A CLEANSING BREATH
There comes a time in our lives when we need a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, when we just set aside a brief moment in our busy, chaotic lives to take a breath to refresh ourselves, we are simply inhaling the same set of assumptions and preconceived notions that have been polluting our minds and bodies for years. Sometimes it's necessary to search out new air to breathe.
Mary and I were sitting in a pool with six strangers who, like us, had traveled for hours to escape the noise and chaos of our daily lives to soak in a pool of 100-degree-plus water. In some regards, it was a scene that could have played out in any one of hundreds of resorts that dot the Colorado Rockies. But there were significant differences here. Instead of a fiberglass or concrete lined pool with artificially generated bubbles percolating in artificially heated water, this pool was lined with natural rocks, the heat and bubbles emanating from a natural hot spring. But that's not the only thing that made this experience different. We were all stark naked.
The conversation among this group of strangers was as natural and free-flowing as the water bubbling from the hot spring. We didn't talk about our nakedness. We made casual references to the light rain that was falling from the solidly overcast sky. We couldn't ignore the inclement weather, but we didn't dwell on it. Much like we couldn't ignore the dark clouds that were threatening the world outside of this isolated retreat. The lingering effects of a global pandemic. A brutal war in Ukraine. Political and social polarization. A potential economic meltdown. And a global environmental crisis that could very well eventually render all those other grave concerns pretty much irrelevant.
Interestingly, while these issues were undoubtedly on everyone's minds, the conversation drifted in a surprising direction. Toward optimism. With this group of aging baby boomers, a consensus gradually emerged that the source of our optimism was in the confidence and hope we shared in the character, intelligence, and creativity of the younger generation.
Mary and I were at Valley View Hot Springs to celebrate my birthday. My 70th. The beginning of a new decade. Time for a deep cleansing breath. Time to reflect. To strip away the assumptions and notions that have built up in my psyche over the past 70 years that I've spent on this planet. To seriously reconsider what society says a 70-year-old guy should be doing. What exactly do I want to do with this precious gift of a new decade? What do I need to do? While this is all serious stuff, I'm not one to take myself too seriously. So, why not start by spending at least part of my birthday in my birthday suit?
I must say, it was a bit disconcerting to see, immediately upon entering the property, a young couple casually unloading their car completely naked. But it didn't take long to settle into this new norm. The easiest way to start is by immersing oneself into one of the many pools where most, but not all, have opted out of the practice of wearing swimsuits. Once out of the pool, some continued to go about their business sans clothing (except for shoes); most others opted for bathrobes, swimsuit cover-ups, towels or sweats. The temperature that day was, after all, hovering in the low to mid-60s, with an almost constant drizzle or light rain.
This dramatic departure from an almost universal millennials-long cultural norm of wearing clothing is only possible because management has created and fosters a safe and respectful environment. Rules strictly forbid any public sexual, inappropriate, disrespectful, or threatening behavior. Offenders are assured that they will be swiftly escorted from the property. But the likelihood of that happening seemed as remote as the "civilized" communities that are many miles away from this isolated natural setting.
From octogenarians to young adults, to families with young children, people moved about comfortably, interacting with a smile and a nod or a few friendly words. The presence of almost every body shape and size reinforced the notion that the pursuit of the "perfect body" is a ridiculously meaningless and impossible pursuit. Indications of social strata that are often telegraphed by one's wardrobe are stripped away. So too are the accouterments associated with modern commercial development. This is no five-star resort. Facilities are rustic and minimal. Here, nature is king.
The hike to the Orient Mine that evening was my first physical test as a septuagenarian. Two miles uphill, from 8,900 feet to 9,300 feet above sea level. Not an easy climb for a 70-year-old. The mine, abandoned since 1931, is now the home of nearly 250,000 migratory bats.
The sight and sound of thousands upon thousands of bats flying out of the mine at dusk for their nighttime feeding frenzy is a truly awesome spectacle. The hike also offers spectacular vistas of the San Luis Valley, stretching for more than a hundred miles to the south. That evening, the low, thick canopy of clouds muted the view somewhat, though it was still an impressive sight.
As we made our final steep ascent toward the mine, a sign asked us to respect a quiet zone so as not to disturb the bats. Mary and I, along with five other people, waited patiently for the mass exodus. The silence was broken only by the gentle patter of raindrops on the hood of my raincoat. I took in the vastness of the scene as it gradually grew darker and darker. Mary counted five bats leaving the cave. The other quarter-million apparently had the good sense to stay in out of the rain. I suspect a number of them gazed down at this collection of crazy humans with amusement.
We finally made our way gingerly down the steep trail, flashlights splashing puddles of light on the loose rocks and gravel underfoot. Although we were disappointed to have not witnessed the dramatic spectacle, our hike was not a total loss. The grandeur of the setting was indeed impressive, even in the rain; the vulnerability of our human presence in it was humbling. I gradually came to accept the fact that my notion of what constitutes an "ideal experience" ... or an "ideal life" ... is more often than not, pure fantasy. Gratitude for all the special gifts that life does give us is reward enough.
The next morning, after taking a final soak in a few of the pools, we went about the task of packing our things for departure. Fully dressed in preparation for our return to civilization, I found it ironic that I now felt more chilled and less comfortable than I had just moments before.
There's a reason why meditation generally begins and ends with a deep cleansing breath. It helps focus and center the mind and creates a gentle transition in and out of the busy-ness and stresses of our everyday world. As we made our way through the gate and onto the gravel road taking us away from Valley View Hot Springs, I felt like I was releasing a deep, 24-hour cleansing breath that had transported me momentarily into a more natural and real world, one that allowed me to start considering and welcoming a much broader range of possibilities.
Copyright 2022 Tom Dudzinski