The wreath above the hot pool, shaped like a peace sign, was the only indication of the holiday season. A cool drizzle fell into the steaming water. We prodded each other by saying, “We’ll never see these people again” and slipped into the hot tub among the 20 strangers.
My husband Mark and I had come to Harbin Hot Springs for a unique California experience and knew we had found it immediately upon checking in.
Despite its wine country location, no alcohol was allowed. If you went into town for dinner, you were even prohibited from bathing for two hours because others would perceive it emanating from your pores. No cell phones were permitted. There were two pay phones but one was broken and one often had a sign: “We are meditating nearby, so please no phone calls. Namaste.”
Surrounded by deep breathing, we tried to relax and averted our gazes to the crystals hanging from tree branches.
And then Mark whispered, “Uh-oh, what’s going on now?”
Crouching at the poolside, a woman was lighting candles embedded into a wreath and placing it on her head like a crown. She cradled a bowl of smoking aromatic leaves and slid into the misty tub humming “Santa Lucia.”
“Would you like to be smudged?” she asked each of us before blowing perfumed smoke into our faces.
I thought, “No!” but I said, “OK.”
The mood for the winter solstice was set. Next, she directed us all to turn toward the east. Confusedly, the bathers turned in one direction and another until she said, “This way is east.” Obediently we reached from the warm water into the cool night air. “We raise our hands to the east from which all wisdom flows.” We turned together. “We raise our hands to the south and honor the summer heat that warms our bodies. We turn to the north to welcome the winter winds. We inhale Mother’s energy coming from the Earth below us. We open our mouths to Father sky and swallow his fertile drops of rain.”
Then, at her direction, we circled like children and sang “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound…”
Our Santa Lucia took a large basket of grapes from the pool deck. “Take a grape and feed it to the person next to you. As you do, bless them with an incantation for the new season.”
The woman to Mark’s right held a grape above his head. He opened his mouth like a hungry baby bird. “For love and family,” she crooned. He lifted a grape for me and sneered, “May God have mercy on your soul,” with only a hint of humor.
Harbin Hot Springs was developed as a spa by settlers in the 1860s, run as a commune in the 1970s and sold to a New Age Church of Being in 1975 to become a retreat center and intentional community. When we visited in 2004, several people lived in unique homes within the 1,700 acres.
In 2015, it was decimated by a fire, but is rebuilding and accepting limited guests now. Creating guest experiences that are “consciousness-altering and deeply transpersonal, with a feeling of unity, and mental and physical calmness” is their mission. Guests come to the gorgeous setting from around the world to digitally detox and for treatments such as Watsu (a water massage that was invented there), events (such as unconditional dances, pipe ceremonies and drum circles) and classes (such as intimacy, yoga,
movement and wellness).
Every winter solstice we remember our unique silent night, hum “Santa Lucia” to ourselves, eat a grape, and smile.
For more information about Harbin Hot Springs, visit harbin.org.