All my gear was packed and organized carefully into the hatchback of Bertha, my1980 Subaru wagonâ€•she isn't that handsome in her old age, but she is still reliable and I never have to worry about getting where I want to go as long as I'm behind her wheel. Four-wheel-drive is a must for mountain passes in the winter and hell, sometimes for just getting out of the driveway. Utah weather can be unpredictable and it's nice not to have to tote around chains or get stuck in the slush of a big sudden snowfall. I can only handle so much of the mundane grind of Utah County's Happy Valley mentality before picking a spot and splitting. My job sucks and I'm broke, but it doesn't take too much to get out and down the roadâ€•some gas money, good tunes, and a small two-man tent has been my salvation many summers.
I like hot pots, not hot pots like Chinese fondue dinnerâ€•hot springs, the natural type that have a pungent rotten-egg reek and come up from the ground with temperatures that can fry the flesh right off your bones if not watered down by a nearby cooler spring. I've been to quite a few in both Idaho and Utah; most are roughed-in rock or concrete lined pools of different sizes that you hike into from the road or campsite trail. Etiquette varies from spring to spring, some folks don't mind if you strip down to your birthday suit, while others are traditionally suited spots. I'm either way, although it can be obnoxious to get dry when your trunks are dripping and sticking to all the wrong places.
This weekend I am looking more for luxury, a camp site with bathrooms and showers and soaking tubs is just what I need. I heard some hippy guy bought up the old Monroe Mystic Hot Springs and has it up and running again. There's a bit of a fee to stay and soak, but I took a couple of extra shifts and a little cash in my pocket means I'm going to live large this trip, hippy style.
I rummage around in the console, find my tape-deck to mp3 adapter and slide it into the cassette slot, turn the flathead screwdriver stabbed into the ignition to fire up Bertha, and then press play on my iPod. Neil Young wails as I shift into reverse and lurch out of the driveway onto the quiet pavement. "I-15 traffic should be nearly nothing on a Sunday afternoon," I mutter to myself. I turn out of 880 West and head for the University Avenue on-ramp. In less than a part-time shift at 7-11 I'll be setting up camp in Monroe and then savoring a nice soak. More than anything, I'm looking forward to some, long, deep shut-eye. Feels like weeks since I had a good night's sleep. Something about switching back and forth between graveyards and swing shifts keeps me existing on crazy amounts of caffeine and no real rest.
I-15 is the main thoroughfare in Utah. It follows along nearly parallel to the Wasatch Front Mountains to create a crevasse of urban sprawl-like towns and cities that broadcast like prime time television shows, where all the characters tend to look and act the same, opposed to the smaller rural towns you find only by venturing onto small state roads and heading west or east, towns with bad reception personalities that transmit more like old Andy Griffith reruns from a rooftop antenna. There are only a few other cars and sleepy semi-trucks heading south in the Sunday afternoon sun. I cruise easily past Springville and remember that Spanish Fork finally has a Starbucks, so I take a quick detour and order an extra-large coffee with two extra shots; that ought to get me the rest of the way down the road without drifting across lanes in a snooze induced stupor. "Ahhh," I say outloud as I take my first sip and the music flips from James Brown to Jerry Garcia Band.
It doesn't seem like much time has passed when I see the sign for Fillmore coming up and I realize I've got to find a bathroom pretty quick. The last swallow of espresso infused coffee secures that fact. Fillmore is the next exit and I pass a billboard that says, "Welcome National ATV Jubilee!" Suddenly, my temperature light starts to blink on the dash. "Uh-oh," I mutter. Bertha starts to choke and sputter like there's cold oatmeal coursing through her hoses as I turn onto the off-ramp and head into Fillmore. I pull into the first gas station/C-store as steam and smoke start leaking from under the hood. A quick turn of the screwdriver kills the engine and I pull the hood release before jumping out.
Sure enough, fan belts gone. I walk into the crowded Conoco and stand to the side of the counter trying to make eye contact with the clerk, a skinny meth-head type with bad skin and worse teeth. She shuts the cash drawer on the till and asks, "Can I help ya with somethin'?"
"Is there a garage or Checker Auto open in town?"
"Nuh-uh, today's Sundee," she drawls, "Ya got car trouble?"
"Yup, need a fan belt."
"Nothin' open 'til tomorrah 'round 9 a.m."
She turns back to the counter and starts scanning the items for the next in line and asks the customer, "Is that a refill or new cup?"
"Refill," the young woman responds as she counts change from her palm.
I wait a few more minutes until the line clears out and ask the cashier, "Is there a campground near here?"
"The KOA's 'bout a half mile, but it's the ATV convention so everythin's full. I 'magine you'll have to sleep in your car."
"Thanks," I said, "Can I get the bathroom key?"
She hands me a wooden block sawn crooked on one end and the key hanging awkwardly from a screwed in metal loop. I use the john and then wonder to the back of the store to the walk-in beer cooler. I yank a twelve-pack of Natural Light off the wire rack from under a bright yellow "On Sale!" sign and shuffle up to the counter. I hand her the bathroom block and a ten dollar bill.
"Have a good one," she calls out absentmindedly as I head for the door. I think she's already forgotten the conversation we had just a few minutes before.
I've slept in my car from time to time and it's certainly cheaper than trying to get a room or a campsite. It's late now and getting dark, so I grab my sleeping bag and throw it out on the back bench seat, shoving some wrappers and other junk out of the way. I rip open the beer box and pull out a few cans and then put the rest in the cooler in the back. I toss my pillow into the backseat as well and plan to get some sleep if it kills me.
Seven Utah beers later, I need to pee again and it's 1:00 in the morning. The C-store is closed, I'm sick of looking at maps and reading junk food wrapper labels, and my iPod's dead. No tunes, no bathroom, and I haven't been able to fall asleep. I step out of the car onto the bare feet punishment of gravelly asphalt and look around before relieving myself in the shadow of Bertha. I take a few painful steps, rocks sticking to the soft underbelly of my feet, and climb back into the backseat. "Why the hell can't I sleep?" I say out loud to myself, realizing how quiet it really is in the parking lot. I start singing stupid songs from my childhood, trying to remember movie lines, and counting backwards from one hundred by threes, but nothing is shutting my mind down enough to sleep. I check my watch, 2:55 a.m. I yawn--twice.
I hear an ATV motor or two outside and my forehead's warm from the sun seeping in through the east facing passenger window. I check my watch, 6:50 a.m. My joints are cramped up like a jack-in-the-box and I squirm to try and sit up, kicking and crunching beer cans littered around near my feet. What's left of the beer in my bladder pressures me to hurry and I head inside to take care of business. I clean up a bit, change my t-shirt, put on a beanie cap, buy a water and the worst dredge of coffee I've had in years. It's nearly 8:00 a.m. so I walk around to check for a Yellow Pages, but there's just an empty shell of a metal hinged case swinging from the forgotten payphone.
There's a homely looking woman behind the counter this morning and she hands me a dilapidated yellow phone book titled "Qwest Dex 2001." I manage to locate the only garage in town and turn on my cell phone to call. They don't open until 9:00, but the redneck on the other end of the line says he'll bring me down the fan belt for an extra twenty bucks. Since the shop is a solid three miles away, I check my wallet and determine the loss of the twenty is worth getting the hell out of Fillmore. ATVs are crawling like fuming ants and an onslaught of hillbilly looking folk are starting to pour into the C-store parking lot. Something about being the only Dead Head for miles makes me a bit nervous. An hour later the new fan belt's purring away and I flip off Fillmore in my rearview mirror as I pull onto the I-15 on-ramp.
It's just a couple hours' drive to Monroe and as I make my way through town I note three LDS church steeples and no others. "Three steeples," I mutter to myself, "That's an awful lot for a town with less than 2,500 people." A few turns later I edge into the dusty unpaved parking area in front of the Mystic Hot Springs main office. The place looks deserted when I walk in, mismatched retail glass cases are staggered around the parameter to make a counter of sorts, and inside each is an odd variety of goods for sale, peace sign stickers, "tobacco" pipes, bongs, dog collars and leashes, hemp jewelry, cans of soup and beans, etc. The dark colored carpet is covered with shaggy dog-hair, matted and congealed in front of the entrance like a doormat. If it weren't for the Nag Champa incense burning in the corner, I'm sure this place would smell like wet dog, or body odor, or both. I went up to what looks like the main part of the counter and notice a cow bell hanging from the ceiling with a metal wand, likely for banging. I lift the wand and gently strike the cow bell. I wait. I yawn--twice.
Finally, a dreadlocked and bearded man in his 40s and a Mexican poncho came from a beaded doorway on the side to greet me. He takes my fifteen dollars, eight for camping and seven for soaking, gives me a handwritten photocopied map of the property, and sends me on my way with a "Peace out, man." I drive around the corner to the tent camping area, pass two school busses that appear to be permanent residences and fixtures here at the springs. Both busses are elaborately painted with Ken-Kesey's-Merry-Prankster-like graffiti and there are lawn chairs and such scattered around, but no people. The curtains on the windows are drawn shut, "It's early, only noon or so," I think to myself, "the hippies are still sleepin'."
I pull into the parking area near the open field for tent camping. It looks like I'll have the place to myself. A small grassy area is surrounded by a dirt road and some haggard trees trying to be green in the desert summer heat. I pick a tree and a soft grassy spot and setup my tent. There's no fire ring, but no need; I've got the hot pots to warm me and my little back packing stove to heat up dinner. I throw on my trunks just in case, grab a towel and the remaining beers from the cooler into a daypack, and head for the pools. This place seems to be infested with domestic pets--dogs running loose, cats and kittens scampering, chickens bobbling, and goats, whatever it is that goats do.
The main pool is a decent size, plenty of room for a good party, but I have the whole thing to myself. Odd orange and rust colored formations cover the walls with a calcium, hard sponge type texture. The expected sulfur smell hovers beneath my nostrils like the familiar hint of distant dead skunk on a highway. I find an interesting way to lean back and prop my feet on the edge for a nice cooling effect in a shaded area of the pool. I sit and watch the sky and the shrubs like they are people, waiting to see what they do next. I nearly doze off and then at the quiet realize I can probably check out the "reserved" bathtubs used for individual soaking free of charge. I hop out and squish my wet feet into the resistance of cheap flip-flops and head over to the tubs.
The cowboy-size bathtubs are rusty orange and calcified as well, sitting into the rock with a flow from the springs pouring in. There are three tubs positioned next to each other and a picnic table awkwardly nearby. It's as quiet as the desert gets as I ease myself into the middle tub. It's pretty damn hot, but I get used to it soon enough and resume my sky and shrub people watching. Some time passes and I start to feel a bit like a rabbit on a spit, so I clamber out of the tub and make my way back to the campsite for an early dinner. I've got a beer or two left in my daypack and a box of wine still in the car. I left the book I've been reading at home accidentally, but I always keep a copy of Moby Dick in the glove box for situations such as these. Once, when I was younger, I thought I'd try to memorize Moby Dick. I think I got the first paragraph down before I forgot about doing it. "Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely." Funny thing, sort of reminds me of the first line in the Book of Mormon, "I Nephi, having been born of goodly parents." Well, you know which one I keep in my glove box.
I spend the rest of the early evening cooking a simple boxed dinner, wondering around looking for an outlet to charge my iPod, and taking a shower to wash off the minerals making formations in my pores. The bathrooms are hostel-like, pretty scody, but the water seems to be from the city and a little soap has me feeling squeaky in no time. It's getting close to dark and so I crack open the box of wine and pour myself a Coca-Cola sized portion into my rinsed-out coffee cup. I flip open Moby to the first dog-eared passage, underlined in red-colored Bible pencil, "Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinning that thick water the thinnest of air." Pretty deep for my first cup-o-wine. I keep at both, book and drink, until I feel like I might be able to actually sleep. It's near 11:00 p.m. and other than a distant car from time to time, it's awful quiet. I yawn--twice.
11:22 p.m. Car doors. Voices. A giggle. "Annoying," I think, "Ignore it, go to sleep." But the annoyance persists. Clumsy tent raising and scuffling around in the middle of the grassy area keeps me from drifting off. It settles down again a few minutes later and I roll over in my mummy bag and bury my face into my pillow just as it starts. Moaning, not just moaning, but mooooannninnng. Grunts and yelps in a rhythm I recognize. "Unh, unh, unh!" says the tent, over and over again. Then the dogs want in on this game and add barks between each set of "Unh, unh, unhs." Next thing you know a rooster crows, obviously confused by all the racket from the dogs and the exhibitionists, cats join in next and a whole symphony of critters are carrying on as if they are all part of the act taking place in the tent.
I try to make myself known and get up to find earplugs in my car. I slam the glove box, slam the car door, slam the hatchback, but nothing distracts the constant thrusts of love coming from within the tent. "He can't last much longer," I think to myself as I slide back into my little hovel, cram earplugs into my ears, and try to get comfortable. The earplugs dull the shrillness of her fake pleasure (sounds fake to me), but are not enough to bring on sleep. I'm starting to feel like Old McDonald as the animals continue to chime in with her wails. Just when things can't possibly get any weirder, a sudden and amplified "Hee Haaaawww!" comes from out of nowhere. "Good God! A donkey!" I say in audible volume, and then follow it with an "E-I-E-I-O." He must have finally shot his load because the moans stop and the critters all get quiet gradually, one by one. I look at my watch. It's 1:23 a.m.
The next morning the sun casts a couple of rays between the mountains and before I can create a sufficient drool spot on my pillow, the sex freaks are up and making their way out of town. The tent is wadded up and chucked into the trunk as the girl waddles like a new mother to the bathroom. "It couldn't be later than 6:00 a.m." I think, "Damn kids." I didn't bother to check my watch; it's too late; I am awake. I get up and find raccoons have gone through all my gear, torn into the cooler and my backpack, and smeared hummus all over my clothes. I inspect each article and look for the cleanest possible t-shirt and shorts. Even though the evidence isn't visible, everything I own has a stench of garlic with an after smell of sulfur.
It's legitimately morning now and I accept the failure of a long past due day of rest and relaxation. I may have had a decent night sleep if it hadn't been for the horndoggers and the donkey. I pack up my gear and head back to rural Utah in search of a Laundromat and any cup of coffee. I turn on my phone and Google coffee shops, but there's not a one in the vicinity, so I go with the dredge at the only C-store in town, right across the road from the Sit-n-Spin, the local Laundromat. I run a five dollar bill into the change machine and toss my clothes into the washerâ€•brights, darks, and whites, all in the same rebellious load. I sit in a vinyl covered chair with one armrest and lean my head against the wall, zoning out on the wet slosh of hummus covered and sulfur scented fabric.
My coffee is down to the last cold swallow and a buzzer jerks me out of my meditation. I pull the tangled wet mass from behind the washer windowed-door and slop it into the drier on the other side. Coins clink into the interior canister and minutes register on the digital display. "Thirty minutes ought to dry half a load of hippy clothes," I think to myself as I push the On button and resume my spot on the uncomfortable chair. I toss the empty coffee cup and browse the small room for a vending machine of some sort, but it's barren. I pick up an old "Parents" magazine and read an article about how to get gum out of your toddler's hair and clothes. "I guess things could be worse," I thought, "I could have a toddler." I smile a little to myself at my own bad humor.
The thirty minutes pass and no one else joins me in the Laundromat on this sunny Monday morning. I wheel over a crooked basket with a few hangars trembling from the bar on top and a crude label wired to one side that reads, "Property of Sit-n-Spin." I click open the drier door and the warmth of no-name fabric softener wafts out and pulls me in like old diner comfort food. I pull my hot, clean clothes out of the drier and into the basket. I sit back into the chair and drag the lop-sided basket in front of me, thinking I can fold from here. I bury my face into the clean soft t-shirts and jeans, enjoying the darkness in front of my eyelids and the hot cotton on my skin.
Tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap. I pick my head up from the basket and the flickering fluorescent lights seem dim. A short, fat man with a beard is tapping my shoulder. "Time to leave boy! We're closin' up!" The bright lights shining across the parking lot indicate it's dark out. I rub my eyes and yawn--twice. I stand and stretch my fists toward the stained ceiling tiles as I think "I've gotta get me one of these wheeled baskets. That's the best I've slept in years."