A Cool Day at Hot Springs

A dip into the restorative mineral waters of our neighbor to the east

It's just been a few minutes and already I feel a healthy lift, a wholesome calm setting in, my heart getting stronger, toxins slipping away.

And we're still 30 minutes away from the hot springs. But Wade and I, a 40-something couple free from teens and mowing and fretting for a day, have exited Interstate 40 onto U.S. 70, where the air is clear and bold.

It's a dabble-and-dream sort of drive, gazing at clean little buildings with lots of river stones on the walls and in the landscapes, passing geraniums and trailers with ripped upholstered furniture out front, an American Legion post that takes up a whole city block, and a little brick corner office advertising the Newport Plain Talk, prize-winning since 1900.

It's hard to imagine all this small-town freshness and gorgeous foothill greenery could have anything to do with the sordid Del Rio cockfighting ring that was busted and boarded up in 2005, but we pass the turnoff for that, too, on this 72-mile stretch between Knoxville and Hot Springs, N.C. Some more winding, breathing deep, watching, and we arrive.

We're at the junction of the Appal-achian Trail and the French Broad River in a valley surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Pisgah National Forest. Native Americans first discovered the 100-degree mineral waters that rise naturally from the warm spring here, and off and on, the place has been a mecca for health-seeking travelers since the American Revolution.

We're here for the by-the-hour tubs, part of the larger Hot Springs Resort and Spa built in 1991 on the site of the opulent and prosperous bath house that drew tourists to Hot Springs at the turn of the 20th century. Our plan is for a nice Sunday morning soak before the rest of the world wakes up and catches on.

It works. Now I am feeling like my cat, asleep across the top of my office chair, dangling limbs, languid, warm, rejuvenating. I am still drawing strength from the minerals of the hot, swirling water and the clear sky and the river rolling along just below the enclosed deck—and we've been out of the whirlpool for hours.

We'd checked in with a fellow who strongly recommended reservations next time. We'd be the first this day, but for each new set of soakers they empty and replenish the tub, then set the silky water to whirling. Wade started to ask him about a time he'd come through there in the early '90s. "Seems like you could just go dip in the water without paying anything, isn't that right?" he asked.

"Sure," the guy says. "Course it was against the law."

The spa attendant for our ultra-legal dip was a young lady with auburn braids. She led us and our suits and our own beach towels out the door and through the yard of the old bath house site with its crumbling bricks and random clumps of iris and old-fashioned roses to a little white wooden changing room (men and women separate).

She answered that awkward question about people wearing suits or no, looked me right in the eye. "It's up to your comfort level," she'd said. "No one can really see you. We don't really look."

She didn't really look and neither did anyone else as we spent our splendid hour soaking, just us two. Then, three steps ahead of a thunderstorm, we packed up, took an old bath-house brick chip from the dirt pile out front and a couple of plastic Gatorade bottles of warm mineral water from the fountain for good luck and went to while away the rest of Sunday.

We'd already checked out the campground, unassuming and clean with little A-frame cabins on stilts for those not ready to rough it. (Luxurious suites are another possibility; same owners.) We'd taken a walk in the cool woods, skipped some rocks.

If it was a little warmer, we could have gone whitewater rafting after our tub time, or followed a few hikers who stop in Hot Springs on their way along the Appalachian Trail for a leg of the journey.

If we were tired and muscle-bound from outdoor adventure, we could have unwound with a botanical mud wrap, or salt-glow exfoliation. These people may not have a stoplight, but they are up on their spa services.

But we were us, not too ambitious, glad to be still or meander, so we ate a superb brunch at the Bridge Street Cafe & Inn involving sweet potato home fries, free-trade coffee, and a live jazz singer, and checked out a store where you can buy expensive hiking sandals, a harmonica, and organic milk.

And then it was time to go home.

On the drive back, I realized I had never given a second thought to the alleged health benefits of the spring water, though the brochure states that the minerals can correct anemia (bicarbonate of iron), help the nerves (chloride of potassium), and benefit tooth and bone structure (sulphate of lime, bicarbonate of lime). Patrons from more than 200 years ago have written convincing testimonials to the healing powers and you can read copies right on the campground bulletin board.

Me, I'd come here knowing a relaxing dip and a day out of town could only help my mental health, and that was plenty. But now I was noticing my thumb, left hand. I'd slammed it in a kitchen drawer, and one week later was still wearing a foam finger brace for the swelling caused by seriously smarting tissue damage.

Only... not now. Five hours after the soak, this thumb that was bulbous at 8 a.m. didn't ache, even when I flexed it at the joint. Oh, the base of the nail was still a beautiful midnight blue, but the tip of my thumb was a normal size, the foam on the brace loose, not chafing the skin because the skin wasn't swollen.

Wait, give me that brochure. Yep. "Benefits muscle activity" (sulphate of magnesia) and "protects tissue" (chloride of sodium, phosphate of sodium, bicarbonate of ammonia).

Well, then, that makes sense. Or at least a good story.

Seven Things That Amused Us From Here to Hot Springs, N.C.

1. The Italianate sconces, travertine bathroom tiles, and the company name spelled out in mosaic on outside wall of the McDonald's exit 417 on I-40.

2. Running a red light in front of Brock's Open Air Market in Newport without getting a ticket—no police, no camera.

3. The Solid Rock Full Gospel Church on U.S. 70 that's built of red brick and white clapboard.

4. The two ambassador dogs, a German Shepherd mix around town, and a boxer mix at the campground—and the hiker's Samoyed that was carrying its own supplies in a saddle-style nylon pack.

5. When the manager at the spring spa, who'd asked us to come back in an hour when they'd be open, was behind us in line at the town's Dollar General 30 minutes later.

6. The spruce and holly growing along the resort entry road that looked like it belonged to Paul Bunyan, yards away from a full-size maple growing out of a boulder.

7. The sign in town marking where the Appalachian Trail crossed a street, with equal billing for the school bus and pedestrian cross walk signs.

For more information: www.hotspringsnc.org