Getting Over My Cleansing Obsession in the Desert
Feeling hemmed in and obsessed with purging the toxins in her life, the author heads to the hot springs of the Chihuahuan Desert
Whenever I’m feeling down in the mouth, I get in my car. For the seven years I lived in central Texas, I drove the spaghetti-bowl highways or the ranch roads of the Hill Country. I listened to bad country radio. But if I really needed to get out, to just go, I’d drive west until I was in the desert.
In the late spring of 2015, I had to get out of the house. I felt allergic to everything in Austin: the pollen and dust, the swarms of bugs, my cats, their fleas, my agoraphobic neighbor, my friends. When the class I was scheduled to teach was canceled three days before summer term began, I took it as augury and drove west by myself for eight hours into the Chihuahuan Desert. It wasn’t going to be a long trip, a few days in Marfa on the way to the Chinati Hot Springs, where I could only afford to stay a day.
I’m not entirely sure when it happened, but sometime in the early 2010s, I found myself feeling contaminated, overrun by a toxic world. Austin’s population was swelling from half a million to two million people, most of them tech-company transplants; oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster was spurting into the Gulf; and I seemed to be floating in a perpetual cedar-fevered heat wave. If I had to identify the point where my interest in cleansing turned obsessive, I’d say it was around the time of the turmeric. For a week or so that April, I drank so much turmeric—turmeric tea, turmeric smoothies—that it dyed my teeth and tongue and countertops bright yellow. One night I spread it all over my face, a homemade turmeric mask that I found on the internet, and my skin was stained yellow after I washed it off, and my towels and pillowcases and shirt and sink were all left the color of highlighters. My face in the mirror the next morning was still yellow. Turmeric is supposed to be one of those miracle substances. Anti-inflammatory, anticancer, anti-everything.
The desert and the hot springs called to me. They sounded like just the cure for what ailed me, physiological and otherwise.
About 100 miles outside Austin, I realized I had forgotten ice for my cooler. It was 95 degrees. I also needed more water, gallons of it, considering how few places there are to stop on I-10. I pulled into a gas station in Segovia, a Valero that advertised with red stickers on both sides of every surface: “Bakery Inside.” The whole place was piled with pastries.
I got my water, my ice. I loaded everything into the cooler. As I slammed the trunk shut, I knew already what I’d done: my keys were in the trunk.
So was my phone.
I went back inside the gas station. The attendant, a kid, let me stand behind the counter with him while he rang up customers who paid zero attention to me. I was a sweaty woman in cutoffs dialing the numbers of every locksmith in the county from a phone book. When the locksmith was “on my way in 45 minutes,” I abandoned my resolve and immediately bought a pack of cigarettes, a Drumstick ice cream cone, and a few scratch-off lottery tickets for company. I was irritated, and one of these things had to be my solace. The attendant told me that everyone has done this at least once, locked their keys in the car, which is baldly untrue.
In the shade of a picnic table outside, I watched baby birds nesting in the halogen light posts. I wrote “so far this trip = not as relaxing as hoped” in a small notebook I found in my purse. Eighty-five dollars later, around 4 P.M., I was back on the road.
I got to Marfa after dark. Everything was closed, though the town’s main street looks that way even when everything is open, due to the lasting vision of minimalist artist Donald Judd, who bought half the buildings on the strip and whited out all the windows. Behind some of the blank windows lurk Warhols. I pulled into a dirt parking lot at the El Cosmico hotel and campground and used a noisy wagon to wheel my bags and a stack of books through the otherwise soundless night to my tent. Emily Dickinson’s collected poems, Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces. Marcel Proust and Dorothea Lasky. I dropped my belongings and grabbed a red towel and my bath salts, went directly to the outdoor bathroom, and took a bath staring up at cloudless purple sky. I waited for my mind to catch up with my body, to realize it was no longer hurtling forward at 80, 85, 90 miles an hour. I tried to slow down.
I got my water, my ice. I loaded everything into the cooler. As I slammed the trunk shut, I knew already what I’d done: my keys were in the trunk. So was my phone.
On the edge of Marfa, El Cosmico is a pristine desert getaway that just barely saves itself from cuteness with the absolute apathy of its staff. For the middle of nowhere, it was crowded with road-trippers. I was staying in what’s called a safari tent, which could also be called glamping. It would have been more glamorous if the beautiful white canvas tent didn’t smell like mildew.
I spent two days munching on Cheetos followed by two nights cooking elaborate vegetarian meals (which, I think, balanced out) in the outdoor kitchen, accompanied by stray cats who ate my tempeh when I wasn’t looking. I was alone, and I could eat what I wanted, when I wanted. This is a freedom that solitude awards me. Sometimes Twizzlers are detoxifying in their own way.
El Cosmico was lovely, and it was dusty. When I arrived at my tent, my sandals left four dust footprints across the wood floor. I promptly put my shoes outside, though it soon became clear that there was no contending with this dust. I woke up the first morning to find a thin layer of grit on the copy of Proust I fell asleep reading, and I could feel sand between my teeth.
Sweating in a hammock, I thought of the time I’d just moved into my 1927 duplex in Austin and decided to scrub its two old southern porches. I started by sweeping away the dust and cobwebs with a broom. I came back with a wet rag and some cleaning spray. Soon it became clear that I would need a bucket, because my rag turned black almost instantly.
I tell this story to introduce the fact that I found myself trying to clean the outside. And the moment I realized this, I started to wonder: What, exactly, was so dirty? I’ve never felt the need to clean the rest of the outside—the lawn, the fence, the sidewalk, the driveway, trees, grass. Not once. Where does it stop? Where can it stop? This is another way of asking that question ecologists always bring up about throwing things away: What is “away”? There is no away, they intone. Where did I plan to put all this dirt, where do we plan to put all our toxins once we’ve released them from our bodies and things and spaces and cordoned off everything that touches us from further contamination? I felt like Danny Tanner, vacuuming his vacuum cleaner.
Cleaning is a way to keep things under control. The power of dirt, the chaos of clutter, is, for many people, the source of a basic fear that governs behavior. At some point it occurred to me that I may have left town simply to get away from my stuff. My house and its many reminders of my identity, my past selves. My messes.
My first hot day in Marfa, every single visitor wound up at Balmorhea, a swimming hole a short drive away. Its sign boasts that it’s “the world’s largest natural spring fed swimming pool.” While I lounged in the pool on several $5 Styrofoam noodles, I heard each new person show up at water’s edge and ask if this was the natural spring. Seeing the concrete ledges, they wanted to know what parts of it were, in fact, natural. The woman who sold me the noodles assured every visitor that the spring’s bottom would be “actual earth.” Now, before getting in, they wanted to make sure this earth was also natural.
As I paddled along, I was beginning to realize that Marfa, this tiny nowhere town, was still too busy, too full for me. I was overcome by the desire to get further out.
For the rest of the afternoon, I escaped the sun and the heat of my tent to bask in the air-conditioning of the Marfa public library. In a book called Taking the Waters in Texas, I read, “Today’s resorts are most associated with leisure and recreation. The term, however, also implies a place where one turns for help, a final solution. One ‘resorted’ to the waters when all else failed.” As I drove the stretch of Highway 67 to Chinati Hot Springs, I wondered what I was trying to solve, why I had resorted to this.
I drove two and a half hours toward the Mexican border from Marfa to a bright green valley carved in rock between mountain ranges, home to the mineral waters of Chinati Hot Springs. No other cars passed me on the drive. Eventually, I was on a rocky gravel road with no signs or lines, and I stayed on this road for over an hour. My phone had no signal, I had no map to check. I had nothing to do but keep driving. It occurred to me, in my semidelirium—and I semideliriously recorded it as a voice memo into my phone, which I could find no trace of later—that this is what the desert helps me remember: I am at once completely alone, completely vulnerable to this waterless terrain, and totally empowered, sufficient within it. I have several gallon jugs of water, I have air-conditioning. I am an anomaly.
Finally, spotting a hand-painted tile sign from some other era marked with an arrow, I pulled through the open gate and parked my car. When I walked into the office, Mattie, the caretaker, asked me if I had come by myself. “You didn’t even bring a dog?” she said, looking baffled. I smiled broadly. Already my feelings were swelling in the air out there, making me suddenly certain I’d been headed there all my life.
Cleaning is a way to keep things under control. The power of dirt, the chaos of clutter, is, for many people, the source of a basic fear that governs behavior.
The very first thing I did was take a dip in the hilltop pool, which used to be a cabin but is now flooded with 22,000-year-old water, water that has never emerged from the ground to be recharged, that was surfacing for the first time as I floated in it. I soaked beside Tony, who Mattie said had been living in the pool all day. We were the only people out there—the springs still require a pilgrimage only a few of us choose to make. The isolation made the place feel even more special, cleansing, soul reviving. Later in the evening we were joined at the campfire by John, a living, breathing, swearing cowboy who’d been out on the range for 25 days and needed to sleep in a bed. John said that the water, which I learned is chock-full of lithium, had saved his life: “If it wasn’t for that water, me and Charlie woulda shot each other.”
Tony took me for a drive in his truck to the Pinto Canyon road. As I rode through the valley, along the ridge, the sun set behind us, and everything looked completely different by the minute. Quickly, it became clear how completely alone we were. A thunderhead sat on the horizon, behind mountains, but never moved closer or further away. Mexico was visible at all times. The fires whose smoke I had breathed in Austin the year before had burned out here, all along the border. Mattie told me you could see them from the pool.
In the desert, the air sucks all the moisture from your body. I barely felt myself sweating in the hundred-degree day, with the sun more powerful than any I’d previously experienced. Sunscreen has zero effect. The only protections are long sleeves, long pants, large hats, and shade. Everything evaporates instantly. Skin has no way to resist this environment. It’s too soft and too moist to withstand, so it quickly dries, hardens, thickens. There is something deeply satisfying to me about this discomfort, this feeling of being sucked dry by the very air.
The water at Chinati felt oddly charged. I took my first hot bath before bed, around 12:30, under the stars in my own private horse trough fed by the hot springs. All my skin tingled.
At the hot springs, I did nothing. I decided to stay an extra night, unplanned. I didn’t have to worry about whether or not my debit card would support this decision until checkout. I was so far from the push and pull of my daily life that I forgot to call Adeena, who was watching my cats. When I reached her that evening, she was panicked. She had called El Cosmico and found out I had checked out yesterday, then she called the hot springs but no one answered. I told her on the phone that everything just fell away. That I forgot. I spent an entire day moving from one tub to the next, up and down the hill. I read and wrote some notes, but mostly I stood or sat in water that is heated geothermally, a heat that is old and constant. I floated the way Tony taught me, with my heels hooked to the edge of the pool, my body utterly still, my eyes closed, keeping my nostrils above water by breathing in a very shallow range, my body rising above the surface as I inhaled, sinking to the tip of my nose as I exhaled. I could not remember the last time I did this little. I took the waters. I allowed them to permeate my skin, my sunburn, my bee stings and bug bites. I soaked. Marinated, even. Incubated. In my head I tried to describe the perfect temperature of this water. All I could come up with is that it felt like submerging my body in my body.
I kept coming back to the description I’d heard in a yoga class of tapas, deep meditation achieved through asceticism or hermitism or just plain isolation. Its Sanskrit root is the word for heat; Iyengar interprets it as “to blaze, burn, shine, suffer pain or consume by heat. It therefore means a burning effort under all circumstances to achieve a definite goal in life. It involves purification, self-discipline and austerity.” Like the Greek root for pure, pyr/pur, which means fire, it corresponds to the earliest, most fundamental way to cleanse: heat. The way the teacher described it, tapas can be any kind of suffering that leads to a release, a relinquishing, a ridding of residues that are referred to in yoga classes as all that which does not serve you—be it physical pain or irritation; emotions like anger, fear, or sadness; or toxic buildup from an unclean diet or lifestyle. Tapas is the burning you feel in your muscles, the discomfort of sitting still with your own thoughts and feelings, and if you endure it, you will be relieved of what ails you. You can burn yourself clean. Dry yourself out. In this way, yoga—but any especially thoughtful exercise, really—can be seen as asceticism turned inward. The actionlessness of tapas is one of the most important aspects.
Cleansing is an unfolding, an allowing to unfold. To become clean is to slip into a state of stillness, actionlessness.
Detoxification of all kinds is a framing process, a ritual with a clear beginning and end, a sense of completeness to the removal, the desire for which derives from our basic fear of indefinite, indeterminate states, like dirty dishes. Cleansing, then, is spending time in this in between, abiding through the transition. Submerging yourself in it to await transformation or rebooting. It was only weeks after my trip that I could look back and see myself in the murk and mire of major change, within which—within the desert—I never know how close or far I am from the edge until I reach it.
Back from the springs the following week, drinking detox tea I’d bought in Marfa, anise and cardamom, while the Roomba hummed and vacuumed my three-room house in incomprehensible patterns, I still thought about the water. I missed it intensely. I brought as much as I could back home with me, to give to friends as a cure-all. They laughed with me about the lithium content that keeps everyone out there so happy, but I wasn’t kidding. I went to McCoy’s Building Supply and bought myself a steel horse trough, what would amount to a failed attempt to recreate the springs in my backyard. It soon became a mosquito habitat. Like before, I busied myself with cures and remedies and destinations and projects, but I was starting to learn that I really just needed to sit still.
Cleansing is an unfolding, an allowing to unfold. To become clean is to slip into a state of stillness, actionlessness. I was rubbing handfuls of aloe all over my body. I was trying to prevent scarring. I tried to salve my heart through my very skin. Do we pray in times of need because it, too, takes us out of the realm of swift, decisive action and reaction, requires that we stay in one place for a moment, find stillness?
The hot springs are far from everything. The nearest store is a gas station at least an hour’s drive away. There’s no cell-phone service, no internet. I’ve never been someplace so isolated. When I called to book my stay, I informed Dianna, the owner, that I’d be coming alone. I asked if I should be worried about safety. “Oh honey,” she said, “not out here.” We allow ourselves to forget this simple fact, that our bodies are susceptible to everything that surrounds them, but such awareness is always available in moments of stillness. In removal, pause, there is time for heat deep below the surface to remake what’s already there.