I’m not sure how much of a secret Potosi really is, but it is one of Montana’s few undeveloped hot springs on public lands. The trail isn’t particularly challenging; the view is no more spectacular than the average Bozeman view. But Potosi is tiny and the water is hot. It’s quiet; cattle graze in the pasture. Rain falls on trail and dirt – not in a parking lot between street lights. It feels like somebody’s secret place.
The first time I ended up in Pony it was dark and cold and I rolled out of the back of some punk kid’s smelly hunting vehicle. I’d spent an hour wedged between two foreign exchange students and a college tennis player, wondering where we were going. My date was quiet; it wasn’t the first time he’d drug unsuspecting co-eds into the mountains. His subterfuge might as well have included a blindfold and noise canceling headphones – for sixty miles I saw only dark highway and heard only French.
The second time I went to Pony with a plan. I’d promised my friend not to ruin his secret spot, but it didn’t take me long to make my own clandestine trip back. I figured I’d impress my new out-of-state boyfriend with a late night hike in the Tobacco Roots.
I picked Cody up from the airport early in the day – we had lunch downtown and bought beer at Albertsons as the sun slid down behind the mountains. We would drive to Pony in the dark. My boyfriend worked in D.C., but he’d grown up in the mountains of Wyoming. He hunted and fished in the Owl Creeks and the Bighorns. He was training to be a military pilot, so he read charts and maps every day. He wasn’t excited about letting me lead him down a trail – without a map – in the dark.
The hike is short – not much more than a mile – but I lost my way twice, veering up into the trees and finally drifting back down toward the creek. Rain sputtered and seemed to make the sleepy trail even quieter. I hid my confusion with more silence; Cody asked only once if I knew where we were going. Forty-five minutes later, we were both glad to see the bob of another headlamp headed in our direction. We passed the other couple without a word – they nodded to us, their heads wet and steamy under wool caps. I knew then that we would have the place to ourselves.
We sat in the springs for a long time. The water was hot enough to temper the cool air, but we never felt too warm. Our fingers and toes pruned and our bare legs took on the shape of the rocks at the sandy bottom of the pool. I laid my head in the damp grass at the edge of the water. The rain cleared and we were treated to Montana’s unrivaled starry sky. We drug over selves out of the water only because we couldn’t sleep in the springs. We hiked back to the car in a daze. Ten months later I married the helo pilot from Wyoming.
This year, on Thanksgiving Day we took our two boys back to the little hot springs in Pony. It took us a few minutes to find the trail, but we crossed the creek on a bridge of ice and followed the fence line through the trees to the same gradual clearing. The holiday was unseasonably warm – we walked to the springs in tennis shoes and shirt sleeves. And again we had the little pool to ourselves. Our boys dug around in the mud and begged us to lug baseball-sized rocks back to the car.
Somehow, at least for me, gratitude is easy in the woods. The lilt of my children’s voices is clear and constant. The ground is solid and the water is warm. On this visit we soaked in the sunshine until we were too muddy and waterlogged to sit any longer and then we wandered back to the car as the sun pushed through the bare aspens. The boys led the way as they chattered about their ‘new secret spot.’ I know they will be back.