GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. — Since moving to Colorado from Southern California three years ago, I've come to hate winter.
Scalding baths, wool blankets, the dog snoozing on my feet — nothing takes the edge off the bitter cold. It lingers in the air, in the bones and, most of all, in the soul.
Then a friend told me about a place three hours from Denver guaranteed to rocket my moribund core temperature through the roof.
I set off on a dark January morning in a raging blizzard. Somewhere near the 10,000-foot Vail summit, my car began sliding almost sideways downhill.
The road mercifully flattened as it followed the Colorado River to the outskirts of Glenwood Springs, where I spied a small building, pulled off the highway and went inside.
That's where I met Patsy Steele.
"Welcome to the Yampah Hot Springs Vapor Caves," she said warmly. "These caves are a natural steam bath that will detoxify and purify your body. They will open your pores and make you feel happier."
The Yampah or Big Medicine caves have been used for more than 800 years by the Ute tribe for healing and spiritual purposes. In 1881, settler Jonas Lundigren began filling a wooden bathtub with the spring water and charging miners 10 cents a soak. Not long after, a small house was built over the caves, and they opened for business. The hot water in the vault-like caves generates steam that is trapped, condenses on the limestone ceiling and drips to the floor, turning to vapor and starting the cycle all over again.
"These are the only natural vapor caves I know of outside of Tuscany," said Steele, who has owned the place with her husband, Bruce Kendall, for 24 years.
"How hot are they?" I asked.
"They average ...112 degrees," she replied. "You should only stay down there 10 to 12 minutes at a time or you risk overheating."
Risk overheating? I was counting on it.
I grabbed a towel and headed to the locker room, where I met Patrick Alexander, a fellow California transplant currently freezing in Colorado.
"I'm originally from Twentynine Palms, so I guess I'm still seeking that heat," he said. "I come twice a year on my way to and from California. I just love the setting, and it makes my body feel better."
Shivering in my shorts, I descended a narrow stairwell to a doorway covered with a plastic tarp. A strong smell of sulfur filled the air.
I stepped inside and was engulfed by a heat so intense, so smothering, that it took my breath away. Scattered light bulbs cast meager illumination throughout the misty caverns. There were three large caves and several alcoves with benches.
I discerned the outlines of two women lying on marble slabs. In another cave, a couple reclined against a rock wall, cloths draped across their sopping foreheads.
It all felt like something out of Dante's "Inferno."
Still, that smothering heat was morphing into something fantastic. I was defrosting on a profound cellular level. Hot thermal waves blasted through a labyrinth of chilled nerves, blood vessels and bone.
As I lay on a rock like a basking iguana, my fevered mind flitted between karmic nothingness and flashbacks of a hot, overcrowded bus in the Sahara.
The guy next to me, maybe half my age, sighed repeatedly, as if expelling a world of troubles with every freighted breath. Then he used a hose to fill a bucket with cold water and dumped it over his head.
"Eeeeyow!!" he yelped, shattering my steamy reverie.
I headed back upstairs, where the cold air embraced me like an old friend willing to let bygones be bygones. Drunk on heat, I ambled into the cheerful solarium and flopped into a chair.
"You were down there about 30 minutes," she said, sounding somewhat alarmed. "I was counting. Drink some water."
Steele, who once ran spas in Napa Valley, noted that many people go into the caves unprepared. They don't eat or drink enough, leaving them vulnerable to overheating.
Frankly, I never felt better. I was tingly all over, infused with a strange sense of well-being, lightness and a refreshing lack of anxiety.
That could be due to the 34 minerals and trace elements in the water, which originates from a hillside behind the 120-year-old building. Vigilant employees keep flashcards handy should anyone ask about the minerals.
"Sulfur rids the body of toxins while promoting healthy hair, skin, nails and bones," one card said.
"Lithium imparts balanced mental health," said another.
I was partial to the lithium.
So partial, I returned to the caves for more.
They felt hotter this time. An older man in too-tight shorts tried to take a photograph in a Venusian-like atmosphere perfectly designed to kill any camera.
"Don't worry," he assured me. "It's waterproof."
Time weighed heavily in those caves. I did some jumping jacks, and the sweat ran in torrents. I felt like Frosty the Snowman after spring reduced him to a puddle and a hat. In my case, a puddle and a notebook.
The sighing man reappeared in the shadows.
"It's like a sauna in here," I announced, trying in vain to elicit a reaction.
Fellow troglodyte Mike Olivas was chattier.
He's a regular whose physician prescribed the vapors after an injury left him with chronic pain.
"The doctors couldn't do anything so they sent me here," he said. "I spend about 45 minutes, and the pain goes away for weeks."
The caves are said to help relieve gout, renal disease, obesity, gastrointestinal disorders, rheumatism, skin ailments and hangovers.
When I returned to the solarium, I could have slept for a week. A woman beside me slumbered in a fetal position, her head and face wrapped in a white towel.
Some regulars can stay in the caves for long stretches. Michael Munoz told me he can linger for an hour at a time.
"It helps with my stiffness," he said. "I have even met some Native people in here."
Members of the Ute tribe still hold regular sweat ceremonies in the caves.
By now it was time to go. As reluctant as I was to leave the body hug of Mother Earth, I had another appointment.
Just across the parking lot from the vapor caves is the Glenwood Hot Springs pool, the largest of its kind on Earth, measuring about 100 yards long. It's fed by a spring that delivers 3.5 million gallons of water a day.
The setting was breathtaking. Clouds of steam rose over the water, framed by snowcapped mountains. The pool is divided between a "big" pool, which is about 93 degrees, and a therapy pool at 104 degrees.
I bought a ticket and jumped into the therapy pool, which felt more like a giant bathtub. There was more lingering than swimming in the pool. A few people read books or travel brochures in the water while lifeguards patrolled in heavy red coats.
After a long half-hour, I was ready to leave.
Snow began to fall. Soon everything between here and Denver would be under a blanket of ice. Color would flee, bleakness would reign once again.
But something was different.
I'd been baked in a cave, basted in vapor and steeped in hot water. With umpteen minerals coursing through my system and a core temperature well above freezing, I felt weirdly buoyant.
The wintry world now seemed manageable, even magical.
I put on the Beach Boys and drove happily into the storm.