We went down to the Verde Hot Springs a couple of months back. I thought that I’d first review a bit of history to warm up to that tale.
In the mid-nineteen seventies, we used to head up to Flagstaff on the weekends to party with Tucsonans at Northern Arizona University. You’d find me in a pearl snap stomper shirt, Levis and custom Stewart Boots. I might be accessorized in a fun western hat and a buckle belt. I identified as something we referred to as a “cow-pee,” or “cow-pie,” a laughable contraction and pretty much a cross of a cowboy and a hippie. Please, refer to the “Outlaw” crew of Waylon, Willy and the boys. It was, I suppose, a thing in the day, even without associations with horses and cows.
Skirts would fling high, as we spun with young women in the intricate entanglements dancing to the electrified local country swing music.
We were not being “naturists” per se. We were college aged. Our antics could be a tradition of a group shower with sometimes 6, or more, making a coordinated dance in a tub meant for one soaker. It was better than packing phone booths could ever be. It took a genuine team effort, a trust with a level of intimacy to make it work. Friends were having fun.
One sleepless morning sunrise, we found ourselves at a friend’s place in Telluride, in a rotund bathtub big enough for three wild-eyed people, actually four. We looked out a huge window to a field of snow, watching a pair of dogs play in the white meadow. We had driven through the night at high speeds through Indian sheep country in Larry’s brand new BMW 530I, laughing and listening to the Eagles.
It was during one of these adventuresome weekends that we escaped Flag and our local friend guided us down a hill to the Verde Hot Springs.
We pulled up, some without a complete outfit and parked in the sand near the Verde River. It was just us that Sunday. The word had yet to get out about this aquatic mineral treasure.
A hermit sort of guy was living back in the cave where the water comes out at the old hot springs. He had taken it upon himself to become the naked caretaker.
We wandered about. We found the peace of the place.
It was very different back then. We could drive through the town of Childs Power Plant to our camping area at the beach, but all of that has changed. The power plant has been shut down, the town is leveled to its foundations, and a gate was put up, blocking the road. A major flooding event has changed the main flow of the river away from the power plant and closer to the spring.
Upstream and across from the hot springs, we had the aforementioned large sandy beach with a smattering of shady trees. The river had a bend in it there, that slowed down the flow. It created a cream in your coffee brown Olympic sized pool for skinny-dipping. The crossing to the springs was waist, or sometimes chest high. We would often swim across.
A tall old noble tree hosted a long thick rope from its branches to swing out and drop into the deep enough water. There has always been for me, a sense of an idyllic Americana in these skinny-dipping rope swings.
The river split here a bit. A light fork would run down by the hot spring. Just enough flow. We could walk naked south along the path, through the few ruined foundations to the old tub facility.
Back then, the painting, or graffiti was just a little bit. The painting of the inside of the building had been started and some of that art is still there today. The message was peace, love and reference to psychedelic experiences.
I rarely used the old tub facilities. Below, there were three small ponds. The river rock had been piled into short walls to separate the rest of the flow. Down there, several tiny springs, just a few trickles, were coming out of the ground below the surface of the water. They were just strings of tiny hot bubbles. We had a Momma, Papa and Baby Bear choice of hot tubs. The ambience of the creek flow and view was quite charming.
Sitting on, or around one of these bubble machines was a sensual pleasure. The river always seeped into the ponds and contrast was everywhere to explore with nude bodies. At times, while we whiled away the day, we would grab a few rocks and help with the maintenance and engineering.
The visit on the day of my first trip was short, but I knew that I’d be back. One dear friend had to give back the shirt that she had borrowed to its owner and was left several dozen miles away from home without any clothing at all. I remember giving her a hug good-bye and watching her begin her ride back in their old two seat van, sitting on a floor mat pad naked. Life should be lived like that sometimes. Not necessarily austere, but with abandon.
Change Through the years:
The scene changed gradually as years went by. There were more and more loud and drunken party revelers each weekend. It became a place to avoid at those times. We’d drive through and get off to ourselves until things toned down on late Sunday afternoons. It was reasonable to see that it was no longer safe to have our cute girlfriends wander into that drunken shouting bombast, naked with a cold Heineken in hand.
Once that weekly two days of fireworks left, we could return to the beach and enjoy the ambiance. There were usually others around. I remember a couple drifting through the country in a camper truck. There was a group of grow your own raw food hippies from a commune, living on jicama mostly. There were those two tall and frisky twin sisters with their brother and their thirst for embracing life. Nearly all of us were young. There was a group camaraderie. We met people that we kept as friends away from the springs.
We figured out where the Federal and State boundaries were in the river. We learned that the Federal and state nudity laws differ, if push came to shove. We would often give lookout responsibility to a rotating staff, watching the road for any official trucks. It was community.
I was once given instruction as to how to clean the main outdoor hot spring pool as a sacred seva. It was like receiving the keys.
So it went for many years. Things got more popular. Big rig campers with “Canyon State Naturists” groups were found there. By the time that I found myself married and a brand new dad, we thought that we needed to find a less rugged naturism. We began to frequent resorts like Shangri La north of Phoenix.
I didn’t return to the hot spring for a few years. A new green campground was developed by the Forest Service, much farther from the springs. Once, I actually found a group of Boy Scouts there.
The entire river now flowed differently and my favorite aspects of the place had dropped like bowling pins. Apparently, it was still a good spot to get drunk all weekend.
DF and I have decided that in 2019, we’re going to the Verde River Hot Springs!
So, just why is this place here? A dab of history:
Around 1916, the Child’s Power plant began to supply power to the new city of Jerome and its burgeoning copper mine. A road was cut and maintained.
The local hot springs were set into an enterprise, establishing a hotel retreat of sorts. It was reputed to be a good place for mobsters from back east to lay low, but then, this entire state was good for that. Huge tracks of land were bought as gangster real-estate investments. There are mobster names on roads here. They say that five C’s Copper, Cotton, Cattle, Citrus and Climate made Arizona. They tend to tone down “C”rime. With the spaces so wide and the border so close…well, time to digress.
Celebrities used to hang out and some made movies in Arizona. One day I was returning home and was just about to pass through a sharp bend, when a familiar face pulled around in a large sedan. He flagged me with his hand. A very unique affable personality in a white hat greeted me. “Say, is that ‘ol hot springs still out here?”
In shock, I replied “Yup. Just continue down the road.”
He thanked me. The only words that could appropriately come out of my stunned mouth were, “Happy Trails.”
Through the 30’s and 40’s, Childs, Verde Hot Springs and the Irving Plant continued to operate as examples of how darned ingenious people in the rugged Southwest were. Fossil Creek, which had been diverted for water for the plant, continued to not really exist (well, okay, there was an ecosystem, but it was not the one nature intended).
So, the resort failed in the early 1950’s. After being closed for several years and a couple of attempts to re-open, the hotel burned to the ground in 1961, or 62.
Environmental and Native American groups continued to protest the travesty of the draining of Fossil Creek Canyon in the name of clean power. The flume and the generating facilities were becoming increasingly considered to be obsolete and expensive to maintain. The system was dismantled around 2004.
Fossil Creek is now protected as a national treasure.
Next Week: We’ll take you along on our 2019 revisiting of the Verde Hot Springs. Our exploration of the restoration of Fossil Creek will follow.