The Ultimate Road Trip: THE SILVER SNAIL : A solo woman's full-time RV adventure
Join me at my NEW SITE — Joyrides of America — where you can SUBSCRIBE

Hot Springs, AR

What started as a dreary, wet and windy drive turned out to be quite pleasant as I drove west out of the big storm and towards Hot Springs, Arkansas. Rolling hills and pastures went by as I entered into the Ozarks region. It was a refreshing landscape, after the marshlands of the past couple of months. I docked at Lake Catherine State Park - a nice park on a lake with a nice power plant on the far side.

Hot Springs National Park is the first official federally-protected park in the country and also happens to be the boyhood home of Bill Clinton. The water flows out of the ground at a temperature of 147 degrees and the main tourist attraction is "Bathhouse Row", a block where the original bathhouses still stand, one of which is still operating. I was here for the spa treatment. My time was scarce, so I immediately made an appointment for a bath and massage at the Arlington Hotel (one of the few places that the National Park allows access to the water and once a favorite hangout of Al Capone's) and eagerly awaited my evening indulgence. Temps were a little cooler here, nestled in the mountains, but sunny and pleasant.



AHHHH....THE SPA...or is it a sanitarium?
From the look of the pictures on the website, I thought I was in for a quiet, private, even luxurious pampering in a fancy hotel with pure natural hot spring water. Not even close.

When I first entered the bathhouse on the third floor of the Arlington Hotel, I was greeted by unattentive staff leisurely standing around and chatting amongst themselves. My arrival seemed to be an unwelcome disruption in their idleness, but they took my money up front, and since I paid by credit card, immediately informed me that as long as I have cash, I can pay the tip later. Okay, I said, but I always thought that you tip according to service received.

They tell me to go through that door, where someone hands me a towel and shows me where to get undressed. It seems like I'm expected to walk around barefoot, but I don't like that idea, so I ask for a pair of those disposable flip-flops I saw someone walk out with. Then I'm asked to sit on a bench and wait. I am in a large tiled room with smaller, curtained "cell rooms" on the far wall. Noises and echoes bounce everywhere. There is a constant dripping sound. The room is cluttered with used towels scattered about. The walls and fixtures are old and corroded. I start to feel concerned about the hygiene of the staff and the facilities. Mummified bodies are lying on padded beds lined up in the middle of the room. Their arms, feet, legs, hands, and torsos are all wrapped in towels. They're lying on their backs with towels on their faces and are perfectly still while all around them is a cacophony of noises and white-uniformed staff scuffling about. I hope I don't become one of the mummies. I thought I was here for a soothing bath, like in the picture. This feels like a hospital during the Civil War.

Dana, my "attendant" finally comes and ushers me into one of the small tiled cells where an institutional tub awaits half-filled with the legendary water. This is not a luxurious, soothing place to be. And this is definitely NOT pampering. There is a corroded electric pump bolted to the wall that adds bubbles to the water. As I get in the tub, Dana asks me if it is warm enough. I say sure, trying to be polite and keep an open mind. She takes a paper Dixie cup, sticks it under the faucet and tells me to drink the hot water. It's supposed to help balance my system. Then she says she'll be back in 15-20 minutes to loofah me and draws the shower curtain closed, leaving me in my shallow watery prison. I didn't know that being washed like an invalid was part of the "service", and as I lay in the half-filled tub that is now room temperature, my apprehension is building.

I try to make the best of it, though, and study my surroundings with a sense of amusement. Would it be so hard for the Arlington hotel to keep the hardware polished, instead of green and corroded?  Am I going to pickup a bacterial infection or fungus from this place? How do I get this tub filled with deep HOT water. What's going on out there? I expect to see bloody sheets being tossed around haphazardly. I expect to hear cries of lunacy and pleadings to escape. Has there been a big mistake? Why am I here?

Dana finally comes back in half an hour and notices that the tub is half-filled and not so warm. She fills it up with nice hot water and says she'll come back in 10 minutes, to give me a real chance to enjoy the bath. now I've at least got a nice deep bath filled with hot mineral spring water, but I've been in here for a while now, and pretty soon I'm ready to be released. I get out of the tub and wait on the edge with my towel wrapped around me. In fifteen minutes, when she finally returns, I tell her I'll pass on the loofah experience. That's okay, she said, you can still keep the looofah mitt. Great, thanks. Then I get the option of an aromatherapy steam room, or a "dry heat" (a sauna). I pick the dry heat. I can't smell, so the aromatherapy would be wasted on me. The sauna is like all saunas, and I am relieved. It feels safe and hygienic.

When I've had enough, I come back out and wait for Dana again. Sure, enough, she wants to mummify me. I remind myself to keep an open mind and give it a try, but only if she covers the previously-used vinyl-padded beds and knee pillows with towels first...please. She wraps hot towels around my arms, legs and torso and then lays one on my abdomen. It's hot. She scuffles away and returns with an ice-cold towel for my face. Ahhhh...that feels better. For about 2 minutes. Then the hot towels start cooling off and I feel itchy. It's noisy and I can't just lie here with a towel over my face, blind and vulnerable to all sorts of hygiene infractions that I could and should be witnessing. I raise my hand and beckon Dana to release me from my bondage. She does and my final luxurious treat is a "needle" shower to rinse off all of the...what, mineral water? Who knows, but I give this a try, and it's nothing special. The water pressure spurts and gurgles, sometimes super strong, sometimes not so strong. I towel dry and wait for Dana again. She really is quite busy shuffling around this evening. She tells me I'm the only one left and to go to the front where I'll wait for my massage. A blank, young girl greets me there and leads me down a dark, unlit corridor to a massage room with soothing music and soft lighting. So maybe this is where the relaxation part comes in. But the massage couldn't be more disappointing. It was little more than someone rubbing oil, and too much of it, onto my skin. After driving so many miles, my neck and shoulder muscles were tight and I was really looking forward to a real massage. But my muscles were too far away from my skin to feel anything.

I tried to ask the staff members about the place, like how old it was, how did this method of bathing originate, and does anyone else do it like this. They didn't know and found it amusing that I would ask these kinds of questions, or even talk at all. Dana said she used to work at another hotel down the road and they did it the same, but she didn't loofah the patients. I had been to a traditional hamam in central Turkey, which definately pushed my comfort zone...but that was Turkey. I didn't know the history of public bathhouses in the United States. Maybe this was all perfectly normal.

I'd been debating the whole time what to do about a tip. I decide at the very end that since the service was lacking, so too would the tip. I quickly get dressed and say thanks when I pass the staff members chatting idly with each other. As I walk out the door, I think about taking a shower as soon as I get home.



Join me at my NEW SITE — Joyrides of America — where you can SUBSCRIBE


The FIRST Snail Trail MAP next stop previous stop
All images and words © Sharon Pieniak
Aluminum PhotosInspired CocktailsIn the MediaADVICE: Ask Sharon next stop About the Silver Snail The Latest Snail TrailThe First Snail Trail MAP previous stop The First Snail Trail