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Bathtime at the Buckstaff

When I lived in Russia between 2002 and 2006, Soviet Union traditions were neither forgotten nor gone. One of those traditions was the sanatorium, government run resorts where good Soviets could go to relax and restore their health through a number of spa-like treatments, a strict diet, forced exercise, and other activities. A holiday designed, funded, and managed by the very government you worked for. So creepy. Many sanatoriums were still in business, and I consciously avoided them. 

But "taking the waters" and other such pseudo-medicinal activities were not unique to the USSR. Sanatorium type places were all over the world, including several in Hot Springs, Arkansas where mobsters, outlaws, and baseball players alike would strip down and spend an afternoon dousing themselves half a dozen different ways in the steamy mineral water. A few bathhouses here still operate, decaying and desperately-in-need-of-renovation like their Russian counterparts. Now that I'm a bit older and am (mostly) over the belief that the government secretly performs experiments on people who go to these places and I might be kidnapped by agents and never heard from again, I decided to venture in.

At the Quapaw, I only went into the mineral pools where everyone mingles and is fully clothed. It was quite nice. There was a small café in the pool area and attendants bring you mineral water while you bath in one of several pools of different temperatures.

At the Buckstaff, however, I went for the whole attendant follows you around from bathing station to bathing station experience. While you are buck naked.

The website says the Buckstaff has been in continuous operation since 1912 and offers a "traditional type therapy," which is to say the facilities haven't been updated since 1912. Seriously. And that's exactly the reason to go. It's like stepping into another era.  

old three-story building with blue awnings on the windows

inside of a locker room with tiled floor and several changing stalls
One of the few photos I took, since cameras and cell phones aren't allowed in the bath area.

After I checked in, I was directed to the old-fashioned sliding metal gate elevator, which was manned by the locker room attendant, Brenda LeCompt, also there since 1912. You remove your clothes, lock your locker (if you can figure out how), and call for her. You stand there naked while she drapes you in a sheet. Yes, like a bed sheet. Everything is in a sheet rather than a towel, because that actually gives more privacy.

Then your escort arrives to take you through the stations. Mine was a very large, very pleasant, very knowledgeable woman named Latoya. She answered every question I had about the therapies, brought me lots of drinking water, and made me comfortable with everything. 

First is a standard mineral water bath in a deep, long, clawfoot style tub. When I got in (after Latoya undraped me), the water was a perfect 102 degrees, according to the mineral encrusted analog dial. The tub is old, so it doesn't have built in jets. They have a stick thing in it that generates a powerful jet of air. But they have to put the stick on the side because if it was in the center, well, umm...the place might be some other kind of "house." So the result was that my right leg got pummeled with pressure while my left got nothing. Kind of annoying, but still relaxing. 

clawfoot tub
The First Bath:

Then Latoya redraped me and led me over to a padded table where I laid down on hot towels while she placed more hot towels all over my body, then wrapped my face in a cold one. I was there for a while as she got the other bathers out of their tubs and wrapped them as well or set them up in one of the other stations first when the padded tables were all occupied. She did a great job rotating the five of us around the stations, making sure we had each therapy for the right amount of time.

men wrapped in towels lying down in a spa with attendants behind them
Towel Wrap:

Next for me was five minutes in the vapor cabinet. It's basically a sauna, but you sit just like in the photo below with your head popping out of the metal doors. And yes, Latoya undraped me first. It was  weird to have someone dressing and undressing me constantly. But she sees dozens of naked bodies every single day, so, eh, who cares.

man's head poking up out of a metal cabinet
Vapor Cabinet:

Then I went to the sitz bath, which you stay wrapped in your sheet for. It's meant to help your hips, but to me it seemed like a fast way for people who didn't have indoor plumbing back in the day to get their nether regions clean. If you Google images of a sitz bath, you'll see ones that sit in your that doesn't help my impression. Unclear why you wouldn't just take a bath bath. Expediency?

man sitting in a bathtub made only for your hips
Sitz Bath (

In the sitz bath, I watched Latoya wrap and unwrap the other ladies in hot towels (you still have your sheet on during the towel wrap too, so I wasn't watching them naked). I can't imagine how much damage this job does to her skin. Having your hands immersed in wet towels and sheets for eight hours a day must cause cause some serious pruning and damage. 

Then the needle shower to rinse off. I only stayed in it for two minutes because it was pretty cold compared to the others and the spray comes at you from all directions. After this shower, I got an actual towel to dry off with while Latoya held up my sheet for privacy as I did so. 

shower with dozen of jets at all levels around the body
Needle Shower (

Then we said goodbye and she passed me off to Christina for my twenty minute massage to end the pampering. By this time, I was feeling sleepy and blissful from all the pampering and heat, so I laid on the table watching the a colony of of ladybugs roam around the high ceilings of the crumbling building while Christina kneaded my muscles and started to tell me her thoughts on climate change, but then thought the better of it and changed the subject. This is Arkansas, remember. But try not to be too judgey. Everyone is super nice. 

woman wrapped in a white sheet in a locker room

And then it was over. Back to the locker room feeling like a pampered princess. So, would I recommend? 10/10. Yes! You'll probably go like I did for the curiosity factor and then realize it's pretty darn great. The slightly weird factor of it never went away, but no FBI or KGB or alien ambassadors implanted anything in my skin or performed any experiments on me, to the best of my knowledge, so I'm glad I did it.