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THE LONG HOT SIMMERTHE STEAMY SAGA OF AN AGING SPA

IF ROY ROGERS and Dale Evans had run Alfred Hitchcock's Bates Motel, it might have looked pretty much like the east Mesa landmark known as the Buckhorn Baths.

Only less so.
"I like to think that we're offering people `old world charm,'" says 84-year-old Alice Sliger, who, with her late husband Ted, founded the fabled motel-and-hot-mineral-bath complex in 1939. "It's not modern, but we like it."

If the Buckhorn's soothing waters hadn't already taken the fight out of them, few who've ever visited the spa would argue that point. Is there another motel lobby in town that continues to sell picture postcards dating back to the Eisenhower administration?

From its Old West trading-post facade to the James M. Cain-era motor court bungalows in the rear, the legendary Buckhorn Baths are awash in what can only be described, albeit oxymoronically, as folksy exotica.

The giant sign--a mammoth flagstone-and-metal monument topped off by a neon deer's head--would not appear out of place on the Las Vegas Strip. Plunked down in the middle of nowhere half a century ago, it was nothing less than a knockout. In fact, it still is. Last month the sign caught the eye of a Vogue photographer, who used the Buckhorn as a setting for an upcoming fashion layout. Off the motel lobby is the Buckhorn's Museum of Arizona Wildlife, a somewhat morbid menagerie featuring the preserved remains of more than 400 different animals that had the misfortune to cross the path of Ted Sliger, who, when it came to taxidermy, could easily knock the stuffing out of Norman Bates. (Asked to rank his achievements for a Who's Who in Arizona that appeared prior to his death in 1984, Sliger claimed to be prouder of his wildlife museum than he was of founding the Buckhorn well.)

When visitors finally tear their eyes away from oddities like a two-headed Siamese sheep or the disconcerting Hall of Javelinas, visitors may also enjoy homey touches like a shoulder-high drag-racing trophy, a turquoise-studded cow skull and a 1952 souvenir serving tray signed by the New York Giant baseball players. Tying all these disparate elements together thematically is a lasso pattern embossed in the plaster ceiling.

Outside the bathhouse, ringing an enchanting garden of natural vegetation, is a wall Ted Sliger built from dozens of MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.02 I9.03 metates (Indian grindstones) that he found while clearing the property.

Were David Lynch ever to stumble across the place, it's a cinch the director would experience a hot-water wet dream.

Located in a ten-acre time warp at the bustling intersection of what is now Main Street and Recker Road, the Buckhorn began life more than 50 years ago as a dusty pit stop catering to weary travelers driving through the desert midway between Mesa and Apache Junction.

While the main thrust of the business was fueling both cars and passengers (Ted Sliger pumped gas while his new bride fixed sandwiches), that all changed when the couple sank a well on the property. The water that sprang from the ground was hotter than the hinges of hell. Or, to be more precise, 124 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature that has remained constant for more than half a century.

Although natural hot water was not unknown in the area (at least one neighboring farmer had to run water through a cooling canal before irrigating his crops), the Sligers were nevertheless surprised by what Ma Nature had on tap for them.

"From what I understand, there's a fissure that runs underneath us and we just happened to drill into it," explains Alice Sliger, who continues to live on the property. "We were just lucky." Had her husband drilled just a few feet away, Sliger says there's no telling how the couple's life would have been different.

Suddenly up to their necks in hot, therapeutic water, the Sligers transformed the gas station into a palm-studded desert oasis. A bathhouse annex housed 25 individual whirlpool tubs where bone-weary patrons were parboiled in water cooled to a barely tolerable 107 degrees. After a stint in one of the morguelike "cooling rooms" (where attendants wrapped still-simmering bathers in a cocoon of blankets), a guest might have opted for a rubdown in one of five massage rooms.

Once upon a time, abdominally uptight guests could even get their innards irrigated with geothermally warmed waters direct from the bowels of the earth. But the service was discontinued 15 years ago when it became increasingly difficult to find replacement nozzles for the antiquated equipment. (The spa's pink neon "COLONICS" sign has since been purchased by a collector and now hangs Col 3, Depth P54.02 I9.03 than half of the Buckhorn's 25 original tubs are currently operational, and with only one masseuse on duty, there now appear to be four massage rooms too many. Outside, sheets of paint peel off the bathhouse wall. The spa's slow decline has not gone unnoticed by Buckhorn regulars, who fear that the day someone pulls the plug on the prime piece of real estate may not be far away.

"People ask us all the time, `What's going to happen? Have you heard anything?'" says bathhouse manager Myrtis Gann, a Buckhorn employee since 1958. "I just tell 'em we're going to keep going as long as we can." Although Gann doesn't claim to have any answers, she's got plenty of theories about why business has been steadily dropping off during the last ten years.

In spite of the Buckhorn's more-than-reasonable rates ($12 for a bath, an additional $20 for a massage), Gann points a finger at the economy. "First of all, you've got your recession," she says. "People need to feed their kids, buy clothes, that kind of thing--they're not going to come out here."

New advances in medicine haven't helped, either. "Years ago, when people had rheumatism or arthritis, there wasn't a whole lot doctors could do except send them out to us," Gann continues. "Now they've got cortisone and a lot of other stuff they can give people.

"We didn't used to have all this insurance and Medicare to help people take of their bills, either," she adds. "Insurance will pay for medicine; it won't pay for people to come out to the Buckhorn."

Asked whether the Buckhorn profited from the Jacuzzi-style love-tub craze that swept across America in the mid-1970s, she replies, "Not a bit. Now they've got Jacuzzis and hot tubs in all the apartment complexes and the trailer parks. But it's not natural hot water. It's really not the same at all. Of course, most people aren't ever going to know the difference because they've never been out here.

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Dewey Webb