about two weeks earlier, so we had to arrive by 12:30 to check in for our 1:30 King’s Palace tour.  We were early, so we decided to grab lunch before descending into the cave.  There is a snack bar down in the cave that serves pre-made sandwiches and salads, but the restaurant up in the visitors’ center had more interesting options.  Josh and I split the Mexican pork adovada, slow-cooked pork in chili sauce over Mexican rice, and Kinley had a burrito.  The adovada was delicious, and we finished with plenty of time to change into jeans, hiking boots, and sweatshirts before taking the elevator down 850 feet into the perpetually-56-degree cavern to meet our tour group.
Park #3 - Carlsbad Caverns
In addition to being a national park, Carlsbad Caverns is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Josh would like to visit as many of these sites as we can.


Our park ranger tour guide tells us about the King's Palace.

Here’s the thing.  The King’s Palace tour was an hour and a half long and you get to see parts of the cave that you can’t see without a ranger.  But I have to say that you probably don’t really need to do a tour.  The Big Room is accessible without a tour, and it is, frankly, beautiful.  And huge.  Like, it took us an hour and a half to do the Big Room, and that’s without the $5 audio guide.  There’s just so much to see!  Granted, we didn’t take any of the shortcuts that are available, we read every placard, and the kids worked on their Junior Ranger booklets as we went, but I’d still say you don’t really need a separate tour.  That said, there is one candlelight tour that tends to sell out weeks in advance.  I haven’t done it, but if ticket sales are any indication, it may be really special.  But, I’m telling you, the Big Room is plenty special.
There were many different types of formations in the cave.  This one is elegant draping.

We’ve done all the caves in the parks system – Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, Mammoth Cave, Oregon Caves, Russell Cave – but this place is more impressive to me than all the others.  Mammoth Cave is impressive because it is the largest cave system in the world, but this place has the largest cave room in North America and it has eye-popping formations in every room.  Mammoth Cave just doesn’t seem as Mammoth after seeing this place.
The rooms were full of formations.

After we finished the King’s Palace tour and our own tour of the Big Room, the line for the elevator to return to the surface 850 above was at least an hour long.  We decided instead to take the Natural Entrance Trail and climb our way out.  I had been assured by a young, perky ranger that it wasn’t stairs and that the paved trail’s switchbacks were her favorite area of the cave, so we bypassed the elevator line and made our way toward the path.
Our family, before the hike out of the natural entrance

People, do yourselves a favor, and take my advice.  Walk down.  Ride up.  The trail really is well-maintained, and there really are only 10 or so stairs.  But that 45-minute walk was not easy.  I made it, but I was huffing, puffing, and sweating most of the way. 

Near the mouth of the natural entrance, a colony of cave swallows has set up camp, and you could see their frequently-falling poo in the darkness-piercing sunbeam that actually resembled an alien ship’s tractor beam, if the tractor beam were also laced with bird crap.  Which, now that I think of it, would bring an interesting element to the next Star Wars movie.  You’re welcome, Disney.

Anyway, I found myself huffing, puffing, sweating, and now trying to dodge falling bombs of bird excrement as my children shrieked with horror and ran ahead, abandoning me to save themselves, just to escape this 850-foot-deep tunnel of darkness.  And did I mention the stink?  Surely I mentioned the stink.  Because the last 50 yards smelled of untold eons of fowl foulness that had me pulling my shirt over my nose and now huffing and puffing into my own sweaty chest.

Eventually, I stumbled out into the harsh light of day, grateful for the heat and blinding desert sun, only to find that it was still another 1/3 of a mile to the visitors’ center.  And then, at the door to the visitors’ center, was the stupidest sign I’ve ever seen on a trail.  Why in the world would you put the warning sign at the point where hikers are going down?????  Why in the world wasn’t this sign down in the cavern at the point where you decide to go UP????  What is wrong with these people??!!  I mean, aside from dodging poop and holding your nose, going down isn’t hard!!  Coming up is hard!!!  I just don’t get it.
Really??  One the way DOWN you assess your fitness????

Shaking my head with bewilderment, I went inside, ready for a bathroom and some water.  Our lunch had been so good that we decided to have dinner in the restaurant as well which would give us time to check out the gift shop and bookstore before the bat flight program began at 7:30.  Josh and I shared The 1923 Panini (named for the year the caverns became part of the NPS system), and, truthfully, I could have eaten another one.  The kids’ choices were just OK, and we decided that we’d recommend lunch there over dinner.
No pictures are allowed during the flight, but we snapped this one before the bats began trickling out.

Every night from sometime in March to sometime in October, about half a million Brazilian free-tailed bats fly out of Carlsbad Caverns in a mass exodus that people travel from all over the world to witness.  We had been told to be at the amphitheater by 7:00 to get a good seat, but it seemed to me (after a few minutes of embarrassing my children by checking out various options) that all the seats were pretty much the same.  A park ranger gave a very interesting and informative talk starting at 7:30, and we saw a mule deer and a swift fox on the hillside behind him as he talked.  The cave sparrows continued to swoop and poop until, at about 8:15, some sixth sense told them to go to their nests to get out of the way of the swirling bats about to exit the cave in search of water and food.

Another ranger signaled that the bats were beginning to form at the natural entrance, out of view of those of us in the amphitheater, so the ranger giving the talk sat down to watch.  We all held our breath, waiting.  And waiting.  And waiting. A couple of bats flew up.  Then a handful more.  For the next 45 minutes, we watched as bats emerged in groups of 3 or 4 at a time, but they never took to the skies in massive tornadoes of blackness as we’d expected them to. 

Evidently, the wind had gusted just as they were about to take flight, and, weighing just a few grams each, they didn’t want to take their chances against the breeze tonight.  As we watched other people trickle back to their cars, we eventually decided to do the same.  As we left, a ranger told us that the flights are much more predictable in August and September, so remember that if you ever plan to go.

We were disappointed, but we remembered our early-morning surprise bear encounter and reminded ourselves that bats are wild animals and not a circus act, ready to perform on cue for an amphitheater full of gawking humans.  We quietly walked to back the car, looking at the stars and carrying new memories as souvenirs.

Day 7

+2 for a bear sighting
+1 for thought-provoking art in the middle of nowhere
+2 for the most beautiful cave I’ve ever seen
-1 for inadequate trail signage
-1 for unexpected avian fecal matter
+1 for bats that live on their own terms
-1 for sitting on rock benches for two hours

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

But It’s a Dry Heat: A National Park Odyssey Day 6

Big Bend National Park

I haven’t been sleeping well on the trip so far, so getting up at 5:30 for a sunrise hike wasn’t as hard as it could have been.  It was going to be another scorcher in Big Bend National Park.  And by a scorcher, I’m talking 115 degrees.  I know, I know.  People always say, “But it’s a dry heat!”  But I don’t care.  115 is hot, dry or not, so we decided to get up and going early to beat the heat and squeeze in a hike before the blazing heat made us want to do nothing but retreat to our air conditioned car. 

I’ve had more soft drinks on this trip than I usually consume, so I’m guessing that the extra caffeine is messing with my sleep.  Add to that an alarm that went off 30 minutes early by mistake and a night with no air conditioning in the west Texas desert, and you get a room full of grumpy Boyds.  But Boyds we are, and foul moods are no reason to deviate from the day plan.  So we piled into the car before sunrise and headed to the Grapevine Hills Trailhead to hike to Balanced Rock in hopes that a little time out in nature would perk us all up.
As the sun came up, Kinley was not at all excited about being forced to wear a hat for sun protection.  Knox, on the other hand, loved his.

The drive on the six-mile gravel road to the trailhead was slow going, so the sun came up before we started hiking.  But the rays of sunshine made vibrant orange streaks that lightened the sky and our moods.  The trail was just 1.1 miles each way, so finishing before the heat became unbearable wasn’t going to be difficult.  We began spotting desert flora and fauna almost immediately.  The vibrant blooms of cacti competed with skittering lizards for our attention while birds soared overhead and the rising sun changed the colors of the surrounding mountains from brown to rust to burnt umber.  Grumpy Boyds slowly began to transform into goofy Boyds as the kids playfully jostled to see who could lead our little troop up the trail.
Ready for some early-morning hiking!

Most of the trail was an easy walk, but the last bit required climbing over some boulders and an 80 foot change in elevation.  The trail ended at balanced rock, so named for obvious reasons.  The commanding view of the surrounding terrain was worth the climb, and we sat enjoying together, bad moods completely replaced with an appreciation for creation. 
We made it to Balanced Rock!

Before heading back, Josh wanted to try a shot of the kids and me holding up the rock, further proof that our attitudes had shifted.  On the way back out, we passed one couple just getting started, but otherwise, we had the trail to ourselves.

Heading back to the visitors’ center to do the nature trail for the kids’ Junior Ranger requirements, we passed a tree with mistletoe!  Where I’m from in Tennessee, mistletoe grows parasitically on trees, but it’s always clustered high in the tops of the trees, out of reach of those of us hoping to use it for decorating at Christmastime.  The Tennessee solution to this problem?  Shooting it out of the trees with a shotgun.  (Yes, I’m serious.  And I have the video to prove it.)  

But the mistletoe in the stubby trees here could easily be reached without the help of a firearm.  Of course, then you’d also miss the fun of letting your inner redneck out for a holiday romp.
I could have easily reached this mistletoe without a ladder.

The nature trail was very short, but the heat was growing more intense, meaning that we would be spending the rest of the day in the car, driving through the park and taking advantage of the A/C.  Originally, we had thought that we would hike in the mornings and evenings and then hang out in our hotel room during the heat of the day.  But those plans changed when we realized our little cabin had no A/C.  And the swarms of gnats that seemed to come out just before sunset each evening meant that our late-afternoon plans for hiking had to change, too.

Outside the park, Terlingua, Texas, and its nearby ghost town were going to be the first stops on our little driving tour, and we planned to eat lunch there before driving to gaze across the Rio Grande into Mexico.  (You can cross into Mexico at Boquillas, but we hadn’t brought our passports.)  In Terlingua Ghost Town, we had heard that the lone coffee shop served sandwiches for lunch, but we (again, stupidly) expected it to be air conditioned.  When we pulled up to La Posada Milagro /Espresso...Y Poco Mas, we were bewildered to see several patrons eating on the patio.  At this point it was 100 degrees!  But where else were we going to find something to eat?  We climbed out of our air conditioned oasis and joined the group.  It actually didn’t feel that bad under the shade of the canopy, and the iced mochas, milkshakes, and chicken salad sandwiches were surprisingly good.
We enjoyed our lunch in spite of the heat!

Back in the car with temperatures continuing to climb, we intended to drive straight to the river, but our progress was impeded by the sight of a ramshackle building with hand-lettered signs and piles of rocks outside, just perfect for a 10-year-old boy with allowance to spend.  We looked around, impressed not only with the rocks and cacti but also with the prices, and soon we met the owner, Ring Huggins, a character ready to share a story or two with four hot tourists looking for a bargain.  His place did at least have fans, so we browsed for quite a while, each finding things that interested us.  We’re pretty sure Ring (we were on a first-name basis by this time) undercharged us on purpose, and we all walked away with something we didn’t really need but that we were excited to take home.  If you’re in the area, stop in.
I love that Ring will let you buy his rocks and cacti even if he's not there.  Just put the cash under the door.
His cactus gardens were made from rocks that he hollowed out himself and were very reasonably priced.  Sadly, they're far too bulky to haul around for six weeks.

By the time we reached the Rio Grande at the Santa Elena Canyon overlook, our car said it was 115 degrees.  When we drove down to the River Trail a few minutes later, it read 122.  But we had come to see the river, and we are Boyds.  So out we got, quickly making our way down the short trail to the silty green water.  Josh and the kids picked up rocks, trying to throw them into Mexico, and then we returned to the car which now read 125.  What now?  We were tired of the car, but it was too hot to return to our hot cabin.  We decided to go to the visitors’ center and finish up the kids’ Junior Ranger badges.
Looking across the Rio Grande



Our car registered 125 degrees
Two new Junior Rangers are sworn in!

The lodge restaurant wasn’t good enough to merit a second meal, so we made peanut butter sandwiches on thoroughly smushed bread that we’d hauled from Indiana and waited for the sky to get dark enough to see the stars.  Big Bend boasts the darkest night sky of all the national parks in the lower 48, and we enjoyed looking at the heavens both nights we were there.  After marveling at the beauty above us, we turned in, happy to welcome the slightly cooler evening temperatures and ready for another day of adventures.
Looking at the stars with Knox at Big Bend

Day 6

+1 for early-morning hikes
+1 for cheap rocks and fossils sold by an interesting storyteller
-2 for extreme heat
+1 for the darkest night sky in the lower 48

Monday, June 19, 2017

Happy Trails and Happy Tears: A National Park Odyssey Days 3-5

Texarkana to Big Bend via Fort Worth and Midland


The drive from Texarkana to Midland, our next destination, was a long one, so we had planned to break it up with a stop for lunch in Fort Worth.  A couple of years ago, Josh ate at a place called Joe T. Garcia’s, and he was so entranced with the courtyards and gardens there that he wanted us all to experience it together. 

Eating in the garden was lovely!

I wonder what ACU would have done if we had tried to crash?

When we arrived, we saw that there was an Abilene Christian University gathering of some sort going on there, and we briefly considered crashing it even though we’re both Lipscomb grads.  We thought that they might welcome us since Kinley is at the age where colleges are beginning to recruit her.  In the end, we decided to just take a table on our own surrounded by the well-manicured plantings and gurgling fountains on the patio.  The atmosphere caused us to consider adding some sort of walled garden behind our home, perhaps with a flagstone floor, so we dreamed and planned while enjoying our lunch.
The cheese nacho was my favorite part of the meal.

The food was good (though a family member tells us that there is FAR better Tex-Mex to be had in Fort Worth), but we especially liked the simple cheese nachos.  This is just a crispy corn tostada covered with yellow cheese, broiled until the cheese melts, and then topped with chopped jalapenos, but it was delicious.  Unlike normal nachos, the broiled cheese didn’t make the tostada soggy, even after several minutes.

With our tummies full, we loaded back into the Volvo and headed for Midland.  When we first started planning this trip, we decided that one of the things we most wanted to work into it was a visit with our friends Andrew and Yssa, and their house was our destination for the next two nights.  When we pulled up in front of their home, Yssa came running out, squealing with delight.  It was the perfect reunion, and I’m not ashamed to say I cried a few joyful tears.  Being with them and with their three precious daughters reminded me just how much I miss having them in Lafayette.
Love, love, love this family.

Yssa had a full slate of activities planned for us, so we didn’t have to deal with any decision-making, a welcome change.  She cooked two delicious dinners for us, and she and Andrew put their lives on hold to spend quality time with us.  We swam in their pool, hung out with them in their hot tub, and used their washer and dryer to do a couple of loads of laundry. 

Mixed grill and a fabulous salad were followed by homemade strawberry shortcakes.

On Thursday (day 4), Yssa’s plan was for us to visit the George W. Bush Childhood Home.  Admission was $5 for adults and $2 for students, and a lovely docent named Rosemary gave us a private tour.  It’s a small home, so the whole tour took less than 30 minutes, but we enjoyed reading the information in the exhibits and learning about the house that was home to two US Presidents, a First Lady, and two governors.  That’s an impressive resume for a tiny house in west Texas!  I would recommend a visit if you’re in the area.
This modest house was home to an American political dynasty!

From there Yssa and Andrew took us to K. D.’s Bar-B-Q for lunch.  Barbecue in Texas means beef, so we wanted to try some of their brisket.  When we walked through the screen door on the far side of the place, we watched our hosts in order to figure out what to do.  Each patron is supposed to pick up a tray and cover it with a piece of freezer paper.  Then you tell the server which meats you want.  There was brisket, of course, and I licked my lips as the attendant sliced off a slab of beef that weighed about a third of a pound and had a charred crust that made me want to eat it with my fingers before I even got through the checkout line.  Other meat options included ribs, sausages, barbecued turkey breast, chopped beef with BBQ sauce, chicken, and pork chops.  I thought the brisket was plenty for me and added a baked potato and beans to share with Josh as well as some cherry cobbler which I had no intention of sharing with anybody.
The locals on the front porch enjoyed making fun of the tourists taking pictures of the restaurant.

You then step over to have your paper with the meat on it weighed.  The price is $15.99 per pound, but there is a minimum charge of $8.25 for adults and $6.25 for kids.  After having everything totaled at the checkout, I followed Yssa over to a table to grab BBQ sauce plus cheese, butter, and sour cream for my potato.  Pickles and white bread were there for the traditionalists, but I didn’t take any.  I sat down and tucked into my brisket with vigor, taking care to ration that crusty exterior so that I had some with every juicy, meaty bite.  I used sauce, but only sparingly because the flavor of the meat was delicious on its own.  Do yourself a favor and eat here if you find yourself in the area.
I was glad that Andrew and Yssa knew what to do since grabbing a tray and lining it with freezer paper was new for me.
Look at that brisket.  Oh.  My.  Goodness.

After our lunch, we went to the Petroleum Museum where we learned about the oil industry in the Permian Basin, the area including Midland and Odessa.  While there we learned several myths about petroleum including the myth that oil in the Permian Basin is made of decayed dinosaurs and prehistoric plant matter.  (It’s actually made of prehistoric sea life.)  We enjoyed the art wing and the mineral room as well as the drive-through exhibit displaying all types of oil rigs.  We spotted some ground squirrels and a couple of jackrabbits on the drive, and we benefited from Andrew’s vast knowledge about native species and the oil industry.

One of the fun interactive exhibits at the Petroleum Museum

The minerals in the museum were impressive, especially to Knox.
The racing industry is dependent upon petroleum, of course, so there was a racing exhibit that Knox enjoyed.

That evening Yssa cooked us another lovely dinner, and then she took our family to the drive-in for the premiere of Cars 3.  Yssa drove Taylor’s truck, and the threatening rain did little to dampen our enthusiasm.  The movie was cute, and, I’m telling you, it was the best temperature I’ve ever experienced for a drive-in.  When we go to drive-in movies near home, we always get chilly and damp about halfway through the show, but here the wind seemed to wrap us in a blanket of dry warmth that made for a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  Well, except for the guy driving the diesel who ran his truck for the last half of the movie.  And the car two spots to our right with the screaming kid.   And the family in front of us whose mini-van hatch-back blocked part of our view.  But those were really minor things since just being with Yssa was a treat to be savored.
It was premiere night for Cars 3!
Ready for the show to begin!

On day 5, we got an intentionally late start since it was predicted to be 110 in our next destination, Big Bend National Park.  We decided we might as well get there later since we wouldn’t want to be doing any trails in that kind of heat anyway.  We said our goodbyes, promised to come again someday, and took off, grateful for lasting friendships.

Andrew had helped us plan our route and advised us to stop for gas in both Fort Stockton and in Marathon since running out of gas in 110 degree heat is even more ill-advised than getting in a hot mineral bath on a 90 degree day.  We drove a couple of hours, had lunch at Pepitos in Fort Stockton, and then stopped again an hour later in Marathon to top off the tank since the gas inside the park is more expensive and less plentiful.

The gas station is Marathon has a Little Free Library where Knox left one book and took another.  The bathrooms are spotless, they have free wifi, and they have a little burger counter that gets positive reviews on Yelp.  We had just eaten so we didn’t grab any food except for a couple of Texas candy bars to try.  Andrew had suggested that we try a Big Hunk which is kind of like a candy bar made of divinity and peanuts.  Not bad!  We also tried a Goodart’s Peanut Pattie which Josh liked better.
Big Hunk on the left and Goodart's Peanut Pattie on the right

We arrived at our second park at about 4:30, so we had just enough time to watch the movie in the visitors’ center, stamp the passports, grab the Junior Ranger booklets, and ask for trail advice before they closed at 5:00.  After that we drove on to the Chisos Mountain Lodge which would be our home base for two nights.  We had reserved a Roosevelt Cabin a year in advance, but it turns out that June isn’t high season in this park.  November is.  I asked as we checked in if there was any vacancy at the lodge for the night, and there was, so making reservations as far in advance as we did for this park probably wasn’t essential.
Our second national park of the trip - Big Bend

We were surprised (and dismayed) to find that our little stone cabin had no air conditioning, and we considered asking for a room in the less-charming standard motel area of the lodge because they do have A/C.  (Some of them also have views of The Window, a gap between two rock formations with a perfect sunset view.)  But we decided that having three beds in one room was a rare treat, and, figuring that the evening would cool off significantly, we chose to stay put.
Our little cabin was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression so it has no air conditioning.

After a dinner at the Lodge restaurant (which was fine but hardly memorable), we walked the short walk to the Window Trail to see the sunset.  The colors were spectacular, but the gnats were annoying and seemed impervious to OFF! bug spray.  After the sun set, we returned to our cabin and later enjoyed stargazing without the light pollution of less-remote areas.  We turned in, excited to tackle another day in the rugged beauty of the desert mountains.
Sunset on the Window Trail

Days 3-5
+1 for tearful reunions
+5 for friends who drop everything to take care of us
+2 for fantastic Texas brisket
+1 for desert beauty
-1 for 112 degree temps

-1 for no A/C in our cabin

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Kinley, Knox, and I Take the Waters: National Park Odyssey Day 2


We visited our first park of the trip today!  After this, Josh bought me a whiteboard to use for numbering our pictures, but this one was a last-minute thought so it's scribbled on the back of our printed directions.
5 1/2 hours at Hot Springs National Park was not enough for me.  But such is the nature of a trip like this.  It’s kind of like a giant cruise on land.  Whenever we take a cruise, which we love to do, we think of our few hours in port as just a taste of a place.  We know that you can’t get a real feel for any city in just the few hours that the cruise ship is moored there, but we look at it as an appetizer portion of a place that we might want to return to later for the full entrée portion.  And in order to get to all the parks on our list for this trip, appetizer portions are all we can do for many of them.

Hot Springs is the smallest national park in the whole national park system, and my priority was to visit one of the mineral baths that is still in operation to “take the waters” as they used to say.  The heyday of mineral bathing was the early part of 20th century when baseball players with aches and pains and veterans recovering from war injuries would come to take advantage of the healing effects of the spring waters.  Most of the guests in those days were men, so the men’s areas of the bath houses are much bigger than the women’s areas.  It’s ironic that today spas are mostly used by women.
The architecture of the bathhouses on Bathhouse Row demonstrated the opulence of a bygone era.

I had done some research online and learned that only two bath houses, Buckstaff and Quapaw, still operate on Bathhouse Row inside the park.  Like all national park lodges and restaurants, these are not actually operated by the National Park Service; they are operated by concessionaires who basically rent the property form the NPS and then run a for-profit business.  Since the Quapaw was closed on Tuesdays, I wanted to get to the Buckstaff by 1:30 for its limited afternoon hours. 

The Buckstaff Baths have been in continuous operation since 1912.
The Quapaw Baths

The website indicated that guests had to be at least 11 years old, but when we walked up the wide stairs to the porch lined with blue Adirondack chairs for lounging and bedecked with colorful blue awnings for shade, the brochure said 10-year-olds were welcome!  That meant that Knox could do it, too, (or at least that we wouldn’t have to be dishonest about Knox’s age).  For $33 per person, patrons get an array of services including a 15-minute soak in a private tub filled with hot mineral waters straight from the springs bubbling forth from Hot Springs Mountain. 

In my travels, I have experienced several different versions of therapeutic bathing from the onsen of Japan to the hot springs of New Zealand to the public baths of South Korea to hammams of Morocco to the après ski spas of Banff.  In my head I was picturing some sort of combination of these experiences, but the Buckstaff experience was entirely different for anything I’d ever experienced.  I wish that I had had a clearer picture of what was going to happen so that I could have been more prepared, but, I suppose, this just gives me even more reason to go back and do it again sometime.
Our family trip to Banff Springs, Canada in 2006 meant skiing and a late-night hot springs soak afterward.  My sister, Amanda, and niece, Elizabeth, pose with us for a picture.

Kinley and I enjoy a private room for our hot springs soak in Rotorua, New Zealand in 2005.

As we waited in line to pay, it became clear that Josh was not excited about the prospect of stripping down to his birthday suit and plunking himself into a vat of hot water on a 95 degree day.  In fact, he later admitted that he had a near panic attack about the whole thing.  In the end, only three of us signed up for the Whirlpool Mineral Bath package which includes the 15-minute tub bath, 15-minutes of your choice of four hot or cold towels placed on body parts that you designate, a 10-minute sitz bath, 5 minutes in a steam room, and a 2-minute “needle” shower.  After we paid, Knox was sent off to the right to the men’s locker room, Kinley and I were told to wait for the attendant to give us a lift to the second floor on the antique elevator, and Josh left to go take a 2:00 ranger-guided tour of the visitors’ center which is housed inside the most luxurious of the former bathhouses.
This flier explaining the treatments was hanging in each stall of the changing rooms.  Kinley later told me she didn't read it.

You may be wondering if I was worried about sending Knox off alone, and the answer is yes.  Knowing that my ten-year-old son was going to be naked and alone for the next hour or so did cause a bit of anxiety, but I was mostly worried about him hating the hot water and not being assertive enough to tell the attendant.  Knox is a very sensitive kid, emotionally and physically.  He has a very narrow window of air-temperature comfort (he’s usually cold and chooses to wear jeans on days that most kids his age are in shorts), he can’t STAND to have a wrinkle in his sock, and he is obsessed with scents – soaps, candles, detergents, whatever.  He also doesn’t like to disappoint people, so I could envision him sitting in the hot water and being miserable but not saying a peep to anybody about his discomfort.  It truly never occurred to me that he might end up loving it. 

Once upstairs, an attendant showed us into a tile and marble locker room and took each of us to our own curtained stall containing two old-school-style full-length lockers.  We each put all of our clothes, jewelry, and purses into a locker and put the keys around our wrists.  (There are more secure lockers for valuables in the lobby, but I didn’t use them.  And in the end, I was glad I hadn’t since I wouldn’t have had any money to tip my attendant if I had.)  We were supposed to “poke our heads out” when we were thoroughly in the all-together, and then the attendant brought over a full-sized white sheet and gave me instructions so that she could wrap me in it, toga style.
In my toga waiting for my turn in the baths

Kinley and I were then told to have a seat to wait for the next available tub.  Apparently, men almost never have to wait, but the women’s side usually has a wait.  After about 5 minutes the attendant took Kinley for her soak, and I didn’t see her again for more than an hour.  In the end, Knox was finished a full hour before I was, and Kinley was done 35 minutes after he was.  I kind of wish I had known in advance that you can’t really expect to stay with the person you come in with.

I was eventually ushered into another tile and marble room divided into more curtained stalls, each of which held an old-fashioned tub that was clearly an original fixture.  The tub was already filled to the brim with bubbling mineral water, and the attendant, Julie, helped me step out of my sheet and into the tub.  The supposedly-no-more-than-100-degree water was too hot for me, so Julie pulled a GIANT plug out of the bottom and then added some cold water.  She then put a board with a rolled towel behind me so that I could lean back comfortably, and left me alone.
This is NOT a picture from the Buckstaff because pictures are not allowed inside the bathing room.  I took this one in the national park visitors' center.  It is very similar to the one I used at the Bucstaff.

I made a valiant effort to stick it out for the whole 15 minutes, but I did have to add more cold water and even take a break by sitting on the side of the tub for a few seconds with my head between my knees.  It was so hot that I was afraid I was going to pass out and drown without Julie ever being the wiser.  I imagined the scene when she discovered my limp, naked form, bright red and lifeless, propped up in the ever-bubbling elixir.  It wasn’t pretty, even in my head.

Mercifully, the clock on the wall ticked on, and Julie came to escort me out of the waters and wrap me back up.  I was light-headed and wobbly, so she helped me to an adjacent room with eight or ten blue tables similar to massage tables.  Other ladies were there as well, and I reclined and began to allow my body to return to its normal temperature.  This was the part where I got to choose the hot or cold cloths known as hot packs or cold packs.  I chose a cold one for my head and another cold one for my feet, and I’m pretty sure that in my delirium I shouted something like, “Oh, Julie!  Bless you!  You’re my FAVORITE!” as she placed the one on my feet.  Julie placed hot ones (I suspect these were straight from the 143 degree natural spring) under my shoulders and rear end, and then placed a bolster pillow under my knees.  She brought me ice water and left me there for another 15 minutes, checking on me occasionally and bringing more water to begin to replace all I’d sweated out during my soak.

Next came what ended up being my favorite part – the 10-minute sitz bath.  After giving birth to Kinley, people kept telling me I needed to fill my bathtub with a couple of inches of water and then sit in it for a sitz bath.  I tried it once, and it was awful.  Why take a bath if only part of you is in the warm water?  The rest of you is just cold!  But, friends, I have seen the light.  The problem is that a real sitz bath requires a special shallow tub that no one outside of a 19TH century bathhouse would have.  It’s similar to a shower stall with a 6-inch-deep porcelain tub as the bottom.  You back into it and sit down with your feet sticking out resting on a stool.  I loved it and found the temperature of the water much more bearable when I wasn’t completely immersed in it.  I was bummed when my time was up, but Julie helped me up, bustling me next into the steam room.
Again, this wasn't taken in the Buckstaff; it was taken at the visitors' center.  But this is what I would LOVE to have in my bathroom.  Actually, I think every  maternity ward ought to have one in every room.
This is how you sit in the sitz bath.  You're welcome.  The ones at the Buckstaff had stools for your feet and were in more of a stall for privacy.

This was a stainless steel room, again, about the size of a shower stall with a bench inside and a Dutch door allowing you to open half the door if you’re too hot.  Once seated on the bench, two stainless steel panels folded down allowing your head to stick out of the steamiest part.  I was probably left in there for three or four minutes which was fine.  Apparently, I let my toga sag a bit while taking the vapors, and when Julie opened the door to let me out, she got quite a shock.  Bless her heart.

At this point, Julie told me that if I wanted to tip her – which, she insisted was completely optional – I needed to go back to my locker now.  I had wondered during my hot pack session how I could show my appreciation for all the care and attention Julie had given me, and now was my chance.  If I had known this in advance, I would have been sure to give Kinley $10 to tip hers as well, but as it was, I only had two fives total.  I gave one to Julie and asked her to give the other one to Kinley’s attendant.   These ladies work really hard running from client to client in a hot, steamy room all day, and they deserve a tip better than what I gave if for no other reason than that dealing with heat-crazed naked ladies should come with hazard pay.  But my hope is that this post will help future patrons plan to take extra cash along.

The last step was the needle shower which was really just a lukewarm shower in a marble stall with eight shower heads.  It didn’t feel anything like needles, and I would have liked the water to be cooler since I was still feeling kind of like a limp noodle.  Maybe they really meant to call it a noodle shower?
The needle shower I used was similar to this one at the visitors' center.  At the Buckstaff, each pole only had two  showerheads, though, for a total of  eight heads.  There isn't a shower head above your head which was nice since it kept my hair relatively dry.
Kinley and Knox were in shower stalls that looked more like this one.

Anyway, after that I headed back out to get dressed and meet up with the fam, thoroughly expecting Knox to give me a tongue lashing for putting him through such misery.  Both kids were waiting outside in the shade with their dad since the building isn’t air-conditioned.  Lo and behold, Knox had loved it.  Kinley, on the other hand, was scarred for life.  It seems she wasn’t quite prepared for that amount of indecent exposure and will probably hold this against me for the rest of her life.  Oh well.  That’s why we have therapists.

Josh was excited to take us on a tour of the beautiful visitor’s center sharing all the tidbits he’d learned from a ranger who’d lived in Hot Springs all of his life.  We watched the short national park video (I think these are always worth your time if you can work them in), and then we took a short walk to Display Springs where we could see the water streaming straight out of a rock wall.  

Copper gutters, stained glass, and art pottery tiles are just a few of the original details in the most beautiful national park visitor's center I've ever visited.
A full view of the visitors' center

The preserved men's gymnasium, the assembly room, and the men's baths in the visitors' center made it easy to picture turn-of-the-century guests taking advantage of the amenities.
The information in Josh's tour and the movie helped Kinley and Knox complete the booklets for their Junior Ranger badges, so they took the pledge before we left.


Josh stamps Kinley's national parks passport.
Knox and Kinley take the Junior Ranger pledge with one of the park rangers in the lobby of the visitors' center.

One of the former bathhouses, Superior Bathhouse, is now a restaurant and craft brewery that uses the hot spring water to make its beers.  They also make their own root beer, so we headed over to have a snack.  We ordered the spicy pimento cheese, the giant Bavarian pretzel with three dipping sauces, and root beers all around.  Everything was yummy!


You should definitely visit Superior Bathhouse if you visit this park!

 After that, Josh bought empty gallon jugs (2 for $2.25) to fill with spring water from the public fountains, and we headed for the fountain in front of the administration center.
This placard detailing the chemical analysis of the natural hot water hangs above the free public fountain where we filled our jugs and water bottles.

Fun Fact:  Hot Springs National Park is the only NPS site in the nation that allows you to take away resources.  The motto, “Take only photographs; leave only footprints,” doesn’t apply here.  Locals cart away hundreds of gallons per week from the various fountains scattered throughout the parks, and it’s all completely legal. The water coming out most of the fountains – even the decorative ones – is at an average temperature of 143 degrees.  There are two cold fountains, but they are Ozone-treated whereas the hot fountains are straight from the ground and completely safe to drink. 
We bought two jugs to fill with the water which Knox thought was especially tasty.  I liked the 143 degree temperature of the water since I like to drink mugs of warm water.

We filled two jugs and three water bottles with the supposedly-healthy liquid and decided we didn’t have time to do any of the trails if we wanted to get to Texarkana in time for dinner.  Josh had found a barbecue place called Naaman’s that was highly recommended by Texas Monthly, so off we went driving past a beautiful nearby lake and several state parks worth future explorations.

Sadly, Naaman’s had closed an hour before we arrived, so we ended up splitting some too-salty gumbo and a lackluster po’ boy at a local place near our hotel.  Then we put our suitcase/overnight bag plan into play for the first time and sprawled across several parking places choosing clean clothes for the next day and swapping out dirty ones.  It’s a good thing the parking lot was dark and deserted or Kinley might have been scarred by embarrassment twice in one day.  But that’s what therapists are for, right?

Day 2
+1 for Victorian architecture evoking turn-of-the-century gentility
+4 for cheap spa experiences
+1 for cute shops and gilded-age hotels
+2 for delicious, free water
-1 for not enough time
-1 for missing a highly-rated barbecue experience

-1 for settling for a disappointing dinner