Last updated: December 16, 2011 1:34 pm

Where the west is still wild

New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains are blessed with natural hot springs in stunning settings

They call it the New West but they haven’t stamped out the old Wild West quite yet. Take the “Cookie Bandit”, Joseph Burgess, deserter from one of New Mexico’s infamous 1960s communes, veteran of one too many acid trips. He roamed the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico for three or four decades, living wild in caves and overhangs up in the ponderosa forest, until the sheriff caught up with him.

Burgess used to keep warm and clean by hanging out in the local hot springs. Sometimes he would hide in the bushes and prey off people who came to soak, pilfering the pockets of their clothes while they basked in the waters. He fed himself partly from hunting but his speciality was raiding the kitchen cupboards of vacant holiday cabins. He was a fastidious burglar, and would empty out a cereal packet or cookie carton (hence the moniker), then put it back in its place, sweeping up after himself, so his visit might go unnoticed for months.

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Eventually enough people complained about their missing cookies that the local sheriff organised a stake-out and when Burgess blundered into it in the early hours, things went horribly wrong. There was a fight; the two lawmen managed to handcuff Burgess but somehow he pulled a gun concealed in his waistband. One of the deputies took a bullet in the leg but, as he lay there bleeding to death, he grabbed his colleague’s weapon and returned fire. A moment later, the Bandit was dead.

It’s hard to believe there was such a ghastly finale to a career of cookie snatching or that it happened not back in the days of Billy the Kid, but two years ago, in 2009. But old habits die hard out west.

New Mexico map

The Jemez Mountains, where the Bandit lived, are the remains of the world’s tallest volcano, which some geologists speculate stood twice as high as Everest until it blew up a few millions years ago, leaving behind a mountain range laced with volcanic hot springs. These straddle central northern New Mexico, between two deserts, rising into pine forest and alpine meadows cut up with deep red canyons. The only towns here are Los Alamos (the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bomb during the second world war, was located here for its remoteness) and Jemez Springs, a charming little town strung along the bed of a canyon, near Jemez Pueblo, where the Jemez Indians live.

Wild hot springs are free, in every way. Bandits soak in them; some are famous for their free-loving ways; and none costs a penny. Spas are all very well but sometimes it seems there’s nothing beautiful or natural our corpocracy wouldn’t like to appropriate and sell back to us if it can. But even if they’ve managed it with drinking water, there are still wild thermal waters. And nowhere does nature more induce a stressed-out consumer to forget their slog up the career ladder than in earth’s own healing centres.

New Mexico is littered, strewn, puddled with hot springs – caves, clefts, pools of rock that hover halfway to heaven up mountainsides, or steam in the bottom of canyons beside seething frigid rivers. It’s a desert state and, therefore, defined by its waters. I haven’t mapped it out but you could probably arrange a drive across the state where you never go more than an hour between thermal baths.

Spence Springs perches about 400ft above the plunging Jemez River, in the middle of the Jemez range, in a canyon a couple of hours north of Albuquerque. Giant red-hued ponderosa pines stand all around, and the square walls of canyonside rise up beyond the trees like city blocks in Manhattan. But humankind’s only input to the two pools here has been to roll around a few rocks to make the upper, hotter pond a bit larger. The pool, about waist-deep, has a grey-blue sandy bottom, and the water emerges cloudy with minerals, laced with tufts of algae, but gloriously warm.

Sometimes you’ll be alone, sometimes not. Today a few of us are lolling around in the shallows, daydreaming, gazing down through the trees at the river far below, a group of strangers united in the bliss of natural warm water. A grey-bearded guy talks about how the temperature fluctuates according to seismic activity deep underground. A couple of college kids from Illinois are sipping beer and complimenting themselves on how healthy it is to be in a hot spring.

“Dude, we’re shedding loads of toxins.”

“Kind of neutralises things, right?”

They grin and knock their beers together, and reach for a pack of cigarettes on a rock.

Meanwhile, a late afternoon sun is ripening over the mountains, and I’m busy reminiscing about the first time I came here, in moonlight, when you could see the steam billowing up from the water, rising in threads and eddies towards the moon.

The clincher at Spence Springs is a little cave like a natural sensory deprivation tank – maybe a yard tall, and a bit longer than a body. This is where the hot water comes out from the mountain, so the temperature is just at the upper edge of tolerable. The little cave is always filled with steam, through which sunlight cuts in shafts. You have to climb over a rock to insert yourself in it but once in, you don’t want to leave.

The best experiences in life are free, I can’t help reflecting. And this place is not just about the water. It’s also about the air – the extraordinary air of high-altitude desert. In New Mexico, once the land rises above 7,500ft, the big pine trees start to grow, and the scenery becomes an unlikely mix of desert – in the form of bare red rock – and alpine meadows amid groves of fir. There’s a scent of dust on the air, and of pine, and sage. But there’s also an energy, a latent vigour that somehow demands and elicits a matching vigour. There’s no pleasure like creeping out, dazed with heat, and settling down on the cool rocks to dry off, watching steam pour off your own skin – of being so hot you can sit out on a frosty afternoon stark naked, and still feel warm.

After hiking down the canyonside to the river, and climbing the other side, through the trees to the road, I drive to the nearby town of Jemez Springs for the night.

San Antonio Springs

San Antonio Springs

Here and there in New Mexico there are saloon bars that come straight out of a Western – big plain rooms made of logs, embossed-tin ceilings, a long wooden bar. Adorning the walls are various assorted dead animals – bear skins, elk antlers, deer heads. There might be an old jukebox at the back, and a table with a couple of Stetson-hatted cowpokes drinking tequila. All that’s missing is an old bartender cleaning glasses with a cloth, and Lee Van Cleef swinging the doors open.

Jemez Springs has a gem of an old saloon, Los Ojos, a big bar serving burgers, steaks and drinks. As soon as you walk in, beneath the gruffness of the place you can sense an air of respite, repose, a bit like some old gentlemen’s club in Pall Mall. It may have seen many a drunken brawl but it’s still a place made for relaxing. I slump at a table and order a burger, and barely manage to stuff it down before staggering to the motel next door and putting out the lamp.

America still has vast tracts of wilderness, especially out west. It’s not like Europe, where wilderness areas are surrounded by civilisation and are, in effect, parks (even if large and potentially treacherous ones). Out west it’s the human areas that are surrounded by wilderness, not the other way round.

The most impressive natural baths in the Jemez range are the San Antonio Springs. They come out of the ground at a bracing 106F, far up the lonely San Diego Canyon. Five miles along a rutted, potholed dirt road, then an hour’s walk down a steep canyonside, they’re not easy to get to. You need a four-wheel-drive, then you have to find the hiking trail that takes you over the rim down into the canyon, a beautiful broad sweep that meanders through the mountains like some sunken highway.

High up, the canyon walls are orange, the lower slopes thickly forested in aspen and fir. Dwarf oaks grapple among the rocks. It’s a little-visited place, and walking along the red dirt path in the bottom feels like one of the peaceful stages in a journey in Lord of the Rings – far from people, the path smooth and easy, through a landscape that has never been changed by human beings. The river splashes along beside us like a Scottish trout stream.

It’s morning and still chilly. Finally we see steam rising among the trees up the side of the canyon, and wind up a path through the pines towards it. We come out in a steep clearing filled with mist – and through it we can make out four dark pools stepping down the slope, with water steaming down over rocks between them, like a chain of smoking cascades.

We head straight for the highest pool, where the water comes out of the mountain. With the steam screening the sun, the pool is dark grey, forbidding. But it’s not only the most perfect bath-temperature, hot enough to bring on a sweat after a while, it also has three pipes out of which the water pours in. You can settle in beneath them and get pounded.

After a couple of hours of alternately stewing and cooling off, we begin the heavy trudge back to the car, and to the nearest settlement, La Cueva, which consists of a store, a café and a bend in the road. The Ridgeback Café is open, and in between parties of huntsmen wearing tight camouflage outfits, I happily wolf down a burger, slurp an unhealthy drink, restoring myself to a familiar level of semi-contamination. After all, I just shed loads of toxins, right, so why not?

Henry Shukman is the author of ‘The Lost City’ (Abacus)

For information on visiting New Mexico’s hot springs, go to www.newmexico.org and www.jemezsprings.org

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Taking the waters in the desert

As well as natural hot springs in the mountains, New Mexico and neighbouring Arizona offer a huge range of spa hotels, writes Tom Robbins

Mii Amo, Sedona, Arizona

Mii Amo, Sedona

Mii Amo, Sedona

Sedona is a celebrated centre of all things New Age (apparently on account of magnetic vortexes that create spiritual energy) and is home to some way out spas and therapies. At the award-winning Mii Amo spa treatments range from a strait Swedish massage to “astrology with crystals” and “interactive aura photography”. The spa is set in an red rock canyon and the 16 guest rooms are shaded by cottonwood trees. Three-night packages including six treatments cost from $2,250 per person. www.miiamo.com

Sanctuary on Camelback, Scottsdale, Arizona

Though it’s part of Scottsdale (which is in turn part of Phoenix’s huge urban sprawl) this 53-acre resort sits on the side of a dramatic desert peak, amid exotic gardens. It started out as a tennis club for the rich and famous in the 1950s (Dean Martin and Liza Minnelli both played here) and today is a mix of hip Americana and Asian super-spa. Casitas sleeping two from $259. www.sanctuaryoncamelback.com

Tamaya Resort, Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico

This five-star 350-room resort at the foot of the Sandia Mountains is operated by Hyatt, but owned by the Tamayame, the local Native American people. The resort has 500 acres of land (and a golf course) and architecture modelled on traditional villages in the area. Treatments draw on tribal remedies; some include drumming and last more than five hours. Doubles from $152. www.tamaya.hyatt.com

Ten Thousand Waves, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Set in the hills on the edge of Santa Fe, Ten Thousand Waves is a recreation of a Japanese onsen. There are public and private outdoor hot baths and a range of spa treatments. Many guests come for the day, but there are also 12 rooms. Doubles from $199. www.tenthousandwaves.com

Ojo Caliente Springs, Ojo Caliente, New Mexico

These natural hot springs have drawn visitors for hundreds of years, and the first spa hotel opened here in 1868. Today the resort offers public and private outdoor pools, numerous treatments and a mud bath. Accommodation includes historic hotel rooms and smart private houses. Doubles from $139. www.ojocalientesprings.com

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