There are many stark contrasts between living in Portland vs living in Fresno. That, in and of itself could be its own essay. For this story, I’ll focus on just one of these differences. Portland is surrounded by beautiful nature, and for the most part those that live here make efforts to get out and enjoy it. Especially true in the summer months. After being here for over 3 years now, I have discovered that the very best thing you can possibly do with a summer day is organize a group of friends and head to the river. Any of them. Friends and acquaintances are eager to join in, especially if you have a car to get there. When I lived in Fresno, I rarely heard of friends heading out to do outdoorsy things. The summers were unbearably hot, spring lasted about 5 days, and everyone hibernated for the winter. Summer days in Fresno were best spent driving the two + hours to the gorgeous California coast. If not that, then you could drag yourself to the mall or the movie theatre and enjoy some free air conditioning. After moving to Portland, I slowly adjusted to the idea of nature activities. Friends did them rain, shine, summer or dead of winter. Certain activities are on a “must do ” list if you live here, such as Multnomah Falls, The Gorge, a summer day spent at the Bluffs, floating down the Sandy river, etc. I’ve been slowly checking these off my bucket list as time allows. Each one of these attractions have lived up to the hype and have been beautiful and memorable. This story is about the one thing that everyone said I must do, that turned out to be the most bizarre and uncomfortable experiences of my life. How can nature possibly be uncomfortable? Read on.
Most of my friends who live here have mentioned going to the hot springs. It was apparently a quick day trip from Portland, and was a relaxing and rejuvenating thing to do with friends. I had never been to a natural hot springs before. I’ve never seen one, much less heard of anyone who went to one regularly. It sounded really nice. It also sounded like getting to Bagby Hot springs was relatively easy and not too far away. One night I was out with a group of friends at a bar, having a few cocktails. It was about last call, and a friend and his boyfriend left to go to the hot springs at 2 am to round out their night. Especially in the light of that I figured it was probably right off the freeway and very easily accessible. Even though a lot of my friends have been/go frequently no one really had anything to say about it except to try not to at night because the scene gets a little “nude” after dark. I also heard that the water is piped into tubs for bathing, rather than it just being an open body of water. I didn’t really know what that meant, but whatever. still sounded interesting.
Ross and I had the day off, which was rare. It was a surprisingly sunny November Sunday. One in which a coat isn’t necessary. That alone is a miracle. We took our time around the house, went to brunch on a Groupon, then decided to finally do Bagby. It was a gorgeous day, probably the last one we’d see in at least 6 months. The weather was that magical mix of not too cold, yet crisp enough that a hot spring would be perfect. Well, from what I could guess. I didn’t really know how warm the spring would actually be. They call it a hot spring, not a warm spring so I guessed it would be warm enough to hang out in. We brought Ham, not really putting in any thought about weather or not dogs were necessarily “allowed”. Considering the warnings of what goes on there after dark, I assumed it was an unmonitored area and bringing a dog would be completely okay. Leaving her at home on a day such as this while we were embarking on outdoors activities seemed like dog abuse anyway.
The directions to Bagby are vague. This is pulled from the official website:
Bagby Hot Springs is located about 45 minutes South East of Estacada, Oregon. After the beautiful drive up the Clackamas River Basin on Hwy 224, you turn South and follow the Collawash River. There is a parking lot and campground located at the trailhead bearing the name “Bagby Trailhead”. The campground is to the left when entering the parking lot and is commonly known as “Nohorn Campground”. The only services at the trailhead are two outhouses.
“Follow the river”. It doesn’t say for how long. In fact, it makes it seem like its right off the 224. Sounds simple enough. We left Portland at about 2:30pm. We hit Estacada at about 3:30. If the town Estacada sounds familiar to you, its because I have a previous post from this town called “The greatest bar EVER”. Sadly, the Safari Club has since shut its doors. We drove by its former shell and looked at its current state. Across the road there was a second-hand store that was open. Since the sun was still championing on and not a cloud in site, we reasoned we had time to stop in. 30 minutes of picking though the owner’s impressive and bizarre collection of crap and were back on the road, turning South to follow the river.
Had we known, we would have surely purchased a map. A good, old fashioned, GPS doesn’t disappear, paper map made by Cartologists. I had brought up directions on my phone, and “following the river” was for miles. Miles upon miles. There were also turns. Ones definitely NOT mentioned on the website. As we travelled along the river, I lost phone service. I had the route plotted on the virtual map on my screen, but lost the dot to know where we were, precisely. Also, I couldn’t zoom in to see details or markers. When I did, the phone glitched. We just kept driving, all the while feeling like we’d passed it. How much farther? When do we start looking for these turns? Before I had a smart phone, I would always use paper maps, and I had this overwhelming sense of their timeless value at that moment. After a few wrong turns, guessing where to go based on where other cars were going, and dumb luck we eventually approached a 8×10 wooden sign pointing to the parking lot of the camp.
Ham was absolutely dying to get out of that car. The sun was setting. There were a lot of other cars there, as well as a hand full of people getting out of their cars at the same time. It was oddly comforting to see that this many other people found it completely reasonable to go to the hot springs at 5 pm on a Sunday. With the sun slipping down, however I couldn’t help but look around at these people and wonder if in a few short minutes I’d be forced to see them naked. We got out our supply bag that consisted of bathing suits, towels, bottled water, wine (important), and poop bags (dog, not human-related). We did not have a flashlight. In our defense, we thought this would be day trip.
From the parking lot to the campsite is about a 2 mile hike. I know this now. At the time. I had no idea. No one mentioned the hike. As we walked down the trail the sun slipped further and further down behind the tree line of the forest. It was getting dark. There was no getting around it. There was no turning round at this point. We had come so far. We travelled on, Ham leading us with no flashlight. Two miles isn’t really that far. I’ve easily walked that running errands around town in no time. There’s a sort of illusion in regards to time. The way to something always seems longer than the way back. This is especially true if you have no idea when or where your end point is. It could be in 2 yards, or two more miles. There were no markers or indications. Occasional groups of people passed by going the opposite direction. Everything about this seemed so strange and completely out of my character. One of those situations where you are fully aware that this is a bad idea, but things are already too far set in motion. The sun finally set, and we were in darkness. Thankfully, Ross had previously put a flashlight App on his phone. Mine was useless. The faint glow of the iphone screen did nothing. We used the app for the last leg of our hike. The scope of the light coming from the phone yeilded a small spotlight to guide us. I tripped and stumbled along on the uneven ground. We passed two guys going the opposite way, and out of desperation I asked them how much farther. They said it was right over this hill. Thank fucking god.
The campsite had an official park sign, and a low wood fence lining it. There were no lights provided. Not only that, after shining our tiny pin light around the area it was evident that no one else had any light source either. Not one person. No flashlight, no lantern, not shit. we entered though the opening in the fence, and walked toward the lone structure standing in the darkness. As we approached, I was taken aback with how many people were here. There were 50, if not more. Again, Not one of them with a light, all of them wandering around in complete darkness in the middle of a dense forest.
My eyes might as well had been closed for this entire experience. That’s exactly how much visibility I had. Ross led the way with the phone light, I stumbled and tripped along behind him, holding on to the back of his sweatshirt in one hand and Ham’s leash in the other. For how many fucking people there were, it was oddly quiet. People were murmuring in hushed tones, or passing by us in complete silence. We reached the main destination, which was 3 wooden steps that I nearly face-planted on leading up to a wooden shack. There were people milling all about, and it was very confusing to make out what the hell was going on. The shack had multiple doors that lead to individual rooms. On the porch was a picnic table, with people sitting on it. As we approached the first door, five people were leaving the room and told us we could have it because it was too small for them. We had no idea what they meant, but we took the room.
The 12 x12 room was made entirely of wood, and was completely wet on all four walls and floor. There was a long tub carved out of a tree trunk lining the wall, a narrow bench coming out of the opposite to sit on. The door to the room was a swinging wooden one, saloon style. The roof was open to the night sky. We stood in the middle of this room, wondering what the hell we were supposed to do next. The tub was empty. There was a spout coming out of the wall made of bamboo aimed into the tub. A small trickle of hot water was dribbling out. We shined the light into the tub, and saw that someone had shoved a pink and black striped sock with a knot tied in the middle into a hole in the bottom that served as a drain. We stood there, looking at this with question marks over our heads for a good 5 minutes trying to piece together what to do. Surely we aren’t to wait for the tub to fill up from this trickle. It would take all night at that rate, if not longer. People kept opening our swinging door to see if our room was occupied. it became clear that we lucked out on getting this room. All those people sitting on that picnic bench were actually in line waiting for rooms, and we essentially cut without knowing. Ross told me to stay with the room. He was going to take the light and see what other people were doing as far as getting water into their tubs.
I stood in darkness in the center of this room. Ham was in complete distress. Before too long, I realized that she felt wetness, saw a giant tub, and thought she was going to get a bath. Ham hates baths. She won’t enter the bathroom at home unless carried in. She could not be calm, and kept trying to run under the gap of the swinging door. I couldn’t see anything, now that the light was gone. I kept feeling Ham pulling at the leash and her nails scraping against the wood. It was cold. Fuck that. It was Oregon, in the winter, high altitude cold. Ross came back to the room. He said people were hauling water to their tubs with buckets, but the water source he saw everyone going to was ice cold. We stood in silence for a few minutes, trying to decide what to do. Ice cold water? Fuck that bullshit. I was cold, uncomfortable, and tired. I was ready to just say fuck it and go home. Ham was still in a frenzy, and could not be consoled.
A man swung open our door. He asked if he could come in and show his daughter what our room looked like. Without our consent, he came right on in, holding the hand of a terrified-looking teenage girl. They stood in the center of our room in silence for a good 5 minutes. They eventually left, still holding hands. Right after them, another man came in asking us if we were getting any water in our tub. We said that we weren’t and with the aid of our light, he set in to investigate. At first I though maybe he was park maintenance, but soon I deduced that he was just a regular. The guy determined that there was a clog in the piping system. The way its supposed to work, is water flows freely into the tubs. We came on an unlucky day where shit wasn’t working. He said the other side of the shack was getting water, but not this one. The regular left our room and went about investigating the plumbing system. A group of kids threw open our door and asked if we were sticking around. This shit was surreal.
Two buckets were sitting outside our swinging door. I touched one of them and felt that the plastic was warm. They are getting hot water from somewhere. I had ross feel it. He left me in the room to go try and discover where we could get the hot water from. I sat in the darkness again. The ledge to sit on protruded from the wall about 4 inches. I balanced one butt cheek on it and crouched on the wet wood. Over the wall in one of the other mysterious cabins came the sounds of a man having sex. Long, guttural moans with the occasional oh yeah wafted into my room. There was no sounds of any partner, so I’m only to assume he was enjoying himself solo. Ham continued to try and run out of the room.
Ross returned with two buckets full of piping hot water. After traipsing in the dark and getting lost, he found an open hot spring near the shack that people were dipping their buckets into and filling from. He decided he was going to do this. Carrying two 10 gallon buckets in either hand full of water up a hill is hard-ass labor. He would have to do all the work, as I have scoliosis and have a difficult time carrying a sack of potatoes these days. He was on a mission, however. We came all this way. I sat with the light on his phone in the room and waited. I could finally have a look around. There was graffiti on every inch of the walls. That, combined with the cold and the wet made me feel like I was in a serial killer’s tool shed, awaiting my slaughter. The sex man was crescendoing. I decided to put on some music from the phone.
With the light and music on in our room, people stopped coming in. Ham was shivering and terrified. I pulled out one of the towels we brought and wadded it up for her to lay on. she ran to it gratefully and finally settled down a tiny bit. Ross was making trip after trip with buckets of water, but the tub was slow to fill. I shivered. I pulled out the bottle of wine I brought and started chugging to keep warm. Elliot Smith came on the playlist and I could hear someone a couple of rooms over singing along. Between trips, Ross said there was a woman in her late 50’s walking around outside completely nude and smoking a joint. I peeked out my door and indeed saw a nude figure wandering around, talking to strangers passing by. It was 27 degrees. Ross kept referring to her as “The shining” lady. I asked if it was the lady coming out of the bathtub before or after Jack Nicholson makes out with her. He said “What do you think?” After nearly an hour, the tub was a little over half full. He was tired. I said lets just get in.
We had brought our suits. The thought of hauling freezing, wet garments with us for the two miles back to the car seemed unbearable. we decided to just get in naked. I’m not sure if I’ve ever experienced “nude in the Oregon forest” cold before. Ham’s towel she was laying on had soaked though from the moisture on the ground. I wadded up my coat for her and she happily settled in on that. I felt so bad for bringing her.
I got in the tub. It was warm enough. Almost too warm. Its amazing how hot the water was. We now realized why there was cold AND hot water. You’re supposed to mix it. Ross got dressed again and decided to go get more water to fill the tub. I sat there, naked and pretty fucking vulnerable. Anyone could push the door open. Not that nudity here seemed to be a huge concern. I’ve never been one of those “proud of my body” people. I drew my knees up to my chest, watched the door, and chugged the wine. There were little kids running around, families, naked women, sex dudes, and lord knows what else here all mixing it up with each other. What kind of fucking place is this? What if some fucking wierdo comes in this room right now and refuses to leave? What if another creepy daddy/daughter duo wants to “tour my room”? There is no reason in the world I should be involved in a scenario such as this. I am not this person. After 30 more minutes of filling and the door swinging open and shut the tub was a little more full and Ross finally got in.
I’m just going to say this and get it out of the way. There was nothing sexy, romantic or comfortable about this experience. This is not a sexy time, in any stretch of the imagination. Thank goodness I was here with someone I have been with for years. I would be absolutely mortified if I had come here on a date with someone. In fact, I think if I had had this experience with someone I had even been dating as long as a year it would mark the end of the relationship. The tub was narrow and long. Long enough that we were able to lay in it on opposite ends and our feet didn’t touch. The inside of the tub was rough and twigs and branches snarled out of the bottom surface making for a rather uncomfortable seat. I also had the pleasure of the stranger’s sock smashed into my right butt cheek. Lord knows where that sock has been, how long its been here or what organisms are growing within it. Best not to think about it. The water was NOT rejuvenating. It stank of sulfur, and had a murky quality to it that left a film on your skin and stung in any cuts you may have. I was afraid to rub my face with my wet hands. Frankly, I was concerned about my various orifices being submerged in this liquid. We tried to lay back and enjoy the night sky overhead. My legs began to itch. The water was filled with unknown “floaties” that I couldn’t see but could feel. Something squishy passed through my fingers. We looked at each other, and without so much as a word got out of the tub after a maximum of 5 minutes of soaking.
A picture to commemorate the first and very LAST time I will be nude in public.
There are few things as cold as ” step out of the piping hot tub into 20-something degree weather wet and naked” cold. We only had one dry towel now, so we had to share it. I don’t think I’ve ever dressed that fast in my life. My coat was completely soaked from being on the ground, but It was worth it for Ham to be comfortable. I put that on, gathered our things and we left our room. A couple was standing outside our door. We told them they could have it, and the water was just put in. Fucking gross, dude. Communal stank water that people may or may not have just fucked in. As we left, the crowd of people hanging out there seemed to double. How and why? And still not one person had a proper light. We escaped this weird scene and began the long hike back to the car.
After about halfway into the walk back, the inevitable happened: Ross’ phone died. The light app as wellthe music playing to muffle out our neighbor’s sex-sounds really drained the battery. We stood in complete darkness. To the right was the sound of the river, above that we knew there was a cliff and a drop off down to it. The trail was marked with an edging of rocks and sticks. I’ve heard dogs can see in the dark… our choices were a) allow ham to lead us in pitch blackness with the possibility of us wandering the wrong way off a cliff (not to mention tripping and falling) or b) crawling on our hands and knees for the next mile, using the rock and sticks on the edge of the trail as our guide. We stood in silence. I stooped down to test the crawling theory. The sound of the river below was so loud at that moment, and all I could think of was tumbling down it to my death. This is how we fucking die. This is no fucking joke and we are fucked.
Before we could even speak to each other and begin to formulate our next move, off in the distance a blue LCD light was bobbing in the trees. It approached, and with it a group of 10 or so people quickly walking single-file down the trail in the direction of the parking lot. Can we walk with you? Our light died. We followed this group that marched in silence. We are so god dammed lucky. As we neared the parking lot, we discovered that our entire group was made up of people who didn’t bring a flashlight/light source died that the leader with the LCD light had picked up along the trail. That guy must have thought we were all a bunch of fucking idiots. We WERE a bunch of fucking idiots. Who heads in to the deep woods after dark without a fucking light source? Apparently everyone.
We got back to Portland at near 10pm. Starving, stinky, cold, wet. I’ve relayed this story to a few friends, and they are completely shocked by my experience.. Not one person had a negative story to share with me and all described everything as nothing short as “magical”. For me, Bagby was about as magical as squatting nude in a trench in winter, while being forced to be intimate with strangers. It will take a lot of convincing to give this another try. It was like everything I hate converged in one experience: Hippies, naked people, strangers having sex, dirt, cold, and blindness. I’m not sure who this experience if for, actually. Apparently the 50+ folks waiting in the freezing cold and darkness at all hours. I failed in getting a picture of The Shining lady for you guys. Apologies.