Getting to the Chicago Sweatlodge
It’s 5 pm. I am being driven through the heart of Chicago on surface streets. Instead of the clogged highways, we are inching along miles and miles of four lane city roads flanked on either side by countless retail store fronts which have me thinking about the “invisible hand” and how do all these stores survive?
But we aren’t heading for an economics lesson in free trade. We are working our way, one traffic light at a time, to Chicago Sweatlodge. I’m riding shotgun like John Belushi with driver Kevin, my Chicago area policeman sauna buddy, who, with an accent reminding me of Dan Aykroyd, is filling me in about each of the Chicago neighborhoods: “Humboldt Park: used to be mostly Polish. Getting upscale now.”
These Chicago neighborhoods go on forever. Kevin, reading my mind announces: “nearly there.” Finally, he points to low story red brick building on the corner: Chicago Sweatlodge. Finally. Motion sickness subsides and a relaxed feeling lays across my body, akin to water being tossed on sauna rocks. Ahhhh. From the outside, Chicago Sweatlodge looks like a steakhouse restaurant. Along the sides of the red brick corner building, signs proudly announce sauna in other worldly terminology: banya, temescal, hamman, etc. It’s a welcome sight.
We turn into the dedicated parking lot behind the building. Ample parking. We enter through the outside doors, and are greeted at the check in counter by Bill Trotter, GM. “Good to see you guys.” And I know from his voice that he means it. We trade in our drivers’ licenses for sets of towels, robe covers, and a keyring bracelet for our lockers. Then through a second door, we enter into the Chicago Sweatlodge restaurant. At a few tables, guests are enjoying a beer and a cool down. Card game at one table, backgammon at another. I hear the echo of a water fall – cold plunge for sure – and I smell a calming mellow blend of birch and eucalyptus. It’s time to put the motion sickness of driving across town and the busy world behind. It’s sauna time.
A little history
I have said many times that the rising sauna tide lifts many boats. In communities where a banya culture exists, thereby allows an opportunity to grow the community. And in the case of Chicago Sweatlodge, without the Division Street Bathhouse, there would be no Chicago Sweatlodge.
To best appreciate the Chicago Sweatlodge, it’s best to start with some history of the Chicagoland bathhouse. Chicago is home to many Eastern European immigrants. Poles, Russians, Ukrainians. As they immigrated to Chicago in the mid to late 1800s, they brought with them their rich culture which included the banya. Bill tells me that “at one point, there were about 20 bathhouses in Chicago.” Time and many other factors took their toll. Bathhouses closed. The Division Street Bathhouse stuck it out for most of the 1900s, until finally it too fell into disrepair, leaving Chicago banya lovers with literally no place to go. Enter Bill Trotter and Chicago Sweatlodge.
Beyond the restaurant area, we pass along a photo gallery, an homage to sweat practices around the world. Bill has mounted on the wall a collection of about a dozen enlarged photos, showing us examples of all the different sweat rituals, each with a written description of the practice. This is a really nice touch. Chilling out between rounds, you find your self starting at one end, learning about the Sento, the Japanese communal bathhouse. Step by step, you make your way past Hamman, Temascal, all the way to the end (beginning?) – the Finnish savusauna. One is reminded of Mikkel Aaland’s 1978 Sweat, the illustrated history and description of all these practices.
Kevin and I find our lockers in the back room, which is a familiar changing area to anyone who visits health clubs or country club locker rooms. We shed our clothes, and any remaining reminder of the busy world outside. Kevin suggests: “Let’s hit the wet sauna first.”
For those who have never experienced a Russian banya, the first blast of hot air can be as intimidating as bungy jumping off the Queenstown bridge. “Why did I decide to do this?!” But for the experienced, the intense heat is welcome and familiar. The heat reminds me, in a good way, of both of my saunas back home. Where Finnish style saunas are wood lined walls with 7′ ceilings, Russian style banyas are generally masonry walls with much taller ceilings. The rooms are cube like – square rooms as tall as they are wide. This affords multiple level seating, theatre style, where the bather can choose their level of heat by the height at which they choose to sit. Kevin and I settle one bench row from the top.
A good 25% of the room, in the corner, sits the massive brick firebox. The benches circle around three sides, suggesting more of the theatre type vibe, in the round. We settle in with a couple other groups of bathers in the wet sauna. There’s a couple guys speaking an Eastern European language, and I hear Spanish over my other shoulder. I learn through a little small talk later that these guys are Mexican boxers who first got exposed Chicago Sweatlodge while trying to “make weight,” as fighters often need to do. The boxers looked intimidating as hell, but the heat makes everyone equals. One of the boxers steps down from the benches, over to the massive stove, and turns my direction”Agua?” Kevin intercedes “sure,” and the boxer opens the oven door and tosses a couple ladles worth onto the massive rocks inside the oven. Loyly! “Ahhhhhhhh.” The familiar wave of hot humid air settles in from above.
As the tough looking Mexican boxer heads back up to his seat, he is given a thumbs up by one of the Russians. Kevin and I look at each other with a smile. The heat is thick and wonderful. The Russians stop their conversation and take it in. The room is quiet. We take it all in, equally.
The wet sauna gets its name because tucked under the low bench are cold water spigots and plastic water buckets. At anytime, as the spirit moves, the bather can fill up a bucket and dump a big blast of ice water over their heads. “Wooosh.” Our recent introduction of steam soon triggers a couple people to do just this. A few bathers leave the hot room, and a few more join. This is how it rolls in the wet sauna room at Chicago Sweatlodge.
The Cold Plunge
Those familiar with sauna and sweat therapy understand the therapeutic value of the cold plunge. As Wim Hof says “controlling your thermoregulatory system, through hard nature, man!” Not sure about others, but during my rounds at Chicago Sweatlodge, I always rinsed off in either of the showers flanking the cold plunge before entering. Many bathers can describe their favorite part of their ritual, and I think I join the ranks that would list the cold plunge at the top. Living in Minnesota, where stretches below zero F. can go for weeks, many people try to add more clothes and go outside less. Yet there are a number of us who have tried our best to “embrace the cold.” It may seem like a strange process to tell your mind to tell your body not to freak out when being met with a blast of cold water. But once we train our minds to do this, to relax and give into the cold, we approach the feeling much differently. And we start to embrace the results. I’m one of those people, and then I learned about Wim Hof, and now I don’t feel like I’m such an odd duck, at least as it relates to appreciating cold water.
The cool down (hanging out)
Like a great bar with different vibes, Chicago Sweatlodge has a couple hang out areas that are very comfortable and welcoming. After a hot round, the sauna bather can choose from two general areas in which to relax: the cafe and the lounge. “Should we get a beer?” Or maybe “Have you tried these zero gravity chairs?” As the endorphin rush builds and my body relaxes, I don’t so much choose where to go next as float. At the restaurant tables, one can settle into such timeless activities as board games, magazines, and newspapers. I’m thinking this whole experience is not much different than it was 200 years ago. Then I notice a few of Ipads, free to borrow, on the activity wall and I am brought back to modern day.
Back in the lounge, I’m thinking about the resurgence of the classic upscale barbershop. The vibe is similar. Comfy wide black leather chairs, rows of TVs showing only sports, people all respecting their own space, as guys prefer to do. I settle into a zero gravity chair, bring the fold of one of my towels over my eyes and say to myself, for the first time in days, “I don’t have to do anything right now.” And I don’t. These are the best cool downs. The body is relaxed, and now our mind can follow. Time ceases to be a factor. After awhile, like a kid waking up refreshed from a nap at a playground, I ask myself “what’s next?” Water is next. Always drink a ton of water.
The dry sauna
As if on cue, Kevin sees me at the water cooler and says “I like to hit the dry sauna for round two.” Don’t mind if I do.
Just a little smaller than the wet sauna, the dry sauna gives me a more familiar feeling. Cedar walls behind cedar benches, and another massive brick stove taking up one big corner. Theatre style bench seating offers the bather four or five different levels, depending on how much heat we want to take on. There’s no wimp factor to choosing the low bench. The heat is full and consistent. Unlike lame ass cheap saunas with tinny sauna stoves, dry heat in hot rooms with good thermal mass heat the body uniformly. You can sit on the sauna bench and convince yourself, like an Arizonian, “yes, but it’s a dry heat!” and this may work for a few minutes. Calm, regular breaths. A little stretching. Then, as with all good saunas, sweat starts to form not just on the forehead but from everywhere. All the pores open and the release feels great. Muscles expand. The feel is good.
As Kevin and I small talk, I start hallucinating back to his Dan Aykroyd accent and those endless roads through Chicago to get here, and it seems like a long time ago, a far gone history in the rear view mirror. Kevin in quick fashion is now my friend, no two ways about it. Our chat is about our kids, our wives, saunas in Northern Minnesota and all the elements surrounding it. Best time to light the stove. Best beer for between rounds. Sauna at night, sauna in the rain. A voice from down the bench “sounds wonderful.” This is Sauna Talk in the sauna. Our conversation, like most conversation in saunas, is more sparse, caveman style (or Finn style!). Shorter sentences, more open space between. How friends talk. A nice slow, reflective, pensive pace, or none at all, which under normal conditions can be hard for someone like me of Italian descent.
A couple Russians are going at it with their venicks – leafy oak branch whisks. One is lying face down on the sauna bench while the other, venick in each hand, is alternating “whack, whack, whack” from head to toe in methodical fashion. Yea, yea, for those not familiar insert joke here, but for those of us well experienced to this tradition it becomes part of the soundscape and tapestry of banya. A few more enter the dry sauna, and a few more leave. I don’t keep score, but at some point I figure I must be the guy who’s been in here the longest, and so I hear my friend Clint’s voice in my head with his line: “the time to leave the hot room is when the idea of a cold plunge is about the best idea you’ve ever heard.” I ride it out a little longer, step down to floor level, give myself a few more stretches and out the door I go. Round 2.
The restaurant area
“Are you ready for a beer now?” One of my sauna routine’s is borrowed from my buddy Tom who says “you have to earn your first beer.” And after a crazy long work day in Chicago, a drive across town, and now two sauna rounds, the jury in my head speaks in unison”yes” as Kevin and I float over to the deli counter and I’m faced with a beer selection from Eastern Europe and beyond. Each large bottle looks as good as the next. I recognize only a few of the beers, and this, to me, is a sign of a great selection. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember what beer we each chose or if it was a Russian, Czech, Polish, or German beer, but I remember well Kevin telling me his story. Tuesday used to be his day off from the police force. Same for a few of his buddies. Once a month for sure, they’d set a sauna day. They’d each kiss their wives goodbye in the morning, drop off their kids at school, and then head into the city to Chicago Sweatlodge. They’d hit the sauna, have a beer, play some cards, hang out, nap, have some lunch, in any order that worked for them. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. They’d finish up in the afternoon with one more sauna round, and leave Chicago Sweatlodge in good time to pick up their kids after school. Back home at the end of the day, their wives, noticing the sauna glow, wouldn’t so much ask “How was your day?” but more like a “Well, I can tell YOU have had a good day.”
Kevin and I are having a good time. We cycle through another round or two and I’m back at our restaurant table, towel draped over my shoulder, like a priest’s stole.
Often at restaurants, I struggle to find one thing to pop out from the menu, but here I am considering the pierogies, a great sounding fresh salad, calamari, borscht, and I keep re-reading and salivating as I consider the buttermilk fried chicken, served with spicy buffalo sauce. Yet I am benchmarking each of these against the chicken and/or seafood soup (Chicken soup after sauna is a mainstay) just as Kevin reappears. “Soups are good.” His speech pattern is still hot room caveman style. He sets down our second round of beers. “The seafood soup is REALLY good.” A sip of beer, then: “big portions.” I put down the menu, and Kevin orders up two seafood soups. Just as with earning your first beer, eating after sauna carries it’s own value system. We all know not to go into a sauna session too full or too hungry, and as we regulate our bodies through a 3 hour plus sauna, when completed, we should all be pretty damn hungry. With our soup comes a big fresh warm baguette and butter. I’m not going to tell you how great this soup is. I’ll just say, I’ve been back to Chicago Sweatlodge three times and have ordered it three times.
I’m feeling fucking fantastic. This a super familiar feeling for me. A feeling that dates back to my first exposure and love of sauna, in the Baltic Archipelago 30 years ago. It’s the same feeling I get at my cabin, sitting on the dock between rounds, looking out at the majesty and tapestry of the Northern Minnesota landscape. Nature so intense it gets right in your soul. It’s the feeling I get in my backyard on a winter’s night after a pick up hockey game and a sauna round, tunes wafting out from the changing room as I stand with steam billowing off my body as the zero degree air feels so intensely wonderful against my skin. Smiling with a buddy, shaking our heads in disbelief at how incredibly fortunate we are to be out here right now instead of on the couch.
Heading out the door
So, Chicago Sweatlodge got me. I didn’t expect it. Owning two saunas myself, I’ve always avoided the public sauna realm. I’ve thrown health club saunas under the bus many times before. I like my own space and either seem to run into too many knuckleheads or am just a little more uptight in public spaces than the average bear. But Chicago Sweatlodge has a different vibe. People are cool. People respect each other’s space. Conversation is often in multiple languages and blends into the tapestry. There is great flow at Chicago Sweatlodge.
I used to dread going to Chicago for work. The traffic still sucks. The town is still just as big and can kick my ass. But now I have my own secret weapon and oasis. If you’re heading to Chicago Sweatlodge for the first time, ask for Bill and tell him you heard about it through saunatimes.com. If you’re like me and resonate well with an authentic sauna experience, I’m pretty confident you’re going to dig it, too.