CODY, Wy. — I turned 50 recently and found that sobering fact a grand excuse for a visit to the metropolis of Thermopolis, Wyoming, 80 miles south of Cody. “Thermop” sits at the mouth of Wind River Canyon, and is one of those typical western towns where elevation number is higher than its population (4,326 vs. 3,071).
It has some interesting history. Butch Cassidy frequented the place in the 1890s, drinking in the now-defunct “Hole-in-the-Wall” Saloon, and practicing horse thievery, one of his local sidelines; a generation later Milward Simpson began an illustrious career in public service as a young attorney there. Nowadays, Thermop is primarily known for its close proximity to Hot Springs State Park, offering welcome respite to geezers and even pre-geezers like me, what with arthritis in my neck and right knee showing up long before those idiotic mailings from the AARP.
“Thermopolis” is from the Greek for “City of Hot Water.” The State Park encompasses ten square miles. Its natural “Big Spring” originates in the nearby Owl Creek Mountains, and is heated by passing through porous rock above a deep volcanic caldera. The Big Spring is 127 degrees Fahrenheit, and is tempered for the State Park spa facilities. The bubbling waters contain 27 minerals, including Hydrogen Sulfide, Calcium and Iron, and are quite therapeutic. There’s Flouride, so a rinse of your mouth while swimming is good for your teeth. Got heartburn? There’s Bicarbonate.
In 1896, a ten-square-mile parcel of the Wind River Reservation bordering the Big Horn River (the Wind River becomes the Big Horn after it issues from the canyon) was purchased from the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes (co-residents at Wind River) by the United States government for $60,000 worth of cattle and other food supplies. Shoshone Chief Washakie and Arapaho Chief Sharp Nose negotiated the deal.
In 1899, the Wyoming State Legislature designated the portion containing the Big Spring near the river as Hot Springs State Park, and over the years spa facilities have been built on the site. The State Bath House is free to the public, but is small and has a time limit on its use. There are two all-day general admission ticket spas: The Teepee Spa, and — my favorite — the Star Plunge, with its outdoor summertime 500 feet water slide popular with kids, but in winter closed, thus not a temptation to thrill-seeking-but-quietly-soaking pre-geezers.
THERMOPOLIS ITSELF HAS SEEN better days. On a cold, sunny afternoon I wandered through its tiny downtown with its views of nearby snow-mottled red sandstone buttes, and counted a half-dozen empty storefronts. Thermopolis is emblematic of a Wyoming energy industry-dependent boom-bust local economy, currently on the skids, but slowly recovering due to the Bush administration’s pro-energy development policies. Hot Springs County economic numbers annually rank near the bottom of Wyoming’s 23 counties.
I stopped at “The Sideboard” for coffee. You can always tell if a town is New West or Old by its main coffeeshop. I read the Casper paper and shared the counter and nearby tables with ranchers, truckers and oilfield guys, the air full of cigarette smoke. An attentive chewing gum-snapping waitress (definitely pre-geezer) kept coffee cups full, and called me “Honey,” as in: “Want some more coffee, honey?” “Yes ma’am,” I said. “Thank you, ma’am.”
Meanwhile, back at the spa, my second visit in two frigid days showed me skylights casting shimmering sunlight on the heated pool (96 degrees). I swam under a thick canopy of green plants in baskets hanging from the rafters. I felt like Johnny Weissmuller in a Tarzan movie. Luckily, there were no crocodiles around. The nearby “Lobster Pot” — a hotter (104 degrees), bubbling natural Jacuzzi — made me forget my arthritis. In a small, intimate sauna called the “Vapor Cave” (118 degrees), I oozed sweat until I felt euphorically lightheaded. It was a weekday, and I had the sauna to myself, so could only speculate on its possibilities, as a sign posted on the wall by the Star Plunge management ordered the patron — maybe only half-humorously — to: “PLEASE DO YOUR LOVING AT HOME”.
After braving a snowy path barefooted (Sign: “Walkway Icy”), I swam in the tepid (92 degrees) outdoor pool with the air temperature about ten above zero. Ephemeral, gauzy vapor curtains rose into the blue sky. Another swimmer startled me as he passed by in the fog. A vigorous jet of hot water fed the pool on one side, and I lingered near it because there the water was warmest. I floated on my back like a stoned oversized sea otter.
Walking back inside through the cold made my skin tighten and my hair freeze. Through the drifting steam the soft, rounded ridges of the Owl Creek Mountains shone bright white on the horizon south of Thermop. Inside, I eased myself back into the Lobster Pot with one more long sigh.
When I got back to Cody the next day, the son of a friend — the kid one of those X-treme sports rock and ice climbing enthusiasts asked me if while visiting Thermop, I’d enjoyed any cliff climbing in Wind River Canyon.
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