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Soaking in Bagby Hot Springs Is a Portland Rite of Passage

Bagby belongs to no one and everyone.

As a Portlander, there are certain expectations. We're supposed to be ruddy-cheeked, always willing to scale the crest through the pines. If you're not really that sort of person—if you're more at home navigating the wine list, if your parents took you to the theater instead of the woods—well, you fake it.

And so a long time ago, someone I used to know talked me into visiting the 103-year-old Bagby Hot Springs during February. I responded with a false familiarity with hiking and hot springs. Indeed, I may have presented myself as stoked.

To get to Bagby's complex of communal and private baths, you have to hike for 1.4 miles from the parking lot off a U.S. Forest Service road in Mount Hood National Forest. My wheezing, molding, late-'90s Saturn Ion did fine on the snow, but things got more arduous when we started hiking. One-point-four miles seems like forever in soaked denim and tennis shoes, with a creeping dread that your front is being exposed with every grimacing step.

The Collawash River roars alongside the trail. In the summer, you'll see candy bar wrappers on the side of the trail, but in the winter it's all white, gleaming where the sun peeks through.

After the longest 1.4 miles of my life, we arrive, heaving, at the complex of wooden baths and shacks serviced by the scalding water that bubbles up from the earth in this place.

Alcohol is forbidden at Bagby, but people still drink, of course, and a loud group of beer-drinking trekkers held court over the communal soaking tubs. We got a private tub, a hollowed-out log in a private room. There is a level of intimacy implied in sharing one of these tubs. It's not a great fit for a first or second or even third date.

There I was, shivering, half-blue, trying to work up the mental jujitsu necessary to go get more freezing cold water to temper the scalding hot water coming out of the wooden slat as the pine tub filled up with steaming mineral water.

You aren't special here—the gnarled layers of graffiti, epitaphs and epithets scrawled on every wood surface makes ready proof of that. Bagby belongs to no one and everyone, built by dead men from another century connected to you through an unbroken trekking chain going up and down the trail. Your private moments are never private, even when you're the only person there.

The snow and ice crept into my sneakers as we hiked back down the hill, the chill lasting through the car ride back down the mountain.

We'd both visit the hot springs again, but never together.

That trip to Bagby made me ask and answer questions of myself: why I'd moved to Portland, and whether I was supposed to be here. Flannel doesn't make you a trekker. You can try to wear this city like a mask, but the frozen water warping the bottom of your jeans tells a different story.

For Jack London types, you human mountain goats with gaiters and Buck knives, there will always be Bagby in the snow. I am in awe of your bravery and your wind-kissed lust for life. Hike on with clean lungs and a full heart—I'll be here reading a magazine when you get back.

Two and a half hours from Portland: From I-205, take Exit 12A to OR-212 E/OR-224 E toward Clackamas. Drive east on Highway 224 through Estacada. Just past the Ripplebrook Guard Station, the highway turns into Road 46. Follow this for 4 miles to the junction of Road 63, turn right and travel 4 miles to Road 70. Turn right and follow Road 70 for 6 miles to the Bagby Trailhead. The walk is 1.5 miles. $5 per person.

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