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CENTERPIECE : Reinventing Wheeler : The popular, remote hot springs has faced fire and rain, family tragedies, and now, obstacles to an ambitious expansion plan.

March 25, 1993|LEONARD REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OJAI — If anything, Jenny Sullivan is articulate. The accomplished director of "The Baby Dance," which played off-Broadway last year, Sullivan has long devoted herself to finding just the right words at just the right moment.

Except when Wheeler Hot Springs is the subject.

That's when Sullivan goes, well, ga-ga.

"There's something about that place," she says. "It's a very powerful spot, a very charged place."

She pauses, as if preparing to explain, then adds:

" Really charged."

OK.

Can she be specific? Yes: Once or twice a month, her work schedule permitting, Sullivan drives from her home in Santa Barbara up the winding Route 33 six miles north of Ojai to Wheeler, where she soaks for a half-hour in a roiling 104-degree sulfureous mineral bath. Then she takes a deep massage. Sometimes, she'll stay for dinner at the restaurant. Either way the result is the same:

"It changes my whole way of being," she says. "It's about clarity. I do it for the clarity. That's what's important in life, after all, isn't it?"

Another pause.

"That water has got to do something to you."

It does. And it has for years, probably thousands of them.

Chumash Indians were drawn to the springs here and downriver, at Matilija Springs, not only for salubrious bathing but in the belief that the hot waters, rising from magma deep within the Earth, were conduit to certain gods ruling their fate. Spanish missionaries clambering on horseback up the rocky Ventura River bed and up the north fork of Matilija Creek discovered the springs anew.

And then, in the late 1800s, as Ojai itself would take form and the Chumash go extinct, entrepreneurial settlers would do the modern thing: Buy the land featuring the pungent springs, put a meter on them and build a road whose terminus would be within sulfur-sniffing range. The charge to take of the waters would be nominal. But the world, once word got out, would show up for a bath.

It did, almost.

When Wheeler Hot Springs was first established, more than 100 years ago, it grew into a resort of regional note, with moneyed Easterners, having read Charles Nordhoff's writings about magical Ojai in Harpers, adding it to their vacation destinations. Full tilt, the place boasted a dance hall, bowling alley, restaurant, hotel, cabins and tent sites, a licensed U.S. Post Office, horseback riding, deer hunting, massage services, soaking tubs at the sulfureous spring, and a rectangular "plunge" pool whose waters promised everything from improved circulation and digestion to alleviation of arthritis and kidney dysfunction. People would simply go to Wheeler to feel better, and many, like Jenny Sullivan, got hooked.

But as quickly as success arrived, so did the strangeness, the natural and man-made disasters, and the human tragedies that have marked Wheeler's century of existence.

What Sullivan calls a "charged" place is really an 85-acre cleft of land between steep, vaulting mountains covered in mixed chaparral, live oak, Venturan coastal sage scrub, white alder forest, and, incongruously, palm trees. At 1,200 feet above sea level, the land is savage, muscular, Guatemalan. While neither tropical nor truly of the desert, it is green in winter and given to sudden slides, erosion, wild swings in the natural order of things. It is cut through by the creek, in dry weather a charming gurgler, in pounding winter rains a surging river so thick with tan silt it appears as foaming coffee. The land, plainly, is as unforgiving as it is beautiful. And it has ruled its inhabitants and shaped Wheeler's troubling history with brute force.

Fires have raged through here, leveling the place and killing people. Floods have crashed through here, tossing boulders like pebbles, removing some Wheeler buildings like toys and filling others with ooze, ancient silt raked from canyons of the Santa Ynez mountains looming above.

And fortunes--both financial and personal--have simply vanished: Proprietors have lost their minds, succumbed to unaccountable damages, been foreclosed upon, committed suicide. The current owners lost the unthinkable: a son, to a tree toppled by the weight of its own capillary water, and an employee, in the same haunting, improbable accident.

Nature and fate have consistently punched Wheeler down to size. Today the place functions as a day-stop, with no overnight accommodations or amenity beyond hot tubs, a pool and a restaurant. It is an anorexic, if classier, version of its go-go turn-of-the-century self.

Still, Wheeler's lure is strong, even charged, and people keep trying to make a go of it here.

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