Thursday, February 21, 2013

Fear and Soaking in Harbin Hot Springs

I have found ground zero for the New Age movement. It is Harbin Hot Springs, located above Napa Valley. Here the two most popular New Age concepts come together. And those two concepts are "Namaste" and "Credit Cards Accepted". "Namaste" means "I acknowledge the God within you". "Credit Cards Accepted" means the same thing.

But your Master God may be the only thing that Harbin does accept. Because their sign shop has been working overtime cranking out brightly colored, spritely fonted guides to your negative empowerment. 

  • No running! 
  • No cameras! 
  • No talking! 
  • No meat! 
  • No Dairy! 
  • No parking! 
  • No camping! 
  • No uninvited sexual intimacy unless it has been cleared by Security! Oh, scratch that -
  • Just no sex in the pool! Do it in your room, please. 
  • But be quiet about it!
Harbin is a place where you can pursue your own path to enlightenment, down their narrowly defined corridor of limited freedoms.

It is a lovely place though. Behind all of the NO! signs, that is. Well landscaped, tidy, very leafingly colorful in Late November when I visited. And statues everywhere! Buddha, Krishna, Genesha, Kaliima, why it’s as though Europe never existed! Because this is "New Age World" after all, and that means that everything 'Eastern' is good, everything 'Western' is bad, and everything 'Native American' is good, if its okay with them.

So, plenty of angels but no crucifixes, and hordes of non-Christian white people but no paganism. (Except of course for the largest gathering of WITCHES in Northern California every June for about 25 years. Namaste, and no refunds after June 1st.) If Harbin worships any symbol, it’s the dollar sign. What is New Age hell? A maxed out credit card, or shall we say, a credit card in denial.

But, whatever, let’s get to the room so I can take a long, hot - hey, where's my bathroom! This may be the only European thing at Harbin: the two-holer-and-one-shower-per-floor motif. Maybe they think that a room with no private bath is a more direct line to Diety. I think it’s just a direct line for the potties.

I mean, it's not as though they're hurting for water around there. In fact the ironic thing about Harbin - except that Irony is not allowed there - is that the whole place has burned down three times in the last 100 years. But just underground there is about 80 bazillion gallons of water under pressure. You'd think they could’ve plugged in a hose and pointed it at the flames.

But all of this water does serve a useful purpose: the pools.

The main pool is 5' deep, small at about 12' X 30' and features - nothing. Steps lead in and you stand around - QUIETLY. There is an old sunken rusty pipe along one side so that if you are under 5'5" you can experience enlightenment without drowning in the process. And with sometimes 30 other seekers all vying for rapture at the same moment this watery highway to Heaven can be mighty crowded.

And that’s it. It's shady, kinda dingy and not even particularly warm. There are however particulates: Decomposed minerals to be exact, and these make one extremely buoyant. I figure that if one jumped off the roof of the sauna building next door and cannonballed into this pool (hypothetically speaking of course) one would not sink into this primeval smoothie. Instead one would bounce off, like a rock being skipped, and you'd end up wrapped around some 14-armed Krishna statue. 

Hey, you find God your way, and I'll find him/her/it/them in mine. These particulates are also amazingly clingy, and so even after repeated showers you may drive home feeling like a tube of lubricant.

Heart shaped pool on the left. Big, open, iceberg-laden pool ahead.
And there are several other pools for you to experience. If warm silence isn't emptying your mind sufficiently, try the heart-shaped pool next door. It's hard to see though, because it is ringed by very large colorful signs demanding - in a non-competitive way - that all toddlers must wear plastic pants in this pool! And that was enough to satisfy my curiosity.

Plus if main-pool is warm, heart-shape is tepid. And small. And apparently very stimulating to youngsters. Next down the line is the big open pool, which in late November resembled a Currier & Ives print. Unheated, and devoid of humanity. Almost ready for ice skating though!

Behind the main pool are two smaller dips. On top is the cold plunge, for those advanced souls that have mastered the art of the silent scream. And below that is the hot dip. This is the core, the inner sanctum of Harbin. Hand carved railings, graceful statuary, demure waterfall, votive lighting. 

And all focusing on the one word sign that sums up all that Harbin wants from you, the pilgrim. Carved lovingly in wood, spotlighted, and in all capitals is the command of "SILENCE"! But here, finally, is some real warmth. 115 degrees to be precise. How hot is that? Turn on your stove at home and put your hand in the flame. That's how hot it is. I blistered both ankles, practiced my silent scream, and got the hell out. Except you can't say 'Hell'.

Unlike Napa there are no mud baths at Harbin -yet! But there is 'Watsu', wherein Harbin's tanned and toned female massage staff will float you around in the main pool. And not just a tow job either. We're talking Madonna and Child pose here. Grown men curled up in warm, healthy water and being toted around by women. Maybe it IS never too late to have a happy birth experience. And in front of 30 strangers who had no idea that when they went to the pool they would also get a shower.

'Watsu' is part of no known cultural tradition, spiritual path or school of therapy that I had ever heard of. When I acquired as to its origins I was told, through big, sparkly eyes and bright, shiny teeth that it is a 'new tradition'. Uh-huh. Sounds to me like an 'new revenue stream'. 

Turns out 'Watsu' is Native American. In full the phrase is "Watsu gonna do to rid the dumb white people of more of their money." I'm kidding, of course: It's shorthand for “Water Shiatsu” which sounds like what could happen when your toddler is not wearing their plastic pants.

So I had to leave the pool for several reasons:

  1. I was cold - high of mid-fifties up there in the hills in Thanksgiving time.
  2. I was creeped out by the post-and/or-pre-natal experience going on in the middle of the pool (does the deluxe package include pacifiers and a lunch of strained beets?).
  3. I was in danger of having FUN. Because, to me, pool = fun. Any pool. And my Gods have decreed that I will laugh and splash and do handstands in order to reach enlightenment. And when I finally meet my maker face to face I hope they spit pool water in my face, 'cause I'll have a mouthful saved up for them.
Harbin Acreage.
So I got dressed and went hiking. Harbin has 1,500 hundred acres in its valley, and most of it is deciduous. So Nature was doing a beautiful striptease with its trees right then. Except you can't say 'striptease'. Also, remember, cameras WILL be confiscated. You might, however, be able to obtain a special photo permit at the large and well appointed Security Headquarters Complex. Well, bag that. I have a little pocket digital camera and it was way more fun taking secret spy photos of trees. Is the coast clear? Will anyone see the flash? And then later on drawing the curtains, locking the door, and looking at my contraband picture of a deer.

So it’s way too easy to make fun of New Agers and Harbin. They are just so dreadfully EARNEST about everything. And in their sincere wish not to offend anybody they end up with more rules than Stalag 13. Also, they never seem to get that charging people for enlightenment is just plain funny. That kind of Irony Harbin has in spades. The good, the bad, the silly, the Capitalist. 

Here are five things you should know about the place:
  1. There are A-anything meetings. Whatever your addiction; alcohol, overeating, being cuddled in a pool full of strangers; you can find other 12 steppers who can help. 
  2. Bring a flashlight, because dusk comes quick here in the high hills, and although there are 10,000 signs on the property, nothing is illuminated. Except the staff, of course. 
  3. Internet access is available. $1.00 buys you 6 minutes and 40 seconds. $5.00 will snare you 20 minutes and 20 seconds. Such timing precision does not explain why you get less time the more you pay. 
  4. On the day I left there was a wedding in the pool. And the bride wore ‘particulate matter’. 
  5. The arty menu in the cafe states, quite stridently, that all food is prepared with "heart consciousness", which I am not sure is completely vegan. Dig a little deeper and you find that for 40 years now Harbin has been owned and operated by something called the "Heart Consciousness Church", which somehow conjures up some gigantic Lovecraftian horror hidden in a barn behind the labyrinth.
But the place is popular, no doubt about it. On a cold weekend in winter the joint was jumpin' with folks. (except you can't say 'joint'.)


  • Are they seeking oneness with the cosmos? A few maybe.
  • Are they checkin' out the hot nudist action? Some, but when you see enough of the general population naked the effect is decidely not-titillating. (except you can't say titilla - oh, wait. You can - just say it fast, please.)
  • Is it the food? Tasty, but nothing to drive THROUGH San Francisco to get to.
  • The Bedrooms? Clean and Comfortable, but remember most are simply a bed-room. And jump outside in the middle of the freezing night to leap to the bathroom, where your body will refuse to pee because it is in shock. 
  • The scenery? Lovely, but I might be arrested for publishing these three photos.
Nope, I think most people come to Harbin to obtain something more mundane, and more precious:

You drive four hours, fork over hundreds of dollars, hike up and down 45degree slants to get anywhere, and all so you can 'relax'. That's right. Sit in a chair. Lay on your bed next to the wall that does not contain a door to a private bathroom. Stand in hot water. Read a book. Because somehow we are unable to sit in a chair and read a book at home.

Standing underneath a shower of your own, non-healing hot water means that you have to get to work. Lying on a bed means sleep. But here, hundreds of miles away, surrounded by strangers, you allow yourself to do all of the relaxing things that you somehow can't do on any given Saturday afternoon at home.

Or show up for some of the many activities happening at Harbin each day. Not that I did. There are shows and concerts and satsangs and lotsa movies there, but after an excellent massage I was too relaxed to give 

I was much too busy doing nothing all weekend to actually DO anything. Which is exactly what I wanted to do. Or not do. Whatever. The place still has me a bit mushy-headed.

At Harbin you walk softer, speak softer, think softer. And that is a very good thing sometimes. Most of us do not have Enlightenment in our sights. At most we are aiming for Transcendence, but we'll settle for Relaxation. And we'll drive for hours and spend our disposable income to get it.

But the best thing of all about Harbin Hot Springs is the payphones. There are payphones all over the property. Why? Because the whole place is a cellphone-free zone. Yessss..... THAT is peace of mind. I will return to Harbin, as soon as I save up some more Enlightenment in my bank account, and finally wash all this Healing out of my hair.

Angus McMahan

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  1. Went there once, wouldn't return. Too "aggressively mellow" for me.

  2. LMAO!!! Having been to Harbin 7 or so times, & not being particularly New Age-y, I am heartily amused. A friend once lived close by, which meant several day visits made easy. I like the warm pool under the fig tree (when it's not too crowded) & know for a fact people do everything short of spilling bodily fluid in there at night. (Don't ask).

    Here's how to have more fun at Harbin:

    1) Try to go during the wk if you possibly can. It's true- wkends are usually WAY too crowded. And more expensive. Feel free to snicker at the earnestness- just say it's part of your Daily Laughter Practice, & smile serenely.
    2) If you can get over the shared potty thing (oh, c'mon) ask for the Egyptian room, or the Ocean rm. The first is done in a resident-tarted-up, you guessed it, Egyptian motif. It's actually pretty cool, & costs no more. The Ocean rm is bigger (may have a bthrm, forget) & has some nice waves painted on the wall.
    3) If you can stay longer, & it's warmer, camp &/or bring some food & cook in the kitchen. It's pretty relaxed if you don't mind going veg for a few days, is well-equipped, & can be a fun way to meet people.
    4) Hang out in the cozy library. Read, take a snooze. Or a free (w/ admission) writing or poetry workshop. They sometimes get some real talent in residence up there, who want a chance to get out out of the city awhile, detox, try out their poly wings...whatever.
    5) Warm pool- cold plunge-ring the wind chimes-hot pool-cold pool-ring the wind chimes... lather rinse, repeat. You'll be jelly in a few hours, & won't give a shit about anything else. I promise.

  3. Looove Harbin..... whole point is to let gooooo...beeeeee quiet....try n not use your cell phone for a few minutes. ...if u camp n use kitchen n meet craziest people n leave ur judgement behind...u will have a literally transformative time. .. n what is wrong with new age hippies. ...they changed the world !! Peace /luv/flowers !!!

  4. And flowers to you, my friend! :-)

  5. All the evidence is there in what you sign when you go in, and the online history of Sheriff Francisco J. Rivero, and the long history of civil rights violations carried out by the Harbin 'office' as they fed 'delusional' people to the Sheriff. Rivero claims the files have been purged by him and no longer exist, but he's a documented liar.

    My story is here, in 'fictional' form, for what it's worth, you might say;

  6. My apologies, Sir, but this is not Evidence and is not appropriate for this forum. We're done here.

  7. Loved your article! I lived at Harbin for 18 months in the early 90's, and never could get over all the "don't do this, don't do that" signs. Craziness... The funniest was when residents would alternate between raw food diets and burgers and beer in town. But still love the pools, love the land, and love to visit (during the week, never in summer!)

    1. Haha! Great stuff. I love that place. Thanks for writing!

    2. Very funny and informative!

      Thanks so much for taking the time to write your review!!

    3. It was a lot of fun to 'do' this one live in front of an audience. ;-)

  8. Fourth time. Don't plan on visiting for a while...

    1. Indeed. My heart goes out to the residents of Harbin and the people of Middletown. The Springs are fine and a new Harbin will be built on top of them. But those poor folks have lost everything.

  9. I was there only once, back in 1984, I think, and don't recall it being quite so over-the-top New Agey as you describe. But of course that was in pre-cellphone days and I was with a semi-New-Age peace group, so perhaps it was hard to see the forest from the water I was swimming in. I only just read that it burned down (in The Guardian, of all places). When I went looking for pictures to try to remember what it looked like, I came across your article and found it thoroughly entertaining. Peace out.