"Harbin Hot Springs -- that's the naked place!" said my brother-in-law.
"Harbin's the only clothing-optional spa I've been to where even the people on reception were naked," a spa-savvy friend told me.
"Really, you're going to Harbin?" another friend asked. "You?"
Really. I was.
It wasn't my idea. But my wife, Jennifer, had spent the entire summer working 14-hour days, seven days a week, to finish a book, and I'd promised her a trip to any spa in California when it was done. She chose the naked place.
The nudity wasn't why she chose it. After a period of intense, desk-bound work she wanted to refocus her mind and get back in touch with her body. And that's what Harbin is famous for helping people do.
Jennifer is a native Californian. She does yoga. She takes vitamins. She believes in massage. For her a good spa is a place worthy of pilgrimage -- a kind of modern Lourdes that, through a mixture of rigor and ecstasy, can cleanse you of the past and fortify you mentally and physically for the months ahead.
I was brought up in England, where yoga is what the Beatles did when they went peculiar. Where vitamins are sneaked into breakfast cereal because no one will take them voluntarily. Where massage is a sordid euphemism on a par with "hand relief." To me, spas are places to be held in deep suspicion.
But I had agreed to go. I especially had to go, I reasoned, because her spa of choice was going to be full of naked creeps trying to scope her out. I had to be there to protect her.
She chose Harbin Hot Springs, she told me, because it's the very opposite of the chichi luxury hotel spa -- the kind full of people crash-dieting and recovering from cosmetic surgery. Indeed, from the brochure Harbin looked to be a British caricature of Californian New Age culture made manifest. What it offered went way beyond a hot tub and a facial. We could opt for shiatsu massage, acupressure, inversion therapy, workshops in Holotropic Breathwork and Initiating Your Dream Relationship, and the unique-to-Harbin Watsu treatment -- which seemed to be a sort of rebirthing massage done in warm water with both parties, of course, naked.
Jennifer was confident it would be a kind of utopian secular monastery. I was convinced it would be full of men pretending to want shiatsu when what they were really after was sex. I had visions of pools full of fat guys and their unhappy partners pressuring us to join them so they could check us out while they tried to persuade my beloved to join them in mind-expanding sessions of group groping. Didn't it all happen before in California, and didn't it all go horribly wrong? I'd read all about it: Esalen, then EST, then the Kool-Aid Acid Test and then Charles Manson. I didn't want to worry her. I'd go. But I'd go prepared to get us out of there in a hurry. I knew what to expect.
With the book finished and delivered, and after a beautiful drive to the Sonoma Valley and then over into the Napa Valley at Calistoga, we headed up into the surrounding oak-strewn hills. This was country carved from ancient volcanoes and the constant friction of the great continental plates. Despite months of summer drought, its valleys were still green, its fields and trees ever refreshed by streams of pure, mineral-laden water sprung from a vast network of fissures reaching deep into ancient aquifers miles below us.
Just south of Clear Lake, halfway back into a high, winding canyon, is a place the local Lake Miwok people called eetawyomi -- the hot place. Here, at the end of the Civil War, white settlers came and tapped several of the area's many soda, iron and sulphur springs, renaming the place Harbin Hot Springs Health and Pleasure Resort. Some form of spa has been here ever since.
Only slightly mollified by the beauty of the trip, as we arrived I was still nervous about what we'd find. To my relief the receptionist greeted us fully clothed. In fact, nearly all the people we saw as we checked into our rooms had some sort of clothing on. Perhaps we really weren't expected to be naked from dawn to dusk.
As first-time visitors, we were given an introduction and told the rules.
So there were rules. Great. And they were mostly about respect and peace
and not intruding on other people, and about how "clothing-optional"
meant you didn't have to be naked if you didn't want to (good) but that you
couldn't be upset by people who did want to let it all hang out (fine by
To find our room we walked past native flower gardens, fountains and
spectacular ancient trees into a long, Victorian-style building fronted on
all three floors by a simple balcony. I had to admit that it was really a
nice place. Very beautiful and no TV, no bar, no phone in your room.
Nothing harassing you to spend money -- everything encouraging you to enjoy
simplicity. Maybe it was a place where you really could relax and get your
stressed-out mind and body back in harmony.
The aura of the place certainly seemed to be affecting me. I was a pushover when Jennifer suggested we go check out the pools. And there, when we
finally got to see naked people by the dozen, their nudity seemed, suddenly,
no big deal. In fact, it immediately struck me as an incredibly Edenic
scene: people of all ages and shapes calmly bathing in shaded pools
under a deep blue sky and a late summer's afternoon sun. That just about
everyone was buck naked was suddenly irrelevant, or rather it now seemed
only right. For them to have been clothed would have made it beach-like,
more mundane, less serene.
There was no scoping. No groping. Within minutes we too had slipped out
of our clothes and were in the warm pool, beginning to relax. And within a
few more we were plunging our pale bodies into and out of probably the
coldest and then the hottest water I've ever experienced. And
what was really amazing was that I was actually feeling good about it.
It was time for a rapid reassessment of my prejudices. As Jennifer went to
confirm the various massage-type treatments she'd booked for herself the
next day, I stretched out my extremely white body in the sun and took stock.
The first thing that occurred to me was that the peaceful and rather
beautiful scene before me was virtually unimaginable in American culture.
It isn't just me who's been bred to associate nudity with smut. It is
still a criminal offense, for example, to show yourself naked in public in
Arkansas. While I'm not sure I'd want to see everyone naked all the time,
it now seemed sad to me how ashamed we are of seeing ourselves in our own
I was also struck with how grown-up this all was. Nudity has such
adolescent associations today. With thighs exposed on billboards,
midriffs bared in magazines, oblique side views of unclothed bodies in ads
directing us to imagine what has remained just hidden from view, nakedness
is sold to us as a tease, as a promise of something rude we can't
admit to wanting. But when nothing is hidden, the tease disappears.
There's a lot more erotic self-consciousness on a beach where nudity is
banned -- with its short pants and brief bikinis -- than at Harbin, where
everyone was revealing all. This place was sensual, but it wasn't
The air of maturity arose also, I think, from what people were here for: to refresh their minds as well as their bodies. Harbin is
not a nudist resort. It's not about getting an allover tan. Rather, it offers something that is both more serious and more rewarding. Mandalas
hang in the gardens, cut flowers are arranged in votive niches around the
pools. There's a meditation lawn, a medicine wheel, a pair of labyrinths
to wander through.
It's true that there is a sense of New Age pick-and-mix to the place. The
assortment of workshops, therapies and meditative studies do seem to
reflect a kind of spiritual dilettantism. But there is also no bullying
orthodoxy here. And Harbin's choices are generously presented; you have
the space to choose your own salvation.
Still, I couldn't quite bring myself to sign up for rebirthing, and I
thought that on this first visit I'd skip the Watsu. Instead I did my own kind
of spiritual thing -- hiking up through Harbin's 1,100 acres of chaparral
before returning to sauna and swim, to dip in and out of the hot and cold pools
and to drink the crystalline waters.
The second day revealed more of Harbin's charms: a repertory cinema that
favors the positive and the fantastical over the negative and violent; a
"village" of Victorian cottages and tepees where many of the community's
workers live for free in return for part-time work at the spa; an area
where you can paint a friend or yourself in different colors of mud -- both
skin treatment and play. At one point I was reading outside our room and a
silent troupe of naked, mud-daubed figures appeared in the garden in front
of me. As they improvised a simple dance that managed to be both serious
and playful -- and unpretentious, because they didn't know they had an
audience -- a thin young woman passed them dressed only in hot
pants and carrying a tub of Ben and Jerry's ice cream. A perfect Harbin
moment -- nature and nakedness, people feeling the freedom to explore and
to risk ridiculousness, coupled with a healthy appetite.
What I'd been reading was some of Harbin's history. It turned out that
not so long ago Harbin had been exactly what I had feared.
Back in the '60s, it was occupied by a rogue Berkeley scientist and his
friends and followers. The place, renamed Harbinger, became a kind of
summer camp for San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, filling with hundreds of
heavily tripping hippies who'd leave only when the food or the drugs ran
out or when bills came due. It was a place where, under the
guise of mind expansion and alternative thinking, people became mental and
sexual exploiters -- or the ones who got exploited.
Harbinger was repeatedly raided and finally shut down when the pools --
trashed by the use of soap and shampoo in the mineral baths and by people's unwillingness to clean them -- became a foul,
The spa foundered for years while proposals for grand, yuppie-friendly developments came and went. Finally, a miracle happened. In the
'80s, a philanthropic real estate developer with
a yen to achieve more than material wealth bought the land. He repaired and
renovated the place, offering many of the resort's former squatters the right
to stay in return for work. When the newly renamed Harbin was back on its
feet, the owner sold it to a nonprofit foundation, the Heart
Consciousness Church, for a dollar.
Today the place is run efficiently and with enough commercial acumen to pay
for the filtering and maintenance necessary to keep the health authorities
happy. But Harbin has also managed to retain a real connection with its
hippie past, succeeding -- remarkably -- in keeping much of what was
positive about that era while escaping what was bad.
Living as I do in the get-rich-quick, technology-worshipping sprawl that is
Silicon Valley today, it's easy to forget there ever was a counterculture that offered a trenchant critique of the profit-at-all-costs way of life that the Valley has come to exemplify. As I left my reading to go back to the pools, I was grateful to be reminded
of that history, and surprised I'd lost sight of it in my day-to-day immersion
in Valley life.
I'd arrived as my wife's escort, as a rather cynical observer of the spa
scene. Yet with no fanfare, with no hard sell, indeed almost by stealth,
this most Californian of creations seemed to have won over my very British
suspicion. The mental and physical calm I was now enjoying as I sat
quietly and surprisingly un-self-consciously naked again in the spa's warm
waters was exactly what Jennifer had come here for. Could it be that I'd
needed relaxing and refocusing as much as she did?
That would certainly explain how easy it had been that first time -- after
days of anxiety -- to join the other naked souls in Harbin's pools. After
all, it made sense now: If you need to escape the world of the material,
you need to take off your clothes.