Hot Springs (and Picnics)

Rating: 2 out of 10 stars, in so far as that stars are gaseous, distant images that only appear pretty from afar.

(I have never cared for picnics. I don’t see the point. You take a would-be lovely meal to be enjoyed with fantastic company and instead of dining at a table with all the accoutrement at the ready to feast in leisure for a hearty repast, and instead decide (willfully, I might add) to make it unpleasant. No meal in my life has ever been made better with the addition of squinting, sweating, and propping my torso up with one arm until that becomes uncomfortable and repeating that with the other arm until the meal is over so we can leave. As an added feature, when not dusting away ants or shit covered flies, you’re also swatting away yellow jackets, which are comically undeterred by your threats and are instead imbued with confidence massively disproportionate to their Lilliputian stature. Picnics are just terrible. If you’re of the sort that enjoys picnics, you may wish to read no further, lest I pick apart a different experience you may otherwise enjoy were it not for my sardonic dissection. Though it may seem as such, I truly take no pleasure in ruining ultimately harmless things that people enjoy. You’ve been warned.)

The compendium of things, places, and scenarios that I have found pleasurable in my life is a vast and blissful collection. It brings me joy in the darkest of times to remember the moments that I have experienced that brought me joy and left me delighted. Often it is all too easy to forget that the meaning of life is actually pretty simple: we, as a collective consciousness, act as stewards in the service of acquiring delights for ourselves and the universe. Every living thing yearns for delights. How amazing must it feel for a polar bear, after a long winters’ hibernation high up in a snowy den on a mountainside to emerge to the first warm lights of spring and stretch out its impossibly strong legs? How truly incredible must it be for a pod of dolphins to successfully corral a large school of helpless fish; knowing that itself and all of its friends will swim away with the fullest of bellies towards an afternoon of play and sex? How delighted must the albatross be, as lifelong pair-bonded creatures, to return after weeks or even months on end to its kinds’ cliffside, and somehow be reunited with its mate, the love of its life, amongst the myriad of seemingly indistinguishable others?

Things we may not perceive as conscious know delight. Even trees. Especially trees. How delighted must the young sapling be in its persistent yet meditative existence, to be blessed with the right break in the forest canopy so as to expose it to the necessary sunlight it needs to grow, and thrive, and sing its life giving song in the form of oxygen and shelter for all who hear it as it grows mightier with each passing day.

                  So, as a teenager, when I learned of what hot springs were, naturally I assumed these would be among the uppermost echelon of delightful things. Its resume practically speaks for itself: a naturally occurring pool of hot water set in amongst the nooks of nature, far from mass access. Serene, tranquil, and deliciously secluded.

                  However, as I quickly learned, hot springs, aside from the scenery, are the opposite of delightful. They are incomparably dissatisfying; even going so far as to invoke a looming and lasting melancholy. Inspiring a special kind of disappointment that can only come with high expectations being chewed up by yellow, slobbering teeth masticating your hopes into fine paste within in the cavernous, ever-starving maw of reality.

                  One winters day, I decided to take my friend up on the offer to go to hot springs for my first time. He told me that we were meeting up with two more of his friends there from a different circle, and that this place was truly magical. At this point in my life, the prospect of meeting friends of friends wasn’t stressful at all, it was exciting, even. Odd, in retrospect. But here we are.

                  When we parked, we walked along a thin, winding trail dusted with evening snowfall that was so beautiful I felt like a protagonist in some ancient Japanese myth. I felt that any minute now a talking cherry tree or a wise, yet rather foreboding housecat would call for us to aid them in some side quest that we would be fools to refuse, bringing us glory amongst all the nearby villagers for generations to come. Songs would be written of us. Intricate, yet seemingly effortless paintings would be made of our heroism against whatever Oni or demon threatened these woods. Regrettably, these hot springs were almost five thousand miles, and innumerable years ahead of rural, feudal mythmaking Japan, and no such instance would occur. The first disappointment of the evening.

                  Eventually, we reached our destination, and the woods opened up into a clearing which bore five stacked and interconnected pools of hot, natural spring water; flowing into each other and illuminated by candle and moonlight. If that had been it, my opinion would be as high for hot springs as it is for October sunsets, or pesto.

                  That was not it. Far from it.

                  Sometimes you can read or hear about a feature (or a defect) of something or someone that you either forget or don’t process until it’s right in front of you. Thanksgiving dinners are a perfect example of the less than desirable facets of family members that come roaring back to the forefront of our consciousness at the end of every November.

                  Hot springs are heated by sulfur deposits rising up from the earth. I didn’t think anything of it to learn that. “Cool,” I might have said conclusively.

                  Sulfur, famously akin to the smell of rotten eggs, would upstage the smell of the worst rolling boil fart from the most diehard vegan you know. Methane farts are the Garfunkel to sulfuric vapors’ Simon.  

                  Being that this was also in Oregon, many people had decided to be nude at this hot spring. I have absolutely no qualms about nudity. To the contrary, I’m quite a fan. But the greatest disappointment was yet to come.

                  Now naked and shivering, I tip toed my way to the stink pools and slipped into the waters. Expecting at the very least the relief of enveloping warmth.

                  No such luck.

                  Hot springs, I learned, aren’t even hot. They are warm at best, and most often tepid. I’m sure they must have been a godsend before the industrial revolution, but in an age where hot tubs and scalding showers are very much a thing, this seemed like a letdown. It was a letdown. Except now, wet, naked, and shivering with a nose full of sulfur I now have to strike up conversation with two strangers who come highly recommended by my friend who I don’t want to embarrass in my state of abject misery.

                  An entire hour passed that may as well have been an eon before I was finally able to convince my friend that it was time to go home. It would take several more hours before I could convince my testicles to depart from the safety of my guts and go home as well.

                  The next time anyone recommends a trip to the hot springs, I cannot strongly suggest enough that you instead book a hot tub or simply take a shower. It’s much more pleasant and you can typically control both the temperature and the guest list.

                  Unless, of course, you’re the sort that like picnics. Then by all means go, and may whatever you delight in, however strange to me, bring you joy.