Clad in our rattiest swimsuits, my friend Tanya and I dug our hands into a bulbous terra-cotta urn and pulled out gobs of clean, wet clay, which we then slathered all over ourselves until we were the same color as the urn and hot pool. We got giddy with it: squishing and slopping and making mud pies of our bodies—re-forming them into human-sized versions of the thousands of small figures we'd seen the day before at the Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe. Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa (50 Los Banos Dr., Ojo Caliente, New Mexico, 505-583-2233; www.ojospa.com), an hour's drive north of the museum, is one of the oldest spas in the world, boasting four healing minerals combined in different ways in 10 hot pools and one swimming pool. But its mud area, tucked against a towering cliff that resembles something sprouting in a Georgia O'Keeffe painting—her home and studio are not far away—is what sticks in my memory, calling me back.
Sheltered from the wind, Tanya and I reclined on chaise longues to bake the mud in the sun. My eyes scanned the cliff face all the way up to the bluest of skies, and I flashed back to two days earlier, to the Blue Mesa hike we'd done at the Painted Desert & Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. I felt like Krazy Kat padding her way through an azure Coconino. It was a moderate trail through a supremely unreal landscape of banded-blue, fossil-encrusted formations that date back 225 million years—very old, very blue (even the bricks).
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After a glance down to see how the mud was drying, I closed my eyes and watched the jiggery dots inside my lids form themselves into the petroglyphs we'd seen early that morning. I'd never encountered petroglyphs in the wild before, didn't even realize it was possible until a local had pointed at a ridge and told us to just walk over and climb up to see them. Glyphs were everywhere, scratched into stone the same color as the mud I was coated with: foot and paw prints, the curvy line that could be a trail or a snake. While I was deciding which, I heard Tanya laugh. I looked over to see her grinning at her arm. "Bend your elbow and look at the cracks," she said. "That's what we'll look like when we're 90!"
Glyphs and fault lines broke our crusty skin as we stood and walked over to the clay-colored pool, where we submerged ourselves; the mud melted off while we regarded each other with our hippo eyes just above the surface. Then we sank all the way down.
After showering, we left the cherished mud zone to take the waters with their therapeutic doses of lithium and arsenic—getting thoroughly blissed-out and falling in love with this funky, ridiculously affordable spa. Ojo Caliente is located in its own town and offers a lot more than mud and water. While the spa's website is slick, the place itself is thoroughly unpretentious. When I get back, I'll stay overnight, get a Milagro Wrap, hike, soak and swim—but mostly, I'll be in the mud. Hopefully long before I'm 90.