River Bathing is BestJuly 18, 2011
In the little village of West Yellowstone, Montana in the early 1940s, my father had a small one-room cabin where our family of five spent our summers. It had two double beds, one for my parents and the other for the three kids – Skippy, June and me. It was more than cozy so no one got cold at night.
For my Saturday night bath ordeal mom heated water on a wood burning cook stove in the kitchen corner while I sat in a washtub with my legs drawn tight. The water she poured over me was always too hot or too cold but I didn’t care because the abhorrence of having to suffer the indignity of being nude in the presence of others was the prevailing consideration in my mind. Those weekly episodes always exposed one of my main psychological fault lines.
If I had money, I could walk a mile to the Union Pacific Railroad Station where the attendant would give me a towel and let me shower for fifty cents. That was an enigma because I had a job washing dishes at the Totem Cafe and was paid an hourly wage that was identical to what I had to pay for a shower that lasted only ten minutes. And after I worked another hour I needed another shower. I never quite reconciled that math.
Anyway, occasionally I’d ride my bike into Yellowstone Park to a spot about twenty miles from town where a seldom-used dirt road turned right off the main drag. From there it was about a mile down that road to the Firehole River. Just before the river, there on the right, was a green geyser pool which spilled and spewed a small streamlet of boiling water that ran downhill for about fifty feet and into the cold river. My secret bathing spot – where the hot water tumbled into the stream – was maybe four feet deep, and long, beautifully-green river grasses swayed back and forth in the gentle river currents just several feet distant. Sometimes I’d pull up a handful of grass and use it as a wash cloth. I never used soap there because I was afraid it was bad for my karma to pollute the pristine river.
Photo courtesy of Dal Neitzel
I could change the water temperature around my body just by moving a foot or so. Sometimes I stayed in that place for two hours or more and when I decided it was time to leave I’d back a couple of feet downstream where the water was cold. That gave me instant incentive to climb out and sun dry in the tall grass that populated the river bank. It was a wonderfully uncivilized pleasure in a remote area where nothing could interrupt the purity of my naked solitude.
Photo courtesy of Dal Neitzel
I made that bike ride more than a few times, even though it was somewhat arduous to pedal that far at only one manpower. But it was always worth the effort.
Now the National Park Service forbids swimming where geyser riverlets enter a stream. They also closed that little road to all vehicles, even though where it meets the river is one of the most beautiful places in the park, as buffalo and elk graze nearby and river otters often wiggle through the water looking for fish.
Several years ago, with my daughter Kelly’s family, my wife and I drove to the little road (It’s paved now) and walked to the river. I tried to get my granddaughters to swim where I had spent so many peaceful hours. The idea didn’t interest them much. That spot, which was so important to me sixty-six years ago, is mostly overlooked now by the occasional passerby. My memories of those experiences are so dear to me that I hope in time all of my grandchildren will follow my footprints to that special place.
There is something about nude-dipping in a mountain stream that awakens the fantasy of unfettered freedom lying restless just below the skin of all dreamers with romantic notions of the past, when life was roomier and less encumbered by the rules of social custom.
Sometimes, when Kelly curls her long blond hair through her fingers in the sunlight, I am reminded of those long water grasses gently weaving and twisting in the river. Winters are cold for those without such memories. Surely, God underestimated his ability when he created the Firehole River.
After retiring from the Air Force in 1970, I built an art gallery in Santa Fe that my wife and I ran for seventeen years. Since then, my energies have been directed toward excavation of a large Indian pueblo and writing books about art and exploration. I hope you enjoy my blog!