Monday, February 21, 2011

Spencer Hot Springs, Then and Now

I first came to Spencer hot springs in the mid to late 1970s, certainly by the summer of 1980. In the 70s and early 80s, the lower main hot spring (as opposed to the upper main hot spring) was inside a small cabin. Back then, you — or you and no more than one of your friends — could sit neck high in a large, rectangular, poured-concrete bathtub sitting in the southeast corner of the cabin. Hot water too hot to soak in was piped down to the cabin from the northern spring; the water came to the cement tub through a small hole in the wall. If the water was too hot in the bathtub, you moved the pipe aside or turned off a valve. If it was too cold, you did the opposite.
Spencer Hot Springs as seen from Highway 50, looking south, Toquima Range in the background. Photo taken May, 2008. MSRMaps location.

The cabin was partially divided into two rooms: the bathing room and the changing room. The thing to do upon arriving was to drive up and check for vehicles in front of the cabin. If one or more vehicles were parked nearby, you drove by slowly and parked off a ways, and waited for the bathers to exit. Then you moved your vehicle into place in front of the cabin and soaked. It was considered good hot-spring etiquette not to stay too long after another vehicle had arrived, unless you had just arrived.
Spencer Hot Springs as seen from the junction of Highway 50 with Highway 8A, now S.R. 376, looking east, also from May, 2008. The dirt road goes to Pete's Summit.

People carved, painted, and wrote graffiti — mostly of the “I’ve-been-here-and-when” variety — on the inside wood and metal walls of the cabin. Some of the writings were witty, some were a little racy or vulgar, depending on your point of view. Someone, or a group of people offended by the coarser graffiti, had already, by 1980 or so, started marking over any drawings or words they didn’t like, using red paint or markers. They also added some of their own writings; these were usually puritanical comments stating or implying that the authors whose words they had marked out should get religion and change their ways, or they would soon be going to some disagreeable hell — presumably a hell without hot springs, but hopefully, at least, a hell without the censorship of their red paint.

In 1981, two geologists from Northern Exploration Company — one contract geologist and one summer temp — wrote a poem commemorating the company, the mineral exploration we were doing, some of the key players, and the hot springs itself. They used nicknames when they referred to any of the head honchos, signed their names cryptically, and dated their contribution to the cabin wall. Within a few months to a year, the red-paint people had crossed out one of the NEC geologist’s nicknames, “Asshole,” because it was on their list of bad words. I doubt they knew, or would have cared, that it was an appropriate and self-chosen nickname: he wore a baseball cap and carried a coffee cup with that name, and lived up to his designation admirably.

Shortly after the poets wrote and the censors painted, a non-NEC geologist passing by to use the hot springs recognized the historical relevance of the poem and took a picture of it for me. C, who is still an exploration and development geologist, and S, who later became a Quaternary or soil geologist, had perhaps expected a little more anonymity when the signed their names “Chuckles” and “Susie (Mud).” (I guess she already planned on becoming a soil geologist.) Within a few months of the photo-taking event, someone — we always thought it was the red-paint people — burned the cabin to the ground.
Alignment of the old pipeline from the north spring wellhead to the cabin site, looking straight toward Austin Summit; November, 2006.

At the cabin site, you can vaguely discern the outline of the cabin on the ground by discovering, like an archaeologist, the roughly square patch of charcoal-rich blackish dirt, a burned and blackened mattress springs, and pieces of odd artifacts like rusted nails and bits of broken glass and pottery. The jagged, heat-tanned remnant of the concrete tub, assorted pieces of rusted pipes, and the pipeline coming down the hill from this spring all attest to the main former use of the cabin.
A section of the old pipeline as it dives under the road toward the remains of the old bathtub; November, 2006.
Remains of the bathtub, looking southwest toward the Toiyabe Range; November, 2006. Kingston Canyon is just left of the photo in the distance.
Bits of glass, charcoal, and the bathtub, looking south toward the upper main spring (whitish, steamy area on the horizon), with the Toquima Range in the background; November, 2006.

Nowadays there are usually at least three main pools available for soaking. Two of the three soaking tubs consist of metal barrels; the main upper spring is a spacious and rock-lined hole in the ground with wooden deck. MOH and I have camped many times at the northern spring, the one that used to supply water to the concrete tub in the then-standing cabin. The northern spring is our favorite, mostly because it's usually more private than the larger main spring.
Water coming out of the metal pipe at the north tub, Toiyabe Range in the background; April, 2008. The yellow stake near the spring wellhead is there to ward off accidental drivethroughs and to block the scenery.
A lower tub as it looked in September, 2007, looking northwest toward Austin Summit.

The water at the former-cabin spring is too hot to soak in without cooling; it measured 130° F at the wellhead source on April 18, 2001. That same day, the water coming to the tub through a metal pipe measured 120° F.
A look inside the covered wellhead source of the north spring. Photo still from a movie by MOH; December, 2006.

To achieve and maintain a suitable soaking temperature, you have to move the metal pipe in or out of the tub, or turn a valve on or off if one happens to be attached. The desirable set up depends on variations in water temperature, air temperature, wind speed and wind chill factor, amount and kind of precipitation, and personal preference. You can let too-cool water out of the tub through a hole near the downstream end, and can then block the hole with a tennis ball, sock, or other item, so the tub can be re-filled with hot water. Other springs in the area have similar mechanisms for reaching and maintaining good soaking temps.
This large pipe at one of the lower springs had written directions, a temperature measurement, and political commentary; September, 2007.
Sunset at the north tub; November, 2006.

Spencer hot springs shows different aspects depending on time of day, time of year, and weather. I have no pictures from it's snow-covered and snowstorm mode, and no pictures of the incredible dust storms that can pass through. We once arrived after dark, parked near one of the main roads in drifting snow, found the outdoor temperature to be -18° F (it had been +18° F on top of Austin Summit), couldn't get the camper heating system going, and had to drive back to Fallon for repairs.
Another sunset view from November, 2006.

Snow squall days can be most amazing, with hot-spring goers often few and far between. A herd of donkeys with one horse will often pass through camp, and coyotes will be heard in the snowy distance.


Gaelyn said...

Oh, I love these places of little note to many. Camping and soaking under the stars. Oh yea.

The Bobs said...

If you follow the road over Pete's Summit to Monitor Valley, you can get to Pott's Ranch Hot Springs, where the water temperature is juust right.

Silver Fox said...

Don't think I've ever soaked at Potts, will have to try it. Wonder how the road is for a Prius?

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Amazing photos, and what a great story about the cabin! Too bad it got burned down.

Silver Fox said...

Thanks, Cath - I think there was more traffic to the springs when the cabin was there, although maybe it's just because the desert was crawling with fairly young geologists back in those days, and it isn't so much anymore.