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Outdoor writing runner-up: Hot Springs

Eamonn Neff (Courtesy Photo / The Spokesman-Review)
Eamonn Neff (Courtesy Photo / The Spokesman-Review)

As indicated by the pristine images of waterfalls and mountain ranges thrown into my health class’ STD PowerPoint, nature is beautiful and provides a pleasant break. But much like the picture of the woman with gonorrhea of the eye, nature is also horrifying and dangerous.

The most beautiful place in the world to me is Stanley Hot Springs. After hiking 5.5 miles up a mountain and crossing a raging river, you come up the last hill to be greeted by steaming natural pools of water, a glorious forest, and a moose licking the naked and petrified Texas man who got there first. The Texan slowly covered his genitals with his hand as the moose sniffed him up and down.

“The boys back in Houston are never going to believe this,” he muttered before hastily packing his backpack and heading back down the mountain.

For several years my family would drive into Idaho to make the trek to Stanley. By the time we’d get to the base of the mountain it was almost always dark, so my mother, sister, and I would huddle inside the tent. Meanwhile my father, whose grizzly bear-like body protects him from cold, would sleep on the ground in the open.

In winter, Dad air-dries his body outside after taking a bath, so he’s the man you should talk to about being connected to nature.

My memory of my first trip is pretty limited, seeing as I was still in the womb. When I was 2 years old, my family would encourage me to keep hiking by shouting “HORSE POOOOP,” pointing out an object of exceptional interest to me as a toddler.

While taking a snooze on the trail and waiting for my father and me to finish examining the feces on the trail, my mother felt a fly buzzing around her face. She waved it away several times before swinging hard. She opened her eyes just in time to see her hand connecting not with a fly, but with a bear’s face.

“LALALALAAA” she screamed at the bear while climbing a 5-foot tree, as if that could possibly protect her from the black bear she had just punched. In the face. Fortunately the bear was a pacifist and left my mother alone.

The fact that we went back to the hot springs for several years in a row following the “bear incident” makes me question my parents’ ability to raise children. Although it probably shouldn’t surprise me. The first time my mom met my dad he had a tub of dishes sitting in the rain, claiming that was the most effective way to clean them. We still use the outdoor method to dry our clothes (then we forget about them and the rain re-washes them, then they re-dry.)

One might assume that slapping a bear upside the head would be the most interesting and dangerous thing that could happen to someone’s family while camping. This is not the case. A few years later my sister and I were sitting in the largest pool watching my dad try to light a camp stove. He wasn’t having success, so he thought that if he took off the cap labeled “Safety Cap – Do Not Remove” it might light. He was right. It blew up, engulfing my dad in flame.

I have since determined that although his Yeti-like level of chest hair acted as an enflaming device, it also protected him from harm. My father’s hair coat protected him so effectively, in fact, that he didn’t even notice the flames rapidly spreading down his body.

“Dad,” I said calmly, “you’re on fire.” I am thankful that we happened to be in this beautiful place with a large natural spring, because my dad made a graceful swan dive into the pool and held himself underwater for a solid minute and a half.

As beautiful as nature and the hot springs are, they can be a pain. One year as we crossed the river on a makeshift bridge made of collapsed trees, our dog decided to cross in a hurry. Seeing that our dog was in danger of knocking me into the river below, my dad kicked her, sending our family pet flying off the bridge and into the river.

Camping outdoors provides many pleasures for us. We get to be bitten by bugs and sleep on rocks, and before long everyone smells like mud. My sister left her sneaker by the campfire to dry it out, which naturally resulted in a charred object that smelled of burned plastic and left my sister with only one shoe. Fortunately, I found a shoe some other camper had left, a size-14 men’s, but better than nothing.

I don’t know what happened to that other camper. He is probably missing and presumed dead. But for me, the most special part of camping isn’t the danger, the pain, the rashes, or the lack of toilet paper. It’s the food. Burned on the outside, raw on the inside – just the way I like it.

My dad sometimes gets tired of cooking the food, so once he ate some shrubs he found in the forest next to the hot springs. He spent the next three hours itching himself with a fork and making strange facial expressions. You just don’t get to see that kind of thing in the city.