Oregon: Breitenbush Hot Springs
Breitenbush Hot Springs: Silence in Oregon’s Cascades
Put your cellphone away, there's only the rushing water and other people to talk to here
By Erick Mertz
I booked my visit at Breitenbush Hot Springs for the last full weekend in January. Nestled amid a forest of old growth timber, twelve miles in the shadow of jagged, white-capped Mt. Jefferson and two hours from Portland, I anticipated a heavy dose of snowfall.
Mid-winter months in the Cascade Mountains, the land of year round skiing and frequently impassable roads, tend to be bitter cold and wet. What I found on this particular journey however was the complete opposite.
The forecast called for temperatures reaching into the mid-sixties, at least thirty degrees warmer than what is considered seasonally normal for the region. Pictures found in the resort catalog depict the Breitenbush River carving its winding path through fluffy, snow-covered banks populated with hazy, white dusted fir trees.
As I slowly climbed in elevation along Highway 22 out of the state capital city of Salem, back in time to an earlier version of the wooded Oregon landscape, a time when logging towns cropped up around mills and eddies, I looked out toward the road shoulder for any sign of winter, something to indicate this is indeed January.
I found nothing of the sort though, not until I was past the two hydroelectric dams and man made lake, up the logging road from the last small fishing town of Detroit when I finally spied a few scant patches on the dusk darkened hillside.
By then though, I had already let go of my expectations. So much for a weekend of blustery, winter living.
Letting go of your expectations is so much of what comprises Breitenbush Hot Springs’ charms though. The cover picture on the brochure, a Mandala in stained glass sets the tone for imagination.
As you pull your car off of the pot holed forest service road, onto the so-called sacred grounds, Douglas fir trees loom impossibly high overhead.
The radio crackles and dies. Cell service, that persistent electronic tether, fades to nothing but an empty promise long before you descend off a fork in the road into the parking lot where you are greeted by the first of the resort’s many friendly stewards.
Then you step out and hear what quiet prevailing actually sounds like. A curious variety of bird calls from the surrounding woods replaces the static of passing traffic and electronic interference. Arriving here, there is a sudden, welcome confrontation with the bygone idea of separateness that reminds you of the resort’s credo and central operating theme, bringing life back into balance.
A Startling Simplicity
As the greeting attendant hands over a simple hand drawn map of the grounds, you’re confronted with the startling simplicity of the place. The resort centers on a large, deck wrapped cedar sided lodge which houses a two-room library and reading room, communal dining hall and a hearth warmed performance space.
A neighborhood of simple, rustic cabins sits amongst the trees while a series of buildings – kitchen, yoga studio, massage hut, meditation and shower houses line the precipitously steep ridge overlooking the canyon. Across the footbridge, on the opposite side of the river is the small village where workers and a hand full of year round residents live and play. As you walk down the gravel road, through birch and fir, past totem poles and an impressive meal signaling gong, one is struck by how open and simple the operation feels on first impression.
Built in the 1920s
Although the lodge, built in the 1920’s by Merle Bruckman, sits as the structural epicenter of Breitenbush Hot Springs, it is in no way the main visitor appeal.
The obvious draw is the healing water. Geothermal heated water fills the spiral tubs a short walk below the lodge near the labyrinth; in the steam laden meadow, beyond an ancient, wooden sauna, it feeds a string of meadow pools, each with a stunning sunset view, calmed by the rush of the Breitenbush River.
The last pool in the sequence is deemed silent, but one can hardly speak when their breath has been stolen by the subtle vistas. Saturated with a variety of minerals, migrating several thousand years from deep below the Earth’s crust, the water arrives at the surface at red-hot 180 degrees. Once tempered with icy, glacier fed waters though, the baths transform into soothing oases for tired bones and hectic heads.
The Old Mansfred Cabin
Bruckman built the first resort structures in 1927 on an original homestead site. The old Mansfred cabin, erected by the first settler family who came to the waters seeking healing for their polio-afflicted son, only recently collapsed under a snow deluge. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the hot springs had for thousands of years been a meeting place for Native American tribes.
The accounts of settlers visiting Breitenbush stretch all the way back to curious fur trappers working for the Hudson Bay Company.
Bruckman’s ambitious family camping and mineral spring retreat thrived as a destination for Oregon travelers for twenty years until 1947 when the owner sadly went bankrupt and was forced to forfeit his lands.
What followed was a period in which the site lay fallow, untended except by random squatters until the 1970’s when a young idealist, Alex Beamer purchased the dilapidated location and restored it as a worker owned, communally operated facility that in the ensuing decades has served to bridge the gap between free-living, hippie lifestyle and everyman, seeking a quiet stretch to check out of life.
Preserving the Forest
The Breitenbush community has been instrumental in efforts to preserve the local old growth forest, threatened by logging interests until recent legislation deemed the area untouchable.
Much of the resort’s heritage remains on display on the lodge walls, in the form of pictures and The Oregonian newspaper clippings from the 1930’s, and the ancient lobby piano, which gets humming on summer nights when visitors return late from their soak.
Even that old Mansfred cabin, its hand planed wood more than a century old, will be repurposed for future development projects on the site.
No Phones, No Internet
All of Breitenbush exists off of the grid. You may have booked your stay on-line or over the phone, but once on the resort grounds, there is no ready Internet access or digital screens to distract from your chosen form of meditation.
No phone and no Internet, only a simple dry erase board located in the lobby to pass along emergency messages to guests from outside world. Coming up to visit Breitenbush is an opportunity to really break away.
If the temptation to connect becomes too strong (or your visit stretches out into weeks, not days, which is sometimes the case, the nearest available signal can be found down the road in Detroit, fifteen minutes away, so keeping up an appearance is a significant commitment.
Another charm can be the surrender of decision-making. As you walk down to the main lawn across from the lodge, one often finds sun-drenched guests reading a book or dozing off to sleep, relaxing, self-supporting activities that most people profess a strong desire to do more frequently.
Freewheeling conversations take place in every setting, pools and in the library; meal times often stretch beyond the scheduled hour as strangers meet over plates of vegetarian cuisine and discuss what brought them out to the wilderness.
The to-do list for a weekend Breitenbush reads like a set of ideal resolutions made good: read more, sleep better and maybe make some new friends.
Relinquishing that grip on decision-making however, comprises one of Breitenbush Hot Spring’s chief discontents.
Guests are expected to accept offerings, specifically food, as they are given with few options. Everyone is given the same information, bountiful, wholesome vegetarian cuisine, conforming to any number of special diets, but the options are limited and the menu grays with crowd-pleasing choices.
Nourishing Not Exciting
The food is nourishing, neither bold nor exciting. Not in the mood for another tempeh dish for the third day in a row? The same as with cell phone service, the next nearest option to expand your options is at Cedar’s bar down in Detroit. For this simple reason, Breitenbush clearly is not for anyone finicky or fancy, or traveling through with the narrow pallets of young children.
In the summer months, Breitenbush Hot Springs expands.
Booked up Ahead
With increasing frequency and popularity of their healing workshops, and a few weeks closed for grounds service, the cabins, yurts and lodge housing tend to be booked to capacity many months in advance making the resort difficult to visit on a whim (although there are day use arrangements available).
As May arrives and the Oregon weather warms up, though, the cheerful mien brightens with increasing crowds. There are few more endearing feelings than approaching the lodge around the noon lunch hour, hearing happy chatter from guests as they dine together.
It’s like a sleep away summer camp for adults, replicating a necessary experience so few of us have managed to integrate into our daily routine.
Erick Mertz is a writer, disability advocate and lifelong resident of the Northwest. When he isn’t writing or traveling, he enjoys baseball, his dog and pursuit of the perfectly home brewed beer.