It was a warm and grey Las Vegas morning.
The customary dryness in the air was replaced with an unusual humidity. Me, Mike and our friend Josh had decided to take a break from rock climbing for the day and go searching for a hot spring we’d heard about near the Hoover Dam. Supposedly a bunch of miners had blown a hole in the wall decades ago in search of some precious earthy substance, when they eventually struck hot water. This human made hot spring was a literal hole in the wall, but the views looked excellent and we thought it might be an adventure.
With only a vague understanding of where it was, and more enthusiasm than was necessary, we parked our vehicles on the side of the road and began hiking out to the hot spring.
According to the online description, there would be a few smaller and cooler hot springs leading up to our final destination hot spring. My friend Josh called these ‘nerd gates’.
“You know, because those are the stops where all the nerds get off.” He smiled as he vaulted over a sandstone boulder and turned around to spot my same maneuver.
“Things like hills, rivers, difficult approaches, poison oak, lesser hot springs, whatever. Those are all nerd gates. So by the time you arrive at the really hard to reach places, all the nerds have already stopped or turned back.”
Mike laughed at this thought as he slid down a short sandstone boulder to a rocky beach below.
“I’m not saying we’re not nerds too, “ Josh continued. “Sometimes you make it to your final destination, and sometimes you’re the nerd.”
I laughed again at the thought and kept walking through the narrow water polished gully we were hiking through. “Alright, well let’s not be nerds then!”
The three of us talked and moved over the semi-treacherous terrain easily. We were hiking and scrambling through a narrow slot canyon that periodically opened up into a wide sandy wash. Every so often there were blueish green pools of shallow warm steaming water. Often, large sandy boulders choked the throat of the canyon and we had to scramble up and over. A thin grey stream snaked between our boots and along the canyon floor, no wider than a bathtub at its most substantial. When walking past some of people sitting in the turquoise blue pools Josh turned to me and mouthed the words, ‘nerds’ exaggeratedly behind his hand. Mike and I laughed.
“In all seriousness though, I don’t mean anything negative by it.” Josh continued as we came up to the first actual river we’d seen all day.
“These people are living their lives and enjoying the outdoors just as much as we are.” He walked confidently to a path of boulders through the river and hopped up to the first one, balancing on one leg. He made the transition from one rock to the next with grace and ease, looking more like a dancer than a scruffy 24 year old. Josh is a very good climber, and his comfort moving over rocks is beautiful to watch.
I followed him, a bit less sure footed and hopped across, turning around at the very end to watch Mike do the same.
“They have every right to be out here in this space, just like us.” Josh looked uncharacteristically serious, but I nodded in agreement.
The river thickened as we walked along it, until it flowed down into the Colorado. We stopped at the beach and looked around. There were people, just like us, on the beach. They were standing around looking out at the Colorado, walking in small circles, or were sitting with their toes in the water and chatting with friends and family. There were over excited kids in light up sneakers, awkward teenage girls with braces, and families in matching khaki shorts and baseball caps. Most of the younger kids had removed their shoes or shirts and were splashing around in the shallow river. The general feeling from the group was that we had all been headed for the same place, but were now stopped by the immovable force known as the Colorado River.
Funny thing about dams. They don’t always release the same amount of water each day. The beach we were looking at seemed to curve off to the left, but the normally passable space was waist deep in the Colorado. To our left, the canyon wall curved on and then opened up to a platform about 15 feet above the beach.
We stared up at it, then at each other, then back up at it.
“What do you want to bet we could climb that?” Mike had his arms crossed and looked over at me and Josh.
Josh smiled and said, “Nerd gate number one.”
The climbing was easy. If I’d had to give it an official climbing grade, I would have said somewhere between 5.5 and 5.6. It was also only about 15 feet above the gently swirling brown water. If we had fallen (very unlikely) we would have gotten wet, but not hurt.
None of us fell and we found ourselves on a rocky and slightly slanted hillside. There was a clear footpath leading along the side of the hill and out onto a farther beach up river.
Mike and Josh high-fived and grinned back at me.
“Let’s do this!”
We were hiking up river, towards the Hoover Dam. On our right, the massive, slow moving Colorado was making its powerful way along the river bank and down into the canyon that would eventually meet up with the sea in Baja California.
The path we were on dipped up and down. It would touch into small bays where freezing cold water met with boiling hot water running directly out of the rocks, and then pass up again onto slippery wet mud and dry yellow grasses. At one of these junctions we came across two girls and one boy sitting and drinking beer in the shallows. There was a mass of orange, green and black algae dripping with steaming water from a cave behind them. The boiling water running out of the cave bubbled up and met with the icy cold Colorado. The only comfortable place to sit was right where the two temperatures met.
Mike, Josh and I smiled and gave conversational ‘hello’s and ‘how are you doing’s. The smooth dark blue stones underfoot burned the palms of our feet as we passed by. The three barely looked up, or acknowledged us at all.
At this juncture we had to wade thigh deep into the freezing cold water, scramble up onto a ledge, and do a semi-treacherous traverse along the far end of this particular beach. Again, the climbing was no harder than 5.6, but it was definitely rock climbing.
We left the silent thruple behind as we wiped our muddy hands on our pants and took in the next challenge ahead.
“I guess that makes nerd gate number 2.” I said as we continued hiking on the increasingly tiny footpath.
We all had a very short chuckle at that thought, which was almost instantly interrupted by the view.
We had hiked up a short ways and were now standing on a cliffside with a sheer drop down to the blueish black water below. The footpath ended on our left and went up to a sheer cliff face that even with all of our climbing equipment and ropes on hand, none of us would have climbed. Ahead and to our right was the end of our walk. The Colorado river stretched out in front of us for about a quarter mile. On the other side of this stretch of water, we saw another angled beach and small black hole in the rock wall. There was our hot spring!
“Dangit.” I said, coming up short next to Mike.
This was it. This was the final nerd gate. And boy was it a doozy.
In order for us to continue we would have to leave our clothes, shoes, food and extra water in the packs on the hill, climb down to the edge of the water, and then swim a quarter mile up river in the freezing cold water.
“Huh.” Mike said.
“Hmmm.” Agreed Josh.
“Well…” I trailed off.
We stared out for a long minute. Then I said, “We could always try to hitch hike a boat?”
Before either of them had a chance to roll their eyes at me I waved and shouted at one of the white speed boats racing past us down the river.
“Hey!” I shouted and waved my arms.
“HEY!” Mikes loud voice joined mine and one of the boats slowed and turned towards us.
“It’s working!” I laughed and kept waving my arms.
A couple in a speed boat cruised up to our little cliff and looked up at us.
“Hey!” I shouted. “We’re trying to get to a hot spring across this part of the river! Do you think you could give us a ride?”
The woman sitting in the front of the boat smiled and shouted back up, “Sure! Get on in!”
Mike, Josh and I scrambled down to the bottom of the cliff and the guy driving the boat steered it as close as he could to the edge. Mike, the only one of us who had any boat experience, stood in the shallows and grabbed the lip of the boat as Josh and I jumped in. Mike kicked off the sandy shoreline and hopped in.
We turned to the drivers of this little speed boat and thanked them for picking us up. The man driving did not smile, but he didn’t really frown either. His girlfriend did most of the talking and she was great. She had straight black hair cut to her shoulders and was wearing large round black sunglasses, the kind I imagine Beyonce is wearing at all times.
At this point Mike and Josh and I had taken our clothes off and were sitting in our underwear, certain we would have to swim back to our little cliff once the nice couple left. We were willing to brave the cold swim, just as long as we could warm up in the hot spring first. However, once we’d docked the boat on the sandy shoreline, the couple tied up the boat and were eager to hike up the hill as well. They wanted to come to the hot spring too.
Making the final steps up to the entrance to the spring was triumphant.
We stood at the mouth of the cave and stared in to a deep cavern that seemed to go on forever into darkness. Hot water sprang up out of some distant stream and flowed towards us and past our bare feet. I took a step forward into the cave, the warm water lapping against my calves. The air inside the cave was hot and wet, like the mouth of a giant creature. I felt droplets of water collect on the tips of my eyelashes and a small rivulet of water trickled down between my shoulder blades. I turned to Mike, he was shirtless and I could see droplets of water collecting on the back of his neck and running down his back.
“We made it.” I said aloud and turned to high five Mike and Josh.
They laughed and high fived me. All three of us stepped forward into the cave where there was still light, and sat down in the warm, luxurious water.
“See?” Josh said as he lowered himself slowly into the pool. “This means we’re not nerds.”
Mike sat down next to me on the soft algae covered stones and agreed. We were all trying not to laugh too hard at the inside joke in front of strangers. They weren’t nerds either it seemed.
The three of us sat for a moment in the deepest part of the pool, right at the mouth of the cave, but curiosity got the most of him and Josh wanted to see how deep the cave was.
“It’s dark and scary and I need to know where it ends.” He grabbed one of our headlamps and stood up to walk to the back. Mike stood up too, glad someone wanted to keep going. I followed, nervous in spite of myself. The pitch blackness and the closeness of the walls gave me the creeps.
The three of us and the couple splashed quietly through the dark cave. The cave was only about 5 and a half feet tall, and almost that wide as well. The two men in front of me had to hunch over slightly. By the light of the headlamps I could see that decades of mineral deposits in the water dripping down from the ceiling had made the walls smooth and white. It got hotter and hotter as we walked deeper and deeper into the long thin cave. The water we were standing in was hot now, and would have been too hot to hang out in for long. The steam was denser, and the claustrophobic feeling more intense. I closed my eyes and imagined for a moment that I was in the throat of a giant dragon, walking toward its fiery belly.
Mike stopped suddenly and I walked right into him, my closed eyes and nose colliding with his broad back.
“Ooph.” I said, rubbing my nose.
He turned around, slightly surprised to see me there and smiled. “Found it. Thats the end.” He pointed his headlamp forward and I saw that he was right. The tunnel ended as abruptly as it had started.
All five of us were standing in a small cave in the side of a mountain, ankle deep in hot water, staring at a bubbling and steaming spring. It was slightly underwhelming. The bubbling water was too hot to touch at the source, and even my feet were beginning to get uncomfortable.
“Well, thats that!” Josh turned around again and walked back towards the mouth of the cave.
“Yep.” Affirmed Mike.
The couple nodded in agreement and we all turned around.
We walked out of the cave and back towards the sunlight, I felt the slight pressure of claustrophobia release itself from my neck.
All five of us gathered around the warm pool at the entrance and did what everyone does when they get to a hot spring; hang out and shoot the shit. The warm water soothed my muscles, the steam cleared my pores, we drank water from our packs and chatted with these locals about their lives in Nevada and our lives on the road.
I thought about the so-called ‘nerd gates’ we had encountered. There had been other hot springs, more challenging hikes, a river, a short but significant rock climb, more hiking, more hot springs, more wading through icy water, more climbing, and then the final challenge: the swim/boat across impassable water.
I looked at the couple in the tub with us. These two city dwellers couldn’t have made it through all the hiking and climbing, they were definitely in this category of ‘nerds’ we were so casually throwing around. But they were still here. We needed them to get here just as much as they needed us. We had the information and the determination, they had the means to make it happen. Sure, Mike and Josh and I could have made the swim.
But to reach out and ask for help was all it took. We smiled and waved and made ourselves vulnerable for a brief moment, and then all of this could be shared. This beautiful, strange hot spring could be enjoyed by both the nerds and the… well, whatever that made us today.
When it was time to go, it was time to go. We were five pink, steaming, slightly disoriented humans blinking into the bright afternoon sun.
The couple from Nevada gave us a ride back to our little cliff and we began to mosey our way back to the vans. We chatted amongst ourselves and reflected on how cool that little adventure was, but for a lot of the walk I was lost in thought. I thought about nature access, and I thought about what it means to protect a natural space. Access to natural spaces means anyone can get in, which often means anyone can destroy it. Carving your name into tree stumps, littering, making rouge fires… there is a seemingly endless list of ways people can casually destroy nature.
But at the same time, I believe in universal access to wild spaces. I strongly believe that nature connection is essential to human happiness. The answers to all of our problems can be found out here in a world that has solved all of them and more in a millennia of experimentation.
How do we create universal access to places with out absolutely destroying them?
I think about Yosemite and the circus it’s become. People are killing themselves left and right out there just because they have no understanding of the natural laws and boundaries of our world. Getting drunk on cliff tops, taking selfies on the edge of waterfalls, bringing no water on a hike in the dead of summer. Trash piles up and if you walk a few feet into the bushes on any of the hikes you can find human waste scattered like horrible easter eggs.
I heard someone say that these places are getting ‘loved to death’.
That phrase twists my gut, evoking complicated emotions. I want this experience for everyone. I want these spaces to stay pristine. The paradox hurts my head.
Mike, Josh and I have made it back to the parking lot. We hug and say our goodbyes. As I stand in the stairwell of my vans sliding door I look out over the highway and see the sun setting. The orange and pink skyline illuminates this tiny parking lot.
You can’t care for these places unless you’ve experienced them. You can’t love this scrappy patch of dirt until you’ve seen this sunset paint the red soil pink.
This paradox between access and conservation isn’t something I can fix. We are all responsible for keeping these natural spaces pristine. And we are all responsible for nature connection. Picking up trash and scrubbing graffiti on your weekends is one thing, but bringing your friends and family into nature and pushing their bare feet into soft tender sand is another.
The sky is darkening while Mike and I prepare to leave this place.
I take one last look at the horizon, and shut the sliding door.
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