In a desert oasis

St. Petersburg Times
Special to the Times

We're three women, driving from California to an all-female rafting trip in northeast Utah. It's the first day, and we've been on the road for 11 hours. We're crossing Nevada on Highway 50, the loneliest road in America (They've taken down the signs that claimed this, but it's still true.) Basin and range, basin and range, with nothing green in sight except for knee-high patches of sage.

    "We'll practice camping," Meg says. "I'll show you my favorite hot spring."

For me, the words hot springs conjure rocky pools steaming in the middle of lush vegetation. There is desert from one horizon to the other. Maybe she knows a secret oasis. At her direction, we turn off the highway on an unmarked road and head south. We  turn off that road, onto gravel and

head north, straight across the basin and up the next range, followed by an enormous cloud of dust. After a few desolate miles, Meg points left and we head up a dirt road, deeply rutted, dotted with boulders.

    We're in my car, a '99 Volvo wagon, deemed the most reliable of our three vehicles. The bottom begins to scrape. I wince. Meg says, "I forgot you don't have four-wheel drive." We bump over a rise and spot a few people sitting on the hard ground, feet dangling into something, which I can't see.

    "That's the big spring," Meg says, "but we don't want to go there. I'm looking for the private one." We wind left and right, apparently at random, the road by this time no more than a track. Every time the car sinks into a dry rut and stones scrape the oil pan, I shudder. This is our good car; my husband will kill me.

    We top another rise. "There it is." I see nothing but more desert: hard-packed alkaline soil and a few sagebrush. "Darn, somebody got to it first." Meg points to a van, half-hidden over the hill. "Never mind, we can park on this side." We pull up to a random piece of earth and I finally spot the spring.

    It's a cow trough, a big rusted tub, with three pieces of hinged pipe coming out of a hole in the ground. This is her favorite hot spring? Water from the pipe dribbles into the tub. Seated in this, up to his neck, is the man from the van, who says hello and turns his back on us.

    Meg throws a plastic ground cover on the packed white earth next to the car. This is it. When night falls, we're supposed to line our three sleeping bags up and lay our bodies flat on this enormous dried plain. "When I come up here with the desert-survival group," Meg says, "we don't even use a ground cloth - we toss our sleeping bags right on the ground."

    City-girl that I am, I lay claim to the back seat of the car. "No, no," I say when Meg and Linda protest that it's too small. "I'll just bend my legs." Faulkner once wrote that the earth wants to take us back. Plopping my body right on it under this enormous sky feels like too much of a dare.

    As the sun sets, the temperature falls. We're in the high desert at 6,500 feet. We put on our warmest clothes and sit on the ground cloth to eat dinner: carrots dipped in hummus, hard-boiled eggs from Linda's chickens; cheddar on rye crisps; ginger cookies and a banana for dessert. When the man vanishes inside his van, we take off our clothes and cross the baked earth to soak in the tub. Meg and Linda have brought beach towels to wrap themselves in. In the name of saving space, I have one of those quick-dry travel towels the size of a dish cloth. Linda lends me her meditation sheet.

    In the last glow of sunset, we sit neck deep in the tub, surrounded by mountains that turn black and two-dimensional as it grows darker, paper cutouts against the sky.

    Water flows from the pipe at 109 degrees. You control the temperature by moving the pipe in or out of the tub. Meg says that mysterious spa people make these refuges. Spot a spring, haul in the tub, hook up the pipe, lay down pieces of old carpet so you don't have to step directly onto the ashy soil. Set planks on rocks to use as benches when you get too hot. Sink large, now algae-slimed, rocks under the water to sit on. We sip wine and turn the color of cooked shrimp. Outside it gets colder. A night hawk circles, swooping low, with a strange cry. The stars come out in a splendid mass and a sliver of moon rises in the east.

    Dressed in everything we own, we crawl into our sleeping bags. In the back seat, the seat-belt fasteners dig into my butt and back. I fall asleep, but wake every time the pain gets too bad, try and stretch my cramped legs, and turn to let myself be gouged in new places. I am freezing.

    The cold, dark silence is broken by, Hee-haw! Hee-haw! The three of us raise straight up like prairie dogs out of our holes. It's a cartoon noise, but this is no cartoon. Linda shines her light around. In the grass growing from the tub's runoff, a lone burro gambols. I am so happy to be inside the car. He may gambol right over them.

    "I have not slept for one minute," Linda says. "Neither have I," says Meg. "What time is it?" I pray for it to be at least 5, but, according to Linda's watch, it's 3:15. I reach up and turn the ignition key. The outside temperature is 30 degrees. "I have never been this cold," Linda says. Meg fetches the tent that we have not set up and spreads it over them; they move closer together to share body heat. Linda calls this "biting the bullet."

    Morning finally arrives, bringing warmth with the sun. I try to find a sage bush big enough to hide me from the man in the van and a car I can see on the ridge above. Meg has provided us with a trowel to bury whatever we produce. The ground is iron-hard. After scraping ineffectually, I settle for hiding it under a rock.

    I decide to test my quick-dry underpants, and give them a soapy rinse in the run-off from the spring. They dry quickly enough - complete with colorful streaks of green slime and rust.

    We make breakfast: granola and peaches with yogurt and hot tea over Meg's camp stove. "Little kangaroo rats ran around on our ground cloth all night," Meg says. "Probably after the crumbs from supper. I opened my eyes and one was staring right at me."

    Good grief.

    We take a last dip in the rusty tub and pack up. Folding the ground cloth, we find a gift from the kangaroo rats: two thumb tacks.

    The plan was to camp all the way to Utah, but Meg is bleary- eyed. She votes for a motel that night and we second and third her.

    The Check Engine light has come on, and I'm not sure how to find our way out of this place, but somewhere down the road, I can feel that motel beckoning: white sheets, pillows, a mattress.


Norma Watkins is a frequent contributor to Sunday Journal. Her memoir, The Last Resort, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2011.