A huge traffic jam! Is it an accident? No, it's the offramp leading to South Coast Plaza, one of the world's largest shopping malls...
I'm not a big fan of Christmas. The desperate commercialism is just plain creepy. So this is the time of year, when everyone is preoccupied, that we usually sneak off to somewhere remote. The desert, or the mountains, or hot springs...
This year it's one of my favorite spots on earth, Harbin Hot Springs. Back when people still took the waters for their health, Harbin--located in a valley 90 miles north of San Francisco--was a major resort. It's up across a small but formidable set of mountains at the upper tip of Napa-Sonoma wine country, though the Guenoc winery (established by the Jersey Lily herself, Lily Langtry) somehow escaped over the hills, and is just a few miles away.
Like so many things in early (and recent) California, the original Harbin hotel burned down. It was rebuilt in another configuration...and of course burned down again. It was rebuilt yet again in a more dispersed configuration, but by mid-century spas were out of fashion, and Harbin fell into disrepair.
It was then purchased by "hippies" who established a cooperative community and rejunvenated the place. There's a little village for the residents tucked nearby, with woodworking shops, pottery kilns, and a forge. Harbin owns 1,500 acres of the valley, running up onto the ridge, and it adjoins national forest land, so there are many miles of trails to wander. And since the community protects the wildlife, the deer wander through with as much insouciance as a prey species can muster. There's also a flock of 30-50 wild turkeys who storm through like a gang of six-year-olds on a sugar high (with two or three stragglers inevitably dashing along behind, gobbling frantically).
But the main attraction is The Pools. Harbin is on a fairly steep slope, but a section has been levelled for an Olympic-sized pool of naturally warm water. Adjacent to this, arranged up the hillside like stairs, are the Warm Pool (90-98 F) the Hot Pool (110-114 F) and the Cold Pool (straight out a little stream; frigid most of the year).
There are two somewhat unusual features of The Pools. The first is that they are 'clothing-optional', which in practice means no one wears swimsuits: it looks just as odd to be dressed in a crowd of naked people as to be naked in a crowd of people who are dressed.
The second unusual--and blessed feature--is No Talking Allowed. Okay, a few people do lean over and whisper into the ear of their companion, but the rule of silence is closely observed. Women tend to be especially fond of this feature, as no one can edge over and open a conversation: Not only am I naked, but you can't even talk to me.
There aren't many pictures of Harbin, as cameras around The Pools are also forbidden (except when the management takes a few publicity shots, such as those posted here). The idea of pools at a spa conjures up pictures of bright, enclosed, sterile environments, but Harbin is anything but. The only term I can come up with for the area around the pools is "Tolkeinesque"; the facilities are one with the natural environment. The Cold Pool and the Warm Pool are both open to the air; the Hot Pool is in a dark little temple lit only by a few candles.
Up near the Cold Pool stands a giant fig tree, and in this environment figs take on a different growth habit than in, say, Italy. They twist and stretch and sprawl, sending down additional trunks and roots (like their relatives the banyans). The fig arches high above the cold pool, leans its branches down onto the roof of the Hot Pool, and reaches out over the Warm Pool, an interwoven natural roof. Under the moonlight, it's the closest thing to Rivendell I expect I'll ever see.
The pools aren't the sorts of things you sit around in, either. The little Cold Pool is shallow, but the huge Warm Pool and the sizeable Hot Pool have stairways descending into them, and end up chest-to-neck deep. Most people spend their time in the Warm Pool, but we tend to cycle between the Hot Pool and the Cold Pool.
It's almost impossible to get into either of these at first. When the Hot Pool is up around 114 F, it feels as though it will cook the flesh right off your bones, and the Cold Pool isn't always much above freezing. But after about two cycles, you get "the buzz": the nerve endings in your skin are so overstimulated that they all jangle at once, and nothing any longer feels hot or cold. After several cycles, you're bulletproof--you can stand in the midwinter air without shivering.
At last I understand that Scandinavian thing of sitting in a sauna and then rolling in the snow.
All that, and nobody jabbering on their mobile phones. Now that's Christmas.