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Blue Highways: Spencer's Hot Springs, Nevada

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapLet's stop and rinse off at Spencer's Hot Springs with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM)!  After all, we deserve it.  Traveling is long, dusty and tiring.  In this post, I'll reflect on hot springs and bathing in general.  Sounds fun, doesn't it?  To see where Spencer's Hot Springs is located, so you can really visit there one day, click on the map thumbnail at right.

Book Quote

"On the map I noticed a thermal spring to the south.  I wandered around side roads before Spencer's Hot Springs appeared on a knoll under the snowy Toquima Mountains east of Austin.  When I saw the blue pools steaming, there was no question in my mind.  With only five Nevadans to the square mile (in actuality many fewer when you discount Las Vegas and Reno), I figured I could get by undisturbed.  Behind a cover of thistle and spiny hopsage, I stripped and dished up the hot water, let it cool slightly, then poured buckets of it over me.  I even slapped on hot, gritty, blue-gray mud to loosen the sinews.  Then I rinsed clean as men before must have done, dumping over me water warmed by the molten heart of the earth."

Blue Highways: Part 5, Chapter 6

Spencer's Hot Springs, near Austin, Nevada. Photo at's Flickr photostream. Click on photo to go to site.

Spencer's Hot Springs, Nevada

Until I moved to New Mexico, I had never experienced the glory of a hot mineral spring.  I knew they existed - in fact there were hot mineral springs near where I grew up in California - but I'd never been to one.  I still haven't been to Orr Hot Springs or Vichy Springs, so near my home town.

The state in which I live,  New Mexico, as in Nevada, is a place where hot springs abound. You find them in the Jemez Mountains, at Ojo Caliente, and in the desert at Truth or Consequences (once known as Hot Springs).  Trips to TorC and Ojo Caliente made me a believer.  In Ojo Caliente, the baths are infused with different minerals.  There's an iron bath, an arsenic bath, and a mud bath, as well as other pools.  You can even drink natural water with lithium in it for a mental pick-me-up.  At TorC, you can stay in motels and hotels that tap directly into the hot water underground, or you can rent a public or private tub at a place like Riverbend Hot Springs, situated right alongside the Rio Grande.

There's really nothing like soaking oneself in water heated by the earth's internal processes.  Heat generated by molten hot magma (can't you just hear Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers films?).  It feels different than city water dumped into a bathtub through a faucet.  It leaves one with an invigorated feeling, but also a relaxed and rested feeling.  It is very hard to describe.

I think about this because I often, just because my mind work this way, have thought exercises where I think about what humanity did before our modern technologies.  Certainly, before hot water heaters installed in houses, to take a bath most people had to heat water on a stove.  Of course, this is the genesis of the gags you can see in old westerns, where the womenfolk enlist the menfolk to drag some character with a name like Old Scratchy in for a bath.  He kicks, bites and screams, kind of like a dog that really doesn't want to get wet, but in the end he gets put in the tub and he ends up liking the bath.  Of course, heating enough water for a bath took a while, so baths were rare and when they did occurr, a lot of people had to share the same water.  You were not lucky if you were the last person to bathe.

That type of bathing, I'm sure, happened for pretty much most of humanity's civilized period.  Before that, well, there was the streams and oceans if one wanted to get clean.  And they were cold.  No wonder that bathing didn't happen very often.

So, I imagine that those people who lived near a hot spring like Spencer's Hot Springs were really lucky.  They could bathe in water that, depending on the spring, remained warm to hot.  They got the experience that very few people in the world had.  And, I'm sure, they were cleaner than most of the rest of humanity.  we are very spoiled in the modern world with our daily showers or baths.  For most of our history, cleansing one's body, heart and mind was a luxury.

I'm glad that I didn't know about Spencer's Hot Springs when I drove past on Highway 50 in July 2010, because I would have been disappointed that I couldn't stop.  I had a schedule to keep - which is unfortunately the way most of us travel nowadays.  Also, it was mid-summer and very hot in the Nevada Desert which does not make a hot spring sound appealing.  If I ever travel that way again, however, I'll either work it into my schedule or make it a priority to visit the springs, especially if it's a more hospitable time of year for such activities.  Like LHM, I'll strip and rinse, or even climb in, and enjoy something that I've found to be extremely soul-refreshing.  I'm not a prude about nudity, so if there are some other people there and they are naked, I'll climb right in though I never push the sight of my nakedness on others - I'll suit up if those who are there are suited.

Pippin's song in The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien best sums up the feeling of taking a hot bath (and it's even better in a hot spring!)

Sing hey! for the bath at close of day
that washes the weary mud away!
A loon is he that will not sing:
O! Water Hot is a noble thing!

O! Sweet is the sound of falling rain,
and the brook that leaps from hill to plain;
but better than rain or rippling streams
is Water Hot that smokes and steams.

O! Water cold we may pour at need
down a thirsty throat and be glad indeed;
but better is Beer if drink we lack,
and Water Hot poured down the back.

O! Water is fair that leaps on high
in a fountain white beneath the sky;
but never did fountain sound so sweet
as splashing Hot Water with my feet!

J.R.R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings
From Lord of the Rings Wikia

Musical Interlude

I searched long and hard for a song about bathing in a hot spring, or a mineral spring.  Well, long and hard is about a half hour for me.  There seems to be a real dearth of such songs and that presents an opportunity for an enterprising songwriter.  Think about it - laughter and love at the hot springs!  So, in its place I'll give you an old standard about bathing - Splish Splash by Bobby Darin.

If you want to know more about Spencer's Hot Springs

All Around Nevada: Spencer's Hot Springs
Backyard Traveler: Soaking in Spencer's Hot Springs Description of Spencer's Hot Springs visit
List of all of Nevada's hot springs
Tour of America Airstream Life: Spencer's Hot Springs
Vanabode: Spencer's Hot Springs

Next up: Austin, Nevada

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