On the first full day away from my kids, the bewildered task of determining what I could do came at me in waves. I awoke from a foreign thing, something called “adequate sleep,” and slowly stretched from inside the confinements of my warm sleeping bag. My eyes slowly adjusted to the colorful art adorning Athena’s walls in her Cottonwood home. I rolled onto my belly to meet the gaze of Charity. She looked as leisurely perplexed as I felt. We crawled from the well rested embrace of our beds and embarked on a day of self. Breasts were tended to, and hot coffee was drunk in marvelous silence. We ate breakfast al fresco, at an adorable cafe, and meandered around the shops downtown until it wasn't too early anymore to have a beer. It felt oddly familiar, this continuity of independence. I could almost reach out and touch a person I had been, but she had known so much less than I did now.
Gratitude lifted with the elevation as we headed toward the hills of Jerome. We found treasures in the local shops and ducked into historical landmarks and sipped cool beers and stood in the wind on a ledge overlooking the growing twinkle of lights in the city below. I snuck away on several walks or fell behind in a store while the girls went ahead. I basked in moments of complete un-needed-ness.
Later that night, the pinnacle of our trip would be born on the lips of a drunk man. On the patio of a bar back in Cottonwood, we heard described a rarity called Childs, a hot spring hidden away down a dusty, beaten-up road. We took mental note of the obscure landmarks he mentioned and headed out early the next morning, eyeballs peeled for any recollection of what the old guy had spoken of. We rounded a bend, and felt sure that the road to our right, jagged with ravines and strewn with broken glass and shattered tumbleweeds, had to be the way to the Hot springs. We crawled along over the bumps and dips at a steady 5 miles per hour. As the landscape, unchanging, rolled past, Charity and I scrambled from the confinements of the car and ran ahead down the road like wild coyotes. We howled at the wide open spaces and kicked dust up as we jumped from tiny boulders sticking out of the dirt. Sara halted behind us at a particularly deep gouge in the road. Charity and I scrambled back to the car and went to work, filling the voids with rocks, to even out the way forward. The sun was just beginning to feel hot against our bare skin, as Sara maneuvered her Forester through another patch of rough road. We were too excited and the day was too young to feel exhausted. We eventually returned to the car, music blaring from opened windows, as well as a succession of feet, arms and faces. Anticipation filled each of our chests as we inched on. Suddenly the road veered to the right, our chins raised to see what lie ahead… We were back on the same stretch of highway we had turned off of an hour ago. Tears of laughter, ran over our dusty cheeks. We had gone nowhere and everywhere on what we deemed “the training road”. Afterwards I felt sure that the only way to Childs was making the mistake of that road before getting to the correct one. Which we did.
On the (real) road to Childs, a sheer drop off at our right provided ample views of buttes strewn with neon yellow flowers and a densely hidden gorge wedged between mountains. We stopped to peek over the cliff and move around. My dear friend, Athena, insisted that I paint. I was reluctant but try not to question the brilliance of this woman who seems to have an omniscient knowing about most things. She set me up with a water coloring picnic and let me be. No one rushed me or bogarted my supplies, or upturned my water. I painted the landscape before me and felt filled to the brim with peace, quietly inspecting the minute shapes of leaves as I attempted to replicate them. The girls clambered back from nowhere as I packed up and we continued on our way.
Two hours later we approached the camp area of Childs, a friendly sign alerting us that clothing was optional gave us a moment to reflect before Adam and Eve approached us from the shade. She had huge grapefruits (no, actual grapefruits...) to share with us. “Just follow the piles of rocks,” she said simply, pointing her tanned arm up beside the Verde river and into the great unknown. We set off, a bit behind schedule after our journey, but practically there. The river poured past us like green velvet. The light bounced off of rock cliffs illuminating the depths of those dark luscious waters. It was breathtaking.
We spotted our first cairn of rocks and picked up our pace. The second pile was off the beaten path but we trudged over large river rocks in search of our destination. We reached a second road that cut back up into the mountain toward the campsite. We had missed it somehow. We doubled back to search, the four of us spread out. Nothing. The sun had just ducked behind a mountain, stealing with it what was left of our day. I panicked. I headed out alone to brave the wild trees lining the shore, always keeping the river in view. Feeling beat, and tired, I almost gave up when a shamble of colors peeking through the thick mesh of willow trees caught my eye. I shoved forward through the dense plants and there, sitting on the shelf of a cliff directly across the river, was the hot spring. “I found it!!”
The girls appeared within minutes. We were discussing where to forge the river when a gentleman came striding out of the thigh deep torrent of water ahead. This was it. The water was freezing. We piled shoes and bags onto our heads and clutched to skirts and dry clothes and free hands as we painstakingly inched across the water. We followed a narrow trail along the cliff, back down the river, and rounded a corner until we were on a wide ledge. On our left, fifteen feet below us, the Verde river tore past. Up ahead an ample gash in the exposed rock cliff was filled with steaming water. I suddenly felt the (literal) weight of my insecurities as clothes were excitedly peeled off.
A brick room with an exposed ceiling, sat furthest at the back of the ledge. Voices and more steam lifted into the air above. I hopped into the warm water with bra and underwear on, feeling like a trespasser in this natural world. But the four of us together, buoyant bodies pleasurably embraced in nature, were quick to forget our cares. A baby’s faint cry pierced the air from the inner dwelling, followed by a man’s calm voice and the tinkling laughter of a woman.
Another traveler joined us in the hot spring and commented that the hottest spring was found within the tiny building. Just then a noise caused us to turn our attention towards the cliff. The woman had emerged. Her naked body strode to the ledge where a bucket was. She met our gazes with a friendly acknowledgment before bowing and lifting the bucket to her chest. Ogling, we watched as she poured the cold contents of the river over her. Exposed to the vast world, ample curls of dark hair flourished from beneath her arms and between her legs. The freezing water halted the mist veiling her body. Haphazardly she wiped the droplets clinging to her. I could not hide my riveted attention towards her. It was that red carpet moment, when the limo door is opened and out of it the most beautiful woman in existence commands all eyes on her. Only she is twisted and pinned, and picked. She is shaved, primered and dyed. She is stuffed, detached and packaged. My eyes were overwhelmed by the full force of this woman taking up space in a world that only seconds ago I felt I needed to shrink in. Confidence seems a meager word to describe the herald of this woman; not apologizing to anyone for her imperfections or lack of adherence to social norms, she was filling every corner of her own body with complete abandon. I’ve never been more impressed by someone’s beauty.
I think she may have changed all of us a little on that trip. After their departure, the four us took up residence inside. The walls were riddled with a mix of painted colors, quotes, doodles, and other offerings of art. I sunk into the shallow scalding water and imagined my insecurities vaporizing into the air with each wave of steam. Athena called us back to reality in time to make it home through the growing dark. Arizona gifted me the permission to feel beautiful by a different standard. I had traveled down the wrong road for the majority of my life to get to this place, and now I can return to it by heart, anytime I want. Emily