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Lava Hot Springs ain’t Las Vegas, and that’s OK

Updated December 22, 2019 - 9:58 am

LAVA HOT SPRINGS, Idaho — The Kats! Bureau at this writing is the Sitting Room at Lava Hot Springs Inn. At the moment it is the Writing Room, and occasionally the Napping Room and also the Watching Netfix Room.

We are a long way from home, if not geographically but metaphorically. Succumbing to a holiday sweet tooth, last night I padded across Main Street to the Royal Hotel and Pizzeria and ordered the Snickers pizza. This is actually a folded calzone, filled with mozzarella, slathered in warm milk chocolate and topped with powdered sugar. It’s so good it gives you chills. I would have been fine to devour it without using silverware.

My bill for this confection, with tall FizzyWater, was $3.28. I immediately spun the paper around to the young server, saying, “I think we’re missing something here. This is just for the FizzyWater, right?” She said, “No, we don’t charge for your FizzyWater.”

Shaking my head, I said, “This dessert would cost $20 at Aria.”

“What’s Aria?” she said.

As readers over the years have known, I write from Idaho every December during my holiday sojourn. The first few days are spent in Lava and Pocatello, which sits about 35 miles northwest of here in southern Bannock County. Lava is actually on Highway 30, which connects to Interstate 15 to the west. But the best way to describe it’s location is “remote,” or, “a few miles past McCammon until you see the steam.”

It’s a watershed year here in Lava Hot Springs. My father, the esteemed Dr. George “Daddy Kats” Katsilometes has been running the Inn for 30 years. I have been writing from Lava every holiday season for the past 10, starting in 2009, the year I signed on to Facebook and life changed irrevocably.

The Inn, to the uninitiated, is a brick building with 16 guest rooms (including a No. 13), a kitchen and dining room serving George’s Famous Breakfast each day, and the upstairs Sitting Room. The main inn is one of seven buildings, including one called the Aladdin, which predates the other Aladdin by more than six decades. These sturdy, historic structures, built between 1900 and 1940, make up the Inn’s collection of 32 guest rooms.

The central building was finished in 1924 as the Lava Hot Springs Sanitarium. From 1957-1985, the facility served as a nursing home, then was closed for about three years before Daddy Kats arrived and gutted the place, then drove a drill deep into the ground and hit hot water.

This event, akin to when Jed Clampett struck “black gold,” shot the Inn to a higher level of appeal. What was once a civic eyesore evolved into an aquatic retreat that has made thousands of people happy over the past three decades.

As I’ve noted in previous visits, the water is the primary draw to this town. At the Inn, three wells pump more than 600,000 gallons a day. Water is also sent to the Portneuf River, which runs through town and just past the property, and eventually into the Snake River.

Lava has draws all sorts of visitors over the decades, families heading to, and back from, Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Yellowstone National Park. Over the years I’ve gotten to know folks from Canada, Eastern Europe and towns all across the Intermountain West. Some are on their way to Las Vegas and have even realized my job. A few years ago, I chatted with a couple from Truth Or Consequences, N.M., on their way to Northern California.

We’ve forged a tight bond between this Inn, this town and even the state. Four years ago, I joined members of the “Idaho — A Comedy Musical” creative team on a tour of the state. Smith Center President Myron Martin, Smith Center COO Paul Beard, writer and composer Keith Thompson, set designer Andy Walmsley, co-writer Buddy Sheffield, choreographer Michele Lynch and director Matt Lenz spent a couple days in Lava.

Classically, Martin said during that trip, “We just had a casting meeting in the hot baths.”

For its steep history as a medical facility (and inherently mysterious vibe, especially at night), the Inn reached a national TV audience in 2015, when Zak Bagans and his crew from “Ghost Adventures” shot an episode from here. As Zak told my dad, the Inn is “a nuclear reactor for spirits.” They even found a bat on property, which has happened three times — by Daddy Kats’ knowledge — in 30 years.

I learned the bat info just two nights ago. I’d never known of any bats here until Zak started chasing one around the property with a giant net. Dad loves telling that story.

Also, you can actually gauge the overnight low temperature by how high the steam rises from the main hot bath, called the Aztec Pool, which is 103 degrees. When the steam reaches the top of the building, the temperature outside is about zero degrees. Meteorology, Lava style.

What else. Also on this trip, I picked up a tip from a longtime hot-bath aficionado that you can use the water bubbling from the pump’s fountain to make tea. Dad bottles this water, and I’ve enjoyed it over ice, but being able to make hot tea while soaking is a whole new experience.

I actually passed this information to a couple of fellow soakers, one of whom laughed and said, “You’re George’s son, and you’re just learning this?”

There is always a calming sense of familiarity about Lava Hot Springs. It’s a return to my Pocatello childhood in so many ways, when my brother, Bill, and I spent days — especially in the summer — cavorting in the water, running in bare feet, no shirts, no sunblock. All the bad things. But this year feels a little different.

Now I am hearing, out at the pools, the city’s permanent population of about 400 is actually dropping because investors are purchasing private dwellings and turning them into Airbnb properties. The homes are no longer occupied by permanent residents but by the occasional group of tourists, in and out in three days, leaving the residences empty for much of the year.

These folks might drop by to soak, but they don’t rent guest rooms at this place, or at Riverside Inn, Old Home Hotel, the Royal or any other small, family-owned business.

For a tiny community, where most of the town’s property is owned by four or five families, such a trend can be ruinous. Many businesses are seasonal already; the core bed-and-breakfasts are being sold off, their future uncertain.

Once, I expected Lava Hot Springs to blossom in the same way Jackson, Wyo., and Sun Valley, Idaho, grew as major vacation destinations. But we can’t say today what will happen to this hamlet. All I know is Lava remains small and mighty, the water is magic and I feel like I know the residents as family. We even share in a holiday tea and watch the steam rise to the heavens.

PodKats!

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His PodKats podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram

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