The 2.5-mile trail from Bowen Ranch Road to the Deep Creek Hot Springs is the shortest official route in the San Bernardino National Forest, and still we managed to get lost. Deep Creek is a remote thermal spring and hippie hideaway halfway to Barstow, and we’d driven the two hours up from Los Angeles, through Hesperia, and then across winding, rutted dirt roads to find it. At the ranch entrance, Mike, the gray-ponytailed and shirtless desert surfer who runs the place, warned us that he didn’t want to “have to do another search and rescue today.” Then he gave us a copy of a hand-drawn, clearly not-to-scale area map with less cartographic credibility than a place mat from Red Lobster. There were eight travelers in our party, eight drunken interpreters of this uninterpretable map.
“Are you sure that was the white post?”
“Maybe we didn’t walk far enough.”
“There was a wooden post over there, but not white.”
There was considerable discussion about the white wooden post, a key landmark. We headed aimlessly up some hills — all within sight of our cars. “At least it will be easy to find our remains,” someone said.
Deep Creek is at the base of the northern slope of the San Bernardino Mountains — arid, desert country that gets dusty and hot by midday in June. We were well provisioned, at least, with drinking water, cheap beer and one plastic bottle full of warm wine left over from a party the night before. A vicious cycle emerged: We drank faster so as to have less to carry, which made us combative and less navigationally competent. A German couple — recreational motocrossers — buzzed along in full blue leathers and helmets, and when they pointed the way, it felt like we were being rescued by aliens.
The peril paid off: Deep Creek trail’s descent into shade and cool waters at the ravine bed is stunning. Verdant vistas are revealed as the manzanita scrub of the ridges gives way to mesquite and California oak along the bed of this Mojave River tributary’s serpentine path through the foothills. Despite the early wandering, our trip had the best footsteps-to-Eden payoff ratio of any hike I’ve been on. Clear, sulphurless spring water exits the ground at more than 100 degrees and flows into seven man-made soaking pools of various sizes and temperatures. From some pools you can jump into the creek, which is indeed deep. While floating lazily in the hottest pool, we shared two Tupperware containers full of chilled watermelon, just enough of a frosty tonic to balance out the late-afternoon sun.
The majority of Deep Creek visitors are people with dreadlocks or dogs or both, and they tend to remove all their clothing upon reaching the guide rope that brings them across the creek to the spring pools. Overnighting is not allowed, but dotting the area are many temporary encampments of itinerant nudists milling about, dozing off, testing out new ways to tie their sarongs. The practice of nudism, as we all know, tends to attract those who you’d least like to see nude, and we got several accidental views of hanging genitalia (of various kinds), including one guy, European by the looks of him, who seemed to always be standing within 20 feet of our group, wearing a shirt but no pants and gazing blankly at the water. Now, nudism is one thing, but a person really ought not wear a shirt and no pants after age 3. It makes you look deranged. Or even inhuman, as Mr. Shirt-No-Pants officially became when he squatted in knee-deep water and used his hands to splash it on his ass from behind. It was like in the zoo, when you’re watching the gibbons or something, and you think how much they look like little tiny people, and then they crouch down and splash water on their ass and you realize, Oh, they’re really not people at all.
Happily, Shirt-No-Pants was offset by at least one set of supreme beings — a bronzed and glowing Adamite couple, Italian backpackers I think, but perched as they were in glorious buff on a giant boulder 30 feet above us, they seemed to have descended from the sun itself as a paragon of celestial beauty. Their shining example led the way for some of our party to join the nudist fray. Which is the point of Deep Creek. It’s not a spa, or a Desert Hot Springs boutique, or even a commodified New Age experience like Esalen. Deep Creek is a true escape, a vestige of Topanga-era Los Angeles: You can’t pull your Touareg up in the driveway or buy a Chrysanthemum Butter Body Buff Microfiber Miracle Shammy at the gift shop. Instead, you can wash off all the sins of urban living with an anti-Mammon afternoon baptism. Even Shirt-No-Pants was simply offering us an example of liberation. “Freedom, people!” were the unsaid words that accompanied his Shirt-No-Pants deeds. Pure freedom. It’s only two hours away. So what if you get a little lost driving there?