After the fire: returning to Harbin

It was our 10th anniversary last week. We used to spend every anniversary at the place where we were handfasted: the Harbin Hot Springs temple. But we couldn’t, because the temple is gone. And so is Harbin Hot Springs. Well, as we knew it, it is. The Valley Fire swallowed it in a monstrous blaze in 2015, and disgorged nothing but ash and grief.

Little by little, the new Harbin owners have been working to rebuild, but it turned out that they were horrifically underfunded, so progress has been painfully slow. And even with all the money in the world, how could those funky, creaky, wonderful old ramshackle lodges, or the sweet little market full of organic wonders, and the stunning temple ever be rebuilt? That temple was a breathtaking masterpiece of hand-fitted wood, the roof spiraling up like an upside-down morning glory into the sky, topped with a delicate spire that would poke out from atop the thick tree canopy.

I’d seen photos of the ongoing rebuilding process on Harbin’s website, following horrific photos from just after the fire… all that precious, sacred property blackened and crumbling. It was like a death. There just isn’t anywhere on earth like Harbin, with its New-Agey, loving, peaceful vibe, and people who worked and lived there, creating a serene Shangr-La, a respite from the rush and roar of daily life: No phones, no televisions, no amplified sound, no alcohol, no drugs, and yes, frequently no clothes, particularly down by the pools. And yoga. Lots of yoga. Harbin was where you could be comfortable in your own sun-warmed skin, soaking in healing geothermal waters, amid an ever-changing but always similar “community” that flowed in and out of the grounds each week.

Harbin was our very favorite place on earth, and one weird, gray September afternoon nearly four years ago, a tsunami of flame devoured it. It was a crushing loss, too painful to think about, because it seemed impossible that Harbin could ever exist again. But, earlier this year, Harbin announced they were letting in limited numbers of day visitors, and last month, overnight stays in their new “Creekside Caravans,” a little fleet of campers up on one of the hillsides, as well as tent camping.

I asked Joe if he wanted to go back for our anniversary, either to give “new” Harbin a chance, or bid it one final farewell. He was as lukewarm as I about the thought of returning, and like me, assuming we’d be bitterly disappointed. But yet, we hadn’t returned since the fire, and going back one more time felt like a delayed graveside service. Some of our best memories happened at Harbin. We owed it that much, to touch the coffin, turn away, and dab the tears.

So, we reserved a camper, and set out along the back roads through Pope Valley with lower than low expectations. I assumed everything taller than our knees would be gone. As we crossed from Napa to Lake County, we entered into the heavily fire-scarred area… blackened trees grasping the blue sky like twisted skeleton claws… reaching desperately for help that never came. But, at the ground level, it was lush and green, and yellow, orange, and purple wildflowers dotted the hillsides. Even in the inferno’s aftermath, life would not be denied.

We rounded the turn onto Highway 29, and then entered Middletown, and I was amazed that the tiny shopping center across from the high school, as well as the school itself, was still standing. But leaving town as we neared Harbin Springs Road, it felt surreal, like reverse deja-vu… remembering something that never was; a feeling that I haven’t been here before… but I have. The stark lack of a tree canopy was shocking, and more gnarled black bones reached up from the ground. But, here and there, a defiant tree would be sprouting leaves anyway, and in some of the low spots, there were trees that seemed only slightly singed, and some miraculously untouched.

We pulled up to the grounds, and there was not a familiar thing in sight other than that the rebuilt check-in gate was in the same spot as before, as was the parking lot on up ahead, now completely visible for lack of vegetation. We were directed to some mobile units to check in  and catch a bite to eat while waiting for our caravan to be ready, and sat at a picnic table, feeling disoriented and stunned… Wasn’t that over there… and isn’t this were that was… Wow, it looks so tiny without the buildings…

We were both delighted when we pulled up to our caravan, an adorable re-creation of a vintage  ’50s camper, complete with turquoise and cream paint (awww, it matched the old lodges!), and we were astounded by what was available inside: stove, oven, microwave, refrigerator, shower, toilet, and heating and air conditioning. Wow! This is actually kinda sweet!

We quickly unloaded our stuff and headed for the most wonderful spot in the world… the warm pool. We walked the old footpath between where the Meadow Building once stood and on into the pool area, surprised at how the bay laurels and manzanita were springing back, covered in fresh, green foliage. And, birds were singing, bugs were buzzing… there was far more life than I imagined. I was anticipating that everything would be gone or dead, and thrilled to be wrong.

Up at the pool area, the good news is that there are now SEVEN bathrooms; the bad news is that they’re in a big ugly mobile unit. That said… there used to only be one stinky, funky toilet in the steamy, funky dressing room and, well, there’s something to be said for clean, ample toiletude!

We ditched our clothes in a dressing tent, and then there it was… the beautiful blue warm pool, reminiscent of the old one… same shape, same rails, and warm water that feels like sinking into an angel’s sighs. And… what is this? No crowds? Free space anywhere we like? Wowsers! Back in the old days, sometimes you had to wind your way through bodies just to find a place to stand. Now, it was almost like having it to ourselves. In fact, at one point, we did have the warm pool to ourselves, and that has never happened before! I took the opportunity to practice some Watsu on Joe. Clearly, I need some professional training…  I dunked myself while trying to turn him! Oops! Oh well, at least there were no witnesses!

And the sauna. Oh. My. GODDESS. The new sauna is a gazillion times better than the old one. Three times the size, plenty of room for anyone and everyone. The old one felt like being in a can of hot, sweating sardines. The new one gets two thumbs way up!

We spent our evenings relaxing at our caravan, with the entire expanse of star-filled nighttime sky before us, and in the morning, rather than having to get dressed and go to the cafe for coffee (my main complaint about old Harbin), we made our coffee on our little stove, sat at our little table, and gazed out at, well… the rows of other campers. BUT… there were green hills in the distance, and birds, lizards, and squirrels flitting and scampering about right outside.

One morning, after a long, leisurely morning soak in the pool, while drying off on the blissfully uncrowded sundeck, I decided that new Harbin was equal parts heartbreak and hope. It will never, can never, be what it was. Even so, it was obvious that what it was becoming could still be something pretty special.

“I’m not nearly as disappointed as I thought I’d be,” I commented to Joe. “I think this will really be wonderful some day. Not what we knew, but wonderful in its own way.”

He agreed wholeheartedly, and said he actually liked the campers better than the lodges, and when we came back, he’d rather stay in the campers again. (Access to coffee first thing in the morning matters!)

In addition to discovering that Harbin is doing its best to recover, there were some amazing highlights:

One, just at dusk near the pools, we saw a deer! I was overjoyed! It was young, and alone, but I’d assumed that the Harbin deer were dead or gone, never to return. But there he was, happily chewing the bushes and grass like nothing horrible had ever happened. What a miracle!

Two, I was able to see my very, very, very favorite massage therapist, Cora. I nearly did a backflip when I saw her name on the roster, and when we saw each other again, we hugged so tight and girl-squeeeed. Just getting a massage with Cora is worth the drive up there. I’m so happy to see that, like Harbin, she too is recovering, and can smile again.

Three, while sitting at lunch one day, we made a new friend, Lisa, also an “old-timer,” and we chatted about the old days, and agreed that there was hope. That was a slice of old Harbin – sit at a table, make a friend. And then her friend, Cameron, pulled up with us too, and we got to talking… she was an old-timer too, also a writer, hasn’t written in awhile, needs to get back to it, asked me about the book I’m writing, and then I asked her about her books, and…. wait a minute… What did you say the name of one of your books was? “The Bad Girl’s Guide to the Party Life”?? And also, “The Bad Girl’s Guide to Getting What You Want”???



I have both of those sly, sexy little books! LOVE THEM! You mean you are THE Cameron? Cameron Tuttle? THE “Bad Girl”????!!!



Oh, you better believe I fan-girled all over her! I met an icon! How cool is that?

And, there was a fourth thing: While we were basking in the sunshine in the warm pool one morning, against the far wall — “our” spot — a man holding a small blue flowerpot of bright pink and purple flowers waded through the pool and placed them on that back wall ledge where, once upon a time, a beautiful bouquet of fresh flowers appeared there every morning as if by magic. Ahhh… someone else “remembers.”

Those of us who remember… we need to return. Old Harbin was weathered and seasoned by decades of peaceful, gentle, loving energy that permeated everything. That will only happen again if those of us who remember start returning and infusing it with that old energy.

A place isn’t rebuilt merely with boards and nails. It’s rebuilt with memories. It’s rebuilt with love. You can rebuild a structure, but only love rebuilds love. And that part’s up to us.






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