Art by mail: The story of the soaking cowboys

Message on postcard:
Hello Rachel! Here’s the story:

It’s near sunset at Hart Mountain National Antelope Reserve, and I need a shower. I got pretty good at the sponge bath method of personal hygiene while traveling this summer, but by the time October rolled around it was getting too cold for me to stand around in the wind, sopping myself down with a wet rag. So I decide that a soak in the hot springs is the next best thing to a hot shower.

I had spent the past couple of days wandering cross country, exploring the area. There aren’t many established trails at Hart Mountain, but the country is open enough that you can just pick a direction and tramp through the brush. This is a good way to see zillions of antelope, experience your maximum sweat gland potential, and smell bad.

So I walk down to the hot springs. There’s a primitive pool — just a hot-water filled hole in the ground — and a slightly more developed pool with a cement walkway and a wall around it. I decide to go with the primitive springs. But when I get there, there are a couple of naked older gentlemen soaking in the pool, with pants and cowboy hats piled up off to one side.

“How’s the water?” I ask.

“Depends on where you sit,” says one of the soaking cowboys. “Hotter here, colder there.”

The other cowboy adds his assessment: “Careful, he says, “it will scald your ass.”

I’ve made a few mistakes in my life, but one mistake I’m not keen on making is to experience a backcountry ass scalding after being explicitly warned about it. So I make my tactful exit: “Thanks for the report. I’ll use the other tub.”

The two cowboys have Oregon’s most neutral dispositions, and I can’t tell if my decision pleases or offends them. Regardless, I’m off to the other tub.

The hot water feels good after all the hiking, and I express my sentiments by vocalizing a few profanity-suffixed affirmatives. And then I realize that not only does the stone wall hide me from other people, it also hides them from me — which means that I would have been completely unaware of anybody who was passing by and heard me swearing to myself. Overall it was a good soak, even if I was plagued by a self-conscious feeling that a third-party observer might have identified me as the weirdest person there.

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