The stars aligned for me during this reporting experience at 217 Float in Champaign. For one thing, I was able to transcend into a deep, meditative state, which I think makes the story more interesting and the floating pod more attractive to readers. I’ve found it’s not always a given that I can attain a meditative state every time I set out to do it, so I’m glad I could for this piece.
Secondly, the fact that the other “main character” in the story, Madison, attended the same concert I was at in Chicago the night before … well, it was just an amazing coincidence that was hard to believe. Madison’s admission about being a high-strung person and under a lot of pressure made for the perfect opening, considering the story was about a business that specialized in relaxation.
Lastly, I would like to make a plea to an enterprising, entrepreneurial individual or individuals in Champaign-Urbana: Please bring back 217 Float! The place sadly closed not long after this piece was published, and I’ve longed for it ever since.
Dusk has settled across southwest Champaign as I enter 217 Float at the Village at the Crossing complex. It’s a pleasantly cool Saturday evening, and I’m wearing my Underwerewolves T-shirt, khaki shorts, and well-worn flip-flops on my feet.
Twenty-year-old Madison O’Donnell greets me from behind the desk in the lobby. It’s her second day on the job. We chat and I discover she’s a former pitcher on the softball team at North Central College in Naperville and wasn’t happy there. Madison now attends the University of Illinois and might try out for the Illini softball team in three weeks, though she isn’t for sure. Classes are tough and she has anxiety. She likes to be in control of situations and feels off if she can’t maintain a steady, well-planned-out schedule every day.
Given those issues, Madison might work at the most perfect place in town.
I’m about to experience an hourlong floating session for the third time in my life. I’ll climb into and zonk out in an oval-shaped “dream-pod,” which to me resembles a large white egg with shallow saltwater. The liquid in the pod contains 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt that allows a person to float, which in turn leads to instant relaxation. The supposed benefits of floating in super-salty water include improved blood pressure, increased endorphin levels, enhanced creativity, and, for me, a thorough cleansing of the mind. When I’ve climbed out of that egg in the past, I’m as mellow as I imagine a person can be.
Madison, who’s floated four times, also feels her stress melt away in the pod.
“I’m on the go, go, go all the time,” she says, snapping her fingers each time she says the word “go.” “So, when I do have this hour to just, like, unwind and not think about anything, I think that it really honestly helps me. I look at it like therapy.”
For three years, Madison has been dating the 19-year-old son of the manager of 217 Float, Michelle Namoff. His name is Mike, and he’s a catcher for the North Central College baseball team. Sometimes she’ll pitch to Mike, and after grueling workouts that put her arm to the test, Madison says floating eases the pain in her tired muscles.
Amie Toews of Champaign walks to the front desk as Madison and I talk. She has just finished her floating session.
“How’d you like it?” Madison asks Amie.
“Oh, my gosh.”
“Wasn’t it great?”
“That was so refreshing. It was amazing. It felt so good.”
Amie’s hair is still wet and she’s not wearing makeup. She jokes that she doesn’t want her picture taken because of how she looks, but she has a rejuvenated, happy aura. Her friend and hairdresser who works at Rod Sickler Salon & Spa, which adjoins 217 Float, was the person who recommended she try floating. Amie’s friend said floating in the pod leads to feeling like you’re falling asleep but not fully snoozing. Other people who have floated undoubtedly have other opinions. My experience is that floating can lead to a deep meditative state.
Floaters are asked to use the bathroom and rinse off in the shower prior to their session, and contacts should be removed from the eyes before floating. I ask to have the music in the pod turned off, and I don’t want the white-noise air filter next to the pod turned on—I want total silence. I leave the light on in the pod, which gives the water and interior various color tones, and then I ease myself into the thickish water.
The saltwater is just this side of warm and has a milky sensation but is clear. My skin feels super slick in it. I stretch out in the water … and float.
The previous night I attended a Bruno Mars concert with my wife, Jill, and stepson, Logan, at the United Center in Chicago. It was an electrifying show, but it also made me feel like I’m not as young as I used to be. There were—I’m guessing—18,000 fans in attendance, many of them singing, dancing, and drinking, living it up on a Friday night like I used to do. We sat on the second level of the arena, just behind the stage on the left side, not far from ear-splitting fireworks that must have gone off at least 10 times. I wore foam ear plugs and Jill and Logan made fun of me. By the end of the night, they wanted to use the extra pairs I had brought.
Now worlds away from that cavernous arena that can get darned loud, I’m wearing the waxy ear plugs that floaters in the pod are required to insert. It’s peaceful and my limbs feel heavy in the water, though that will change in several minutes. I decide I want to lose myself in meditation and begin breathing slowly and deeply. My breath is loud in my ears, but that’s all right—it helps me concentrate on nothing but inhaling and exhaling.
For some reason my eyes want to stay slightly open, so through slits I can vaguely formulate those hues of color. At first I see a yellowish tinge that reminds me of sunbathing without the intense heat. Later I absorb a blue tone, and still later, white. As I become more relaxed, my breathing eases and a tomb-like silence pervades.
I reach the edge of a meditative state, and I know I’m going to fully get there. When I do, my arms and legs feel as if they’re nonexistent. I have an out-of-body experience and envision just my head poking out of the water. I’m simply gone, and it’s hard to rise up and out of the water when the recorded female voice surprises me out of my trance, informing me that the session is over.
The low-lit dressing-room where the pod is located is spacious and luxurious—floaters can spoil themselves at 217 Float. I shower again and dress slowly, feeling numbed-out but extremely good. I put my contacts back in and forego using the provided hair gel by the sink since it’s almost 9 p.m.—who cares how my hair looks at this point in the day?
Michelle, the manager, is standing by the front counter with Madison as I’m leaving, helping to close up shop. She knows I was in Chicago and asks how the trip went. I tell her about the Bruno Mars concert, and Madison informs me that she was also in attendance. She watched the show on the floor, just 20 rows back from the stage on the left side. I doubt the fireworks at the concert set a 20-year-old on edge as much as they did me. My ultra-relaxed state lasted through the rest of the night and into Sunday morning, when I thought of the song “Perm” by Bruno Mars, from his latest album. There’s a line in the tune in which Mars tells listeners—doing his best James Brown impression—“Ya gotta relax.” I wonder if the energetic entertainer has ever floated. It accomplishes what he recommends.
Photos by Sal Nudo