Soaking Up the Past
The Jefferson Pools, in western Virginia, offers no modern luxuries—just the fabulous waters from two age-old springs.
By Suzanne Freeman
Inside the women's bathhouse, I am adrift on a pink polyethylene noodle, floating in 60,000 gallons of clear, warm mineral water. When a cool mist begins to fall from overhead, I open my eyes. It's almost an electrical sensation, this pleasurable shock of the cold meeting the warm. Around me, I see other bathers tilting their faces up to catch the mist. "Amazing," says a woman floating nearby. She has commandeered two noodles, one supporting her head, the other propped under her ankles, so she reclines regally outstretched, getting maximum impact from the falling droplets. "At most spas you'd have to pay big bucks to get this kind of effect," she adds.
A mist like this might ordinarily be spritzed in with some mechanical device to produce a form of bracing, costly hydrotherapy. But here at the Jefferson Pools in Warm Springs, Va., things are not so fancy. What we're enjoying is a chilly autumn rain that's falling right through the uncovered skylight and through the many chinks in the ramshackle roof. The spa has seen better days and doesn't mind letting you know it. There is a wonderful dignity in every worn board of this bathhouse, built in 1836 and hardly updated since. The floors sag unapologetically from years of dampness and wear. Bold gaps can be seen in the whitewashed walls. The spare, curtained dressing rooms that line the pool's circumference make no concession to modern frills—no complimentary vials of hand lotion, no hairdryers, no heat.
Next door is the even older, octagonal building that houses the men's pool. I'm not permitted to peek inside, but my husband assures me that the same air of splendid shabbiness prevails there as well. This place doesn't doll itself up for anybody, yet it remains remarkably confident of its own allure. And really, why shouldn't it? It has the only oomph it needs: magnificent water in abundance. The two bathhouses are fed by separate springs that each flow at more than 1,000 gallons per minute, constantly refreshing the pools. The water is naturally about 98 degrees Fahrenheit, slightly effervescent, and silky to the touch. The steam that drifts up from the pool on a cool morning smells both sweet and faintly sulfurous.
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