One of the most interesting things we’ve ever experienced on our RV adventures so far was the Buckstaff Bathhouse in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
We were staying at Catherine’s Landing RV park, just 10 minutes away from Bathhouse Row. We left the park around 1:15pm, found street parking and arrived promptly at the Buckstaff by 1:30PM.
There are no reservations at the Buckstaff; it is first come, first served. They close for the lunch hour and reopen at 1:30PM, so we wanted to be first in line. We weren’t. We were about fourth in line even though the doors had just opened, but the short wait allowed us to take in the lobby which is grand. Immediately upon arrival, you feel like you’ve stepped back in time to the golden age of public bathing.
A vintage elevator with an iron gate whisks the ladies upstairs to their bathing area from the lobby. I watched as Brittany took off behind the closed door and took a snapshot in my mind of the moment. She had a look of wonder on her face already.
Neither of us had any idea what we were in for.
Keep in mind, what you are about to read costs a total of $33.00 per person.
All of it.
Bathing at the Buckstaff: Men’s Changing Area
The men are sent through a door adjacent to the lobby to the men’s changing area, pictured above. Normally they don’t let you take photographs even in this area, but fortunately I was the only one in the space and pleaded my case with the attendants.
The rest of the journey you’ll have to picture in your mind.
You see, inside the bathing area of the Buckstaff Bathhouse there are no phones or cameras allowed…so try and imagine as you read along what the experience was like.
Entering the changing area, the octagonal tile on the floor caught my eye. This isn’t the kind of tile that can be laid down in bulk. Each small piece was individually and painstakingly laid down by craftsmen almost a century ago.
Brass handrails throughout the room were shined and polished, while blue and white privacy curtains slid shut to offer the only privacy experienced during this bathing adventure.
I closed the curtain and got undressed. The attendant said, “Wrap yourself in the sheet draped over the changing area and leave your belongings in the locker. Make sure you take the key.” Having never been before, I had brought a swimsuit to wear. So I asked, “Do you wear anything under the sheet for the bath?” To which he simply replied, “No.”
When in Rome…
Actually, it felt a little bit like I’ve imagined the baths of Rome as I configured myself a toga out of the sheet and placed it over my body. Stepping out, the attendant led me to the men’s main bathing hall.
Bathing at the Buckstaff: Men’s Bathing Hall
The mens bathing hall is grand, taking up almost the entire first floor of the building. I was surrounded by marble walls, tiled floors, a plaster ceiling and the sound of running water from the hot springs below the building as they found their way to the pipes of the bathing hall.
Along the walls of the room were stations – I don’t know how else to describe them. They each had their own individual purposes which I would soon discover. But the center part of the room was open air in its presentation, save a few pillars that held up the weight of the massive room.
Throughout the room were basins filled with hot spring water that bubbled up from the ground beneath our feet. Steam rose from the basins and promised relaxation of unparalleled proportions.
The room was warm, but not uncomfortably so. Three standing fans offered respite from the steam that came out of nearly every area of the hall.
Two African American attendants, Walter and “Old School,” moved about with purpose, clad in white uniforms. By their gait and efficiency, it seemed likely they had both been assisting bathers for many years.
Three white wooden chairs sat in the center of the room against the centermost pillar. “Old School” greeted me kindly and offered me one of the chairs. I sat and soaked it all in.
The men ushered bathers through the various bathing stations as I sat contemplating the history of this building and the baths. I wondered to myself how many of the gangsters, movie stars, famous baseball players and politicians that frequented Hot Springs had sat in this exact same room, with this very view.
Walter came in after a few moments, breaking me out of my reverie and asked me to follow him to my tub. This was my first step in experiencing the Buckstaff’s traditional bathing process.
Bathing at the Buckstaff: The Bath
I was ushered to the first station. Before me was an oversized white porcelain tub with two contraptions at the foot of the tub inserted into it. One was an old electric water jet similar to a jacuzzi jet, and the other was a temperature gauge which read 116 degrees.
All modesty was abandoned here for the duration of my bathing experience.
What I failed to mention earlier was that all of the men in the main bathing hall were naked as they walked from station to station. It was my turn to join them.
Walter directed me to take off my sheet and drape it over the partition that separated my bath station from the others nearby, and step into the tub. The water was different from what we’re accustomed to in our homes. It had a more crisp and natural feel to it. Immediately my body relaxed as I submerged into the sizable tub.
The solitary jet at the foot of my tub was strong and shot a fairly powerful stream of hot spring water directly between my thighs. Suffice it to say that it was a little awkward at first. But I began to relax, determined to take in the experience and capture it in my mind so I could share it here. As I relaxed, my mind floated once again to the many folks who had been here before me. Admittedly, after about ten minutes in the bath, I shifted a bit and put both legs to the right side of the tub.
It was at this moment I knew I had to write a detailed article about my experience. It was truly unique among the experiences we’ve had so far on our full time RV journey. As this thought crossed my mind, I was resolute to take in as much detail with my eyes as I could, so the experience could be accurately described.
The tub faced a magnificent grey, black and white marble wall that had deteriorated a bit throughout the years, but I imagined the splendor of its heyday. The pale blue plaster ceiling overhead was mostly intact. Several small pieces of plaster were missing or chipped, but it was serene and reminded me of a wide expanse of water.
After 20 minutes, Walter was back. He handed me a towel and led me to another station along an adjacent wall where I would take a Sitz Bath.
Bathing at the Buckstaff: The Sitz Bath
The Sitz Bath is of European origin, but it found its way to the Buckstaff and other bathhouses along Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs.
It’s a small porcelain tub with a higher back than front, which allows you to sit inside it rather than lay down, with your legs draped over the front end.
Warm hot springs water sprayed onto my back and the sides of my thighs and buttocks. The pressure wasn’t strong, but soothing and relaxing. A hot towel lay around my neck and shoulders. Between this experience and the 20 minute bath I had just finished, my pores were open and my body relaxed.
There was no door, though there were side partitions. I faced the main bathing hall as I sat in the Sitz Bath and again marveled at the entire experience. By now I had left 2015 and was somewhere back in the 1920’s.
The Sitz Bath lasted about 10 minutes and Walter came once again to escort me to the next station.
Bathing at the Buckstaff: The Private Steam Room
The next stop in the experience found me inside a small, plastered cinder block room that was painted white. It had a decorative glass ceiling and metal door.
Inside this tiny one man room, there was a bench made of the same plaster cinder block as the walls. Walter laid a fresh towel on the bench and had me sit on it. He closed the door as he left and hot steam quickly heated the space.
But it wasn’t the kind of steam that annoys or is uncomfortable. It was more of a soothing, surrounding steam barely visible to the eye. For some reason, the room evoked thoughts of solitary confinement. As I sat there, I looked over the door mechanism more than once, wondering how it would open should I need to escape.
It didn’t take long for those thoughts to go away. The room was so warm and soothing, and as I began to sweat it was almost as though I could feel any toxins leave my body.
Before long, perhaps seven minutes, Walter was back again. The door opened and I stepped out into the main bathing hall. After the steam room, it actually felt a bit cool.
Walter led me to a blue cushioned lounge chair which he had draped a clean sheet over, for the next part of the experience.
Bathing at the Buckstaff: The Lounge Chair
By far, this next stop was the most sleep inducing in the Buckstaff’s traditional bathing process. After the bath, Sitz Bath and steam room, my body felt like jelly. I was more relaxed than I’ve perhaps ever been.
I laid down on the sheet and awaited what would come next.
What came next was Walter, with a piping hot towel pulled straight out of one of the hot spring basins in the main bathing hall. He asked me to sit up, which I did. He said, “This is going to have a little bite to it” before draping the towel quickly over my neck, shoulders and back. It stung, but not much and only momentarily.
He repeated the process with another hot towel over my chest and stomach, and then picked up the edges of the sheet and wrapped me up as if I were in a cocoon.
I don’t remember too much more of this portion as I started to doze off, but it was incredible. I did happen to look at the clock when I laid down and awoke. The time on the lounge chair was roughly 15 minutes of amazing.
I needed a hand getting off the chair. Seriously, my body was so relaxed and pliable by this point. But Walter was there to wake me and lead me to the next station.
Bathing at the Buckstaff: The Needle Shower
While the previous station was the most relaxing, this one was the most invigorating. The needle shower reminded me of an ancient torture device known as the iron maiden, but in appearance only.
Metal tubes shot out high pressure fresh hot spring water in every direction around my body. From overhead, a strong steady stream also enveloped my head. It was literally a hot spring massage shower.
When I stepped out, Walter asked me what I thought. I told him that if I owned a home that wasn’t on wheels, I’d want to have one of these things installed immediately. He chuckled and said, “Good luck finding some hot springs, my friend, it’s what makes the shower.”
Good point, Walter, and well received. The hot springs are the reason people from all over the world have descended upon this city for the past century, and they simply cannot be duplicated.
Walter covered me once again in a sheet and led me to the final station.
Bathing at the Buckstaff: Men’s Cooling Room
Appropriately, the final stop is the men’s cooling room. More blue lounge chairs line this large and completely separate room from the men’s main bath hall. Magazine racks are available, but the last thing on my mind was reading.
A clean white sheet was draped over the lounge chair and I laid down on the chair naked, relaxed and in awe of the experience.
This process can take as long as you want, but the idea is to allow your body to cool back down to your normal temperature before entering the world again. I say entering the world because this entire experience made me feel like I had been transported to another era.
Large fans hang from the ceiling in this room and blow gently downwards. The breeze is not enough to make one cold, but just enough to be pleasant. Once your body cools and you are ready to exit, you walk through a separate door and back to the men’s changing room.
Bathing at the Buckstaff: Final Thoughts
The entire process took just over an hour. It was an hour of new experiences and transportation back to the time of the golden age of bathing.
I’ve never experienced anything like it. This RV life is all about new experiences, so my thought for you is simply this: Do it.
As I waited in the lobby for Brittany to come down the elevator, I was going to jot some notes down on my phone for later. You know, so I wouldn’t forget.
But I was so relaxed and wanting to let it all soak in that I just sat there until the elevator door opened. How could I ever forget this experience?
The details are emblazoned on my mind.