SOAP LAKE, Grant County — This is the only place I’ve ever stayed where my innkeeper felt it necessary to post a sign at the door saying “Buckets of mud not allowed into the hotel.”
Mud, you see, is one of the big attractions here.
Soap Lake is a little town struggling to survive in Eastern Washington’s Coulee Country. There is a boarded up resort, a burned-out downtown storefront and plenty of “for sale” signs. On my late-June visit, the only restaurant upscale enough to call itself a “bistro” had a sign announcing it was closing two days later.
An on-again, off-again attempt to create tourist interest would place a 60-foot-high lava lamp at the lake’s edge. The idea has been around for years. The lamp’s not there yet.
But whether that flies or not, Soap Lake, population 1,550, still has the 2-mile-long lake and its medicinal mud.
For as long as anybody’s been around to “take the waters,” this mineral-heavy lake has attracted spa-going types. In a lakefront city park a sign looks like an ingredients list for a chemistry set as it announces the lake water’s 18 minerals, from sodium to rubidium. They concentrate here, it’s said, because the lake is at the bottom end of Grand Coulee and has no outlet
Dip your hair in the water and you can work up a lather without shampoo. Thus the name, thanks to 19th-century cowpokes.
While a few spas still struggle in town, with masseuses competing for business, Soap Lake has one strong fan base: Russian and Ukrainian immigrants, from cultures with a strong tradition of smearing mineral-rich mud on their bodies in the belief that it will cure what ails them, from arthritis to psoriasis.
On a recent trip through the area I spent a night at the charming Inn at Soap Lake, and it cured me of skepticism about why anybody would come here.
The 100-year-old inn, built of river rock, sits on lakefront acreage crowded with gardens, fountains and more garden tchotchkes (including a separate little planting area devoted entirely to gnomes) than one could shake a tiny shovel at.
My $75-a-night room was luxurious at that price — and completely mud-free — with four-poster brass bed, couch and kitchenette. The bath was double-plumbed, with Soap Lake mineral water for the tub and fresh water for the shower. On the wall, a framed document instructed me on “The Healing Properties of Soap Lake Water” and how to apply it.
For mud baths: “Apply mud over area to be treated and lay in the sun to dry. The mud absorbs moisture, oils and toxins for the skin area. After mud dries rinse off with fresh water if you will be sunbathing. The combination of minerals and ultraviolet rays cause rapid tanning and may cause you to burn more quickly!”
At check-in, innkeeper Sandra Garnett, a native of Holland, handed me a beach towel and advised that if I wanted mud I should sort of “smoosh around with my feet” on the lake bottom. It was a hot day, so I headed for the inn’s private sandy beach and took the plunge.
Actually, I took the wade. A long wade. The lake is very shallow near shore. I kept wading farther and farther out into the clear, clean water, hoping to get deep enough for a cooling plunge. I finally stopped when I was about a quarter-mile out and still only up to my knees.
As instructed, I smooshed my feet and dug up some lake mud. I decided I had to try it.
Deviled eggs, anyone?
After enough smooshing, I plastered my left arm with the black, oozing stuff. First thing I noticed was the strong, sulfury smell (yep, that was one of the 24 minerals listed). At first, it just slipped off my arm, but I persisted, packing it as thickly as whipped cream on a banana pie (or, should I say, chocolate-cream pie?).
Back on the beach I settled into an Adirondack chair to let the mud bake in the sun. I don’t know if I felt any healing power, but the warm sun felt good, and I’m sure I felt stress being sucked out of me. And the sulfur smell? I decided I’d just pretend I was on a picnic with deviled eggs.
Along shore waded a quartet of American avocets, birds with stiltlike legs and upcurved bills that give them a silly, smiling demeanor. I smiled back. As my eyes closed, I was half-conscious of the happy conversation of a family picnicking nearby but realized I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. Was that … Russian?
Soon the mud was dry. I stepped into the water and thoroughly rinsed it off, aware that the innkeeper really didn’t want any on her carpet.
And I have to tell you: After the mud treatment, that arm had no arthritis at all. Of course, it had no arthritis before, either. (Others swear by it.) I will say my skin was baby soft, as if I’d taken a bath with my mother’s bath salts.
Dinner was from one of the town’s few prospering businesses, Mom’s European Food & Deli, where smiling Ukrainian immigrant Nadezhda Kozlova (“Mom”) dished up a $5 takeout order of steamed pelmeni, a chicken-filled dumpling, topped with an avalanche of killer-rich sour cream.
Dessert was a scrumptious house-made pastry with poppy-seed filling, another Eastern European treat. If I’d wanted, I could have taken home some Russian-style Babushka’s Recipe veal bologna. Via Soap Lake.
What about the lava lamp?
“Oh, they still talk about it,” Garnett said. “I think it’s just, you know, the money.”
Brian J. Cantwell: firstname.lastname@example.org. Blogging at blogs.seattletimes.com/northwesttraveler. On Twitter: @NWTravelers