TENAKEE SPRINGS — I am not a traveler. Still, this summer I managed to make it all the way to Italy and back. Even before I agreed to take that trip, my friend Teresa signed me up to visit the Tenakee Book Club. Teresa and her husband Larry have made their home in Tenakee Springs (population about 100) on and off since the 1970s when Teresa taught at the Tenakee school. She also taught for years in Klukwan, near Haines. (The Tenakee school recently closed due to lack of students.)
It took about as long to reach Tenakee from Haines as it did to fly to Rome. Two days. I left home Friday, spent the night in Juneau, and early the next morning rode a ferry five hours west and south down Chatham Strait to Chichagof Island and into Tenakee Inlet. (If you are in a hurry, commercial seaplanes do fly in when the weather is good.)
After the ferry docked, it was like a family reunion, with everyone greeting each other and rolling off the pier on four-wheelers piled with totes of gear and groceries, pushing hand carts, riding old bicycles and tugging at leaping dogs before turning onto the dirt path that is Tenakee's only "street." Small houses built on pilings over the beach are tucked in tight against each other. I waved to one woman through an open window who was drying her hair, no doubt fresh from a bath. Or I should say The Bath?
In Tenakee, bathing is public in natural warm springs that have made it a destination for chilled Alaskans, from the early Tlingits to loggers, miners, fishermen and weekenders from Juneau. I imagined the antique bathhouse would cover a steamy creek with deeper pools in a kind of dark, candlelit grotto, especially since all bathers must be nude.
When I asked Teresa why no swimsuits, she said there are separate men's and women's hours, which didn't really answer the question.
We undressed in what looked like an old club locker room, with varnished fir wainscoting, although there are no lockers, or even locks. We left our shoes at the door and hung our bags on hooks. I started to open the door into the bath with my towel on, and Teresa said to toss it on the bench as she marched in.
I hesitated, and looked down the steps at the 6-foot-by-9-foot concrete trimmed tank over a hole in the rocky bottom where the spring welled up. It felt like an old, very damp basement except it was bright, thanks to the big skylight. The pool tilted slightly, and cleaned itself by overflowing across the mossy floor and out a hole in the wall to the beach. It smelled of hard-boiled eggs. The light reminded me of paintings I saw in Italy and I hoped it would be as flattering.
This is why travel is educational. When in Tenakee, do as the Romans.
There were a couple of women cooling off on the edge of the tub and stretching out in it. One was my friend Linda from Juneau.
Linda usually wears a lot of layers. Skirts, leggings, scarves, hats, that sort of thing. She has also prayed with the Dalai Lama. I did not even mention our nakedness when I started to ease into the pool next to her. The water was beautiful. Gin clear and gray-blue.
"Heather!" Teresa said. "Use your soap and washcloth first."
I thought she gave it to me for the bath. Turns out you take a sponge bath before you bathe in Tenakee. Teresa filled a couple of milk jugs and a Folgers coffee container with water from the pool and motioned me to do the same and we moved toward the downhill side of the room. She said to wash my ears, the back of my neck, arms and legs, everywhere.
"We need to keep the bath clean," she said.
I scrubbed off more than dead skin. I'm trying to be, I want to be, the kind of women who says, and believes, that she is lucky to have such a fine body that has born children, run over mountains, and survived accidents and surgeries and still works so well, most of the time. A body I am happy to live in and proud of just the way it is. (Here is where my friend Nancy will snort, "You've got to be kidding," and Beth will add, "Clothing is God's gift to women.")
But I'm serious. If not now, when?
I slid in the pool and gasped. "It's 106 degrees," Linda said. She was floating on her back. She said she was looking forward to the book club. Teresa slipped in as I sat up to cool off.
I felt great. This was fun.
A younger woman came and went, as did a much older woman. Everyone washed and soaked and talked. They all said they'd be attending the book club meeting.
The Tenakee reading was different than any other I have done and not just because I was light-headed from hot baths. I was more careful about how I delivered my stories about writing obituaries, and what remains when we lose everything. But The Bath is the reason, I'm sure of it, why I am more aware of the scars that are usually hidden, that we all wear on this (hopefully) long walk through life.