Drive I-15 north from Salt Lake City, exit at Tremonton, then take Route 30 into Idaho. This two-hour-and-45-minute drive straight-shot will land you on a slice of the Tri-state pie that has been a relatively secret but beguiling dessert over the years. The one Main Street in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, could be a stage set for Anyville, USA. Anyville. Wasn't Anyville where the old Steve McQueen penny-dreadful, "The Blob," was filmed? Upon scrutiny, this charming town is a haven for a quick getaway or family vacation.
The centerpiece of this old Oregon Trail town is "The Foundation," which consists of a spectacular sculpture garden surrounding the hot springs - a series of well-maintained odorless hot pools that emanate from cliffs towering above the highway. Temperatures in the pools vary slightly depending on their proximity to the cliffs. Geologists estimate the 110-degree average temperature has been consistent for 50 million years. The springs were a source of hot water for the Indians in the 18th century, and were rediscovered by itinerant white men in 1812. In 1863, the Indians moved to Fort Hall Reservation, and the area became generally known as a healing spa.All-day passes for the hot springs and the community Olympic pool (a 10-minute walk in-between) are a bargain at $3-$7, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, $10 buys an all-day pass at both facilities for the entire family. Suits, towels and lockers are also available for a nominal charge. Luxuriate in a massage by Ted Itami or one of his associates ($15 per half hour; $30 per hour). The masseuse, Janet Moore, will read your palm free of charge.
The "city center" of Lava Hot Springs is one hilly avenue, surrounded by a number of meandering residential streets. The area itself is an outdoorsman's dream, featuring winter skiing, snowmobiling, campgrounds, summer tennis, mountain bike trails, golfing, trout fishing on the Portneuf River (you can even rent a huge inner tube and safely float the river through town). There are at least 10 motels with rates averaging about $40 per night. Don't expect "Holiday Inns" - these accommodations are rustic but very comfortable - most rooms have cable TV and some have self-contained mineral baths.
The Royal Hotel is a stylish and comfortable bed and breakfast inn ($34-$60 per night). The hotel's restaurant is styled like an old-time saloon - complete with red curtains, ceiling fans, player piano, and innumerable objets d'art (classified as antiques or just interesting old junk, depending on how myopic you are). Sports fans will enjoy the obligatory big-screen TV. The speciality of the restaurant is pizza - but soups, salads, pastas and fancy desserts (featuring Snelgrove's ice cream) are also served. A modest $7 caps menu prices except for the "Family Special," which is a 12" two-topping pizza, family salad, cheese bread and a pitcher of soda - it costs $15.95. Beer and wine service is available at the Royal, as at most Idaho restaurants. A continental breakfast and complimentary 4 p.m. tea are included with the room rate. Adjacent to the lobby of the Royal is a gift shop featuring Christmas ornaments - an attractively adorned Christmas tree stands in view year-round - appropriate for the usual two months every year and the rest of the time, a disarming curiosity.
Hot Springs Village offers the luxury of the condominium. It is adjacent to the Portneuf River and the community pool. These uniquely designed units (of varying size) are complete with kitchen, living-room sitting area, cable TV, fireplaces, patios and other amenities. They are the ultimate in off-the-beaten-track comfort. While time-shares are available here, they rent nightly from $40-$50. A central lodge features a pool table, video games, a pinball machine and complete laundry facilities. The office staff is helpful, colorful and engaging. The environing grounds contain a hot tub-Jacuzzi area and some pleasant strolling areas.
On your walk through town, note a number of well-stocked markets, and stop at the South Bannock County Historical Center and Museum. It contains fascinating artifacts left by Indians, railroaders, trappers and homesteaders, and some extracts from the old town records. Admission is free with donations accepted. Take a peek in the Blue Moon Bar and Grill - it embodies the typical country and western social establishment. Libations and light food are available and owner and a local stalwart, Frank Butterfield, will fill you in on all sorts of local history and teach you the wiles of snooker pool at the same time.
Two fascinating representatives of local color are Dr. Dog (Alan Sher, owner of Dr. Dog's Internationally Famous Hot Dogs) and his sister, Cathy Sher. Dr. Dog is an affable, worldly and interesting individual who manages the E-Z Livin' Motel.
His sister, graphic artist Cathy Sher, has been recovering from debilitating neck surgery. On her brother's suggestion, she turned to air-brush artistry on clothing and fabric. Her work is original, creative and has brought her national attention. She will even create custom-made garments. Many of the products of her labors are for sale in the "Black Elk Gallery" - an appendage of Dr. Dog's hot dog stand. Cathy Sher is a music lover and maintains a relationship with the Idaho Council on the Arts. She books music groups into town for performance. The performers get free rooms at the E-Z Livin' Motel, free passes to The Foundation, free meals at town restaurants, and about 80 percent of the concert gate.
While time marches on, a visit to Lava Hot Springs will prove to you that time can stand still, and that a good douse in hot water can cure most ills.
- Erich Graf, the principal flutist with the Utah Symphony, lives in Salt Lake City.