“Well, this feels wrong,” I say.
I pause the podcast my boyfriend and I are listening to. He stops the car, air conditioning blasting in the 102-degree south Texas heat, and we squint into the sun. The “road” we’re on has suddenly become incredibly narrow, with short rocky cliffs rising on either side of us. They’re so close now that if I were to open my window, I could graze the rough, limestone walls with my hand. But there’s no way I’m opening the window in this heat. Below us, what was gravel has become silt. Clayey sand that gives slightly under the weight of our small car.
“I think this is a river bed,” my boyfriend says, hands still holding the steering wheel. “Did we….did we take a turn onto an old river bed?”
We pause, considering the possibility.
“Seems like it,” I say. This could be a moment where we laugh. Later, we will. But right now, we’re in a pretty grim place. Our GPS stopped working miles ago, long before the river bed situation. Not that we weren’t warned about this.
“If your GPS fails you (which it will),” the website for the hot springs we’re trying to find (located near the border between Texas and Mexico) warned us, “you can…” You can what? I wonder, not remembering the instructions and unable to pull them up on my phone.
My thoughts begin to spiral. When was the last time we saw a car? An hour ago? Two? It was definitely back when we were on a road that was paved and, you know, an actual road. Even then, the car we spotted was a border control vehicle and the first we’d seen for miles. I look down at our measly supply of water, then futilely raise my phone to see if it will get service, shaking it a little as if I might Etch-a-Sketch my way to getting a signal.
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do,” my boyfriend says — remaining clear-headed while I imagine our bodies splayed out for vultures. “We’re going to just back out.”
He throws the car in reverse. The wheels spin. We don’t move.
“Oh, that’s it,” I say. “It’s over.”
A touch dramatic perhaps, but I’m already envisioning myself trying to walk in the sun without enough water, zero sense of direction, and no earthly idea how many miles it will take us to find a seemingly abandoned homestead where someone will promptly make masks from our skin.
“We’re definitely going to die out here.”
We were road tripping through Texas in the summer, looking for adventure. It never occurred to me when I read about a romantic little spot called Chinati Hot Springs that the roads might be… nonexistent. I’m a Wisconsinite. I’ve driven through white-out conditions in the farmlands of Iowa and survived winter driving across Montana and Idaho — navigating mountain passes on single-lane roads. So, desert roads in the summer? How hard could it be?
Turns out pretty hard. The hot springs in question sit near Big Bend National Park, not remotely close to anything else on our route. “Isn’t that what road trips are for?” I said to my boyfriend when I was trying to convince him to take the side-trip. “Wandering off-the-beaten-path and stumbling onto something amazing?”
We spent a night in Marfa — an incredibly cool, artsy town with fun bars — and were told to expect a two-three hour drive from there to Chinati. Oh, come on, I thought, it’s 50 miles away. But as we drove under bright, blue skies, bumping along the desert landscape, the going got slow. Then our GPS started to fail, our phones lost all connection, and things quickly became more and more remote.
Soon, the road gave out completely and we were driving on gravel, then sand.
After I finish explaining a few horrible scenarios for our fate, my boyfriend and I get out of the car and look around. It’s oppressively hot. Also, we have a cat in the car. Did I not mention we brought a cat? It’s not particularly important, except to say that cats are rarely good at de-escalating conflicts in the middle of the desert.
“How are we going to hike out of this while holding an angry, hot cat?” I ask.
We clear sand away from the wheels and get back in the car.
“We’re going to die here,” I say again, which feels true but is probably not particularly helpful.
My boyfriend throws it in reverse again, and this time — with a bit of a shudder — we begin moving. Soon we’re back at a fork in the road that will lead us to the hot springs.
“Well, the road less traveled sucks,” I say bitterly. “Thanks a lot, Robert Frost, you almost killed us.”
Not long after my Robert Frost rant, we see signs to Chinati. The trip has been stressful, to say the least. But all of that melts away when we pull in. The spot is truly an oasis. Thick green trees dip lazily — creating pockets of shade around a stone pool, sparkling in the fading sun. Adobe-style cabins are spread out across the grounds, each bearing colorful touches. A few tents are spread across a patch of lawn. It’s undisputably lovely.
Inside our cabin, an oversized metal tub pumps hot spring water for our private soaking pleasure. An outdoor shower does the same, and let me tell you: healing hot spring water soaking into your skin as you stand naked beneath the stars goes a long way toward erasing the trauma of a shitty drive.
We let our cat out and he examines the room. Once satisfied, he curls up on a blue and red patterned blanket and falls asleep.
Leaving our cabin, we throw on suits, grab some food, and start to explore the grounds. There’s a building with a big, welcoming kitchen and everything you could need to make a meal. We’re told to put whatever we want in the fridge. Chinati invites communal cooking and eating. Like a little desert commune.
As night falls, the heat gives way to that cool desert air. Perfect for soaking in the springs. We slip into the pool. Another couple is there, we chat while leaning our heads back, taking in the sea of stars above. The stars are different in the desert, brighter, more vast.
There’s no wifi or no cell service at Chinati. Like most people, I am addicted to checking my phone. But I don’t feel that general nervous feeling of disconnection on the property. If anything, the place feels like you’re connected to everything. The other people, the landscape, yourself, your partner — everything is set up to connect.
The next morning with the sun beating down, it’s too hot for the springs. Instead, we able up to a cold pool, on a hill up above the cabins with sweeping views of the land. We float and splash, whiling the morning away. People share drinks, food, and stories. Later we hike, tramping through the harsh landscape. Others have been through this way, they’ve piled rocks with zen-like precision. We stumble upon old bean cans, a hundred years old, still there from when cowboys were crossing the landscape, camping around mesquite wood fires. The cans become a part of the landscape, rusty and brown.
This is the very nature of an oasis in the desert: everything feels both old and new at the same time. Young people, swimming, soaking, laughing in a place that feels ancient and free from technology.
Later, we’ll make dinner in the kitchen, sharing stove space, and chatting with other travelers. Then we’ll soak in a deep, stone tub before venturing out to the more public hot springs. We’ll look up at the stars and feel like our problems, every wrong turn that got us here, are absolutely minor in the scope of things. What’s a few minutes of panic in the face of that vast desert sky, with the water soaking our worries away?
More photos of Chinati Hot Springs:
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Our own private (natural hot spring) outdoor tub at The Chinati Hot Springs, a hidden oasis located hundreds of miles deep into the Chihuahuan Desert. "For hundreds of years, Chinati Hot Springs has been a meeting place for the desert traveler in search of repose, solitude, or rejuvenation. Ownership of the springs has passed from family to family over the years. In the late 20th Century the fate of the springs was tied to the rise of Marfa, Texas as an international art destination." #ChinatiHotSprings #WestTexas