It is a truth universally acknowledged that there comes a time in life when every person closes the door on public nudity. I believed I had crossed that threshold. But then I got a call from this magazine about clothing-optional hot springs in the vicinity. “A lot of people are curious,” they said. “They don’t know what to expect.”
“In my case,” I asked, “would clothing be optional?’
“I’m afraid not,” they said.
There then ensued one of those awkward silences that occur frequently when the topic of doing anything clothing optional comes up.
If you live in Colorado and have not yet had some form of clothing optional discussion, it’s only a matter of time. Maybe you’ll be skiing, or will have just finished a hike, or be driving innocently through the mountains. Suddenly, you’ll see a sign for a clothing optional hot springs.
Just try saying you don’t have a bathing suit.
My first order of business was deciding which hot springs to visit. There are a lot of them in the state because of its unique geological profile. Most hot springs are associated with mountainous areas and their geological faults, heavily fractured zones within rock that provide a path for water to circulate to great depths where it is heated and charged with healthful minerals.
I decided to visit the Desert Reef Hot Spring in Florence. There are bigger and certainly more upscale places, but Desert Reef is one of the closest to the Springs. Forty minutes on Highway 115, then about 10 minutes along a winding dirt road make you wonder if you’ve fallen off the grid entirely.
Before departing, I checked the website for opening times and discovered that I would not be able to go alone. All men using the facility have to be accompanied by at least one woman. While not all hot springs have such a policy, enough of them do that it’s worth checking before you visit.
The requirement of a female chaperone was an obstacle, but not insurmountable. Surely I could think of someone—a friend or colleague, perhaps a neighbor—who would enjoy and even benefit from the experience of being my escort to a clothing-optional hot spring.
My wife suggested that perhaps I could ask her. That settled it.
And so it was that one bright and sunny day in the middle of the Colorado winter, my wife and I got in our brand new Subaru and set off in the direction of the hot and clothing optional.
After paying our entrance fee, we went to our respective changing rooms. I took it all off, put on my Crocs—and only my Crocs—and emerged to find her waiting outside in her bathing suit.
She burst out laughing at the sight of me.
“What are you laughing at?” I said.
“Do you want a towel?’ she said, holding one out for me.
I looked in the direction of the hot spring. It was smaller and far quieter than I imagined. A glinting limestone pool was framed by a series of lawn chairs, white rock sculptures and an endless horizon—not so much as a single house in sight. A dozen people of varying ages—most but not all of them naked—chatted silently or simply floated in the blue water. There were no children—no splashing. No one was swimming laps or throwing footballs to each other. They were simply relaxing.
I handed the towel back to my wife and walked out au naturel.
The moment was like nothing I had imagined. No one stared, or snickered, and no one applauded or expressed any outrage or surprise whatsoever. It was mellowness incarnate, and I eased into the warm pool.
“The water’s so blue,” my wife said. “But it doesn’t smell like chlorine.”
A helpful naked man with a flowing white beard floated over and informed us that the blue of the waters came not from chemicals, but from the mineral travertine, a white sedimentary rock that’s often found near the openings of hot springs. He sounded like he knew his business, despite being naked. Then he floated away.
“You know,” my wife said, “I could get used to this.”
“I think I’d need to wear clothes some of the time,” I said.
She laughed. Over at the other side of the pool, a couple floated silently together, their closed eyes turned toward the blue winter sky.
An elderly naked woman floated over. “Majestic,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said, modestly.
It was then I realized she was talking not about me, but the sunset. I turned around and looked. It was majestic, and seemed more so with the steam from the hot spring rising slowly all around us. I contemplated the mountains and clouds and watched as they turned bright with color, gleamed, then went dark.
The key to living in Colorado is not being surprised. But there are, sometimes, those moments that catch your heart off guard. And blow it wide open.
—by Steven Hayward
Author, professor and editor at large Steven Hayward volunteered himself for a photo shoot with this story. We declined.