In the Tank
”I do everything in the bathroom in the dark,” Teddem Yee told me while sinking into a sofa in the lobby of Float On, which is now the largest sensory deprivation center in the country. It was 10:45 in the evening in Portland, Oregon, and the room was humming with chatter; a casual conversation among a handful of customers had inadvertently become a mini-symposium on the subject of lying in a shallow pool of water in the dark. Yee stared into a mug of tea, elongating his vowels with a meaningful gravity, like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. At home, he explained, he often fills his bathtub with water and sleeps in it overnight.
Just before 11 pm, Yee left the lobby and walked into a soundproof room to shower. Once clean, he entered a floor-to-ceiling chamber containing a skin-temperature soup of Epsom salts and water, with a specific gravity greater than that of the Dead Sea. Then he closed the hatch. Pressing a button, he extinguished the isolation tank’s dim blue light and lay down on the surface of the liquid, in silence, in the dark, alone. A typical float lasts ninety minutes, but he had done that. He wanted to float for twenty-four hours.
Yee revels in long stretches of solitude. He earns a living pulling stumps from the ground and pruning trees in yards and estates all over Oregon. He had just returned from his vacation, a four-day walking trip from Portland to the Pacific coast, “taking old logging roads” by himself. Before heading into the tank, he gestured to his feet: swollen skin bulged around his sandal straps. Floating, he said, would heal this self-inflicted abuse.
“Solitude as well as society has its pleasures,” Edmund Burke wrote in the middle of the eighteenth century as he worked out his aesthetics of the sublime and the beautiful, but “an entire life of solitude contradicts the purposes of our being, since death itself is scarcely an idea of more terror.” Likewise, if you utter the words “isolation tank” or “sensory deprivation” to most people, they imagine Guantánamo Bay detainees wearing thick earmuffs and opaque goggles, their hands covered and bound, their heads bowed as if in prayer. This is one reason why float centers prefer the more casual term “floating” to “sensory deprivation,” and why scientists who study the benefits of floating favor the phrase “Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy,” or REST. Of course, there’s a deeper difference: prisoners at Guantánamo don’t get to choose when to make their world go dark.
Everyone who walked back into the lobby after a float glowed with a mixture of confidence and tranquility. It seemed they had absorbed it from the tanks. A young woman in a white dress emerged from one of the rooms, wet hair hanging against her back, a black purse in the crook of her arm. She strode by a shelf that held a column of color-therapy eyeglasses. (Each pair is a different hue, and each hue corresponds to a mood the wearer might want to inhabit.) She paid $50 at the register for her float and left. That afternoon, I had watched a customer slice into a chocolate-covered scone that a baker had delivered in exchange for free floats. As he held the pastry carefully over his white linen pants, a fellow floater sat beside him. He turned to her with an enviable calm and said, “I wish I could have my first time again.”
* * *
Quinn Zepeda, one of Float On’s owners, told me that his first time in the tank was “magical.” On an autumn day in Southern California, a week before he moved to Portland, he looked for a float facility near his home after having watched a YouTube video in which former Fear Factor host Joe Rogan rhapsodized about sensory deprivation. Zepeda remembers how “my senses were all heightened, things tasted better, my nose worked—which it never does. It was sunset over Venice Beach, and everything was just amplified.”
First times in the tank can be disappointing, too. During mine, I had an ache in my neck, Lana Del Rey warbled ceaselessly through my head, and I suddenly remembered my fear of the dark. Graham Talley, another Float On owner and Zepeda’s best friend from high school, commiserated: Zepeda had encouraged him to float, but it took him a dozen sessions before he finally got into it.
A few years after college, Zepeda and Talley headed north from California to Oregon. At a housewarming party in Portland’s Southeast neighborhood, where Float On would eventually appear, they sipped beer and discussed their idea for a sensory deprivation tank business. The two entrepreneurs surveyed the local floating scene and mostly found a few older people, veterans of sensory deprivation’s first wave of consumer popularity in the 1970s and ’80s, who were renting out time for floats in the single tanks they maintained in their homes. “It was mysterious to us,” Talley recalled: “why it wasn’t bigger, what was keeping it down, if there actually was a business there.” Zepeda and Talley heard that a float shop was closing in Ashland, a small city with a big Shakespeare festival, and they drove out to buy its two tanks. They asked the owner if business had dried up. No, he told them, plenty of people were still coming in. He just wanted to slip off the grid for a while.
Back in Portland, Zepeda and Talley had coffee with Christopher Messer, one of the sensory deprivation veterans they had met while surveying the local float scene, and asked if he wanted to join their enterprise. Messer said yes, and the three partners signed a lease for a space next to an old shoe repair shop on a quiet stretch of SE Hawthorne Boulevard, a street lined with the kind of establishments for which Portland is known: an artisanal pizza restaurant, a gourmet grocery, and several vintage and designer clothing stores. To their two Ashland tanks, they added the one Messer had been using in Portland and another he kept in Astoria. In 2010, Float On opened its doors as the largest flotation center on the West Coast. (My cousin Ashkahn came on as a fourth owner shortly thereafter and helped them build soundproof walls.)
When I spoke with Zepeda and Talley this year about their business, the rent increases on their up-and-coming section of SE Hawthorne—where the new neighbors include a fancy fresh juice stand and a second gourmet grocery—had forced the shoe repair shop to move. But floating was on the rise. Sensory deprivation shops were starting to appear everywhere along the West Coast, from the Bay Area to Seattle. Spa owners dragged tanks out of storage. Two centers, inspired by Float On, opened on either side of the Willamette River in Portland. Float On itself had doubled its hours—it’s open virtually twenty-four hours a day, with tank maintenance on Monday afternoons and evenings—and spots are often reserved a couple of weeks in advance. Zepeda and Talley turned the shoe repairman’s vacated shop into their own and were building two large chambers in which customers could stand and spread their arms and legs out completely, like Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Once the two tanks were finished, Float On could say it had more tanks than any other center in the country. It could also claim to be a hub for the growing sensory deprivation movement. Last month, Float On held its second annual Float Conference. More than 200 float researchers, sensory deprivation technologists and industry representatives filed into the Portland Center for the Performing Arts to hear their experts and leaders speak.
The public had learned of Float On through The Portland Mercury and Channel 8 News, free float promotions or word of mouth. Car accident victims, relaxation evangelists, athletes, alcoholics and all-purpose spiritualists crept into the darkness to lie down; what they discovered, the owners say, is that floating relieves pain by easing the force of gravity on the skeleton, boosts the immune system by lulling you into a state of light sleep, and enhances performance in sports by helping your muscles repair more quickly from the trauma of training. (After decades, the scientific research into float tank REST, though voluminous, is still in its infancy.) As for the spiritualists, a skeptical customer who hangs around the shop talking to people after their sessions told me: “They truly believe in happy auras left behind in the tank from other floaters. I’ve heard all sorts of crazy stories. Usually, I just smile and nod.”