Hot Springs and Sunk Costs


in Uncategorized • Illustrated by Felicia Wolfer


The last afternoon of the conference I had no business attending was warm and sunny. Tailor-made for naps. Or a quick dip in a shimmering lake nearby. Or a hike along one of the wooded hillsides I could see from my hotel room’s window. Just outside, along the two-lane cobblestone street straddling a narrow median that passed for a main thoroughfare and under the broad reach of a massive oak tree, a small group of Orthodox priests and nuns lingered in front of a street kiosk, kvetching over a shared ice cream treat and in no hurry to move along, even after the woman working the window tried to shoo them away to make room for other, still hypothetical, customers. But Baile Herculane was a buyer’s market: from what I’d seen, on most days the kiosks outnumbered the pedestrians. 

In 2006, Baile Herculane was a blink of a town — tucked away in the steep mountain crags and dense leafy forests of Romania’s Cerna River valley — that had clearly seen better days. Maybe five thousand people lived there when I visited, but it felt like there was plenty of room for at least a couple thousand more. The town was a haphazard mix of crumbling 19th-century opulence and shabby Brutalist edifices, a juxtaposition that was a reminder of the long and turbulent history of this part of Europe. Its pedigree as a tourist destination for European elites seeking pastoral seclusion and the restorative powers of its natural hot springs goes back at least as far as the second century when the region was still part of the Roman Empire. 

But I had no interest in any of that today. It was the future that preoccupied me now — specifically, my own professional future, and how it seemed to have just burned to a pile of ash, in full view of everyone, right here in the wilds of southwestern Romania. 

By “everyone,” I mean everyone who mattered in my narrow area of academic specialization. I was a PhD. student on the cusp of my final year in the geography and environmental sciences program at the University of South Florida. I’d come to Baile Herculane to attend an academic conference, entitled “Climate Change: The Karst Record.” Just about everyone who was anyone in the field of karst science was there, which is why my academic advisor thought it would be a good idea to come. I needed to circulate, he said. Get my name out there. Drum up some interest in the work I was doing. With the academic job market tighter than ever, the need to make an impression loomed large. The people at this conference were the same ones I would soon ask to write job recommendations for me. They ran prestigious scientific journals and sat on editorial boards. They would be on the hiring committees for the teaching jobs I would apply for, reviewing stacks of CVs sent in by hundreds of aspiring assistant professors.  

Well, I made an impression, all right. I’d already been feeling like a low-key fraud since the conference’s first day, right up until this afternoon’s debacle. Now I felt like a major fraud instead. 

At least it was nearly over. That night was the last official night of the conference; in the morning, we’d break into two smaller groups and head in opposite directions to tour the Romanian countryside, see the sights, do a little caving. I would begin the final stages of my fieldwork for my dissertation, with an eye toward presenting it and graduating the following year. But first, there would be an impromptu party tonight at a nearby hot spring. And naturally, I’d left my bathing suit at home. 

“You could just wear your underwear,” my advisor suggested. He was my roommate at the conference and was watching me re-pack my duffel bag for the third time — my way of trying to hurry the clock along. “Or don’t wear anything. It’s Europe. I doubt anyone will care.” 

The idea of showing these people the part of my anatomy they could all kiss was not without its appeal. 

“I think,” I said instead, “that I’ve shown my ass enough on this trip already.” 

There is an established coming-out process for newly-minted academics, and it goes like this. After a couple of years of coursework, a PhD student will begin the real work of grad school: writing the dissertation. This is generally a book-length work of original research that is expected to “make a contribution” (whatever that means) to one’s field of study. Completing it can take anywhere from eighteen months to an entire lifetime, though most programs will politely but firmly request that a student move on and make room for someone else after five years. Assuming the student reaches that final year of writing, that’s also when they begin looking for a teaching or research job, a process that is highly choreographed, rigidly seasonal, and utterly ruthless to the unprepared and under-credentialed. It’s common for those who will soon be on the market to look for ways of gaining a bit of visibility from their future colleagues, usually by publishing bite-sized portions of their dissertation in journals or presenting it at conferences. 

I’d given presentations at a handful of other conferences, but my advisor saw this one as a way to get some international experience on my CV. (He was convinced that this was very important.) The problem was, that the research I was working on wasn’t quite right for the venue. The conference was mostly aimed at paleoclimatologists, the people who shimmy through cracks in the ground and disappear into the caves below, emerging later with carefully selected bits of stalactites and stalagmites, which they then use to map out the course of the earth’s climate history. While there were several paleoclimatologists in my department, I was not among them. My work straddled the line between social science and physical science. I was writing my dissertation on karst landscapes — areas of limestone bedrock where landforms like sinkholes, freshwater springs, and caves directly connect the surface to the water table below — and the application of local land use policy to protect these sensitive environments. The tools of my trade were mapping and econometrics software packages, not headlamps and handsaws. 

Luckily, my advisor had a plan for some new research for me. We’d just make the 90-minute drive from campus up to Citrus County and get a look at the surface-level features of the Ozello karst plain. 

Our research outing took maybe three or four hours. The bright sun eased the chill of a brisk, late-winter day. We found what we were looking for near a patch of wetlands: deeply pockmarked and worn limestone with no soil covering. I took some photos, made some notes, wrote up some results — really just observations, as we performed no experiments — and my advisor took care of the rest. A few weeks later, I got the word: I was in. 

None of which meant I actually understood much about the presentation I’d written. All I’d demonstrated was that I could describe the physical features of the Ozello karst plain using the appropriate terminology. But I didn’t think that’d be an issue. The presentations I’d already given had taken place in neglected, nearly empty meeting room annexes, where I explained work that had taken me months — or even years — to the four or five other people also presenting in the session, as well as their advisors. Occasionally, a working representative from building maintenance might also be there, though he was likely more interested in the room’s glitchy HVAC system. I already knew this new presentation had been shunted off into a session called “Other Topics in Karst,” an intellectual catchment area for work that didn’t quite fit with the conference’s paleoclimate ethos. So why worry about perfecting a presentation no one would see or remember when I had my dissertation to write? 

Most of the conference sessions were either over my head or soporific. So I snuck out the back to explore what I could of the town before my advisor noticed my absence. I quickly became captivated by the place. Baile Herculane was the very picture of decaying 19th-century elegance. It had once been a favorite getaway spot for the Austrian imperial couple, Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Sisi, who also bankrolled the construction of many of the town’s more ornate buildings. As recently as the 1960s, party apparatchiks and lumpenproletariat alike flocked there every summer, to while away their vacations and soak in the natural hot springs, the town’s still-enduring claim to fame. But time and neglect had taken their toll: the grand old hotels and bath houses built in the Viennese style had been crumbling for decades. I imagined stylish guests from another era, people of leisure lounging beneath the arches and gazing out over the green below, enjoying a relaxing smoke just before dusk. Up the street, the imposing, Communist-era hotel towers weren’t faring much better, having been converted into tenements. 

As the days went on, I found myself thinking about changing my dissertation topic. I could write it on the geography of abandoned places. Would that even be feasible? I’d only be losing the roughly eighteen months I’d already invested in researching a topic that was a little less interesting to me with each passing day. The time was a sunk cost: I’d never get it back either way. 

Naturally, “Other Topics in Karst” opened to a full house, with more spectators than available seats. The session was in the conference center’s main auditorium, a long, wood-paneled room designed to accommodate a hundred people. Latecomers leaned against the back wall and sat in the aisle. The entire room buzzed with conversation and energy. 

My stomach dropped the moment I entered the room. For a moment, I thought — okay, maybe hoped is more accurate — I was in the wrong place. But no, there was my advisor, up near the front of the room.  

I’d be presenting in front of this group? Wasn’t there another paleoclimatology session happening in a different room somewhere? There must have been. Why weren’t these people there, instead of early for a session that has nothing to do with the topic of this conference? 

I recovered my composure and sought out my advisor. “This place is packed,” I said. 

“Yeah, these ‘other topics’ sessions usually are,” he said, and immediately I understood. Even paleoclimatologists need a palate cleanser after three full days of nonstop paleoclimatology. I should have seen this coming. 

For the first time, it occurred to me that there may have been some flaws in my preparation for this presentation. 

But perhaps all was not lost. I’d lectured to classes larger than this lot, and I knew I’d rehearsed my presentation enough to at least appear polished and professional in my delivery. And maybe, if I went just a little too fast, nobody would have time to come up with any questions. 

It was a tactic that had worked for me before. Why couldn’t it work here? 

My presentation was fourth on the session’s agenda. I stared up at the screen as I waited, blankly watching slides full of incomprehensible graphs and tables flip past, applauding politely in the right spots. I retained none of what was said. When my turn came, I shook the tension out of my shoulders and stepped up to the podium, doing my best to project a calm I did not feel. But that was beside the point. I just needed everyone else to think I felt it. If I could convince them of that, maybe I could convince myself. 

More than a hundred people stared back at me, daring me to justify my presence among them.  

I could do this. 

Everything was under control. 

I took a deep breath, opened my mouth, and plunged ahead. 

I don’t remember many details about the presentation itself; the last copy of the deck was on a laptop I lost to water damage a couple of years later. I do remember that it was short, no more than eight or nine slides, mostly maps and photos. I dutifully described the physical traits of Ozello’s karst plain as I clicked along. There was a diagram of Ozello’s water table in there somewhere. A brief mention of what made this particular spot unique, or at least unusual enough to care about. 

Then something unexpected happened. About halfway through the deck, all fear of the Q&A at the end just … vanished. Not because I’d dug deep and found some hidden reservoir of confidence to draw upon. It was because that’s when I realized just how lightweight my presentation actually was. There was no real meat to it, no interesting ideas to tease out, no controversial methods to debate and defend. It was about as substantial as a muffled sneeze. What possible questions could there even be? 

“Are there any questions?” I asked when I was done.  

Hands shot up. At least a dozen of them, maybe more. 

“What about—” 

“Could you elaborate on—” 

“On the fifth slide, you said—” 

There were more. Many more. I could answer exactly none of them. I tried to bluff my way through the first two or three, but no one was fooled; one Dutch researcher in particular was relentless in trying to pin me down. I then took a different tack, hoping that admitting ignorance enough times in a row would eventually convince the room that asking more questions was pointless. “That’s an excellent question,” I kept saying, “but I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for it.” I even tried to pawn one off on my advisor, who was listed as a co-author of the presentation, but he just shook his head: if I was to drown, I would do it alone. 

Then, in response to what turned out to be the final question of the session, I fumbled a basic piece of terminology and a tweedy, desiccated old man in the front row sneered and spat out the correct term with acidic contempt. In the moment, I didn’t know who he was, but I found out later. There were two foundational texts of the discipline that every karst researcher had read. One of them was by William B. White, a delightful man whom I would meet under far more pleasant circumstances a year or two later. The other was by this guy. 

That’s when the moderator finally euthanized the Q&A. Whether he did it because we were running out of time or because he couldn’t stomach any more of the bloodletting on the stage, I couldn’t say. There was some polite applause as I stalked off the stage and out the heavy double door at the back of the room. My face was burning. I’d never been so mortified in my life. I had just revealed myself as a silly dilettante in front of a room of hard-core experts. I was a phony, a poseur, the most contemptible thing a person could be. I couldn’t think of a single coherent thought, other than that I never wanted to face any of those people ever again. 

Back in my room, I stared out the window at the kiosks below. I wondered if any of them sold booze. I should have left it all to the paleoclimatologists, I remember thinking. This conference, this town, this whole stupid country. They were welcome to it. 

Just before the sun set behind the low-slung mountain range west of town, we all piled into the motley assemblage of dented minivans and scuffed rental cars and drove north, out past the edge of town. I rode shotgun in a creaky, Soviet-era Lada sedan, a relic of Romania’s bad old days. It had that familiar old-car smell I’ve always found so comforting, a faint aroma of rubber and gasoline and the soft tang of body odor. Before long, we were deep in the countryside, watching the late-day sunlight gently flit between the lush, broad leaves of the trees carpeting the valley’s steep sides. There were no buildings out there, no streetlights. Then, after about ten more minutes, the driver — one of the local geologists attending the conference, tall and stick-thin, indeterminate age, salt-and-pepper hair with a thick beard and wearing John Lennon-style sunglasses — yanked the wheel without warning, plunging us straight into the darkness of the woods. We went bounding along a trail I couldn’t see. But the geologist seemed to know it well enough; a lit cigarette casually dangling from his lips, he was as relaxed as I was restless. 

Any minute, I expected our little caravan to spill into a large clearing, perhaps a gravel-covered parking lot surrounding a slowly rotting shack where a tired Romanian woman sold drinks and cigarettes to bathers. But when we did finally stop — rather suddenly so, in fact — there was none of that: no parking spaces, no kiosk, no lights, no benches, no infrastructure at all. Instead, there was just a hole in the ground, filled with warm salt water, just as primitive as you like. 

Car doors flew open and people began piling into the spring. Twenty or thirty of us, all told. As I expected, nobody was naked. I stripped down to my underwear and lowered myself into the brackish warmth of the spring. 

Maybe it was nothing more than confirmation bias, but the legendary magic of the springs seemed to take hold almost immediately. The tension ebbed from my shoulders and lower back, the spots where I tend to carry my troubles. Someone handed me a beer; someone else built a fire. It was a proper party now, with laughter and horseplay and simultaneous conversations in at least four different languages. I wondered for a moment if any of them were about me and how I tanked the presentation, or how I was in just my boxer shorts like a yokel. But nobody pointed my way and laughed, or even surreptitiously glanced in my direction. I couldn’t quite convince myself that they’d forgotten what happened earlier, but the fact that they didn’t seem to care was enough. 

The sun faded. Soon the stars were visible through the treetops, the night sky impossibly black between them. It had been a long time since I’d seen the sky look like this. 

My advisor sidled up next to me, like a crocodile stalking its prey in the Everglades. “I’m glad you decided to come,” he said. “It would have been a shame for you to miss this.” 

“I’m thinking of changing my topic,” I said. “To the geography of abandoned places.” 

“Hmmm,” he said drily. “It might be too late for that. And even if it weren’t, you’d need a new advisor, since that isn’t really my field.”  

A year and a half later, I would go on to successfully defend my dissertation, on its original topic. But nothing much ever comes of it. Despite sending out roughly 300 copies of my CV over the next four or five years, a tenure-track job never materializes. Instead, I spend those years hustling classes as an adjunct professor, a gig worker of academia, teaching courses no one else wants for fast-food wages and no benefits. I tell myself it’s a stepping stone to the dream, that I’ll keep going until I’ve spent more time trying to land a tenure-track job than it took to earn the credential I needed to apply in the first place. At first, that day seems impossibly distant. But then, rudely and without fanfare, it actually arrives. 

“You just came out at the wrong time,” my advisor will say when I complain about the stingy job market, and he will shrug as if this is just some unfortunate thing that is happening to someone else. Which, from his point of view, I suppose is true. 

I stop sending out CVs and go back to sending out resumés. I unfriend all my grad school colleagues on Facebook because I can’t bear to read about their professional successes, then add them back months later. (They all understand why I ghosted them.) It takes a while, but eventually, I find work in another field. 

But all of that was still a ways off. Right then, I was 6,000 miles from home, lounging in an uncharted hot spring in the middle of a Romanian mountain forest, drinking beers and laughing and sharing the moment with two or three dozen near-strangers from all over the world. 

And when it became obvious the party had finally run its course and we all climbed out of that enchanted little hole in the ground and gathered up our clothes, we discovered that sometime during the evening, someone had swiped all the wallets.•


Spencer Fleury is a fiction and travel writer living in San Francisco and the author of the novel How I'm Spending My Afterlife. He has worked as a professor, copywriter, sailor, and record store clerk, among other disreputable professions. His second book, entitled I Blame Myself But Also You (and other stories), will be published in 2024 by Malarkey Books. Find him at