"Art is a kind of illness." — Giacomo Puccini

Birthday at Harbin


This week marked my 46th birthday, and I decided to take a trip to a nearby hot springs called Harbin Hot Springs. Somehow I had never been, despite mostly living in the Bay Area since 1993. And it was right up my alley! Harbin is located in the hills above Middletown, a small town north of the wine country, about a 2-hour drive from where I live in San Francisco. It is a whole different vibe. My first time to any place, I’m always a little nervous. As much as you read about a place before you visit, you never really know how it will turn out. So I made it a one-night trip, but decided to maximize my time by leaving early the day of my arrival. This would give me a chance to settle in on my first day so that I could really be at ease.

I try to open myself to new experiences whenever I can. I love to get close to nature, and love to be in my natural state in nature. I never say the word nudist because in my mind its meaning is not so far removed from swinger, and that’s really not what it’s about for me. I guess naturist would be a better word. I just love to be naked in nature, and so I seek out warm, sunny places to have that experience without any hassles. It’s basically a spiritual thing for me, a communion with all that is. That is how I think of it. My trip to Tulum a few years back was an amazing experience on so many levels. A day hike in the Ventana Wilderness at Arroyo Seco two years ago is another memorable experience. But I also get this experience closer to home at beaches in the Bay Area or in San Diego when I visit there.

Harbin Hot Springs

Harbin is a really open place, and many people just go there to enjoy the natural spring pools, sunbathing, massage or Watsu, practice yoga, attend workshops, hike the hills, or simply to relax in the embrace of nature. For some, Harbin is a spiritual center, and for obvious reasons. The healing nature of water is recognized by most spiritual traditions. At Harbin, I mostly heard people discussing Eastern, New Age or Native traditions. Though I was raised Catholic, I don’t identify with a specific tradition anymore. I access my sense of spirit through my connection to others and a connection to nature. But the beauty of Harbin is it will be whatever you make it.

It was sunny and warm when I arrived, a much-needed respite from the cold, foggy summer weather in San Francisco. I checked in, and headed for the sun deck. This is always that moment of truth for me, and in a lot of ways Harbin was a new experience. Mostly I go to places where I have a lot of room around me. Even though usually there are others around, I get a sense of solitude, and that is the part about it that works so well for me. I also enjoy being able to get up and roam around without feeling like that creepy guy who ought to know better. It’s funny the things that surface in the mind when you’re naked. What I learned real quick at Harbin is that around the pools, space is in short supply. And so I learned to adjust.

I enjoyed several hours in the sun for a few hours after I arrived, then went for a naked hike before dinner. I’ve hiked naked before, and it’s a good time. I took a trail that went through the woods from the pool area to a fire road a the top of the mountain. I was all alone naked in the woods, and I really enjoyed it a lot. So did the bugs, though I managed to avoid being bitten. After visiting a view point, I saw a bobcat along the fire road at the top of the mountain. It moved along quickly, but I realized my greatest vulnerability was not my nakedness, but just being alone. So I found a big stick and a rock so I could at least have a fighting chance before it ripped something important off with its claws. I started swinging it around as I passed where he was, but never saw him again. I soon found my return trail that took me back down to the main area.

After dinner, I went up to the springs. I really don’t think I can adequately describe the experience in language, but I will try. The practice is to go back and forth from hot (about 115°F) to cold (about 60°F), each coming from separate natural sources. The contrast overwhelming to the senses.There’s also a third pool that both streams feed into so it’s just pleasant warm (about 90°F). People tend to spend more time in the warm pool, with brief visits to the hot and cold pools. It was so relaxing. As twilight set in, the lights came up and the experience of light moving through water reflecting off the trees and buildings was magical. I immersed myself in this quiet communal experience. Being naked in the warm water lightened the sense of gravity. Natural bubbles floated upward, tickling their way past my body to the surface. The motion of the water moved my body about without activating any sense of dis-ease or violation. The gentle sound of chimes, apparently random, added to the sense of enchantment. The water is chlorine-free, so the only scent is that of water and wind. And, of course, water is drinkable. A fountain is provided for that purpose. It is a fully sensual experience, as all five senses are activated.

After enjoying that for a few hours, I decided to call it a day. It was about 10 p.m. I had left my house early, and after a day of travel, sunbathing, hiking and soaking in the pools, I was very relaxed. Then I noticed the stars. The night before I arrived was a new moon, so it was very dark except for the stars. For the first time in my life, I could see the cloud of the Milky Way. I always thought that took a special camera lens to see, so it was breathtaking to see it with just my eyes. I laid out under the stars for a while to take it in. I noticed the sparkling of Lyra. Stars play tricks on the eyes. Some seemed to move, and I quickly learned to examine the spatial relationship to nearby stars, which proved the sense of motion an illusion. Or was it? After a while, I noticed a star that moved across the sky in a straight line. After watching it move all the way across the sky, I realized I had just watched a man-made satellite move across the sky. Spectacular! It was a great ending to a great day. I returned to my room for the most restful sleep in recent memory. What an amazing day I had my first day at Harbin!

Morning arrived with a bit of a breeze. I enjoyed a delicious mocha, with yogurt and granola for breakfast, checked out of my room, then headed up to the sun deck. My intention for the day, really, was to lay in the sun all day. Of course, I would enjoy the springs, but this day was all about the sun. When I arrived on the sun deck, it was already in the 70s, and there seemed to be fewer people than yesterday, which was good. I spent some time soaking up the sun and relaxing. Then I started thinking about the previous day’s hike, and decided to go for another one. After all, how often can I hike naked in the woods? I mapped out a longer hike this time taking different trails with some overlap, and set off.

The first third of it was pretty simple. I observed the wandering of my mind as my feet wandered down the path. It was nice, and I enjoyed it. The second third of the hike brought some pretty steep climbing up hill that required me to keep my focus on where I was putting my feet. I got to the top of the hill and continued along the ridge line on a fire road. It was really hot up there outside of the trees! The sun was full on my back and I probably had not as much water as I should. I kept going, but I was pouring out sweat that was running sunscreen into my eyes. Finally, I reached the spot where the trail I took yesterday hit the ridge, and decided to head back in. I found another trail that would take me almost just as far out, but I’d be in the trees where there was some shade. So I took that trail, and it was much better. There was a waterfall, more a creek running quickly down the hill, and it was a nice trail. It ended at the main road, and I had to walk down that quite a bit to get to another trail back into the pool area. It was kinda funny walking down the street naked. It was in the property, so I knew it was okay, but this was the service area so vendors come in that area. A few cars drove by, and I walked past a construction area. Nobody bothered me, and I just went about like I knew what I was doing and enjoyed it.

When I got back to the pools, I cleaned off and took a swim. I had really over-heated at the top of the ridge, and the pool was really refreshing. And then I spent the rest of the day on the sun deck. It’s a wood deck, and my body got sore on the hard surface, so I changed positions a lot. But I was fully enjoying the heat and the way my body relaxed in the heat. I stayed there until about 6 when the sun went behind the trees. Then I took a dip in the warm pool to soothe my body, got dressed and headed home. I made a quick stop in Calistoga for dinner, and arrived home about 9:30. I had been away less than 48 hours, but felt like I had been far, far away for a very long time. And so started my 47th trip around the sun. It’s going to be a wonderful year.

  • Dale on

    Sounds so wonderful. Makes me curious about going, but not very secure in my body.

  • madalo on

    I’m devastated by the news that Harbin may have burned, and was looking for images to share with people who aren’t familiar with it. Thanks for one of the best images I’ve seen and a wonderful story!

    • Kenny on

      Thanks, this image came from their website. Harbin has a no-camera—actually no-electronics—policy, which is actually a very wonderful way to disconnect and be present.

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