Old Joy is maybe my favorite film about how being an expectant father turns you into an asshole. I admit that’s a strong reading, and it could be a theme more than a storyline, but hey, it’s also maybe my favorite movie about road trips to Oregon hot springs with Bonnie “Prince” Billy and a dog. I’ve seen it a half-dozen times easy, but six Old Joys is still shorter than one viewing of the LOTR trilogy, so when it was on IFC the same night we finally got cable again, I gave it another go.
Old Joy happened to come out when our infatuation with Portland was peaking—by “our” I mean both me and Katie’s but also the whole country’s. This was as Portland was really coming into its own as an indie-rock retirement destination. Their music and coffee were taking off; people biked there. The Greater Portland Area mid-decade was outdoorsy but leftist, the casually environmental gentrifier’s dream of urban rugged. A place you could really listen to Yo La Tengo in.
So we were a bit surprised last year when we mentioned our intention of visiting the spring from Old Joy to Jim, our man in Portland. He steered us away in the most emphatic terms he could muster. Bagby Hot Spring was an unchaperoned hot spring, and Bagby, the movie neglected to tell us, was deep in meth country.
“The Methheads take over and hang out there for days. If you’re lucky and the spring isn’t overrun, you’ll walk back to your car and find it’s been stripped to its frame for parts.”
Jim succeeded in discouraging us, but still his imagery presented a wondrous evocation of the methhead work ethic. He made them sound like little junkie piranhas, as resourceful in their culling of the last little re-sellable scrap of metal from a car as a swarm of carnivorous Amazon fish eating a live cow down to its bones. Swarm in, devour, move on.
From our comfortable perch back in the Times Square Disney East, I find something stupidly reassuring about any story that makes the wilderness sound more dangerous than the city again. This folk legend that holds the countryside is now overrun by impoverished rural drug addicts, maybe even with guns—I can’t say whether it’s true or not, but it adds excitement to any trip out from the city.
If, by way of analogy, there was any probability I might get eaten by wolves, say, while hiking the Appalachian Trail, then hiking the Appalachian Trail might sound like a much more serious activity.
Before I went to Joshua Tree this spring a coworker warned me to keep an eye out for Zombie Soldiers. The military base at Twentynine Palms, one town over, was experimenting with sleep deprivation techniques on its soldiers, for application in the combat simulations in the fake Iraqi town they had built on site, in the desert. These experiments included administering crystal meth, and the reports were soldiers were randomly wandering off the base, walking in stupors to nearby houses and even into Joshua Tree campsites. Some people they had run ins with were harmed, but mostly the soldiers were just found to be strung out in full amnesiac daze.
So we kept our eyes peeled. Each night up in the sky we could see planes performing some strange sorties, real X-Files stuff, that reaffirmed our belief this was no regular base. Katie was sure she saw the planes had lasers. But sadly, we were never attacked by zombies.
I’m going to go out on a limb here, but my theory is these rural methheads are the generational children of today’s angry Fox viewer. The meth addict is at least a marketing demographic below the Hannity viewer’s age group, but the generation gap between them is simply different outlets for the same helpless, Walmart rage: birtherism, teabagging, and isolationist fervor for the ’rents; amphetamines, crime, and Wife Swap auditions for the kids.
Anyway. Bagby was out, but there’s no shortage of hot springs in Oregon. The substitute we chose was Terwilliger springs in the Willamette National Forest, about halfway between Eugene and Bend. It was closer to natural state than Bagby, but the spring had been reworked WPA-style into a stepped progression of pools of descending temperatures. Most important, it had an admission fee, and it was manned. We would be close to nature, and still one security guard safer from harm.
We drove in to Terwilliger from the coast, where we had been staying in a yurt at the Beachside campground. It was late on a Wednesday morning, the day after my 32d birthday. As we drove up the mountain toward the base of the spring, Katie proudly announced that she was going to skinny dip. And why not? Nudity was a part of the hot spring experience, and we were blithe young spirits. We were not the kind to let propriety hold us back while using our annual paid vacation days to jerry rig a weeklong trip around a wedding. Yes, world, we would get naked, and thank you very much.
We would still wear our bathing suits up to the site just in case, but believe you me we were skinny dipping. We were free.
After hiking about a quarter mile up the trail from the road we had our first encounter—naked people in the trees. They were off a little ways from the path, just sunning on the branches, not even moving. We could have easily missed them. We were alone on the path, and the recognition was akin to spotting a woodpecker. “Honey, look up there. It’s people.” We couldn’t tell gender from where we were. They were just long-haired and skinny and lying around in the trees. We had run into a colony of sprites.
The springs were just beyond, and we were surprised to find all the pools nearly full of people. Old, naked people. And I’m sure this was just in my head, but they all stared at us. Stared at us in our clothes.
The spring had a bench set up along the path with pegs for clothes, so I put our stuff down and began to get undressed.
As I was slipping off my bathing suit, Katie grabbed me and whispered, “What are you doing?”
“I’m taking my clothes off.”
Subconsciously I had two reasons for taking off my clothes without thinking about it. First, this was right when I had decided I wanted to attempt a career transition from non-profit administration to comedy. Subpar male nudity is as staple in the comedy genre as par female nudity is in every other genre. If I were to make it in comedy I had to be willing to show off my body when the part called for it.
The second reason was modesty. If everyone else was naked, I would get less attention by being naked myself. From Katie’s reaction, it appeared we had staked out two opposing understandings of that concept. Katie’s feeling was that, not only did she not want to take off her bathing suit, she would need a clothed companion so she wouldn’t stand out.
We stepped in, suits on, and lowered ourselves down into the tub full of other people’s genitals. An older, scraggly gentleman sidled up almost immediately and proceeded to converse with us. In any other context he would have stuck out as a creep. Here however he was at home, and I was the creep, and I knew I should be friendly. He started talking about the springs, the best order to appreciate them, a bit about the surrounding area. A very nice strike-up conversation with two obvious spring rookies. He talked about some other things too. Mainly, he talked about everything except the fact that he was naked.
Still, we had come to Terwilliger to experience a taste of the West coast lifestyle, so I wanted to be friendly with him and learn some more about the paradise that could be found in the forests of Oregon. I felt profoundly uncomfortable, since I don’t usually talk even to strangers in clothes, but I did my best to follow along. My contributions were more nods and “yeah”s than genuine words, but I was trying. Then Katie leaned in and said, “I have to go somewhere else.”
She stood up and moved one pool over. She was at best two feet further away from my new acquaintance and me than she had been when she was sitting with us, so the only thing she had accomplished was to demonstrate her displeasure.
“I’m sorry,” I said to the older naked man. “I have to go.”
He brushed me off and I moved into the next pool with Katie. In little waves I started to grasp how intensely uncomfortable I had been.
“Do you want to just leave?”
I think Katie and I both asked each other that at the same time. After a long, whispered discussion we agreed that—considering the five dollars we paid to get in and the fact that everything about this spring was nice, actually, once you ignored the nudity—hell no, we would stay the whole damn afternoon.
Another couple showed up. They stopped when they saw all the naked people, and just stood there for a while, looking awkward and stared at. After going through their own whispered squabble they too got in the pool in their bathing suits, sat among the naked folks for a few minutes, and got out and left. Newbies. They couldn’t make it here all afternoon, like us spring veterans.
All afternoon naked people filtered in and out. The creepy old gentleman who had approached Katie and me started smoking weed with a group of six young naked hippies, who were apparently there together with him. He had one of those elaborate curling glass pipes too, the ones that look like those twisty straws you give children to make milk seem fun. The pipe seemed ostentatiously out of place here in the middle of the woods, in a public park, but I suppose the absurdity of it conveys a certain luxury.
I watched them smoke, watched the smoke mingle with the steam from the baths and slowly disappear. I smelled the wafting aroma of their West coast marijuana. As I watched I thought about how, even though we were sitting not a dozen feet from them, we had already let them know we weren’t friendly, weren’t interested in their company, that lines of communication were severed, that I had no excuse to rekindle a conversation with them now, that they needn’t and wouldn’t feel any obligation to share their pot with us, as someone might otherwise think would be the custom, out in the woods, on a weekday, sitting around in a hot spring in public land with no clothes on.
Time slipped, and we sat there boiling away in the hottest pool. We fell into that crevasse between relaxation and introspection that is the sweet spot of new age physical activity. We were achieving our goal.
Two older women, naked women, were sitting in the pool across from me. One was waxing about the restorative nature of the spring’s waters. This impressed the other woman, who I deduced was only just learning about springs.
“Does it help if you drink it?”
“Yes. You can drink it, but first you’ll get sick. It’s got bacterias.”
That made sense. I’m sure that after you recover from E. coli or dysentery you’d feel quite restored. I was sitting there, leaning back in the water with my eyes closed, overhearing their conversation, and thanks to them, thinking about bacteria. I listened, in this tub of tepid water, this cauldron just hot enough to be an optimal incubator for any microorganisms that might find their way into the water, a cauldron I was sharing with two women who had just openly admitted to a different philosophy of hygiene than Katie and me, women who were contemplating drinking warm water that they knew was teeming with germs in a pool filled with naked strangers. A germy pool that I had been basting in for hours.
And with this Katie and I left Terwilliger, an outpost in the Oregon mountains protected from hordes of marauding methheads by a heroic, pimply teenager collecting five dollars from each visitor at the entrance booth, a quarter mile down the path.
As we drove away back down the mountain, Katie turned to me.
“I guess I’m not as adventurous as I thought.”
“I guess I’m not either.”
“I’m okay with that.”
Maybe there was a lesson, something about being an adult means being comfortable with being uncomfortable.
I had my eyes fixed on the mountain road. “That’s good.”
I made lots of excuses not to watch Ken Burns’s National Parks when it was on PBS recently, but the show reminded me of something I thought leaving the baths that day. Our parks are a treasure, and they give a lot to Americans. One of the things the parks give is a place for middle-aged hippies to sit around naked and get high on weekday afternoons, when most of us work.
We only say something is paid for by “taxpayer dollars” when we disagree with the expense. I got one of those mean-spirited, partisan joys thinking about those angry old Fox-watchers, the parents of our methheads, and how they’ve been ranting for close to two decades about all the wasteful spending by our government. I thought about how even after the right had eviscerated almost every federal agency, the parks were still here, and the Fox watcher’s taxes were still subsidizing this paradise for lazy nudists to get high. Oh, it would burn them up.
As I get older, more and more I find myself loving America for her loopholes.