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The Soaking Saga

A weekend hedonist embarks on a waterlogged pilgrimage to the weird and wonderful hot springs of Northern California.


Pool of paradise: A visitor contemplates the rising steam at an outdoor pool at Wilbur Hot Springs.

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Dr. Wilkinson’s is the hot springs as roadside attraction.

Photo: Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs Resort

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Vichy Springs Resort dates to the 19th century.

Photo: Rick Love

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The dome at Sierra Hot Springs features a hot pool and a cold pool, allowing guests to plunge from one extreme to the other. 

Photo: Jivan Child

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The Fairmont is at the high end of the luxury spectrum, complete with ethereal underwater music.

Photo: Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa

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Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories about our relationship with the natural world, which San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the May 2017 Great Outdoors Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

Colusa County

When the almond trees wake up, they snowcap the Central Valley with blooms that, because of some trick of luminescence, are both pure white and soft pink. Spring comes to the valley so hard that bees have to be trucked in to pollinate it all. Everything, everywhere, is green the way we’ve come to think of another place being green—Oz or Costa Rica or some similar imaginary kingdom. California is bursting with life, but it’s been overwatered and now it’s starting to fall apart, crumbling back into a primordial state and taking the roads with it.

My girlfriend, Janet, and I are trying to reach a place called Wilbur Hot Springs, but highway closures from landslides in southwestern Colusa County and wrong turns have led us through a landscape so verdant it’s getting obnoxious. What we had in mind was to “take the waters” at a bunch of hot springs over the course of a few days in late winter. To dabble in weekend hedonism among the places where native tribes figured out how to make physical and spiritual use of the superheated soup bubbling out of the ground, and where white people later figured out how to sell it. The appeal endures. People in nearby urban centers go about their business, live in houses, stream programming. Then some of them go and sit, sometimes naked, in ancient hot water. Far from civilization, they commune. A late-blooming nudist and nature lover myself, I find that these strange places plug into atavistic, near-pagan impulses that modern life has mostly stomped out.

Eventually we get to Wilbur. Finally, paradise: a small valley with a meandering creek and tasteful wooden buildings and fences for the privacy of naked people who want nothing more than to appreciate nature while slowly boiling alive. Of all the hot springs on our list, Wilbur is the purest and most unadorned version of what I’m looking for.

It’s 4 p.m., and day visitors have to be out by 5. We have to wheedle, cajole, and sulk until the staff tack on an extra hour. It feels a bit odd, haggling in nirvana. “Come and heal yourself in our tranquil waters, but be off the property by 6 p.m.,” Janet says. We park, grab a couple of tiny rusty bicycles, and ride clownishly to the pools, where we strip amid a small handful of other nudes. “Hurry up and relax,” I say to Janet.

Three flumes circulate water in the Japanese onsen–style bathhouse. Outside are two more pools, a sauna, and a fattened creek. It is tranquil in the flumarium. I step down onto what I think is a stair into a pool. It is not a stair. It is a floating board there for some obscure, possibly mystic purpose. I tumble horribly into the peaceable waters.

Luckily, my nudity breaks my fall. Because we are in the silent-contemplation flume, Janet cackles soundlessly. “I wish you could’ve seen it,” she mimes.

To do that, I’d have had to somehow be both of us, subject and object, or possibly the only other witness, a fully dressed young woman dipping her feet in the water. We’d all have had to be one, in other words, which is kind of the point of all this. Communion, shared being, the dissolution of the almighty “I” via nudity.

Sierra County 

The story of the human-geothermal relationship in this part of the world goes like this: The springs were used by native tribes as far back as 12,000 years ago. In the early 1820s, Spanish missionaries came along; later, the European health resort craze brought the well-heeled and infirm. These places all fell into disrepair for one reason or another until around the 1970s, when the New Age movement got people interested again. That’s how it was with Wilbur, too, which, like the other springs, serves a hodgepodge of seekers, mystics, honeymooners, and weekenders.

A few years ago, early in my hot springs fascination, I went to Sierra Hot Springs in the foothills near Lake Tahoe. It’s stunning country. There’s a lodge and an old hotel, a total of 15 rooms. In summer, campers set up tent communities on the property. Guest chefs come through. The nearby amenities are charming and haphazard, like what you make at the edge of society out of the leftover scraps of civilization. There’s a very hot pool and a cold pool under a dome. You go from one to the other, a thrilling physical sensation that Finns and Minnesotans have incorporated into their regional identities. Outside the dome, a warm pool serves as the social hub of the place, where people soak, swim, and sit naked in the sun and read. I’m convinced everyone checks everyone else out. A sign in the dome admonishes against sexual activity in the pools, which strongly suggests that sexual activity has taken place.

Or at least fantasizing. Down the way from the lodge is a meditation pool sitting out in the middle of a field. One morning during that previous visit, I was finishing a soak when a beautiful woman appeared and disrobed. Edenic fantasies stirred as she approached, lowered herself into the pool, and began eating yogurt out of a Tupperware tub.

Looking back, I realize that moment encapsulated for me the hot springs experience—the tension between the erotic and the mundane. Still soaking in the pool at Wilbur, I turn to Janet to share this insight, but she’s left to get dressed, having succumbed to her own tension about departing on time. We leave Wilbur at magic hour, when the sun pours low and golden through the valley and wakes up the light inside every stalk of bamboo and curl of the creek, and which is well before 6 o’clock.

Sonoma County

Every hot springs in California has its own take on hot bubbling water, philosophically, aesthetically, economically. Yoga is standard everywhere, as is massage. Beyond that, the experience ranges, as does clothing optionality.

We slide down the spectrum from hippie to yuppie by taking the high-end waters of the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa. The waters of Boyes Hot Springs are piped up from 1,100 feet below and into the resort’s spa for all sorts of treatments, massages, and workshops. I opt for the Bathing Ritual, which requires swimsuits. In an oblong room, bathers move among showers, pools, steam rooms. Along one wall is a rain room with push-button Bellagio fountain effects and, at the end, a mysterious wooden bucket that turns out to be full of cold water that teleports the nervous system directly to Helsinki.

In the Jacuzzi, a woman named Jeanette says there’s a French lady employed by the spa who comes in and glares when people get too loud. This isn’t surprising. An autocratic thread runs through the culture of the bathing rituals at all these places. There are people who tell you how it should be done. Whether it’s silent-contemplation flumes or a no-screwing policy, the appeal to release and relax comes with a lot of rules. (Note the supremacy of the 10-to-5 day-use hours.) Silence, as they say, must be maintained.

All the talk in the saunas is about the pool in the upper courtyard. There’s apparently music that mysteriously wafts in. I head over. People float on blue pool noodles under palms. I use the steps, which are real, to get in. It’s heated perfectly—perfectly, like liquid dopamine—but no music. I bob awkwardly on my pool noodle. I lean my head back into the water, confused.

I hear it. The music is coming from inside the water. Whales play ethereal synthesizers. Otters thrum marimbas. Octopi reach into my brain and turn off the electric field that keeps the self separate from the rest of the universe. I feel like I’m dead, or how they make you think really good death should be. 

Mendocino County

My mind roams back three, four million years. I watch the Coast Ranges roll up out of the seafloor into a volatile proto-California where molten rock erupts and then solidifies and creates wine country. Magma hidden just below the surface heats water bubbling up. People sit in it. The human drama overwhelms the geologic one for a dozen millennia and will continue to until, perhaps, the land explodes and a pyroclastic flow of lava and ash swallows everything. I’ve still got visions of all-natural apocalypse in mind when we arrive at Vichy Springs Resort, near Ukiah, northwest of Clear Lake. Vichy is home to the carbonated “champagne baths” named after the French getaway established by Julius Caesar. Vichy is beautiful, family friendly, and venerable: Jack London and Ulysses Grant visited. There’s a rustic bridge straight out of a Monet painting. On the brochure, Mark Twain dips a big ladle into the waters. Vichy preserves the historical experience of the 19th-century health resort it once was, back when such places were basically the edge of civilization.

Before our soak we climb up into the hills behind the resort. Great views of the green peaks all around. No people, no birds, the late-afternoon sun streaming through the clouds over Ukiah. Somewhere the roar of an unseen waterfall. Distant gunshots from a nearby gun club. Everything suggesting great isolation and the overwhelming expanse of nature.

Back at the resort, we try out the clothing-required baths. They’re the original 1860-vintage tubs set in the ground that fill when you pull a pipe from a hole. We settle down into them, and the warm water feels even warmer as the bubbles dilate our capillaries, improving circulation, or so the brochure tells us. Maybe that’s Victorian-era propaganda, but it succeeds in making modern life seem far away. Sitting in the communal hot pool, surrounded by ferns and beer-drinking couples, I imagine old Twain and his soggy-walrus mustache soaking with us and realize that people have been running away from “modern life” forever, since it was ancient, trying to find that ideal safe distance between civilization and nature, the right temperature to ease our pains without boiling us alive.

Napa County

The final stop on our hot springs tour is Calistoga—the percolating heart of the Northern California geothermal economy. Calistoga has turned the hot springs experience into a whole town. Everyone has their own wells, and each adorable B&B, luxury spa, and adjacent inn takes its own liberties with the water. It is the most domesticated version of hot springs, not as sacred pilgrimage but as roadside attraction.

We gravitate to the neon and kitsch of Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort. A motel with spa amenities, it strikes a nice balance of high- to mid-falutin. It’s got a couple of outdoor pools and one indoor pool that has the feel of the 1950s, potted palms and all. Dr. Wilkinson’s claim to fame is its mud baths. I talk to Caroline Wilkinson, daughter of the founder, on the phone, and she will swear by the mud’s mix of mineral water, peat, and local volcanic ash. “Everybody has got their own formula, kind of like how the Colonel has his proprietary blend of 11 herbs and spices,” she says. “Our formula is tried-and-true.”

We aren’t in the mood for mud today, so we go for a hike in Bothe–Napa Valley State Park. In the hills, I think of the first springs I went to, Harbin Hot Springs. In its pools I saw a true cross section of humanity. Burners and Europeans and one old guy who I don’t think ever wore clothes in his life. That was the most naked people I’ve ever seen in one place, all acting like this was what society had always been. What cities? In September 2015, a wildfire came rolling over its hills and destroyed the place. Twenty months of cleaning and permitting and reconstruction later, Harbin is set to reopen in the fall. I’m told people journey to the front gate to get a glimpse. Everyone’s excited. Even now, all around you, there are people waiting, hiding in clothes, to return. Nature won’t keep us from nature.

In the park, a rain-swollen stream cuts us off from the path, and we clamber through the underbrush to the main road. We return to Dr. Wilkinson’s and pack to go. Being a motor court, it feels the most transient of all the places, the most natural for an enforced checkout time. Which maybe makes it the most honest. The naked society of a Harbin or a Wilbur or a Sierra isn’t one most of us can maintain (though some do), and the luxury of a Fairmont isn’t something that most of us can afford (though some can), and Vichy embraces a past that we can’t stay in forever (though some try). Doc Wilkinson represents the hot springs as a temporary reprieve: Come, sit in the waters as long as you can stand it, and keep on moving, to city or oblivion or wherever.

We leave Calistoga as we found it, sitting on a lake of fire. It’s unclear if we’ve relaxed, but we’ve certainly been humbled. The earth changes but the springs are the same as ever, and that’s really what a trip through collapsing landscapes to check out the vents of the earth is offering: a brief view of the beginning of the world from the end of it.


Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco 

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