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Letting Off Steam in New Mexico
Finding yourself in hot water takes on a whole new meaning in the high desert of 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.

* * *

En route to the next spring, I spent two nights with my old friend and mentor Stan Crawford on his El Bosque garlic farm south of Taos.

As I pulled into his long dirt driveway, I saw the gray-bearded, 6-foot-3 man gazing reflectively out over the mesa beyond his adobe home. There he was in the flesh, acclaimed author of "Mayordomo" and "A Garlic Testament," friend of literati such as Barbara Kingsolver, John Nichols and Bill McKibben, modestly clad in his soiled farmer's clothes.

We embraced, and his energetic Australian wife, Rose Mary, came out and said, "Something new is growing with the garlic." They'd just finished renovating the Tower, a beautiful circular stone house in the middle of their fields, and would soon launch it as a B&B farm-stay.

As I looked at the garlic and basil fields, I felt nostalgic. Fresh out of college, I'd worked for a summer on Stan's farm while vineyard-sitting on the Rio Grande nearby. Then, as now, I marveled at the Crawfords' balanced lives: half of each year farming, the other half writing.

The next morning, I helped with the farmers-market harvest. It was one of those Ansel Adams days in New Mexico, with the sharp mesa lines edging crisply into a huge sky. Stan had hired a few of his friends and neighbors to assist. He bent down to snip the first sprig of basil, and we followed. As we worked, I asked the group about hot springs, and someone enthusiastically recommended the nearby Jemez Springs.

Then the picking conversation took a somewhat revolutionary turn. Amid talk of a proposed hazardous waste dump, someone said: "Gandhi didn't just talk about nonviolence in an evil system. He was all about noncooperation."

Another friend of Stan's talked about cultivating a posture of "maladjustment with Empire."

"But everything is tainted. We're out here feeding nuclear Los Alamos."

"Right, but you stay maladjusted to the general evil. That's true noncooperation: not letting Empire inside you."

As I lifted a crate of organic lettuce onto a platform attached to Stan's tractor, I knew the farm visit was giving me much to mull over in the hot springs up the road.

* * *

The historic mineral bathhouse at Jemez Springs wasn't bad. After I'd spent some time in a private tub, the Jemez staff wrapped my farm-worked muscles in herb-soaked blankets.

Then, on a tip, I got dressed, then followed a forest trail to a secluded natural spring nearby. A few others also had found it, and we exchanged jokes and stories until dusk, when I drove across the moonlit mountains and north along the high plain toward the town of Cuba and the Circle A Guest Ranch and Hostel.

Circle A is set on 200 acres nestled between badlands and the towering ponderosas of the San Pedro Wilderness. A pricey hunting lodge during the heyday of Georgia O'Keeffe and Ghost Ranch, the grand adobe hacienda of Circle A remains, and just $35 got me a private room inside.

But as I ate complimentary pancakes the next morning, I noticed something unusual, something very New Mexico. Employees and guests alike were practicing esoteric arts. "Circle A is a kind of metaphysical monastery," a massage therapist told me. Later, as she gave me a shiatsu massage in the ranch yurt, she said that 50 shamans from around the globe had once gathered at the Circle A to bless the property.

Later I rode horses with Kenny, 51, and Claire, 28. The nonconformist couple summer on Circle A, leading backcountry horse trips, and winter with their eight horses -- formerly wild horses they'd captured on public lands and tamed -- deep in southern New Mexico's national forests. I calculated Kenny and Claire's carbon footprint at the level of that of your average Bangladeshi. They grew and gathered their food, and they lived mostly without cash.

"The aborigines say that modern civilization is dreaming the wrong dream," Claire told me as we crested a peak on horseback. "Out here in New Mexico, we're dreaming another one."

Soon after that, I'd begun to think I'd crested a different kind of peak, the peak of bizarreness, when somebody offered to reiki me.

At that point, why would I refuse, even though this laying-on of hands has no proven benefits? In the past seven days I'd survived white tantric yoga, listened to mantras chanted by a dude whose job description consists solely of seasons and elements, picked organic leeks for people who live in radioactive Los Alamos and galloped into the sunset with horse-wrangling hippies. Reiki? Certainly.

But during my reiki session I heard a voice. No, nothing otherworldly. Precisely at the point when Circle A's reikista was snapping some particularly knotty "cords in my aura" (which, she said, were places where my energy was stuck), I heard the voice, wafting in through my loosening aura: ". . . it's the most incredible hot spring anywhere."

My eyes snapped open. At first I thought it a dream. I was so relaxed in the reiki trance that I could hardly move. Wait; it was a guest who said it. Uh-oh; he was exiting the lobby and climbing into his Prius.

"Pardon me," I said to the reiki master, "but my cords will have to wait."

I raced outside and stepped in front of the hybrid. I told the driver I simply had to know more about that hot spring.

He cocked an eyebrow and said I'd need to talk to Arvo.

"Arvo?" I asked.

He nodded, a little conspiratorially. "Arvo, the Estonian sun rancher of El Vado."

* * *

My heart beating faster than usual, I drove toward Arvo's, near one of New Mexico's northernmost towns, the isolated El Vado, on the Chado River. This was to be my last New Mexican spring, and it promised to be the Grail.

Finding Arvo Thomson turned out to be easy. He's contacted through the nonprofit CouchSurfing Project ( http://www.couchsurfing.com), a kind of Craigslist for freeloaders.

Arvo immediately e-mailed back. He didn't have a couch for me. But he did have a nifty little artist studio overlooking a sweeping gorge on his 100-percent-solar-powered ranch. For free. And he'd escort me to "the perfect spring." Why, I wondered, hadn't I CouchSurfed before?

My cords only partly snapped and my aura still half unstuck, I arrived at Arvo's. The blond, 40-something engineer, who described himself in a cryptic accent as "of Estonian lineage," excitedly led me on a tour of his life's work: a futuristic permaculture farm in the dusty foothills of the southern Rockies. Permaculture is sustainable design that includes the whole holistic ball of wax: sustainable agriculture, landscape design and ecological architecture.

"I'm not giving Dick Cheney a dime," he said enthusiastically, flushing one of his toilets a dozen times in a row.

"Isn't that a waste of water?" I said, aghast at Arvo's apparent hypocrisy. But Arvo explained that his water was solar-pumped and he had "vast, inexhaustible" sun power at his disposal. Moreover, all his water was captured rainwater, so an El Vado toilet-flush is merely an innocuous detour between cloud and dirt.

As I gawked over the array of vegetables growing inside Arvo's main house, a large raven flew out of the kitchen, squawking wildly, and headed for my face.

"Get down!" Arvo said, his tousled hair and wild blue eyes giving him the look of a mad scientist. The raven apparently lived in the house and had its own little door to come and go as it pleased. Arvo said his ex-wife couldn't stand El Vado's harsh winter, so his only companions now -- and this seemed in keeping with the neo-primitivism of the ranch -- were CouchSurfers and ravens.

That evening I took a "vegetable shower" in the bathroom of a greenhouse. "Leave the shower running when you're done," Arvo called in to me. "My tomatoes are thirsty."

The next morning, Arvo and I set off on foot to the hot spring. But after several miles of trudging, my initial excitement turned to frustration. "Where the heck is this spring?" I gasped at the top of a ridge.

"Just over there," he said pointing to a minuscule dot at the bottom of the canyon. Then he ran down with a whoop. I fell in behind him, mostly butt-surfing my way down. I temporarily lost sight of Arvo but then spotted him running through the tall grasses beside the river. Out of breath and covered with dirt and thorns, I was ready to give up.

But then it appeared, on the far bank, out beyond a long-abandoned gold miner's cabin: steam.

When we finally reached the glorious natural rock pool, we plunged in and soaked for two hours. Arvo and I were the only people within a hundred square miles of this spot, and I breathed deeply the sulfurous smell of the spring mixing with fresh sage.

Was it perfect? No. Relaxing there with Arvo, an absorbing individual but a stranger, I realized that my quest for the perfect hot spring was like trying to reach the desert horizon; walk toward it, if you wish, but you'll never get there. The unusual journey itself, it turned out, was also the destination.

Suddenly, Arvo's raven flew down out of a pearly-pink sky and landed beside him on the edge of the spring. Arvo smiled and stroked the bird's wings. I smiled, too, at the lovely surrealism of it all, as the very last bit of my tension floated away with the rising steam.

William Powers is the author of two memoirs, "Whispering in the Giant's Ear: A Frontline Chronicle From Bolivia's War on Globalization" and "Blue Clay People: Seasons on Africa's Fragile Edge," both published by Bloomsbury.

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