Hot springs people

An aquatic bestiary

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

Hot Springs People. If you know, you know.

While there aren’t any natural hot springs in our immediate region, drive a couple hours in any direction and you’ll find options. We’ve gone to Symes Hot Springs in Montana for years. While it isn’t “primitive,” a stay in Symes is like traveling back in time or, rather, far into the future after a serious calamity. This charmingly dilapidated place is just as entertaining as it is relaxing, and does somewhat resemble a post-apocalyptic fever dream. The facility is aged and unpretentious, with cheap rooms that remind you of staying overnight in some kind of old-timey health sanitarium. While they make occasional improvements, there’s nothing presumptuous about Symes. 

Sometimes the rooms have a bare bulb swinging from a chain in the middle of the room. Mismatched furniture and dressers clash with one another next to beds without night stands. Once, when asked to open the bathroom window to let in some fresh air, I grabbed the window yanked the entire thing out of the frame. I stood there, smiling and holding the window with plaster crumbling around me. 

“I love this place,” I said, carefully placing the window back into the hole.

I do love that place, perhaps like a parent would love a wayward child. There are no rich snobs at Symes. No influencers or swanky bachelorette parties. It’s a simple place that, frankly, attracts some of the weirdest people I’ve ever seen. It’s like watching a Tennessee Williams play on acid, but only if the playwright spent a decade in the boontoolies of Montana taking careful notes of the demographic. 

Here are some of the most iconic Hot Springs People that have caught my attention over the years.

The lonely ones

There’s always a person who posts up in the hot pool and waits for new soakers, like a snake clinging to the mouth of a bat cave at dusk. People arrive and step into the water, exhale that mighty sigh and, like clockwork, the lonely ones start in with their questions: “Where are you from?” “Isn’t this divine?” “What do you do for work?”

They talk, they question, they tell stories. The soakers eventually leave and are replaced by more, and the lonely ones pick up right where they left off.

Once, I watched a lonely one talking to a couple that gave each other the eye and stepped out to find a quieter pool, but the lonely one just kept right on talking to no one in particular for another five minutes until a new couple of soakers stepped into the hot water and wound up in the conversation mid-stream.

Motormouth soakers

Kissin’ cousins to the lonely ones, motormouth soakers are the ones who just can’t stop talking. From the instant you step into the pool, they assault you with observations, anecdotes, stories and nonsense. They have no ability to read body language, so it doesn’t matter if you shut your eyes, turn your back, wave your hands up in front of your face or downright glare at them, they’ll still tell you the lengthy story about that one time they got kicked out of a casino for telling the waitress, “If I were younger, you and I would have sex,” and then wondering why nobody could ever take a joke anymore. Or they’ll tell you a long, intricate story about their hiatal hernia until you inch away from them and run to the next pool.  

The Russians

In the dozens of times I’ve been to Symes over the years, I can’t remember a single trip where there wasn’t a group of Russians soaking in the pools. Most come from Spokane, where there is a Russian community, and since hot springs are ubiquitous in Russia, soaking has become a prevalent cultural hobby.

There is a bit of a surreal quality to soaking in a pool on a cold winter’s morn surrounded by a dozen hairy, gesticulating men speaking Russian on the plains of Montana. 

The drunks

As the sun goes down, the drunk soakers emerge like flowers that only bloom at night. They’re loud, boisterous and seemingly have no ability to moderate their volume — or behavior. They tell loud, inappropriate stories and the entire pool complex has to listen to them. They laugh and splash one another. They’re the main characters in their own play; we’re all just extras, apparently. Two wrinkly thumbs down.

The Bluetooth speaker people

Last time we went to Symes, my partner observed a new classification of soaker: the Bluetooth speaker people. I know these people exist in other aspects of life. Apparently it has almost become accepted to hear people blast horrible music in public spaces. Perhaps because they’re allergic to headphones or politeness, these people find nothing wrong with playing their speakers for everyone to hear. The offending couple at Symes was actually playing a religious broadcast full of fire and brimstone, which was emphasized by the actual smell of sulfur coming from the mineral water.

The damn kids

There are always kids running around the pools, squawking and shrieking as they splash from one pool to another. Their parents either check out completely, letting them run wild like goats in the yard, or shout curses and admonitions to them. Recently, we watched one family with some amusement as the mother kept badgering the kids to “be careful,” as they ignored her completely, running erratically around the pools. This was during the first real snowstorm of the year and there was ice everywhere. I couldn’t completely relax, seeing these small children out of the corner of my eye slipping and sliding all over the place. One woman, a salty local, said, “You all won’t be smiling when he busts his head open and bleeds in the pool so they have to close it down and clean it.” I don’t know whether she was more concerned with having to exit the pool early than having a 7-year-old child split open their head, but I agreed with her with a silent nod.

The PDA couple

Bow-chicka-bow-bow. Randy PDA couples at the hot springs are always a bit awkward. They sit, staring longingly into each other’s eyes, caressing each other and whispering sweet nothings into their wet, hard-boiled egg-smelling ears. They gently massage each other’s necks and cuddle, cooing words of love and foreplay. They wrap their legs around one another and smooch little kisses. It doesn’t exactly make me feel uncomfortable to see this, but I do feel like I should put a dollar bill in their bathing suits sometimes.

The heavy sighers

It’s almost involuntary to let out an exhalation of relief when first dipping into a hot pool at Symes, but the heavy sighers take it a step too far. Every few seconds, you’ll hear the emission of their deep sighs — bordering on moans — rubbing their faces loudly and shaking their heads like dogs after swimming in the lake. I feel a bit like Larry David being annoyed with another person’s sighs, but sometimes I just want to yell, Come on already, enough with the sighing. We get it, it’s hot water.” Those are called intrusive thoughts, though, so I’ll have to be content sitting and listening to their groans of pleasure.

The quiet normal ones

Finally, rare as a three-legged ballerina, there are the quiet, normal people who just come to the hot springs to soak and breathe. If they talk to one another, they whisper. They aren’t concerned with sharing their conversations with others. They don’t ask the people sitting next to them where they’re from, what they do or the airspeed of an unladen swallow is. They tell no stories about running from the police or injecting Adderall into their neck. They just chill out and soak. It’s a wonderful thing.

It’s truly another world at Symes Hot Springs. If you don’t come for the hot water, come to watch the parade of weirdos in mismatched bathrobes, trudging to and from their rooms to the hot pools, ready to tell you everything.

While we have you ...

... if you appreciate that access to the news, opinion, humor, entertainment and cultural reporting in the Sandpoint Reader is freely available in our print newspaper as well as here on our website, we have a favor to ask. The Reader is locally owned and free of the large corporate, big-money influence that affects so much of the media today. We're supported entirely by our valued advertisers and readers. We're committed to continued free access to our paper and our website here with NO PAYWALL - period. But of course, it does cost money to produce the Reader. If you're a reader who appreciates the value of an independent, local news source, we hope you'll consider a voluntary contribution. You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.

You can contribute at either Paypal or Patreon.

Contribute at Patreon Contribute at Paypal

You may also like...

Close [x]

Want to support independent local journalism?

The Sandpoint Reader is our town's local, independent weekly newspaper. "Independent" means that the Reader is locally owned, in a partnership between Publisher Ben Olson and Keokee Co. Publishing, the media company owned by Chris Bessler that also publishes Sandpoint Magazine and Sandpoint Online. Sandpoint Reader LLC is a completely independent business unit; no big newspaper group or corporate conglomerate or billionaire owner dictates our editorial policy. And we want the news, opinion and lifestyle stories we report to be freely available to all interested readers - so unlike many other newspapers and media websites, we have NO PAYWALL on our website. The Reader relies wholly on the support of our valued advertisers, as well as readers who voluntarily contribute. Want to ensure that local, independent journalism survives in our town? You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.