Letting Off Steam in New Mexico

By William Powers
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 19, 2008

It should have been perfect: soaking in a teak tub of 106-degree water at Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese-style spa in the hills above Santa Fe, N.M. But it wasn't.

No, despite the sage-scented breeze blowing off the Sangre de Cristos, and despite an evening sky deepening to crimson through the steam, I was still tense and sore. I'd just finished an eight-day yoga retreat in possibly the most physically trying week of my life.

A Bolivian friend, Gisela, had talked me into the yoga. She said the annual Summer Solstice Sadhana was life-altering. So I got on a plane from New York to join Gisela and more than 1,000 other yoga-lovers in the high desert.

I'm not in terrible shape, but let's just say these folks' bodies were able to do more things than mine -- as in, holding white tantric yoga postures for up to 90 minutes at a time. I needed a break from this break.

I needed a hot spring. I've always savored that combination of fresh air, sunlight or moonlight, and water heated by the Earth's molten core. Like a surfer forever on the trail of the perfect wave, I'm out there looking for the perfect soak. I've traveled to Bolivia's Robore sand-pit springs and to the hot rivers beneath Costa Rica's Arenal volcano, but the perfect hot spring remains elusive.

If it does exist, it may be in New Mexico. The state harbors rich geothermal areas; the United States Geological Survey lists 77 locations where unusually warm water reaches the surface. Native Americans used New Mexico's springs for centuries for their healing powers, and some 15th- and 16th-century Spanish explorers claimed they'd found the Fountain of Youth.

But beyond hot water, I wanted my visit to New Mexico to be about people. While living in the Land of Enchantment in the early 1990s, I was fascinated by the state's eccentric characters, who often had valuable, if odd, perspectives on how to craft sustainable lives in the global-warming era.

Take my teak-tub mates, for example, at the spring above Santa Fe. When I asked one of them what he did for a living, he replied, "Water in summer, snow in winter."

His girlfriend coolly translated from New Mexican into Standard English: "Kayaking guide and snowboard instructor."

He chanted a few mantras and then tickled her. Before long, the sweet nothings he was whispering in her ear became sour somethings I didn't want to hear. It was time to search for a better soak.

So the following day I drove my rental car to one of the oldest hot-spring spas in North America: the Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs, an unassuming, out-of-the-way place set amid red-rock buttes. It's said to be the only single hot-springs site in the world with four types of mineral water: lithium, iron, soda and arsenic. I spent most of the day absorbing those minerals in natural rock pools. Then I covered myself in satiny mud and let the desert sun bake it in. After lunch I hiked miles of trails, discovering heaps of Native American pottery shards right out there on the mesa.

Just as the word "perfection" began creeping into my consciousness, I crested a butte above the springs and my solitude was shattered by the sounds of hammering and sawing. Below me, not 50 yards from the spa, condos were going up. Just as Santa Fe was sadly becoming Fantasé, an adobe Disney World sprawling its way toward soulless suburbia, so too had Progress found its way to Ojo Caliente, a place a bit too enchanting to remain that way.

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