Michael Carwile: March 2010 Archives

Salt Caves in Chicago

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So what did you do over spring break?

--Oh, I had the equivalent of three days at the seashore.

At least that's what the soothing, disembodied voice told Anna and me, as we lay in beach chairs below styrofoam stalactites in a windowless room within spitting distance of O'Hare. Just forty-five minutes and we'd breath the equivalent of three days worth of seaside air; ten sessions and we'd be as rejuvenated as if we were returning from a month-long summer holiday. All for a student prince of ten dollars.

Behind a facade of strip-mall baroque along busy Irving Park Ave stretch the Galos Caves. Now, you might say, "But there aren't any caves in Chicago!" and two years ago you'd have been right. But since 2008, a Polish venture has been treating Chicagoans to the healing airs of man-made caves saturated with Crimean salt, and it has the certificate from the I.M. Sieczenow Crimean Republican Scientific Research Institute of Physical Methods of Therapy and Medical Climatology to prove it.

This certificate, along with many others in English, Polish, and Ukrainian, hangs on the walls in the reception area, clean and somewhat clinical in a non-threatening way. The receptionist asks if we remembered to bring our clean white socks, which we had, and leaving our shoes in the cubbyholes we wait sock-footed for our session to begin. I don't know why the white socks, but the session before ours had a woman dressed head-to-toe in a white sweatsuit. When that group passes, the receptionist takes a rake to salt-gravel floor of the cave, and when she emerges again we are free to enter ourselves.

The mineral-soaked air, suffusing the body through the lungs and skin, is reputed to sooth all manner of ailments, from asthma to hypertension to ulcers, respiratory, digestive, cardiovascular, even nervous system problems. It certainly wallops the taste buds. There's an ambient flavor to the cave, salty and metallic, strange but not unpleasant, that most decisively marks it as a world apart from the reception area and the city beyond. Then there are the stalactites and seashells, the warm salt crystals underfoot, the dim pastel lighting that fades after a few minutes of acclimation to this artificial littoral microclimate.

The soothing power of the cave is brought on as much by the salt airs as by the lounge chairs' zero-gravity ergonomics, the rose-tinted semi-darkness, and the audio loop of gentle mood music and the constant crash of waves. Close your eyes as the light recedes, and listen to the surf below you. Imagine the high, yellow sun warming the white cliffs, the olive drab scrub clinging to dry land as the blue-black sea stretches off into the distance. Outside, warships and oil tankers power on towards Sevastopol, Odessa or the Straits, but from within this crumbly cavity in the rocks, you can all but shut out those concerns. Imagine generations of Polish princes and industrialists, artists, bishops, generals, fine ladies and Tatar Khans sprawled about as you are now. Lay back into your rattly recliner and with each squeak think of the factory in Łódź where proud men and women worked to assemble it.

Think! Perhaps, just perhaps, here a crippled American, an intemperate Englishman, and a pock-scarred Georgian once momentarily loosed the weight of the world from their shoulders and laying among these ancient stones let the mineral vapors wash over them.

Then, without the waves receding, a rosy glow permeates the cave. Perhaps the setting sun has glanced upon a crystalline seam, and its rays, filtered through mineral translucence, now warm our briny depths. No, for now the floor of the cave glows electric blue and green. Modern wizardry reveals itself, we stretch, take a last breath, and reenter the world. The Galos Caves are of course not ancient, nor majestic, really. It's a single, smallish, room on the northwest side of Chicago (a second cave, a private dining room, licenses the use of the plural); there are no traces of past aristocracy, but plastic shovels and dump-trucks in a corner suggest prior activity of children.

Still, we are relaxed, our ailments soothed. Though the effects are likely to be shortly undone by the hour and a half of public transportation back to Hyde Park.

Galos Caves Spa
6501 West Irving Park Road
Chicago, IL 60634-2416

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