The Freaky Magic of Soap Lake
I Don't Know About the Healing Powers, But the Characters You Meet in This Eastern Washington Dive-Town Are Out of This World By Kelly O
All photos by Kelly O
Once a year, every summer, I make a three-hour pilgrimage to Soap Lake. Every time, I am surprised and relieved that neither a Starbucks nor an Ace Hotel has suddenly popped up at the edge of Eastern Washington's most magical swimming hole.
Soap Lake is the name of both the tiny town and the freaky lake at the center of it. Local Native American tribes like the Colville reportedly sent their sick and injured to soak in what they called the "Smokiam," or healing waters. In the early 1900s, Soap Lake was home to a large sanatorium (the health resort variety), where hundreds of people with all sorts of ailments piled into the legendary "miraculous" mineral waters.
Today, it's a lot less crowded. Some people, non–miracle believers, refuse to swim there. Because of its unusually high mineral content, it feels like you're floating around in a lukewarm bathtub that has a little too much Johnson's Baby Oil in it. It makes your skin feel slick and slimy. Tiny bugs buzz around near the shore, where the water often deposits a bizarre foam, not unlike shampoo. The black mud that people pull from the bottom of the lake—to rub all over their bodies in hopes of soothing aches and pains—is so sulfurous, it smells like the worst Easter-egg fart you've ever farted. To be fair, the mud doesn't smell once it dries, once you've cooked yourself under it in the 90-, sometimes 100-degree desert heat.
Does it really heal? Locals roll their eyes, but the huge population of Russian immigrants who have taken over Soap Lake's western beach will tell you different. "You're doing eeet wrong!" a grandmotherly woman wearing a flowery bathing suit and a bright orange babushka once told me. "Rub eeet like deese." She then flashed me a huge smile, revealing a mouth full of gold teeth, not unlike a grill a tough-as-shit NYC rapper would wear. After full-body mud-masking, it's best to return the mud back to the lake by washing it off with a swim. And everybody, and I mean everybody, uses the open-air beach shower afterward. There is definitely something in the water—a lot of somethings. Some people don't trust it. Some prefer the colder, clearer waters of the other nearby canyon lakes, north of Soap Lake and just south of the Coulee Dam.
What's lacking at the other lakes, though, is Soap Lake, the town... and its townies. I've met so many unforgettable people in Soap Lake. Like Sandy. I met Sandy around closing time at Del-Red Pub, home of the pizza-taco, which is only a hop, skip, and jump away from the lake's shore. Sandy had an impressive sunburn and a pair of the shortest blue-jean cutoffs I've ever seen on a straight man. Because he was laughing so loud while knocking back shots, I introduced myself and asked him if he'd be in my column, Drunk of the Week (see also, Sarah). Instead of answering the question, he invited my friends and me over to his trailer park so we could drink some more. When we declined, he sweetened the deal by saying we could take off all our clothes and run through his lawn sprinkler. Then he dropped his cutoffs and told us, standing in only baby-blue bikini briefs, "Hey, if my dick don't work, my tongue do!"
Another Soap Lake fun fact: Seattle drag performer Jackie Hell grew up here, perfecting her craft as a bored teenager.
Also, every summer, motorcycle clubs host rallies in Soap Lake. They flip off the stuffed dummy that sits in an old police cruiser at the edge of town—whose job it is to trick people into driving slower—and roar through town, sounding louder than God. One year, the "Hell Riders" brought a Wall of Death and plopped it down in the park next to the lake. A Wall of Death is an old circus sideshow stunt. It's essentially a large wooden barrel with a platform at the top where spectators can watch motorcycle daredevils get their bikes up to speeds so fast they defy gravity, riding the walls at 90-degree angles. The pro riders ride all the way up to the top, close enough to the platform that a person can reach over the edge and hand them dollar bills. Dozens of bikers tent-camp in the park and party pretty much all night. I once saw a guy perform a 2 a.m. knife-throwing show—thank-fucking-God not hitting the fearless woman who stood calmly against a circular wooden wall. I also once saw somebody's ol' lady, a biker mama, belly dance topless, balancing two lit cigarettes on each of her nipples. Watching both of these scenes made my hands sweat a little.
Soap Lake's tourist website reads: "Some day, Soap Lake will be discovered by the rich and famous. They'll build a fabulous resort and take advantage of this absolutely one-of-a-kind mineral lake." Then it states, "If you're aren't rich or famous, visit soon, before the price goes up." I personally hope they never, ever build such a resort (or the "World's Largest Lava Lamp," a tourist attraction they've been trying to finance since 2004). There's nothing wrong with sleeping in a tent. And I purposely didn't tell you about the lovely Notaras Lodge, or the Inn at Soap Lake, or any of the other cute little hotels that offer spa treatments, yoga, and reasonably priced massage. Or all the weird flea markets, the shabby-chic antique stores, or the little European deli called Mama's that sells Russian groceries and delicious smoked fish. Soap Lake, the Smokiam, is still for the people. All the people. Including the ones who can balance lit cigarettes on their tits.
"The Smokiam" (with cucumber eyes), painted on local grocery store John's Foods.
Believe in the miracle mud.
Sunscreen, no sunscreen.
Louder than God, plus sidekick.
Daytime knife throwing.
A class of death and glory warriors.
Getting horizontal inside the Wall of Death.
"If my dick don't work, my tongue do! —"Soap Lake Sandy".