NAPA VALLEY — I'm getting myself in really hot water. First I got coated in mud hip-deep. Then I lay about indulgently for an eternity. Then I splashed about in a mini-water park. Now I'm sliding into scalding water to lie about some more. After that, I'll rest again.
This wholly un-Puritan episode is by design. I'm at a hot springs resort in Calistoga, the gloriously easygoing small town at the top end of the Napa Valley, and I'm doing something Westerners have done for thousands of years, in the same place, maybe even the same fashion. Well, maybe not -- there are those cucumber slices. More on that in a minute.
Northern California is the world capital of laissez-faire hot-spring soaking. Within a few hours drive of one another, Calistoga, Harbin Hot Springs and Wilbur Hot Springs offer relaxation, restoration and the sort of only-in-California experiences that make you think, hmm, didn't I see this in a movie?
At Indian Springs Resort and Spa in Calistoga, for instance, the hot-mud treatment starts when I lie down in a concrete basin filled with hip-deep indigo goop and attendants ladle more atop my torso. It's the most penetrating warmth I've ever encountered. Makes your bones feel like muffins. Your joints turn to mohair.
It's volcanic ash mud, locally sourced, as they say these days (dug out back with a backhoe). Though I lobby for more, my repose here is limited to 10 minutes, because, "We don't want to cook you into noodle soup." Despite the time limit, the relaxation effect is sufficient to convince me hours have passed.
Then, in succession, I'm led to a pummeling shower where I hose off the mud; over to a deep tub of hot mineral-geyser water for a follow-up 15-minute soak; then under a cool shower to restore thermal normalcy. Then a session in a steam room, then another shower. Then I'm led like an old horse down a hall to an austere resting room where I can lie quietly for an indefinite while. The attendant places a slice of cucumber over each eyelid. Yes, really.
"There seems to be something about cucumber that enhances the cool, calming effect," she explains. "Maybe it's aromatherapy."
Maybe so. More time passes, cucumber-aided. I can sip on cucumber-lemon water when I wish. Detect a theme here? I daydream of cucumber finger sandwiches in a Kensington-district London hotel. Then pickles intervene. Lemon dill gherkin pickles. Strange where the mind goes, left free to wander the labyrinthine hallways of indolence.
Eventually, I rise and dress and stroll around the resort. It's autumn, and the weather is way better than in London -- 65 degrees, a pleasant, hazy sunshine, light breeze ruffling the palm leaves overhead.
On the slight rise overlooking the quiet compound of cottages and rooms, the huge Indian Springs pool, a historic 1917 facility, wafts mist into the afternoon air. On a ridge beside it, geysers thrum and throb steam. In the pool I find acres of unoccupied 102-degree mineral water in which I can float and splash and let the scent of sulfur supplant cucumber essence.
The name, Indian Springs, harks back to the supposed use of the geyser water and warm mud by Native Americans of the region, a factoid that struck me as, well, colorful, until I chatted with a hot springs expert, Dennis Griffin, who did his master's thesis on indigenous use of West Coast hot springs.
Many tribes consider them sacred sites and would not tell Griffin exactly what their traditions entailed, but he made a point of visiting almost every hot spring west of the Rockies and north of Sacramento. Now Oregon's state historic preservation officer, he learned that sweat lodges were often built on platforms above the springs for spiritual ceremonies, and westering pioneers used hot spring mud to pack the bearings in their wagon wheels -- not to mention bathing and washing their clothes in the springs themselves.
Bathing (with soap) is now verboten, by custom and regulation, in most hot springs, including commercial developments such as Indian Springs. I would have said that sacred uses were also history, until I visited Harbin.
In the early 20th century, this property outside Middletown was the Harbin Health & Pleasure Resort. Now, it's a retreat complex that is the world center for the Heart Consciousness Church, a New Age outpost of the human potential movement (paraphrasing its own description). Here visitors meditate, reflect and practice bedroom yoga, or what Harbin calls "unconditional dance."
I missed the latter, but I did discover that a visit to Harbin is itself an unconditional dance with cultural adventure.
Harbin's central feature is its Hot Pool, whose 113-degree water issues from an altar-like fixture in the wall above the pool. This is, to devotees, a sacred place, so I must wait my turn to descend the ladder into the pool. As dark descends, I head outside to a cooler, larger pool. There are a dozen or so of us here, people of various descriptions, ages and garbs, including, of course, none.