Sauna scholar, author and outdoor adventure guide Garrett Conover visited the 612 Sauna Society this winter while researching his book, Sauna Magic. Below you will find his account of his whirl-wind 612 sauna society tour . This draft will appear as a chapter in his upcoming book, Sauna Magic. You can follow Garrett’s work by joining his Facebook page, Traditional Sauna.
“SEE YOU ON THE BENCH”
The blossoming of the 612 Sauna Society and Little Box Sauna in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is at once miraculous and mundane. The miracle has to do with timing and vision. The mundane part has to do with organic processes that were probably inevitable; much the way a volunteer seed in a compost bin might yield an exceptional strain of vegetable that ends up being desirable and thus shared garden to garden in ever-widening circles. From subtle origins, magic has a way of making itself known, even if the complications of germination take place mysteriously. In the surprise accompanying the sudden visibility of a blossom unfolding, it is easy to forget that many separate ingredients have led to that moment.
John Pederson is a key ingredient. A couple of seemingly small events put a kink in his trajectory when he was a college student. He grew up in St. Cloud, Minnesota, attended a Catholic school, and entered the School of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Early on he spotted an under-publicized application for the Brittingham Viking Scholarship; a five-month exchange program in the Scandinavian countries, funded by a university alumnus. Intuitive leaps were made.
Somehow John knew he had to apply, and with that unfounded zeal that can open so many doors, he simply knew his attempt would succeed. He had another intuitive leap on the way to the interview requested on the strength of his written application. He dressed up as best he could, suddenly nervous about speaking to a bunch of august alumni who would decide his fate. On the way he passed a shoe store, causing him to consider a wardrobe weakness. He soon found himself inside trying on a pair of fancy shoes a college kid could never afford. But the shoes cast a spell upon him that promised confidence he thought might be helpful.
He carried the box carefully to the appointed address with the $400.00 shoes inside. Upon arrival he switched his own shoes to the box and hid it, then levitated into the interview wearing the gleaming new ones. The shoes must have delivered the necessary power because he simply knew he cleared any final hurdles with flying colors. After the meeting he re-entered the shoe store and, apologizing profusely, explained that as the salesman who had fitted him observed, his odd, long, and narrow feet were indeed hard to fit, and the shoes hurt too much to keep. Given the immaculate condition of the essentially unused shoes a return and refund were easily negotiated. Perhaps the granting board sensed an alert, creative candidate in John, for he soon found himself on a flight to Helsinki in the company of another successful exchange program applicant.
They had been on Finnish soil only a few minutes when their first host, Jussi Hermunen, whisked them off toward his home and family. Knowing the rigors of a long ocean crossing flight, Jussi did what any gracious host in Finland would do. He pulled into a convenient public sauna to ensure that the plane’s recycled air and cramped quarters would be steamed from his guests’ muscles and memories. John and his companion had heard of sauna, and had even experienced the sub-standard versions that are often part of hotels and gyms in the States. Unsure of protocols in Finland; the two left their undershorts on, but Jussi quickly took care of that. “Boys, take your trunks off, it will be easier.”
Upon entering the hot room a handful of stout Finns made space on the benches, and Jussi fell into conversation with them. At one point John could see some sly smiles among the men who, to that point, had been unexpressive. They began to ladle water to the rocks with increased frequency, and kept it up until the resulting löyly forced the boys to bolt from the hot room to the cooling area. Behind them the little room roared with laughter. When they re-entered Jussi switched to English. “Welcome to Finland.”
John may not have known it at the time, but the axis of his world had tilted. As authentic sauna does for so many, the experience changed his world-view. Sauna would remain central.
John later settled in Minneapolis and got involved in his own web design company and in a romantic relationship that provided more than a decade of stability. One day, as a business meeting with a graphic designer named Jesse drew to a close, Jesse happened to mention the rise of the Tiny House Movement, just gaining momentum. So enthusiastic was Jesse about his new interest that he offered to take John around to see some suburban examples. Not only was the Tiny House movement appealing in reflecting a less-is-more philosophy and offering sustainability and affordability to those with debt loads or a need to live in otherwise expensive surroundings, many were small enough to be built on trailer beds, offering a nomadic option. John was smitten. So smitten, that when the two passed an unfinished shed in someone’s yard, John jumped out and offered to buy it.With the deal concluded, John said he’d return with a trailer to pick up the shed. Craig’s List solved that little oversight, and he soon found himself the proud owner of a used twin-axle flat-bed trailer and the beginnings of a shed. Being a gregarious collaborator by nature, he reached out to the Tiny House community, and Jim Wilkins of Tiny Dream Cabins came into the picture. Jim needed some web design as earnestly as John needed Tiny House guidance. A trade was made. Jim’s knowledge came complete with a crew that included welders, carpenters, and a Bobcat forklift to do some heavy lifting. The retrofitting of shed and trailer began.
It soon became apparent that the project was more complicated than building fresh from the axles up might have been, but it was exciting and fun, and the crew was happy to work with what it had. John didn’t have a fully formed idea of what his emerging tiny house would encompass, but he reveled in the opportunity to work with his hands as balance to a job largely in front of a computer screen. Of course web design demanded most of his time, and after the initial burst of crew-supported work concluded, progress slowed considerably on the building project. He began to imagine the structure’s ground floor as a mobile office and, with sleeping quarters in the loft, he would have a fine and versatile retreat. Subliminally, John may have been preparing a place he might come to need. The romance was on the cusp of divergence leading to separation, although the two would remain close friends.
As work continued, a small community coalesced around the project, and Glenn Auerbach, who lived a short distance away got wind of it. Glenn publishes an on-line newsletter called Sauna Times and had written an e-book about building his own sauna. He had been directly involved with the creation of at least 12 new neighborhood sauna projects, and John’s tiny house had instant appeal.It wasn’t long before John’s thinking took a turn. The combined office, micro-kitchen, and micro-bathroom were abandoned in favor of a sauna. The sauna stove would heat the up-ladder bedroom, and the cooling/changing room would double as living space. The sauna would serve both friends and community. However, the community aspect stretched these ideas. Why not open this further? He declared a Sauna Awareness Month, which Glenn’s publication gave wider voice to. Friends, and friends of friends reached out to others looking for a sauna experience. John became skilled as host and ambassador for all things sauna. The tiny house origins had fallen away and in its place Firehouse Sauna was born.
John then founded the 612 Sauna Society as a means of keeping in touch with and providing a forum for a growing number of enthusiasts. The society takes its name from the area code for Minneapolis. As such one must say “six, one, two”, rather than compressing it to “six-twelve” as one might be tempted. Occasionally the Firehouse Sauna took up residency in a friend’s driveway in a different part of town, expanding the reach of influence and accommodating the growing tribe of people following the Firehouse Sauna and its burgeoning on-line interest group.
When web design began to take up less of John’s time, he stopped courting new clients. Simultaneously, Firehouse Sauna and 612 Sauna Society gained traction and speed, taking on lives of their own. Somehow in the flurry of evolving activity a broken heart began to heal, and other stars in a growing constellation of people with convergent interests made themselves known.
Various people known to John and Glenn, or those who emerged via the 612 Sauna Society, began to take on leading roles. Where initial work often coincidentally took place on parallel tracks, the newer roles became ever more choreographed and deliberate. Each character brought a skill to the table, and solid ideas became visionary and collaborative. In the subsoil around the taproot of traditional sauna, a number of smaller rootlets expanded and encountered each other, pooling nutrients, and inexorably readying to push a revival of public sauna within the city into view above ground.
The view forward was characterized by inclusiveness and community outreach. Every aspect of practical work was infused with optimism flowing from a collective of generous hearts. Among those was designer and architect Molly Reichert.
Molly grew up in a family with an electric sauna in the basement. She had also been a camper at Camp Widjewagen in Ely at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Widjy, as it is affectionately known, is a famed traditional canoeing camp where forays in the Boundary Waters and adjacent Quetico Provincial Park for younger campers may lead to serious summer-long expeditions in the boreal wilderness and barrenlands of Canada for those who build their skills and passion by returning year after year. The camp, like most northern Minnesota camps, has a much revered sauna.
After returning from graduate school at University of California, Berkeley, Molly joined the Architecture Department faculty at the University of Minnesota. Back in her home state, in the epicenter of Nordic bath culture, sauna was never far from her thoughts.
In 2012 she retrofitted a 1960s vintage Airstream trailer into a mobile sauna, which became known as Tönö Sauna (Finnish for Sauna Shack). The retrofit was part of a design and art initiative called the Art Shanty Project. The “shanty” inspiration was drawn from the fishing shacks used by ice fisherman that spring up on lakes in the northern tier states across America and the Canadian provinces. The project not only focused on transforming fishing shacks into art spaces, but also aimed to draw on the communal aspects of these seasonal villages that embraced winter rather than hiding from it, and to get a broader group of people outside enjoying the temporary shanty villages on ice.
A signature feature of Tönö Sauna is the curvilinear CAD/CAM fabricated benches that reflect Molly’s skills as designer. The ergonomic sweep of the benches is reminiscent of sinuous fish as well as the sensuousness of human form and flow, and the sculptural aspects of bodies. Beyond balancing the artistic with the practical elements of physical design is the equally important realm of the social and community flow facilitated by Tönö Sauna. Positive, safe, profoundly relaxing and healthful interaction amongst everyone is an invaluable gift when the deep cold of winter can create a feeling of isolation–even in a city. The presence of a mobile sauna brings out the best in all, especially in its ability to appear in underserved areas, and to introduce sauna culture to places that might not otherwise have ready access. Appearing on the ice among fishing shacks and art shanties was another of many brilliantly imaginative forays made by Tönö Sauna.
It wasn’t long before an inevitable meeting with John Pederson and Glenn Auerbach occurred on sauna benches within the 612 area code region, or for another fortuitous meeting to take place. Andrea Johnson joined the faculty of the University of Minnesota Architecture Department fresh from New York City where she had access to a number of public Russian Banyas and Turkish Baths. She was shocked that a place as large and diverse as Minneapolis was bereft of public bathing opportunities, especially with its proximity to the heart of North American sauna country. Molly and Andrea became close professionally and through their shared passion for sauna. John soon dubbed them “The Sauna Mavens.”
Based on the success of Tönö Sauna, Molly and Andrea hatched a scheme for another mobile sauna, and dreaming was replaced with serious designs emerging from their drafting tables. Connections from the bench of John’s Firehouse Sauna led to another group of folks with organizational and entrepreneurial skills that found a ready outlet. As the complexity of the enterprise increased, the need for additional expertise became apparent. Planners, grant writers, donors, and all manner of cooperating individuals and agencies needed enlisting. Enter Max Musicant.Max is a sauna regular who also happens to be the principal behind The Musicant Group. The group’s mission is simple: “Creating places people want to be.” What is not so simple is to describe the diversity of Max’s services, and the diversity of organizations, landlords, and businesses that might benefit from his multi-disciplined approach to improving physical, social, and psychological space for maximum benefit.
Whether Max is involved in a tiny alcove, a room, a lobby, a building, a vacant lot, a park or greenspace, a city block, or a whole network of communities, his approach is essentially the same. What do people want? Who and what can be served? How do all forms of traffic flow? Can easy as well as unconventional alliances be forged? Can multiple uses share infrastructure in a frictionless manner? Not only does he need to know what questions to ask of a given place, he also needs to be open and receptive to questions such places might ask of him. Or reveal as answers, should he be imaginative and sensitive enough.
In addition to the practical skills of creating space, and the charismatic building of cooperative alliances, Max employs the perspectives of an ecologist to his projects. This brings his competence to an inspired level of holistic genius. He describes three components common to his vision in creating places people want to be. Such places are characterized by providing “choice” to individuals. Can I go? Is access clear and public? Is it safe? Does the community of users radiate trust and good will? Can I move things or myself around to achieve the feeling of everything being “just right?”
Secondly, Max is interested in what he calls dynamic transitions and borders. In nature these might be seen where woodland changes to marsh, and marsh changes to open water. Or boreal forest transitions into open tundra, or woodland to prairie, or ocean to estuary. Typically these borders reinforce the uniqueness of the habitat on each side, even while simultaneously binding them together. The transitions themselves often provide a shared diversity that is richer than that supported by the bioregions on either side.
The third element is attraction. What is the draw; the focus; the experience? Is it in isolation or in combination with other opportunities?
Sauna addresses and embodies each of these points specifically and superbly. With Molly and Andrea’s mobile sauna having transitioning from dream and design into physical presence, Max was quick to become a sponsor and facilitator. John Pederson became an exuberant host and ambassador. Glenn Auerbach was delighted with a new evolving topic to promote in Sauna Times. Without courting media coverage deliberately, The Little Box Sauna has generated its own gravitational field. A feature story on the cover of the Sunday edition of the Star Tribune revealed the blossoming of Little Box to the greater Minneapolis/St. Paul region, and a local television station aired a profile on the revival of public sauna in the Twin Cities soon after.
By the time the growing force-field emanating from Minneapolis inspired me to come see for myself, the Little Box Sauna was experiencing the heady accelerated rush of a grand idea taking off. During the previous winter the Little Box experiment had proven viable and exciting, and had generated a delighted constituency and increasing demand. That first season it offered free saunas while parked near the Mall of America, Ikea, and Radison Blu—fixtures in the culture of “Big Box” superstores which provided the contrast and humor to the name Little Box Sauna. Earlier in the season of my visit it had been parked near the Nicollet Mall on space provided by the Westminster Presbyterian Church. Each Little Box location was abundant with the surprise of transitions, juxtapositions, and contrasts, and full of essences central to the Musicant recognition of “edge.”
John Pederson proved happy to meet my flight, and before we finished lunch, we discovered that our temperaments, philosophical leanings, and humor meshed as if we were long-lost brothers. Soon after he showed me to a spare room in his apartment and introduced me to his Firehouse Sauna, we stoked up the stove. Once smoke billowed from the chimney, he texted a few friends regarding my arrival in case they could join us on short notice. While the sauna heated we descended the driveway, and crossed a quiet residential street to where hardwoods leaned gracefully over Minnehaha Creek. The creek snakes through Minneapolis as a riparian greenspace with bike and pedestrian paths on each side, until it eventually joins the Mississippi River. John re-opened a hole in the ice with an axe and placed an orange traffic cone next to it to alert skiers and fat-tire bike riders traveling up and down the frozen surface to the small circle of open water. Snow was falling, and every 90 seconds or so a decelerating jet passed overhead on final approach to the runways of Lindbergh Field. Had I known where to look a few hours earlier I might have seen the Firehouse Sauna and the winding creek from the air.A woman of grace and regal bearing named Margie Weaver joined us on the bench wrapped in a sari. She kindly helped me get around during my visit, available as her yoga teaching schedule permitted. Moments later Glenn Auerbach of the Sauna Times joined us, animated by a scheme that bubbled from his entrepreneurial mind, which he inclusively referred to as “we” as if we were members of a convened design team. “We need to have Troxers,” he said, before charging on with the details. To his mind, Troxers were a combination of swim trunks and boxer shorts to be worn anywhere saunas required coverage. They would be made of light, fast drying, unrestrictive fabric that wouldn’t cling, would be comfortable wet or dry, in sauna and outside, and could be worn in public. “For the spontaneous swimmer in us,” he said. “They probably already exist, but we won’t worry about that. What we need are colorful stylish options with a logo, and we’ll market them exclusively through sauna shops.”
“I need a pair now, for the cold-plunge in the creek.”
“John will loan you something. You’re right, time to cool, let’s go.”
John did loan me something, and we trailed down the driveway to the creek in the wake of Glenn’s irrepressible enthusiasm. Bemused passing drivers slowed to marvel at our procession—as red as boiled lobsters and steaming ferociously into the cold air and falling snow. Various bundled-up dog walkers, bicyclists, and spandex-clad runners paused and laughed and chatted as we enjoyed our cooling plunge. The hilariousness of contrasts was a natural conversation starter.
Daylight faded that first day, and John mentioned that we would have supper at the house that his former sweetheart Abigail had recently purchased. A number of regulars who enjoyed the Firehouse Sauna would gather for a potluck and to help dream up the conversion of one bay of the two-car garage into a sauna.
We convened in the cold garage to assess dimensions, existing structure that could be incorporated, and to get a sense of needs for a full retrofitting. Ideas flowed and as the cold penetrated we retreated to the warm kitchen for appetizers and wine before supper. Large sheets of paper appeared and a cascade of thoughts began to surface as sketches. Our host Abby did not waste time when an idea unfolded, and her partner Oriel kept anything too fanciful in check with his builder/carpenter’s knowledge of structural practicalities. As the sketches grew more elaborate, he kept a running list of materials and lumber needs.
A few days later, an amusing thread of text messages and photographs emerged in real time while Abby and Oriel were in Home Depot buying materials in the company of a friendly employee, who was helpful but unfamiliar with sauna building particulars. At the same time, Glenn Auerbach return-texted detailed advice from his office. To the employee’s amazement, Glenn’s instructions included the locations in specific aisles where goods peculiar to sauna construction could be found. The entire outing and exchange provided wonderful fodder for a posting on the 612 Sauna Society’s web page, to inspire everyone dreaming of creating their own sauna, and who might benefit from a gentle nudge.A knock on the Firehouse Sauna door came in the morning while John and I enjoyed a dark roast coffee in the cooling room/living space. David Washington entered bearing a gift he had been working on. At first glance it looked like a standard sauna thermometer and hygrometer mounted on a varnished cedar board. But an accompanying box of micro electronics, circuit boards, and David’s lap-top quickly revealed the advent of something more elaborate. David had been a college roommate of John’s before heading to Seattle as a young wizard for Microsoft. Recently returned to Minneapolis, he had fallen under the spell of the 612 Sauna Society. He arrived prepared to program and test components to wirelessly transmit data from a sauna hot room to the gauges mounted on the cedar board, and to broadcast sauna conditions to anyone wanting to tune in vicariously, plus post the data to the 612 Sauna Society web page or the Little Box Sauna page, depending on which hot room the transmitter was broadcasting from.
While such a device might be convenient for monitoring readiness of a backyard sauna from elsewhere in one’s house, John’s idea was focused on outreach, and generating interest and excitement for the greater community of followers. It wasn’t long before we headed to the Blackbird Café on the corner of Nicollet and 38th Streets. The Blackbird Café and the Bang Bang Hair Salon next door were provided the parking space for the Little Box Sauna during January, and were among the sponsors and cooperating groups at this location. We ordered lunch while David worked at programming components to communicate with each other. The cedar board would be displayed at the end of the bar, where patrons could marvel at the temperature inside the Little Box just a hundred yards away. Gili, one of the Blackbird staff, asked if there was a walk-in policy. She thought she’d like to try it after her shift.
“You bet,” John said. “Just come by and check. I always leave a space or two for walk-ins and sometimes there is a cancellation that a waiting list person doesn’t snap up right away.”
“Good, I’ll be there,” she said.
“See you on the bench!”
The Little Box Sauna is beautiful in an understated way. Molly and Andrea outdid themselves in working within the linear constraints of a trailer. The angles and shapes are snug and pleasing to the eye, and reflective of multiple practical needs. The cedar cladding of the exterior is dark, achieved through the Japanese practice known as Yaki Sugi, literally, “charred cedar.” The charring process brings out the grain, results in a silvery-black tone, and is rot, insect, and fire resistant.
Overall the effect is attractive. Angles and planes are reminiscent of small outbuilding saunas; the Yaki Sugi effect speaks of heat, and even hints at the darkened wood that characterizes the interiors of sauvusauna, or smoke sauna, the Finnish tradition that predates the advent of steel stoves and vent pipes.
A door graces each side of the Little Box to favor the best stair and railing placement in relation to the parking site influences on flow and use of space. The immediate courtyard serves as the cooling space, and central to that is an iron container for a wood fire to gather around, and several chairs and hay bales for seating. Here, arrivals for each 90-minute session can collect and wait for the dressing rooms to clear for their shift. It is a friendly welcoming place full of conversations among revelers, curious passersby who wonder at the glee of swimsuit and towel-clad folks steaming in the cold, and those waiting for the shift between sessions, who, like themselves, are bundled in down outerwear and scarves.
Ascending the steps one enters a space with two changing rooms delineated by cloth privacy drapes on one side, and a door to the hot room on the other. There is just enough room along the dividing wall for a narrow bench with Little Box Sauna information on it, and a selection of loaner flip-flops underneath for those who have forgotten something to keep their bare feet off the cooling area pavement. A drinking water dispenser and cups offer hydration to anyone who neglected to bring a personal water bottle.
The area in front of whichever access door is not in use provides space for a barrel containing a selection of men’s and women’s loaner swimsuits for serendipitous walk-in revelers who arrive unprepared. It is sturdy enough to double as a centrally-located seat for the sauna host on duty.
The changing rooms provide privacy for everyone to shed their street clothes and suit up for sauna. Each room is big enough for two people at a time in the case of couples or good friends willing to share, speeding up the flow of departures and arrivals between shifts. A hinged-lid bench spans the back of the changing rooms providing storage or seating. Above each bench are a series of ceiling hooks with a corresponding woven palm-frond satchel for each guest to store clothes. There is space for ten at a time in the hot room, and the occasional chaos of the changing room during session shifts is a small inconvenience for the bliss of the bench.
The hot room is glorious. A large LP gas-fired stove sits just inside to the right, easily heating the room to 180 degrees. The ceiling slopes from its high point at the stove end of the room, to its lowest over the end benches. For those inside, this configuration maximizes the heat above the benches at the greatest distance from the stove. Outside two more practicalities are realized. That end corresponds to the front end of the trailer, and the long slope forward reduces the wind-resistance when the trailer is being towed, a point that delivers increasing rewards at higher speeds of travel. Additionally, the long slope above the hot room, and the shorter slope in the opposite direction above the changing rooms, ensures that melting snow or rain drains completely and easily away.Two rippled poly-carbonate windows admit daylight along each wall, adding a feeling of spaciousness to an otherwise small room, yet the ripples preclude a clear view inside. They are simultaneously expansive and private. And the material is such that when one leans on the one along the top bench it is never so hot as to burn or startle. Likewise, all doors have such windows, and a sense of spaciousness prevails. After dark a number of battery powered LED lights can be moved to where they are needed most. A shapely piece of wood placed in front of the hot-room light softens the beam to a more subtle and soothing glow, while lighting in the changing room is bright enough to keep track of personal stuff. A real candle flickers on the information bench where the Little Box Sauna guest book awaits, along with business cards with links for reservations and additional information.
It is five below zero in the lot when John and I arrive to fire up for the Friday evening sessions. A fair amount of prep must be done and he is grateful to have a helper. With the heat building we turn our attentions to unlocking the porta-potty situated behind the Little Box (in an effort to reduce the impact of its lack of aesthetics), starting the “campfire” and neatening up the courtyard. While we sweep and swab down the changing room, we discuss how best to approach my sudden appearance as photographer and journalist. John suggests introducing my project and me during his welcoming remarks to each group, giving folks a few minutes to ponder their comfort levels and wishes with this little surprise addition. When they meet me in person inside, they can let me know how participatory they wish to be, or if they would prefer not to appear in any images or be quoted. We also decide John will inform me of any such wishes as a courteous double-check in case there is a communication slip-up in the greeting and changing room flow.By the time the drinking water dispenser is filled and positioned, and our final touches for a neat and welcoming presentation are completed, we can hear the voices of people arriving for the 5:30 to 7:00 PM session. John exits to assume his role as Sauna Meister for the evening, and I leap for a changing room to get into a terrycloth “modesty skirt.”
Through the walls I can hear John welcoming and introducing everyone while going over the Little Box points of etiquette, best strategies, and tips for enjoying sauna to newcomers. After introductions a couple of repeaters proceeded directly to the changing rooms. Within seconds the expansive good moods of everyone filled the space and all of us were swept up in the looping turns of conversations or basking quietly as the moments presented themselves.
In the course of the evening’s three sessions, 34 participants shared the bench. Only one or two preferred not to participate in the book project, while the rest were so agreeable and enthusiastic that they placed no restrictions on what I might do with either imagery or narrative. That pattern was to prevail through the days ahead, and if I was already certain that sauna magic brought out the best in people before, I was completely overwhelmed by that magic as magnified by the collective of effervescent new friends rallying at the Little Box.
Around the fire during the first cooling session the conversation swings to the presence of the Little Box and Sauna Meister John Pederson, or JP as he is known in the abbreviated syntax of text messages and the emails regarding reservations. As the prominent host, JP is the face of the collective behind the Little Box Sauna. He accepts the gratitude for all behind the project. There is no mistaking the glow and reverence in everyone’s voices.
“Without John and the Little Box I don’t know what I’d do this winter.”
“Me neither. Winter makes us retreat into work and home life, into our own heads. This brings me out.”
“I had no Idea about this. It’s like a dream. A big, really big dream.”
“I thought I’d probably like it, but it’s bigger than that. It’s like… like………. I didn’t know it would make my whole life happy.”
Back inside a few folks find commonality. They are each new parents. Stories about the mysteries, amusements, frustrations, and chronic lack of sleep ensue. And then a discovery:
My husband is signed up for tomorrow night. I’ll have kid duty then. We have a seven-month old.”
That’s how my wife and I are doing it! We have a three-month and a two-year-old. She came here last time.”
During cooling sessions and between shifts JP scampers among us all smiles and handshakes, as befits an ambassador. He greets those arriving for the next shift, keeps the introductions and flow into and out of the changing rooms smooth, leaps to the questions and curiosities of people walking by who find the sight of radiant steaming people in bathing suits, towels, and sarongs on a downtown sidewalk too intriguing to ignore. If the timing and pace are such that there will be no disruption, JP shows some of them the interior, even the hot room, if they agree to look in so quickly that no heat escapes.
“What is this?”
“How can I reserve a seat?”
“Hey, I just read about this in the paper. Amazing!”
“How cool is this? I’m gonna try it!”
As people depart I hear JP’s cheerful, now familiar line: “See you on the bench.” It is the same phrase he signs his correspondence with, and it appears at the bottom of each notification on the web site. I expect it to become annoying as repetitions accumulate, but instead it carries all the pleasures of a musical refrain. Before the week is out, I catch myself saying it as often to my new friends of the bench as they say it to me.
Connections and insights are not limited to the sauna itself. Around the fire conversations continue to swirl in their own orbits. Each time a chunk of wood is added, sparks spiral upward. Scraps of thought seem to filter into view and settle from subtle shifts and inputs from the unfolding of these 612 days. I’ve come from covering saunas and their people in mostly rural areas where space provides privacy, landscapes bespeak known calm, and mostly older people reflect sensibilities that are settled and content. Those old enough to predate the Internet era and the consuming world of wireless devices are already practiced choosers of when and how much to engage with those options.
The imaginative childhoods of this age group have taught them how to self-start, create fun and context from their own competencies, and have intrinsically revealed the values of reflective time, quiet, solitude, and independent autonomy. That generation’s coming of age in the “Question Authority” era has instilled a useful level of immunity to the tyranny of the bad aspects of peer pressure—and ever more sophisticated and sinister marketing strategies steering us to accumulate unnecessary stuff. No great leaps have been required for this group to embrace sauna as reflective of life and conducive to mental and physical health. Those stepping stones to sauna traditions were visible through personal observation, even in the absence of direct influence or heritage.
Now that I’ve been introduced to Max and his cognizance of transitions and edges, I see them everywhere. The drama and obviousness of juxtapositions are amplified in this evolving urban sauna scene. Almost everyone is younger. The public saunas of older times have aged out. Faded with the advent of small in-house units that became affordable in the economic boom times following the Second World War, and the resulting “baby boom” from which those of us who make up the “boomer generation” get our labels. The “Millennials” and younger groups, who gravitate to the Little Box Sauna must make a much greater leap across boundaries. By being born after the hyper-connected wireless-device-driven world had accelerated to fever pitch, any pause to choose is much harder to do. The irony of omnipresent connectedness is that it can be simultaneously, physically isolating. Somehow those who have fallen under the spell of the Little Box Sauna can see this—almost as if a prism bending the light enough for wisdom to prevail. The friends on the bench have rediscovered community, trust, conversation, and the joys of slowing down to balance the demands of an accelerated world. They are choosing to park the mobile devices that got them their reservations outside with their street clothes for an hour and a half of rejuvenation and unfettered connection with an egalitarian tribe of like-minded souls. They have reached backward to find their futures in an old, refined communal tradition.
None of this surprises Glenn Auerbach. “Those kids need this way more than we do. They need the balance,” he says, articulating what is, to me, an amazing recognition. For thousands of years sweat-bathing cultures have evolved to provide a life-affirming, health-building, world-view affirming retreat for physical, mental, and spiritual rejuvenation. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is the world we occupy. The values of sauna traditions that have been here all along are increasing. As Glenn says, “It doesn’t matter where this mobile sauna is parked, next to a big box store, or a fantastic high-rise, or in some neighborhood, it is always a refuge and contrast, a safe space of retreat and something like a nugget of purity and ‘wildness’ for all. That is all obvious in a lake-edge sauna up north, yet much harder to see here in the city.”
For my part, I’ve been slow to see. These contrasts and juxtapositions don’t obscure the picture. They magnify it, revealing the seriousness and power of this growing wave of sauna awareness in a world that will only benefit. The older traditions comprise the beautiful sweeping tail of a comet that keeps reappearing throughout the ages. The bright spot is whatever new evolutions are underway here and now. Who knows what the next cascade of light at the front edge will show us?
Eventually the last shift cools and dresses. People linger around the dwindling fire or head off toward home or a café. Many exchange phone numbers and email addresses, discovering they are neighbors or that they met when trick-or-treating with their kids last Halloween. While I’ve been thinking it has been getting late for a while, I have to remind myself that by city nightlife standards, evening is just receding; the night is young. After neatening up and putting the Little Box to bed, JP and I walk to a nearby Japanese establishment. He is happily tired, but still a little wired from being “on” as host. I tell him how moving it was to feel everyone’s heartfelt comments as they departed. “They love you,” I say. “Some of them said so, and you absorbed enough handshakes, hugs, kisses, and fist-bumps to run for mayor. “
The barkeep greets John warmly, the way all the local establishments around the Little Box do during its stay in their vicinity. He doesn’t charge us for our shots of heated Saki, or for a slice of cheesecake. I order a meal, having not eaten in order to cover for John while he dashed to the Blackbird once things were going smoothly.
The festive intensity of good will was so inspiring that it actually took a toll on me. I didn’t recognize this until Margie Weaver picked me up and we drove over to St. Paul in response to an invitation from Connie Kauppi to visit her sauna and stay for supper. Once a month Connie provides a big meal and fires up for a bunch of regulars.
Her sauna is a tiny stand-alone in her back yard, complete with a Finnish flag hung on the outside of the changing room. Connie is boisterous, funny and welcoming. Her sauna is snug and made with attention to detail. There is a very small changing room, and a narrow hot room longer than it is wide. The top bench is deep, maybe four feet or so. If you lean on the back wall your feet just reach the edge facing the stove. You can toast the soles of your feet nicely. Three can fit on the top bench with each leaning on a wall. The lower bench would allow two more, but more often it is used as a foot rest for people perched on the edge of the top bench for maximum heat.
Connie prefers to let her guests figure out their own experience and limits her instructional comments to making sure that they heat and cool several times, and drink plenty of water. Because of the tiny dimensions, people flow in and out over a longer period throughout the evening. Margie and I were able to dissolve into a lovely quiet basking session, and I enjoyed a much-appreciated solo session after that—a wonderful contrast to the centrifugal social whirl of the Little Box. Fifteen or twenty guests mingled inside the house, and Connie and Margie reappeared for a bit more quiet time.
As with all limited visits to a place, time seems to speed up and compress as the final hours approach. I was fortunate to meet Max Musicant on the bench at Little Box, but there were others I would not meet. Andrea Johnson was away on business, and a couple of other potential contacts just couldn’t mesh a meeting into being as the remaining time slipped away. Molly Reichert was most gracious in carving out time, having just returned from her own trip. She introduced me to Tönö Sauna, parked for the winter at a friend’s house. The sauna was beginning to show some wear and tear from hard use before the Little Box came into being and took over that role, but it was still marvelously serviceable. Despite teaching two courses this term, involvement in four extra-curricular projects, and about to be late for a dinner date, she invited me to fire up. She’d return in a few hours, and in the meantime notify any regulars who might want to come. All that on a school night that promised to go late by the time she could return me to John’s. I was grateful for her generosity.
In the 4:30 AM darkness on the way to the airport, John asked me a question that I was surprised to have a ready answer for: “Is there an encapsulating moment you can recall from your stay in the 612?”
“Yeah, there is. Remember the night you left your daypack at the place we had gone after shutting the Little Box up and you dashed back for it? It was pretty late; not many of those hybrid buses on Nicollet. I was looking across the intersection to where Little Box was quiet and dark when an overwhelming rush of affection engulfed me. It was cold, but not breezy enough for me to be tearing up—except that I was. The only thing like that is the feeling I get after leaving a contra dance in some neat old New England Grange Hall. There’s always a moment after the dancers have left, the band is packed up, and the caller has departed, when the lights blink out. If I see that happen I get hit like that; I can’t help but wonder if the timbers in those buildings hold the memories of the music, the swirling skirts and rhythms of feet, and all that unbridled community happiness? Forever…”
“No wonder you totally get it,” he said. Then so softly that I barely heard him, he added, “You know, if we just fill the world with so much goodness, then there is no room for evil around the edges. That’s all we’re really trying to do.”
~ END ~