It was a Christmas gift from my husband: two nights and three days at a spiritual retreat center in Northern California. No kids, no family. Just me. I’d never heard of Harbin Hot Springs and hadn’t the first clue what it was, but the idea of running very, very far away sounded great to me. Besides, my husband had been there a couple of months ago and couldn’t stop raving about it. “I camped on a stream! My tent was literally right next to the stream. It was so relaxing,” he kept saying. He mentioned nothing about the hot, naked women. He did mention the nice library. Oh, and the meditation room. And the food in the restaurant was pretty good, he thought. “Also, you can sit in the pools at night and gaze up at the stars.” It doesn’t get better than that.
So off I went, on a Friday afternoon. I pulled through the front gates as the last rays of sunlight warmed the valley walls. The office lady seemed like she could use a weekend away, too. She asked a ton of questions without waiting for my replies. Maybe I was the millionth person she’d checked in that day, or maybe she just didn’t like people. The rules were simple, she barked: No phones, no cameras, no candles, no glass, no sexual activity, no alcohol, and no drugs.
Places that ban cameras always inspire me to write. I need some way to record the moments—photos, stories, whatever—so I can look back and remember. That’s what I’m doing now.
“And just so you know,” she said, pointing up the hill, “there’s a co-ed changing room, and about 99.9 percent of the people up there will be naked. If that’s a problem for you…” Her voice trailed off and she had an expectant look. Probably she’d noticed my driver’s license. Those East Coast people are so uptight. Something shifted in my chest, but I stared back like ‘What, lady. What.’ Because I was a Spa World veteran. Nothing could shock me. I took the keys and left.
Clearly, I was unprepared for what happened next. I mixed up the location of the parking lot and drove the wrong way on the road, pulling to a stop outside the outdoor pool area. It was breathtaking. A large square warm pool sat under the stars. Next to it, a candle-lit cabin with stained glass windows housed the hottest pool of all. A sign at the door read, “Silence is Sacred.” That’s when I noticed the penises.
Never in my life have I seen so many penises in one place. These weren’t the guys that hang out at nudie beaches. No horny old men with leathery tans here. Every last one of them looked like they could be in the next issue of Runner’s World. Oh my.
After checking into my room in the Domes, a series of ball-shaped buildings on the top of a mountain, I ventured back to the pools. In all honesty, I love being naked. Spa World is my favorite place in the entire world. But I must have been too busy thinking about what a meanie that office lady was to understand what she meant by “coed.”
Just so you know, a co-ed changing room is a room where all types of people—men, women; young, old; fit, fat; gay, straight; executives, deadheads—are in various states of nakedness. It means you will sit down on a bench next to a lady with breasts that belong on the cover of Maxim and realize that you’re staring directly into the pelvis of a frat boy with gelled up hair standing at the next bench. It means you will undress and then—and then—you will STAND UP and you will WALK TO THE DOOR. That is what it means. Just so you know.
But wait, you ask, what does it mean to enter a pool where 99.9 percent of the people are naked? Well, I’ll tell you. It means that after a quick rinse under the outdoor shower, you will hang your towel on the rail and strut confidentially down the pool steps into the warm water, hugging your breasts because that Northern California air is COLD. It means you will weave between silent spooning couples to the center of the pool while trying to look somewhere, anywhere, to avoid sexually harassing someone. Everywhere you turn, there will be floating breasts and bobbing penises. And once in a blue moon you will see a lady wearing a one-piece black swimsuit, wondering how the hell she got mixed up in this crazy shit (I saw her; she looked stressed).
Then a woman smiled at me and I figured it was okay to just BE. And it was. Various people made eye contact but not once did I feel ogled or slime-balled. There certainly were a lot of penises floating around, though. I’ll give you that. But they were well behaved.
Later that night, I went to the massage building for an aromatherapy body scrub and Shiatsu massage, included in my Christmas gift. My masseuse was a lady—tall, blonde, and German—and she was clothed. “Good thing you come to us in the winter,” she said.“We are so much friendlier now. In the summer, it’s a real meat market.” With that, she went to work. The coffee buzz I’d been carrying around since morning dissipated within minutes and I felt incredibly at peace. At some point it occurred to me that even with the naked people straddling each other in the pool and all the penises bobbing around, this spa seemed pretty modest compared with the few Korean spas I’ve visited. When you get a body scrub at Spa World, for example, you’re splayed like a wet fish on a tabletop and dunked with a bucket of water. On either side of your table there are five or six other tables with women-fish sliding around on top. There are no sheets or towels to cover your private parts—the spa workers spread your legs like they don’t care and scrub every last part.But here at Harbin, there was a nice little towel to cover my lower body while she worked. How very American!
After the massage I drifted back to the Domes and got all cozy in my bed. I was just drifting off to sleep when my pillow started to move. There were moans, and rhythmic thuds against the wall behind my head. Earthquakes do not do this. But couples who just attended the Tantric massage workshop do. I was so tired that it didn’t matter and I slept until 3am, when I thought Little Bear was standing by my bed asking to get in. I opened my eyes, ready to tell Little Bear to go back to his own room. But I was all alone and the room was quiet. I’ll admit, I was a little homesick right then. But that morning when I slept in, everything was ok. 😉
When I walked down to the market area to have breakfast, a silver-haired guy was standing outside the door of the restaurant, waiting for it to open. “Hey, happy New Year!” he said, turning to greet me. “Thanks, same to you!” I replied. We looked at the bulletin board and made small talk about the day’s scheduled events while we waited. “I’m going to check out that Kirtan later today,” I said. “Yeah, I’ve heard it’s pretty good,” he said. “Hey! Happy New Year!”
My new friend hailed from Northern CA. “The pot capital of the world,” he said with pride. I was fortunate enough to meet someone who owns a 20-acre farm that provides a lot of the medicinal marijuana for the state of California. When I mentioned Bunz, and cerebral palsy, and epilepsy, and how we’re staying on top of cannabis research in case that ever becomes an option, he started going on about cellular crosstalk and signaling cascades and apoptosis and how all these things are affected by the various concentrations of THC, CBN, CBD, CBG, etc. You don’t often meet people at naked retreat centers who can speak intelligently about both marijuana and myelin sheaths, but this guy was the Real Deal. Then I found out he has a master’s degree from UC Berkeley. So there you have it: The billboards should have a photo of this guy holding his diploma against a backdrop of expansive pot fields.
We were sitting there having breakfast when he started to tell me about the aliens. His house is on a hill, he said, and when he sits outside at night to shoot off his gun and guard his crops, he sees all kinds of paranormal activity in the sky. The stars move, for one thing. “I had my buddies stay there last night,” he said. “I called them this morning and said, ‘Did you see it? Did you see the stars move?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, man. We totally saw it.’ They totally saw it, you know?” Sometimes strange orbs hover in the sky above his fields. One night he woke up and his room was filled with a red glow for no apparent reason. Another time, a triangular cloud slowly made its way across the sky on an otherwise clear day. That’s when he began to suspect the government. He saw a similar aircraft on the cover of Popular Mechanics. But the orbs he’s not so sure about. Those are probably from the mother ship.
After breakfast, I headed to a yoga class in the Temple. And after that, I headed to the private pool at the Domes for my second gift from my husband: an underwater shiatsu massage. According to the brochure, WATSU®, which was originally developed at Harbin,“combines stretches of Zen Shiatsu and the element of water to create an extraordinary experience. Being gently floated and stretched in a warm pool can be deeply moving and relaxing.” But what they don’t mention in the brochure is that the masseuse will be a man, and he will be naked.
Let me tell you: You have not lived until you’ve stood at the edge of a pool, completely naked,about to step into the water to be massaged by a naked man that you’ve never met. He was standing there in the pool, smiling up at me, his penis literally bobbing up and down below the surface. “I forgot my towel,” was what I said. I’m not sure why I said that. But it was true: I’d brought a bag containing everything but the one thing I needed most—a towel. And it was chilly out there.
“I’m not sure what to tell you,” he said. Those California people. So straightforward. He wasn’t being rude—he literally did not know what to tell me. There were no extra towels. Just the pool, a shower stall, and two naked people. That was it. So I got in and swam over, as gracefully as I could.
“So was there a reason you signed up for the off-the-body energy work instead of the hands-on water massage?” he asked.
“Um… ?” (Had I?)
“Is that what you signed up for?” (M? What did you sign me up for??)
“To be honest, I’m not sure. This was a gift from my husband. But whatever you usually do is fine.”
As it turns out, he usually prefers the hands-on option.
“Ok, I’m going to put my arm around your shoulders and lean you back to see how you float.” I leaned back and immediately felt the sliminess of my skin against his arm. “Yeah. I’m going to need you to go shower and rinse off all that lotion. Otherwise I’m going to drop you like a greased pig.” OMG. HOW EMBARRASSING.
After a quick rinse in the shower (so chilly! no towel!), I hopped back in the pool. I closed my eyes and found that it was surprisingly easy to relax. I tried not to think about the penis bobbing beneath me as he supported my head and swirled my body through the water, massaging tissues in my back that I didn’t even know existed. It was honestly the best massage I have ever received. Hands down. No question about it. WATSU® is some pretty powerful stuff.
He told me I’d know when the session was over because I’d feel the side of the pool against my back and the floor against my feet. “At that time, you should start to come back to the present so that you can support your own body,” he said. That just made me want to stay in the present and keep peeking out to make sure we weren’t near the edge of the pool because it felt so incredibly good. Thank you, M!!!!
That evening, I checked out an event called ‘Quantum Light’ in the Temple. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but after being at Harbin for a full day, I was pretty sure it would be interesting.
WAS IT. It was like a Kirtan (call-and-response chanting/singing) but the emphasis was on breathing. Deep inhales that fill your entire body, followed by quick exhales. And repeat, in a fluid cycle. The excess oxygen was supposed to feel exhilarating, but I felt a little lightheaded. Everyone else seemed to enter an ecstatic state. Imagine an evangelical tent revival held at an insane asylum, where they had double-booked a pagan ritual. There you have Quantum Light. A few people were rocking back and forth and moaning, another was giggling hysterically, a man was sitting cross-legged on the floor and whipping his upper body around in wide circles, and the entire room sounded like they were about to reach orgasm. Once again, I had been out-hippied.
The chanting was nice, though. And no one had sex against the wall that night. Bonus!
After the day I had yesterday, I wasn’t sure there would be anything left to write. I was wrong.
Before sunrise, when the trees were still black against the pale sky, I slipped into the Domes pool and looked out over the valley. For the next hour or so, I floated on my back and watched the world wake. When other people began to make their way down to the pool, I toweled off and headed to the market area for breakfast.
On my way through the valley, I passed a stone-lined labyrinth in a field. In the center, a pile of offerings from the natural world: pine cones, stones, shells, pieces of wood, a few tin bottle caps. I stepped in and started walking the path to the center. As the first rays of sun rose above the tree line, I felt someone watching me. Turning back, I noticed three deer standing about 10 feet away, bright-eyed and curious. The one in front looked at me with so much love in her eyes, like she had found her long-lost friend. I smiled back, overflowing with joy and awe. She ran toward me, stopping almost an arm’s length away. I stood there, frozen in place, hoping I hadn’t gone off my rocker enough to get mauled by a deer. But with one last look, she stepped around me and continued on her path. Her friends followed. Later, randomly, I learned that the deer symbolizes the heart chakra. Coincidence? You decide.
I kept walking through the labyrinth, thinking about how it resembles the journey of life. Isn’t it something that you can approach the center of the labyrinth—the goal—without quite reaching it, and then get swept farther away. You can get so close that it’s tempting to step off the path and touch the center. But just as you consider doing this, the path takes you in another direction. It’s not the right time. As I continued walking, I noticed that some areas of the path were cold and dark, not yet warmed by the sun. A few paces forward and the ground was once again blessed with an abundance of light and heat.
Suddenly I was there, in the center of the labyrinth, facing the pile of offerings. A piece of bark reminded me of the face of that deer. I looked down at the ground, wishing I had something to offer, but nothing seemed right. Suddenly I heard a crash on the hill behind me. I jumped, expecting to see a falling tree limb. Instead, the biggest, roundest pine cone I have ever seen bounced down the hill and landed a couple feet away from me on the path. A squirrel snickered at me from high up in the tree. I walked over to pick it up; it was so large that three of my size hands could have wrapped around it. Fresh sap pooled like hot wax at its stem. Such a magnificent smell. I called in my soul to come and see.
I sat in the pools again later that day, not worrying about where my eyes wandered because I was lost in my own thoughts, marveling at the abundance of life. Whatever challenges I face, whatever stressful things happen, I choose to be here.
I choose this life.