Monday, October 28, 2013

Lava Hot Springs: The Legends


The Legends of Lava Hot Springs

A Returnee Has a Really Strange Day

By Amy Larson

            I thought I knew all about Lava Hot Springs. Although I live in the Treasure Valley now, our family moved to eastern Idaho when I was ten, and I’ve been to the resort town numerous times. At seventeen, I jumped off the high dive at the Olympic Swimming Complex. Ten meters doesn’t sound that dizzying, but it converts to almost thirty-three feet. Here’s a tip on that one: don’t have your friends cheer you on from below, and make absolutely, positively sure your hands are at your sides when you hit the water. Second-degree burns on your palms from a “water burn” can be hard to explain. 

           About eight years ago, we tented in Lava during Labor Day weekend when the town was full of last-chance campers. We spent all day floating the hot springs-infused river and got second-degree sunburns that day, too. Recently, I sighed happily in the car at the thought of finally returning, and my heart rate increased as I saw the blue “Interstate Oasis” sign. Taking exit 47 off Interstate 15, I drove towards Inkom, McCammon, and Lava. Though it was well into spring, snowflakes fell. So very Idaho.

            Bright-colored dogwoods framed the nearby river as the sun set. This bold display of crimson, with the blue-gray water in the foreground, caused me to stop and try to capture the scene in a photograph. The Portneuf River meandered back and forth, leading mesmerized travelers like me right to town. I saw the swimming pool, the infamous high-dive, and the arches announcing Lava Hot Springs, surely one of the only welcome signs for a town that has a real waterslide built into it, which spits you out like a cherry pit into the splashy pool below.

            The Community Center touted bingo on Wednesdays and weekends, and kitty-corner from that, right before the bridge crossing the Portneuf was a great bronzed animal with a sign below it that read, “Please do not ride the bull.” Lava has been holding “Bulls Only” rodeos every August for many moons, justifying a bullish greeting to those about to enter its gates. The dark, rough lava rock was everywhere I looked, incorporated voluntarily or otherwise into the landscaping and architecture of yards, buildings, and walkways. One campground had a large, curving natural lava wall around it that protected campers from the elements.

            I had no real agenda, and purposely so. My sister, who lives in the area, clued me in to Lava ways. First off, you call it Lava, like lavender, not Lava like “lawva.” Natives might graciously tell you it’s fine to use either pronunciation, but pulling a “lawva” is a giveaway you’re an outsider. Second, this is a lax place. In summer, people walk through town in flip flops, swim suits and beach towels, and it’s okay. Crystal-wearing karma seekers coexist with farmers, and for the most part, everyone gets along. A big old mellow melting pot. Hence my desire to be Lava-like and have no time frame, no list of to-dos, no worries.

            While Lava comes alive on the weekends with soakers and such, it’s a fairly sleepy town of around 400 on weekdays. Tuesday afternoon found me moseying along Main Street, peeking in shop windows, some of the shops open, some closed. I stepped into a business, and after looking around for a few minutes, struck up a conversation with one of its owners, who told me that Lava has a lot more going for it than just the soothing mineral water. He said there were two main geological faults within this very small town, one running almost right along the lines of the old Blazer Highway, (the source of the hot water) and another coming right through the town’s neighborhood. 

            The shop owner said the Shoshone-Bannock (Sho-Ban) tribes who originally dwelt on the land understood the area to be singular, that they’d embraced and revered its properties. The tribes wintered there, performing ceremonies to express appreciation for the water, something they still do to this day. When two tribes that were typically at odds met in that location, it was understood to be a neutral resting ground. They called the land Poha-ba or “Land of Healing Water,” and believed it was a sacred location of increased spirituality.

            Others who later took over this extremely geothermally-blessed land ensured that the tribes still had access to it, which still pertains. Should someone from a local tribe show their Indian ID Card, entrance to the hot pools is, for them, free of charge.
In 1902, the springs and Portneuf River were deeded to the state to make this healthful and recreational place available to all. The town of Lava Hot Springs began to naturally form around it. Building a natatorium in 1918, the state of Idaho currently oversees the operation of various swimming pools and hot baths, via the Lava Hot Springs Foundation.

            “If you really want to get some good information, talk to Kathy,” the shop owner told me, “She’s the director of the museum here.”
            I thanked the man for the conversation.
            “My name’s Jared,” he said.
            “That’s my son’s name,” I told him, adding, “My name’s Amy.”
            “That’s my sister’s name,” he replied, and we both smiled and shook our heads.

            I walked over to the South Bannock County Historical Center, but didn’t see anyone who looked even remotely like a Kathy. Wandering around, I took photos of fur samples, Indian portraits, and a cowboy mannequin I named “Red.” I stopped for a long moment at one curious display, the Legend of the South Bannock County Goat Bird. According to the plaque, this bird’s existence had been confirmed just that year by scientists who’d discovered a multitude of bird skeletons in a mine once sealed by an earth tremor. That mine had now been uncovered through yet another tremor. The skeleton of a man, John Taog, said to have been an entrepreneur, had also been found. The goat birds, or Avis caprinus oro, were creatures with goat-like horns. If that wasn’t odd enough, the birds also produced droppings of pure gold. Seeing an opportunity, Taog hired a few Sho-Bans, who supposedly didn’t know the droppings’ market value, to harvest the valuable excretions. The pile of bird droppings found were said to be safely stored in the museum’s vault.

            “No way,” I laughed. “Gold poo?”

            I gazed at a wooden carving of the abnormal feathered friend, with its horns and what appeared to be a tuft of a goatee beard, as I oscillated between a couple of different thoughts. First, why would they put ‘legend confirmed’ in a museum? Museums don’t lie, right? The other thought was that the carved bird looked suspiciously like a joke. If the species was real, why not display the skeleton, or even one or two of the real droppings? Still, I’d heard of some pretty weird things in the past that I’d balked at, and then later discovered to be true. I just plain didn’t know. Instead of looking gullible while in town, I decided to ask my sister about the goat birds later on. She’d probably know.

            Leaving the Historical Center, I walked up the street past the resort’s steaming water to the Sunken Garden. After hearing random talk of its spiritual healing, I wanted to try the place out. Crunching onto the gravel path leading through walls of lava and travertine rock with its built-in benches and naturally occurring caves, I touched the rough and scratchy surfaces, thinking of the individuals who must have done that long before my visit. I wanted to sit in the gazebo and take some quiet time to contemplate, ponder, meditate.

            Finding a rocky bench under the shelter facing the intricate lava walls, I closed my eyes and waited. At first, I thought I was the victim of an active imagination, which wasn’t much of a stretch after recently reading about birds that dropped gold out of their backsides. But no, there it was, a definite hum, a vibration. Over and over again, I felt waves of it. It was cool, yet slightly disturbing. What could it mean?

            I left the Sunken Garden feeling certain I’d just experienced something profound. Turning back into town, I walked to a diner. Mounds of onion rings and finger steaks with Idaho-style special sauce were hard to resist, so I didn’t. Planning to take a soak, but recalling one should never swim on too full of a stomach, I decided to walk up the other end of Main Street to the hill up yonder. Quaint rental cottages and the home of Charlie Potter, one of the town’s founders, lined the sidewalk. I heard a tomcat howl, sounding like a small child wailing, then saw the tom and another cat facing off on a nearby lawn. I stopped, watching the animals prepare for a battle that never happened, no matter how long I lingered. Perhaps the animals, too, were aware that this was a “neutral resting ground.”

            Just over the hill, I saw it. The sign indicated a splendid manor one-half mile to the left. I wanted to see it, and a half mile was no big deal, until I realized it was all uphill. In the midst of labored breathing, I thought to myself, “This had better be worth it.” At the summit, I expected to see a dramatic estate, but there was nothing other than endless hills and valleys beyond. I spotted another sign in the distance, pointing to the left. I began to grumble, yet laughed at intervals when the occasional vehicle passed by. I wasn’t dressed for a hike, I was dressed for the mall, complete with silver-studded handbag. They’d wave, I’d wave.  Thankfully, no one stopped or asked any questions.

            I turned, about to hike up yet another hill. It all began to be more worth it when five large deer crossed my path, leaped into a stand of trees nearby, and shyly peeked out.
“I can still see you,” I told them.

            Five inches of pea gravel made traversing technical, with the peas threatening to pop into my shoes. I saw a gigantic log cabin estate. “That must be it,” I thought thankfully, but it wasn’t. The driveway was chained off. The only other house looked like more of a residence, not a manor. When I walked up to it, I saw the manor sign. I snapped a picture and began to walk away, just as I heard the front door open. Spinning around, someone waved at me, inviting me in for a free tour. Why not?

            The manor housed creatively decorated, royal-style theme rooms. The high-backed, hand-carved chairs at this bed and breakfast gone medieval were surprising. The kicker, though, was in the basement. Moving the bookshelves out of the way and dramatically sweeping aside a purple, crushed velvet curtain, we descended a winding metal stairway into the depths. Phantom of the Opera music suddenly began to play. Thirty minutes ago, I’d been eating onion rings in a relatively normal, small-town diner. Now I was in the basement of a mountain house in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by flickering candles, red roses, a mirror with the Phantom himself looking at me from the other side of the glass, and Box Five, complete with an old-time organ. This was turning out to be a really, really strange day.

            As I trekked down back down the gravel road, I noticed the deer had disappeared. The sun was setting and I had visions of a) walking in the dark along the highway with my non-hiker clothing and silver-studded purse, looking kind of ridiculous, and b) being eaten by a passing cougar. Mind wandering, I remembered how in 1995 this was the town where lions, ligers (a lion-tiger mix) and hybrid wolves escaped nearby Ligertown when owner Robert Fieber was attacked by one of his own animals, and the rest got loose. I shook my head, knowing that was a long time ago, and that because of the ruckus, Ligertown had been disbanded.

            Taking what I thought was a short cut, I crossed a narrow street just in time to see two black shadows bounding towards me, barking ferociously.  I assumed I would soon be a goner, not at the claws and fangs of a cougar or even a liger, but of two black devil dogs. “Bulldozer! Shadow!” a woman’s voice called. The names didn’t make me think they were heading my direction for a friendly pat on the head. Miraculously, they stopped, and then nuzzled my hands.

            “Do you have a dog?” the woman asked. “They probably smell your dog on your jeans.”

            There was no denying at that point that I did, in fact, have a dog. A neutral resting ground, I thought once more, happy I hadn’t been devoured after all.

            That evening, I asked my sister about the goat birds, the golden droppings, and the manor. She’d never heard of the goat birds or their golden droppings, but her husband had installed some flooring in the manor.

            The next day I arrived back in Lava with a list of questions, among them:
1. What’s the deal with the goat birds?
2. Did the waters really heal people?
3. What was that humming I’d felt in the Sunken Garden?

            I went into the first shop that caught my attention, and struck up a conversation with the lady at the register. She’d never heard of any goat birds, either. I showed her the pictures I’d taken of the write up in the museum, briefly told her all about John Taog, the cave, the skeletons, and the pile of golden poo in the vault. She told me to ask Kathy at the museum, which I fully intended to do. Right then and there, a large wave of doubt washed over me.

            “If that’s some sort of town joke, I’m going to laugh really hard,” I told her, already laughing. Seconds later, the cashier’s husband walked in.
            “Hey,” she said, “Do you know the legend of the goat bird?”
            “Yeah, the one about the bird that lays golden droppings,” he replied.
            “Why haven’t I ever heard about it?” the cashier asked.
            “Because it isn’t true,” her husband said.
            “I knew it,” I said, semi-honestly.

            I was soon seated across from Kathy Sher at the South Bannock County Historical Center. She too, had become fascinated with Lava Hot Springs. After what she thought was a temporary move to Idaho, the state worked its way into her heart and a few years later, she bought a house in Lava on a whim. The people were so wonderful and accepting, she says, that she’s stayed for thirty years and counting. Jumping in with both feet (sort of like my pencil dive, but I’m sure Kathy had much better form), she now sits on the City Council.

            Her fondness for the area is evident as she tells of Lava’s history, something she does daily at the museum. When I asked about the varied demographics of the populace, she nodded. “Lava was built on diversity,” Kathy began. Mostly inhabited by Native American Indians, trappers had discovered the area as far back as 1812. Several others in the trapping business traversed the land in the 1830s, but really by the 1860s, most people were still using the area as a pass through to elsewhere. The entrepreneurial trapper Bob Dempsey saw opportunity around the time of 1851, providing traveling parties with fresh horses. The land offered a natural draw for travelers with its water, timber, and good grazing ground.

In 1862 when gold was discovered in Montana Territory, multitudes of miners passed through, moving along the Portneuf. Enterprising individuals turned a profit from being able to provide stage stops and feed. It was estimated that by 1875, many who’d pioneered across the country had gone through South Bannock County.

Historically, the town was created through a good deal of cooperation. There are wonderful stories about the founding settler, Charlie Potter, who had a large family with lots of children. One winter, he gave one of his few hogs to new homesteading neighbors, so they could make it through the cold months. His wife, understandably worried, became very upset with him for donating the food. Charlie put his foot down, telling her that was just the way it was, that a person helps their neighbors, period.

“He was a very good community leader,” Kathy said.

            I admitted to the museum director that they’d gotten me with the goat bird thing. Kathy laughed so hard, she started coughing. It seems Don Worthylake, a retired journalist and obvious humorist, conceived the goat bird story. As a former volunteer for the Museum of Natural History in Idaho, and a recently retired Board President, this also-woodcarver hand made the goat birds to sell, raising money for the museum. Goat birds were marketed in the eighties and nineties, delighting and mystifying visitors (like myself), much like the well-known Idaho jackalopes. 

            Lava, it appears, is a town with a sense of mirth, and it has influenced Kathy. She showed me around the museum building, which was once a bank. When we got to the vault area, she leaned over towards me and whispered, “This is where we keep the golden droppings.”

            Next stop: the water itself. The sixteen beneficial minerals were permitted to go to task on my bad shoulder. After one hour of soaking, I felt better. Not scientific at all, but for me, it seemed to work. Kathy told me there were people who swore by the stuff.

            Last stop: a return to the Sunken Garden to get to the bottom of that hum. I walked along the path, touching the rock walls as before. I took the same route back to the gazebo, sat, and waited expectantly. Hum. Hum. Hum. What on earth could that be?
I looked up in time to see a semi-truck passing by on the highway above. The entire hillside was one big piece of lava rock, so it only made sense the vibrations from the highway made their way down to the concrete bench where I now sat. Hum. Hum. Hum.

            Some are historical and some are homemade, but there is no doubt about it: Lava is chock full of legends.

*For more Appetite for Idaho, visit me on Facebook and Twitter.
Oh, and watch for the Appetite for Idaho book, due out soon: Part memoir, part anthology, part foodie heaven with recipes from Guy Hand, Heather Lauer, Vickie Holbrook, Randy Scott, and Larry Gebert.

1 comment:

  1. Amy, i do facebook content for SE Idaho and included a link to the story about Lava. I hope you"ll like the page and visit us again soon.