From a walk in the woods to a walk down the aisle.
Potosi Hot Springs is no secret, but it is one of only a few undeveloped hot springs on Montana’s 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 warm. It’s quiet; cattle graze in the surrounding pasture. Rain falls on trail and dirt, not in a parking lot between streetlights. It feels like a secret place. And the combination of a secret hot pool and a Montana night is enough magic to supersede the inevitable cliché: it’s the perfect outdoor date.
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 in the back of the SUV, between two foreign-exchange students and a vaguely familiar college tennis player, wondering where we were going. My date was quiet; it wasn’t the first time he’d dragged unsuspecting co-eds into the mountains—he liked to keep us guessing. His subterfuge might as well have included a blindfold and noise-canceling headphones—for 60 miles I’d seen only dark highway and heard only French.
The second time I went to Potosi, I had my own plan. I’d promised my punk 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 beau with a late-night hike in the Tobacco Roots.
I picked my guy up from the airport early in the day—we had lunch downtown and bought beer at Albertson’s as the sun slid behind the mountains; we drove 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 campground in Pony is usually quiet, and when we pulled in there was only one other vehicle in the lot. It was slick with rain and its muddy tracks were black puddles. I clamped my headlamp over my beanie and stuffed four bottles of beer between the beach towels rolled in the top of my pack. I glanced sideways at my beau and smiled as I climbed out of the car and headed toward the creek crossing. He followed me, but I knew his no-nonsense military bearing was on high alert.
The hike was short—about a mile—but I lost my way twice, veering up into the trees and finally drifting back down toward the creek. Rain sputtered down and seemed to make the sleepy trail even quieter. I hid my confusion with more silence and my boyfriend 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.
My guy was sufficiently surprised when we left the trail and climbed through a lodgepole fence to the hot pool. I stripped down and jumped in to soak; he stood looking back toward the trail and up at the rainy sky. I watched as his shoulders relaxed, his pack dropped, and a smile spread across his face. I got him.
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 dragged ourselves out of the water only because we couldn’t sleep in the springs without drowning. We hiked back to the car in a daze.
Ten months after hiking out of the Tobacco Roots, I married the helo pilot from Wyoming. Our first Montana date was pivotal; it may have been my sense of adventure or my promise to relinquish any rights to future navigation, but I think that a secret hot springs and walk in the dark sealed the deal.