I have been away. Turning inward after the holiday rush, slowing the pace, seeking silence to hear myself think. During a cold spell in early January, a flash of inspiration led me to look up northern California hot springs. Taking my chronically cold tootsies into very warm water is earthly paradise for me, so this seemed the right medicine for winter.
And that is how we discovered Wilbur.
Wilbur Hot Springs is down five miles of gravel road in Colusa County, about two hours north of the San Francisco Bay Area density, in foothills that bear the corrugated look of land that has been folded under the stress of plate tectonics, creating fissures in the earth that allow these mineral waters to come to the surface.
The bathhouse is along Sulphur Creek. The open air “Fluminarium” has three “contemplation” flumes, ranging in heat from 98 to 110 degrees. The first one became my favorite, like a bathtub that doesn’t get cold. Floating in the flumes is pure bliss, the water very buoyant, its salinity approaching sea water. The pools are clean and simple, with a meditative vibe encouraged by the rule of silence. The baths are open any time of the day or night. After a while we become accustomed here: shower first, bring gear, enter silent pools, relax, repeat. Clothing in the pools is optional, but everyone is very respectful and private no matter your choice.
The water in the pools is quite green. There are four hot pools, and a large pool for a cold plunge, delicious on the skin after the hot water. It was such a nice feeling to be in deep water in the big pool, to breaststroke, all so easeful.
The springs are upstream of the main complex. Sulphur is the most identifiable mineral due to its smell, but after a short while I don’t smell it anymore. The silky waters also contain calcium, magnesium, sodium chloride, silica, lithium, and many other minerals which leave yellowish deposits on the rocks in the creek and the walls of the pools. “Taking the waters” was a popular cure in this country a hundred years ago, for many aches and pains: rheumatism, arthritis, dyspepsia, kidney and liver complaints, dropsy, skin disorders, asthma, malaria, neuralgia, and the “weakness of women.” Some still seek these benefits; surely the warm waters increase blood circulation, which is good for many conditions.
Wilbur has been through an ordeal, and is in a Phoenix process to rebuild its physical plane. The old Wilbur hotel suffered a devastating fire in March of 2014, necessitating the removal of the top two floors of the hundred-year-old building, leaving the original ground floor to be renovated. Construction traffic tiptoes as quietly as possible past the bathing area, preparing new cabins on the hillside for occupancy. I never visited Wilbur during the old days, so don’t carry the “fire burden” of those who miss the old hotel. To us, it was all new, beautiful, safe, and wonder-full.
The place is rustic, which suited us fine, as our lifestyle is also pretty down home. We enjoyed bringing our own food and cooking it in the vast and splendidly appointed communal kitchen. The ethic is self-service; amenities are not in the usual form of pampering the guests, but in providing a clean and soothing experience of the waters. We brought our own towels, robes, bath shoes, and flashlights (one with a dead battery, and for the win, an old-style windup flashlight with an LED bulb). The rooms have no electrical outlets, and all the power generated for the hotel and environs comes from propane tanks and a big solar panel installation. So the hair dryer stayed home, but sitting before the gas-flame fireplace soon took care of that, and the kitchen offered old-fashioned toasting pans to put over the gas flame, since toasters are big energy sucks. There are also no shoes allowed inside, except in the kitchen, and no locks on the bedrooms. Shared bathrooms do have locks. I like being left alone and providing for myself. And the strong ecological awareness at every turn makes us feel closer to the land. The new lodgings will have 25 rooms; the old resort had 23, so it is not mushrooming up in size, despite having taken to the hills to provide the rentals lost to the fire. The ascent to the new cabins and the Solar Lodge is fairly steep, though the stairs very solidly made. For oldsters like us, the hike to and from the new accommodations would be challenging. We were incredibly lucky to have the only room in the old hotel for a double occupancy.
The lettering throughout the place is fanciful and usually vintage. I wondered why their logo had a line through the name until I saw the original above the registration desk. Painted on two pieces of wood which have shrunk and apparently also weathered, there is a crack between them now. And among the many signs of Wilbur, this below is possibly my favorite, the majuscule “S” in harmony with that knot in the wood.
Written chronicles of Wilbur go back to 1865, when it began as a stagecoach stop. I can imagine those drivers and riders must have been mighty sore on those roads back then. Mining was happening a-plenty all over northern California, and there is still evidence of those operations in the 1800-acre nature preserve surrounding the Wilbur retreat. About a half mile down the gravel road past the baths and hotel is the geyser, called the Fountain of Life.
At the far end of the valley are the foundations of the old Sulphur Creek hotel, which burned down a hundred or so years ago. We didn’t know what all that concrete could be until Wilbur’s facilities manager Yoshi Kono told us. His thoughts on the classic Japanese art of bathing, called onsen, can be found in this newsletter from last spring.
The ruins of the old structure are the site of the Wishing Tree, which is helpfully stocked with tags and pens.
Visitors leave their wishes on the tree to look out over the valley, until New Year’s Eve, when they are sent heavenward on the smoke of the bonfire.
The long view over the valley has doubtless evoked spiritual feelings for millennia.
At Wilbur, we received a great gift from the earth, her deep and usually hidden waters. Floating, weightless, being held by the quiet, buoyant water: this is healing. To feel safe and held in these peaceful waters provided a magical restorative time. Despite its changes, the soul of Wilbur is enduring, for “in all the world, no waters like these” is at the heart of the place.
Ahhhhhhhhh, the quiet . . . . . . . just the song of the creek, just the sight of a million stars . . .
We have been back for over a week and I can only say I seem to be still under the spell of the waters and the feeling of quiet introspection. Wilbur’s motto, ““Time to Slow Down” seems a good mantra for everyday life too. Being off-grid for a few days was such a welcome experience I kept on with it. Intrusive notices from Facebook to sign on and see everything I missed only caused me to stay away. Now here I am adding more content to that vast Web of Too Much Information. The same Web has given me a dreamy collection of photos of this sacred place when it is in full spring bloom, golden summer heat and brilliant autumn. After a while this refrain of a Yeats poem burbles up from memory:
Come away O human child
To the waters and the wild
With a fairy hand in hand
For the world’s more full of weeping
Than you can understand . . .