History column: The cleansing power of our vapor caves
Imagine the Ute Indians camped along the Colorado River beside the current Yampah Spa Vapor Caves, partaking of the cleansing and healing rituals they practiced there for centuries.
It was a privilege for me to be the recipient of the healing powers of the vapor caves a few winters ago.
My friend and mentor, Northern Ute elder Clifford Duncan, was staying with my family at the time. My attempts to overcome a nasty upper respiratory infection weren’t working.
“Come on Bill,” Clifford said. “We’re going to the vapor caves for a sweat to make you well.”
I wasn’t going to resist a sweat lodge experience that would burn out anything in my body that shouldn’t be there.
Native sweat lodges are built with willow branches bent into a round structure, and covered completely with material except for the entrance facing east. A door flap lets people in and out.
Whoever conducts the sweat digs a large hole in the ground and tends a fire for hours until the rocks are red hot. Basalt rocks are normally used since they hold heat well.
There is a fire pit in the center, into which the hot rocks are placed. Songs are sung and prayers said as water is carefully poured onto the rocks.
The sweat is divided into sessions called “doors.” Usually after two doors one emerges from the lodge to take a break from the heat, and then it’s repeated for two more sessions.
Leading a sweat ceremony in the vapor caves instead of the traditional willow lodge is less complicated, since the heat is constant and there is no preparation time needed.
When Clifford and I descended the steps into the vapor caves, my eyes hadn’t adjusted to the dark yet, and I almost sat on a lady laying on one of the stone benches.
Apologizing to the stranger, Clifford and I chose a smaller more private room.
“Before I sing a few songs for you I want to tell you about my mother,” Clifford said placing his hand on the wall. “Her name translated into English meant rock; just like this rock we are inside of here.”
Then he began to sing the first song. When he did, the woman I almost sat on in the room next to us uttered a fairly loud “Shh!” not realizing we were conducting a sacred ceremony.
Clifford kept singing through all four doors without any breaks. When we were leaving, the woman — no longer a stranger — told Clifford thank you.
Eleven years ago this July, my oldest daughter Duana was killed in an automobile accident. My Southern Ute friend Kenny Frost took me into the caves for a healing sweat.
When we came outside after two doors we talked about what the Nuche, the Ute word for their people, do when a relative dies. The healing power of ritual and friendship helped restore my broken heart.
Owners Patsy Steele and Brice Kendal of the Yampah Spa Hot Springs Vapor Caves have shown respect toward indigenous people by allowing native sweat ceremonies to be performed since they have been the owners.
You don’t have to be sick or grief-stricken to enjoy the healing powers of the Vapor Caves. Tourists and locals alike can participate in the equivalent of a native sweat. And when you are through purging yourself of bodily toxins, you have a number of spa options available.
I usually settle for a full body massage but have been known to purchase an additional salt scrub for my significant other.
What I like about the Yampah Spa Vapor Caves website is the history page. Check it out at http://www.yampahspa.com/history.
Whatever way you choose to participate at this magical place, I submit you will come away a new person.
Such is the power of water, the elixir of life.
This is a monthly column on the enduring subject of history by Glenwood Historical Society’s executive director.
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