I stroll into Red’s Meadow like a cowboy ready for the saloon. My pack is getting empty and my belly’s ready. Just a few steps outside Devils Postpile, the compound has stables, cabins, a campground, a general store with a grumpy old man, and a diner. Hikers often ship themselves resupply packages here, but invariably send too much, or fail to think how sick they’ll be of instant mashed potatoes ten days in. They toss their extras into the communal “hiker box” for less-planned hikers to enjoy. JMTers typically mail themselves luscious grub, since our hike is short enough to splurge on food, unlike longer-distance hikers, who settle at the lowest common denominator of endless mac ‘n’ cheese, peanut butter, and instant oatmeal. So the hiker barrel at Reds bursts with booty: a Payday bar, a Bobo’s Lemon Poppyseed Gluten-Free Oat Bar, ziplocs of dried mango and coconut and cashews, and an unopened jar of Trader Joe’s Organic Salted Valencia Peanut Butter, to the delight of my lunches for days to come.
There are also enough abandoned DEET spray bottles to poison a small country, and the odd sock or bandana, which I leave behind, sanitizing my hands obsessively after rifling through everyone’s germ-ridden grub. I buy postcards and stamps, a couple of vegetarian instant dinners, an apple and a peach, then take the shuttle bus to the nearby town of Mammoth Lakes to buy headlamp batteries and a silver foil emergency blanket… heat insurance I crave since awakening with frozen chunks in my water bottle one morning. Back at Red’s, the bathroom is nice, with warm running water and outlets for phone charging, but I skip the shower: $7 for five minutes, plus $2 for a towel, and soap is extra. I’m going to save my ten dollars. There’s a secret weapon in my cleanliness arsenal.
It consists of a small blue “spring” symbol on my map: a ring with a squiggly tail, like a wee tadpole, with tiny type designating it as hot. Red’s facilities are heated by this source, but the old showerhouse is locked, with a sign declaring “Facilities Closed.” Thanks to asking around, I have in my pack a scrap of paper with pencil instructions to “Walk behind the wooden building. Cheers!” Indeed: partially hidden in the back, there’s a cement basin, girded by wildflowers and mosses, filled with water… steaming! It has a cover and a lock, but the cover is slid to one side. The basin is clear and the water silvery. It looks delicious.
Don’t tell the National Park Service, whose brochure drily states that “the tub will be locked for safety reasons.” Apparently it usually is: there’s even a Facebook page petitioning for its reopening. Rumor has it that the showerhouse was closed because the hot springs contain too much lithium, which is used to treat mood disorders. I’m far from depressed, but I’ll take the dose! The next morning I strip to a sports bra and boxers and slide into the hot water as the sun rises over the dewy hill. An old dude in a golf cart putters past after half an hour and waves cheerily as I float in my undies, and that’s the only company I have.
What’s more, there’s another soak waiting downtrail: Iva Bell Hot Springs, a trek of eighteen extra miles to get there and back from the JMT.
What is so magnetic about hot springs, anyway?
Immersed, we’re in the veins of the earth. Close to its unpredictable, dangerous heart, its magma and all that shifts and rises and folds, as mountains do. From this heat, given by the sun, we were born and to it we return. Steam rises like a fairyland, bubbles cling to arms and legs, unusual colors and smells surround… sulfurous green and yellow are oddly attractive here. Not surprising, then, the long history of people attributing medicinal and spiritual meaning to such springs. Even monkeys love hot springs. High class to scuzzy, private tubs to alarming communal pools of nudity, each has its charm.
Iva Bell is sunken into Cascade Valley, a valley greener and more lush than any other in these parts. Wildflowers seen nowhere else bloom here among a hundred spongy, warm seeps. My shoes get covered in mud for the first time, finally. The air is warmer, wetter, a soft blanket over the three of us sleeping in Iva Bell’s valley tonight: one guy I never see, who I’m told is dividing a week between his hammock and a secluded spring; a PCT hiker; and me.
One last soak, warmed from above by the sunrise and from below by sun’s heat reclaimed and released. I wipe dry with my tiny camp towel, shunt on shorts and shirt, and get buckled in. Sitting in the spring, I did a little math. It’s the start of day 11 of 21, and I’ve only done 77 out of 220 JMT miles. That’s 35% of the trail hiked, in over 50% of the time allotted. The ground squirrels are fattening for winter, and the aspen are turning yellow.
What does that mean?
It’s time to MOVE.