By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 1/22/2020
Posted: 6/13/2010
Topics/Keywords: #VerdeHotSpring #Arizona #camping Page Views: 3460
In which I encounter a naked mom and her terrified children.

This was another weekend in which I kept out of Michael's hair (and the way of his intense studying) by running off to the peace and quiet of Verde Hot Spring. And this time, it really was pretty quiet. Actually, it was very quiet, despite being fairly crowded. That might be thanks to the rangers, who apparently carted off an entire rock band that had intended to play over the weekend. But that doesn't mean there weren't still interesting people to observe, out here many miles away from the nearest Wal-Mart.

I left right after work, remembering to bring just about everything, forgetting only my camera and a camp chair. But I had my cell phone camera and a car with seats, so I didn't turn around.

It was dark by the time I drove through Payson.

After a total of three hours, I had careened over the unpaved Fossil Creek Road (not even stopping at the new concrete barrier below which, I am told, are the remains of six cars that sailed over the edge).

Okay, "careened" is too strong a word. I never careen. I was driving an average of 20 miles an hour, maybe less. But I have driven that road enough to know it, and the eight miles from Strawberry to the Childs Power Road doesn't take the hour that it used to when it was newer to me and I was more cautious.

It's the last six miles that slows you down. Child's Power Road, once the access to a power plant long since decommissioned, is mostly ungraded and features numerous outcroppings of rocks, many of which can clip an unwary oil pan. I was in no danger, driving a high-clearance SUV; but I was especially sensitive to the rocks because I knew a friend, Ron, intended to drive his compact car this way on Saturday.

Frankly, I didn't see how he could make it.

My original campsite, the next morning.

Although it was dark when I arrived, it was clear that the campground was jammed full of campers—especially, the choice riverfront sites seemed to all be taken. My main reason for leaving on Friday was to get a good site before the crowd arrived on Saturday. Now, it appeared, the crowd had gotten wise to this. I had to settle for one of the least desirable spots, over by the old power plant, in the open. The upside was that the ground was level and made of soft sand. Also, it was as close as possible to the actual spring, a mile away. I set up my tent quickly, although it was dark, and gathered my gear for a nighttime walk to the spring.

On my first night hike to Verde Hot Spring, I damn near killed myself. Or so it seemed at the time. But this time, I was well-prepared, with proper river shoes, an LED headlight, and even a hydration pack Michael had given me for Christmas a couple years ago, as well as complete familiarity of the route, both by day and night.

It was very dark, there being no moon; a warm breeze wafted about and only the occasional moth fluttered around my headlight, making me switch to the red beam until the moth lost interest and fluttered away. I already knew the river flow was low, only about 100 cfs, and crossing it was a breeze—it was neither deep nor cold.

There were no lights at the spring and only three other bathers: An "old guy" named Jack, and a 26-year-old couple named Jesse and Cat. Jesse and Cat were absorbed in watching for shooting stars, and Jack was stoned out of his gourd on, he explained, mushrooms and pot. (I assume he didn't mean Portabella mushrooms.) Jack was also playing some sort of digital music device with speakers, the "live band" that had performed in his front yard in Snowflake the night before. As the performance, over which Jack was wildly enthusiastic, continued, it became clear to me that the reason the band was playing on his lawn was that they'd been unable to find a venue where anyone would pay to hear them. The instruments weren't that bad, but the vocalists who insisted on singing at the same time seemed to all be terminally tone death, and more-or-less unacquainted with each other.

I really wish marijuana would be legalized, if for no other reason than then it would be packaged and sold with caution labels, such as WARNING: Smoking marijuana can cause you to think other people want to hear your music.

But I tried to relax and not fight it. Even as an off-key soprano began lamenting, "Dead puppies aren't much fun," I was able to remind myself that, at least, I would now have something to blog about.

Jack and Jesse seemed to know each other. I couldn't make out Jesse's features in the dark, but I saw Jack the next day and confirmed his appearance: Grayish-white hair, thin on top but long and worn in a ponytail; bushy off-white beard down to his chest, bags under his eyes that could hold a three-day rain. Somehow Jesse and Jack got into the subject of age, which is how I found out that Jack is 60—one year older than me!

Surely I don't look like that! Surely I won't look like that in a year!

It was Jack, in between encouraging his recorded entertainers by exhorting them to "C'mon, boys! Make the stars come out!!", who mentioned that some other band had arrived the night before with the intention of having an actual concert at the campground. "Damn cops showed up," he complained bitterly. "Arrested them for having an 'event without a permit.'"

A free concert is one thing, when you're expecting it and can have the choice whether or not to attend. That isn't the case after driving with your camping gear down 14 miles of barely navigable road, at night, unaware that your destination is Woodstock: 2010. I was with the cops on this one.

In the morning, I found the band's campsite, lending credence to Jack's story. One of the larger sites was clearly claimed, with a large tent, stacked wood, water bottles, and other evidence of having been occupied—but no one was there, and no one appeared there at any time over my weekend stay.

I also discovered a site on the river's edge after all, tucked between two occupied sites. It's possible someone had been there the night before, but it was vacant now. I quickly transferred my gear and the SUV to it. Not only was it perfect for me, but there was room for the two tents my friends would be bringing when they arrived.

Which wasn't supposed to be until 7:30 pm. So, after lunch, I set out for the spring again for more soaking.

The river, as seen from the trail, was beautiful as always and the cottonwoods lining it were lush, the result of an unusually wet winter.

The Verde River

This time when I arrived, the spring was anything but quiet. Four kids, ranging in age from 4 to 16, were there, with (I assumed) their parents, and assorted other adults.

Usually when kids are there, most of the adults wear bathing suits while the remaining adults complain about the inconsideration of parents who would "bring children to a hot spring!" But in this case, Mom was, herself, nude; two of the kids were; and most of the remaining adults were. So, I figured, it's a nudist family, which generally means cool, progressive people. So I shucked my shorts, too, and slipped into the water.

That's when I got my first clue that something was amiss. A progressive mother wouldn't smoke, and certainly wouldn't smoke in her kids' faces, even outdoors. This woman, however, pretty as she was, was a chain smoker and seemed completely unaware that, when she held one of her little ones in front of her and spoke, clouds of blue were puffed right at them. In fact, when Ben, the four-year-old, turned his head to avoid the smoke, she barked, "Look at me when I'm talking to you!"

The man who had accompanied her was a wiry blonde who had a gentle humor and bright wit, and I couldn't figure him to be married to her. It turned out I was right; his name was Adam and he was just "a friend" though it was clear he hoped to be more. Two of the kids were his; two were hers. They were simply camping together; both were divorced (from different spouses).

Adam kept his shorts on and so did his sons. The sixteen-year-old was a nice kid who spent most of the time there out of sight, climbing rocks. The eleven-year-old tried to teach the littler boys, who belonged to the woman, to swim.

The woman, whose name was Athena, had a…different method of swimming instruction. It started with her seeming to disbelieve that they weren't just being stubborn about not being able to swim. "I'll hold you underwater, then let you go," she promised her six-year-old grimly. "Then I bet you learn to swim real fast."

"Don't do it, Mommy!" the little guy pleaded. "Don't hold me so tight!"

"Now, why do you say that?" Athena asked, laughing. "You know, when you say no, it just makes me want to do it more!"

I wonder if he'll be able to use that in his defense trial after he's arrested some day for rape?

Now, added to this mix was Kevin, a man a few years' Athena's senior, who seemed transfixed by her very large breasts which bobbed in the water like a pair of pink watermelons with eyes. He was interesting to watch because he seemed at once attracted to and appalled by Athena. He neither smoked nor drank beer (at least, while he was there) while Athena lit one from the other. Adam was also a smoker (though he turned his head when speaking to the kids) and Athena ordered him around as if she'd paid him to be there. "Bring me a beer! Get me a cigarette!" None of these requests came with a "please", yet Adam jumped up and fulfilled every one.

I could see that Adam, too, was attracted to Athena. He had to be miffed, at the least, that she was devoting all her attention to Kevin. Yet it was clearly not his style to impose himself on anyone. And he may have been having second thoughts about getting into a relationship with her, especially after she announced her intentions for the evening. "I'm going to go hang out with the gay guys," she told Adam. Kevin, we already knew, was not camping and would be gone before evening.

I wondered what gay guys she meant, since I hadn't really said anything since arriving. But someone else asked for me, and she replied, "I guess there's some sort of gay convention in Flagstaff this weekend, and these guys decided to come party here instead of go. They're way fun, and they'll take care of me."

"You mean the Flagstaff Pride parade," I supplied. I could only interpret "taking care of her" as meaning fussing over her and getting her high.

"I have so many guy friends, and so many gay friends," Athena remarked, ostensibly to Kevin but in a voice we could all hear. "But no actual man friends, if you know what I mean." I could see Adam turn red, while Kevin, floating very close to Athena, bore the expression of a trout that is being reeled in.

The youngest kid, Athena's, was four, with dark hair and bright eyes and a smile that would melt anyone's heart. His name was Ben and he'd been bobbing about in a life jacket all this time, asking the adults (other than Kevin and Athena) questions: Where did the water come from, why was it green, what was the algae and why was it there, could you plant it in a garden, and so on. "I know I ask a lot of questions," he explained. "And I know it's bad, but I can't help myself. I'm four."

I couldn't stand it any more. "It is not bad to ask questions!" I said with all the intensity I could muster. "Who told you that? They're wrong!"

Apparently something in my tone caught Kevin's attention, though Athena remained oblivious.

Ben looked startled. "Well, I'm a very bad boy," he said, matter-of-factly. "But someday I'll learn better."

"Ben," I said, not daring to touch him but looking at him square in the eyes, "You are a very good boy. In fact, you are one of the very nicest four-year-olds I've ever met. You're smart and well-mannered. You need to remember that, even if someone tells you you're bad, telling doesn't make it so."

"That's right, Ben." Kevin had left Athena's boobs long enough to join us. Behind him I could see Athena lighting another cigarette. "That's what I tell my kids. Sometimes people say mean things to them…sometimes even their friends or people they love. But you don't have to believe what they say. Even when you're four, you can believe what your heart tells you is right, and you know that in your heart you're perfect. Right?"

Ben looked surprised, but I could see a wave of understanding cross his face. "But…even grownups? They know everything!"

Kevin took Ben gently by the shoulders. "Sometimes, some grownups can't see into your heart. But if that happens, it's their fault, not yours." He released the little boy, who paddled around quietly for a moment, apparently digesting this new information.

Athena never asked about, nor appeared to have noticed, the exchange.

Adam and Athena and the kids had arrived on foot, but with an inflatable raft. Adam's 16-year-old had been sent down to inflate it; and now, Adam transferred their gear into it, with the intention of all six of them floating downriver back to the campground. "You'll have to get some wood as soon as we get back," Athena directed Adam. I didn't doubt he would, though I suspected it wouldn't do him any good.

"Will you cook tonight?" Adam asked, in a tone that suggested he'd been doing most of that, too.

Athena frowned. "Well, I can't cook until we have some firewood. Is the raft packed yet? I want another beer."

"I want to smoke a J," Adam sighed. "But not in front of the kids."

"I know, right?" Athena giggled. "That's why I am going to hang out with the gay guys." Leaving Adam no option, since he didn't seem the type to leave the little ones in a campground by themselves, even if they were asleep, even if two of them belonged to the Mother of the Year.

"You want my email address?" Athena asked Kevin.

"Uh, sure," he said, and waited.

"Well, you'll have to write it down," she pointed out. So Kevin climbed out of the pool, located his bag, and took out a pen and paper, whereupon Athena announced her email address, which was so simple that even I, who didn't write it down and didn't want it, can still remember it and will probably go to my grave with it still trapped inside my head. Kevin returned to the water and Athena wrapped an arm around him and kissed him—on the neck, because he didn't turn his head to allow any other access.

The sun was low in the sky when Athena and Adam and the kids left, and I left shortly after, leaving Kevin announcing that he should be leaving soon, as soon as he could motivate himself to actually do so. I crossed the river and trudged up the road, becoming aware that my river shoes were chaffing the backs of my ankles with accumulated grit—a common complaint of users of this type of shoe. I stopped to shake them out, and heard an odd sound approaching, like someone running.

It was Kevin, sprinting up the hill. He'd apparently gotten the motivation to leave the spring. "Now, I hate that," I said. "Here you are, running on the trail, where I had to stop to rest."

He stopped. "Are you all right?" he asked.

"Oh, I'm fine! Just got grit in my shoes. But I've never seen anyone run along this old road before! Trying to beat Athena to camp?"

He laughed ruefully. "In a sense," he said. "I'm hoping to get my ass out of there before she gets out of the river."

"I thought you liked her," I said.

He shook his head. "She's hot," he admitted. "But she smokes 'way too much, and anyway I could never stand a woman who would treat her kids the way she treats hers. Besides, one look at Adam tells you how she treats men."

"I wanted to tell you," I said, "that what you told little Ben was awesome. That one thing could possibly save him from her."

"I can only hope so," Kevin said somberly. "Some people should not have kids. But I gotta get going. Take it easy!" And he was off, out of sight beyond the next ridge in less than 30 seconds.

It turned out Athena and Adam's campsite was just across from mine, on higher ground. I saw the kids running about, and I saw Adam trudging back and forth carrying firewood and gear, but I didn't see Athena again for the rest of my visit.

By now it was 5:30 and my feet hurt like the devil. My friends weren't expected until 7:30, so I ate my dinner sandwich, re-inflated my air mattress—which had a slow leak, so now I own $250 worth of air mattresses that won't hold air—and took a nap.

When I awoke, it was to the glare of headlights on my tent and the sound of a car door. It was about 9:30 pm. "Ron?" I called.

"Yeah, we're here!" I recognized Ron's voice, which, incidentally, sounds startlingly like that of actor Nicholas Cage. But I wasn't expecting Nick Cage, and I was expecting Ron.

I got out of the tent and hugged my friend hello, then looked at his vehicle. Ron admitted the drive in his little car had been harrowing, but it seemed to have survived.

Ron introduced me to his new boyfriend, Steven, and another friend, Dan. This was Steven's second-ever campout, the last one being two weeks ago. Ron is a camping enthusiast; any boyfriend of his has to either be one as well, or become one quickly. Dan was sleeping in a familiar yellow tent: I had given it to Ron a couple weeks ago when I was cleaning out my garage. The other was new.

"It belonged to the guy camping next to us at the Bartlett Lake Bash," Steven explained. The Bartlett Lake Bash is an event organized semiannually for gay guys who enjoy camping, boating, and camaraderie. Michael and I have wanted to go for two years but somehow other things always wind up conflicting. "He slept in it the first night," Steven continued.

Ron picked up the story. "Then he met someone he liked, moved into his tent, and told us we could have this one! So, we both got lucky!"

It was a nice tent, and looked brand new. As Ron was putting it up (with the rest of us helping by aiming flashlights at where we thought Ron should put stuff), a woman suddenly staggered into camp. "My name is Tricia!" she told us. "I know all about where the hot spring is. Located." She looked the four of us over appraisingly, as if she were buying cattle. "I can take anyone there. That wants. It's a very friendly place." She actually spoke like that, inserting random periods into her sentences.

She then realized that she was in a camp of men, and looked us over again. "Let me guess," she said. "You're all." And we waited for the punchline, which we assumed would be, "GAY!"

"BROTHERS!" she cried, with a little laugh.

Ron didn't miss a beat. "You're exactly right," he said, sounding more like Nick Cage than ever. "That's exactly who we are. How did you ever guess?"

Dan, Steven and I were convulsed with laughter, which Tricia seemed to interpret as proof she was right.

"Well, I'm camped over there," she waved, vaguely. "When you're ready to go. To the hot spring, just come get me. And I'll be happy to lead the way. Or, if you don't want to go, I'll be happy to not. Lead you." She seemed more confused than ever as she waved goodbye and swayed back into the darkness.

Three of us were eager and willing to make the night hike to the springs, though not with the seriously inebriated Tricia. That, in fact, was why I had taken the nap. But Steven was afraid it would be too dangerous. And so we stayed in the newly expanded camp, swapping stories.

Presently the talk slowed and we became more conscious of the sounds of crickets and bullfrogs and the gentle sound of the moving river a few feet away. Dan and Steven marveled over the brilliance and number of the stars. I appreciated that this time, the campground was quiet. No one was playing music; or, if they were, it couldn't be heard beyond their own camp.

We said goodnight. Dan retired to his tent, Ron and Steven into theirs, and I into mine. I had to refill the mattress again. But soon I was asleep, and other than once during the night when I had to re-inflate the mattress yet again, I slept through to morning, awakening about 8:30 am with the sun shining between the trees onto a patch of tent wall.

My tent, as close to the river as possible without getting wet!

I got up and found that the other three were apparently sleeping in. So I quietly had breakfast, enjoyed the sight of the river flowing by not 30 feet away, and then as quietly took down my tent.

By 10:30 I was no longer attempting to be quiet. "Ron!" I called, finally. I mean, I know he had a new boyfriend; but 10:30? Really!

But there was no answer. I called again, then opened the tent zipper an inch and peeked inside. No one was there. Somehow, the others had left for the spring before 8:30, without waking me up.

I could join them, of course. If I'd known that's were they were at 8:30, I most likely would have. But now it was almost time for me to leave (I hadn't brought lunch for Sunday). And besides, my ankles had been rubbed raw by my unbroken-in river shoes and the grit they had gathered, and every step in them or even in my sandals, with a strap that hit the same spots, burned like fire. Besides, when Ron and I compared notes as to which trail was best to take to the hot springs, he described one I'd never used. If I were to leave now, it was entirely possible they'd already be on the way back and we could miss each other.

And, anyway, I'd already been there twice on this trip. And I wasn't sure I could take another day of the Mother of the Year, who I assumed would be going back with her children to the spring, along with the long-suffering Adam.

So, instead, I got into my SUV and made the return trip home.

I love going to Verde Hot Spring, for the soaking, the environment, and for the unique people-watching opportunities it affords. But, as Dionne Warwick once observed, sometimes wisdom lies in knowing when to leave.