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Everything Gone but the Water

What was lost, and what wasn’t, when the Valley Fire tore through Harbin Hot Springs.

SLIDESHOW

In the space of two hours on September 12, 2015, the pools at Harbin Hot Springs went from a blissful hideaway to a scene of total devastation.

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The Valley Fire moved unbelievably fast, spreading from 50 to 400 acres in an hour.

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Harbin staffer Eric Richardson surveys the main pool.

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An obliterated neighborhood in Middletown.

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A slow-down sign, now unnecessary, greets visitors.

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PART I: HOW A FIRE DECIDES THINGS

It was kind of a dark day. It was overcast. I was playing in my garden. I had morning glories that were blooming and twining up around things—I was just having a good time. And I noticed dark brown smoke. There’d been fires all summer long—the Rocky Fire, the Jerusalem Fire—helicopters every morning. You’d wake up to the sound of Good Morning, Vietnam. So we were just a little blasé, I suppose, with a heavy dose of denial. We began to evacuate guests from the hot springs—there were, I believe, 500 guests here. Everyone got out without a mess, and I waited until the very last minute, keeping an eye on security and stuff. 

And then I saw it. Flames were flicking down the valley, and the sound of it, I never in my dreams…this thing with an appetite, this…roar. It filled the entire world. Smoke flying through the air, and bits of trees falling off, and ash like snow falling—the whole cyclone of debris, and people moving through it in a sleepwalking kind of state, and the sky was just black boiling clouds with red reflected up under them. It was like a stage set. I was an usher for the San Francisco Opera years ago, and I saw Don Giovanni about, I don’t know, a hundred times—and you know that part where the devil comes up through the stage with the smoke around him? I could hear that music behind this firestorm. It was hungry, and it wanted to eat me, and it was gonna. —Julie Adams


When the Valley Fire started
on September 12 at 1:24 in the afternoon, somewhere near the intersection of Bottle Rock Road and High Valley Road, just northwest of the town of Cobb, it should have continued up the draws of Cobb Mountain or north toward Mount Konocti and Clear Lake. Wildfires prefer to travel uphill, a fact that is not a defiance of physics but a fulfillment of it. Heat rises, evaporating the moisture in the air above the fire and preheating what is uphill, making it more prone to combusting. Fires are, above all, opportunists. But the Valley Fire didn’t behave the way fires tend to. Instead it began moving southeast, downhill, powered by 20-mile-per-hour winds blowing down from the northwest. It moved unbelievably fast. Within an hour the fire had burned 50 acres. Within another hour it had consumed 400, whipping past Forest Lake and Whispering Pines and heading toward Harbin Hot Springs, where Julie Adams, the resort’s managing director, had already begun to oversee an orderly evacuation.

The fire was helped along by the wind, the drought, and the bark beetle (subfamily Scolytinae), which preys on trees stressed by a lack of water. In what has been called the largest forest-insect outbreak in history, bark beetles have marched south along the wooded West Coast and beyond, chewing through 46 million of the country’s 850 million acres of forest. The dead trees they leave behind are fuel. Everything is fuel.

The fire followed Highway 175 southeast, chasing evacuating cars and trucks and being chased in turn by fire teams and police and planes dropping retardant. The fire created its own weather, generating even stronger winds that powered it further. Normally a fire expands equally in all directions, but the wind created a preference, directing the fire’s full fury toward Middletown (population 1,600). Embers were launched a mile out by hidden archers, igniting spot fires. The smaller fires heated the area, pulling the huge body of the main fire forward like workers dragging a large, storm-tossed ship ashore. 

Barely two hours old, and just minutes before it tore through Middletown, the fire came down through the valley next to Mount Harbin, toward an ancient underground spring venting the earth’s heat. If the fire could’ve heard the thoughts of those it would soon displace, it would have picked up Don Giovanni’s Commendatore scene—the rising of the devil through the floor of the stage—playing in Adams’s mind. Non si pasce di cibo mortale chi si pasce di cibo celeste, it would have sung, if it could sing—if it could do anything but roar.

 

PART II: PALIMPSEST

You can tell that civilization has returned by the brand names: Allstate, Farmers, Verizon. They’re stamped on the side of satellite trucks that appear only when something has gone very wrong. These trucks join trucks with other stamps—FEMA, Red Cross, Veterans Affairs—second responders tucked into side streets and sprawled along the main drag of Middletown, at the intersection of Highways 175 and 29 in the hills of Lake County. In a park in front of the Middletown Senior Center, tents have been erected, also bearing the names of insurance companies. People mill around, some waiting in lines to fill out paperwork with a government agency, some sitting with company representatives in folding chairs. They cluster around the Verizon Wireless Crisis Response Team’s truck, charging phones and using provided laptops or the free Wi-Fi that, like water and power, has become an essential utility. At one tent near the parking lot, Pacific Gas & Electric is handing out blue 45-gallon Sterilite totes that contain, among other things, two Cabela’s duffel bags, a Clear Solution 11-piece personal hygiene kit, a first aid kit (with the PG&E logo), Parle cell phone chargers, two PG&E luggage tags for people who may be leaving, and Wenzel tents (either 5-, 6-, or 10-person models) for those who have nowhere else to go.

It’s a beautiful day, just before noon on a Friday. There’s a festival feel, the people coming and going, the big humming trucks, the tents, the plastic totes full of surprises. A fall festival in the mountains! Except that the festival, really, is a refugee crisis. In another place, that might look like long columns of weary pilgrims carrying dusty suitcases away from bombed-out cities. Here, it’s telephones on folding tables; it’s brochures; it’s people tripping over federal wires and cords that are an OSHA hazard in themselves. Everything looking flimsy, insubstantial, itinerant. 

According to Cal Fire, the Valley Fire destroyed “1,280 homes, 27 multifamily structures, 66 commercial properties, and 585 other minor structures.” It burned through Cobb, Middletown, and Hidden Valley, taking places off the map and redrawing city limits. It devastated Anderson Springs completely, leaving nothing but chimney stacks standing in rows like gravestones. It devoured 76,000 acres of meadow and hillside and main street in three counties: Lake, Napa, and Sonoma. Nineteen thousand people were evacuated; four firefighters were injured; four people were killed. The ground for miles around was baked solid, as though the world were a clay pot in a kiln.

In the middle of this vast landscape of destruction lies Harbin Hot Springs Retreat & Workshop Center, the spiritual if not geographic center of rugged, feral, otherworldly Lake County. Site of one of Northern California’s most popular clothing-optional resorts and “intentional” communities, the springs at Harbin have been used by residents of Middletown and visitors from the Bay Area and beyond for more than 150 years (not to mention by Native Americans for thousands of years before that, and by ancient squid 135 million years before that). On weekends, hundreds would come from all over the world to bathe in the pools, indulge in a massage, and be naked. The place was not just a community but a pilgrimage site—a palimpsest of experiences so deep that it was really a layering of civilizations. In its long human history, the area around the hot springs had burned many times before, but never with the unpredictability and violence it would on September 12. “There is no history—no, what am I trying to say?—no norm for this,” says Cal Fire battalion chief Scott McLean, speaking of the Valley Fire and other conflagrations that have occurred recently throughout the bone-dry West.

Driving in from Calistoga a few weeks after the catastrophe, I smell the Valley Fire as soon as I view the burn on the distant hills. The scent is instantly familiar, a constant in the sensory background. I want to see what has become of Harbin and its surroundings. Apparently I am not alone: When I reach the security trailer to meet Eric Richardson, Harbin’s human resources manager, and tour the ruins, he tells me that the security team has been turning back pilgrims ever since the fire was contained. Some visitors knew that the place had been destroyed, and some did not; many were held by the security staff as they wept.

Richardson is one of 34 core employees who are keeping Harbin going and beginning to think about when, and how, to rebuild. Before the fire, Harbin was an employer of 245 and the residence of some 65 people who lived on the grounds in cottages, tents, or domes. In all, more than 100 Harbin staffers lost their homes to the Valley Fire. Richardson, who lives in Middletown, was one of the lucky ones—his house sat just outside of the fire line. When he and his colleagues were forced to evacuate, he says, it marked the beginning of an instant diaspora: “Your friends, your job, your house, all gone in the span of two hours.”

Richardson takes a photographer and me on a tour of landmarks that are no longer there, pointing to various empty spaces as we labor up the hills in our heavy-duty air masks. When Harbin burned, it left not only the ash of wood beams and the charred rubble of foundations, but also the toxicities of melted plastic, computers, and electrical wiring. Here and all around Lake County, the cleanup crews are hazmat-certified, the workers wearing Ebola suits as they walk the small-town sidewalks.

I’d visited Harbin once before, a few years ago. At check-in, I’d assumed that the receptionist’s disclaimer of clothing-optionality meant a bunch of people in swimsuits and one or two leathery hippies in the buff. I was wrong. When the gate to the deck opened, before me stood a tableau of naked humans stepping into and out of the pools, sunning themselves on the deck, basking in their robelessness. The moment in The Wizard of Oz when everything turns to color—that’s the effect it had on the senses. 

The term “clothing-optional” had always suggested to me that you could opt out of wearing clothes; what it really meant at Harbin was that you could opt in. Watching the naked people and, yes, becoming the naked people, I found the experience to be sexual but not erotic. The feeling it evoked was older than Eros, charged with the low hum of instinct: reproduce, compete, commune, check out.

Now, as we crunch over charred debris, Richardson shows us what the fire erased: the hotel and cabins, the restaurant and offices and cottages, the sundeck that once cantilevered over the hill, draped heavily with nudes. Now it’s all just negative space in the unclean air. The slate tiles of the gazebo lie on the ground in the shape of a roof, having settled there as the wooden structure burned out from beneath them. The domes covering the pools where people practiced Watsu, a kind of aquatic Shiatsu that was developed here, were chewed by burning embers, leaving pinpoints of light like stars in a planetarium show. “We’ve been talking about this fire for years before it happened,” Richardson says. But when it finally did happen, there was nothing to do but run. Though devastated, he and the other Harbinites I meet around Middletown and throughout the diaspora are accepting of what has befallen their home. They’d come to Harbin in the first place to be close to nature. They have no illusions about nature’s indifference to their presence.


PART III: FREEDOM

Harbin’s been called Black Sheep Hot Springs on more than one occasion, ’cause all of us seem to have that family story going on. Massage therapists and gardeners and construction workers and office workers and administrative people—someone once described us as a pack of lone wolves. And it’s true. I’ve always said that at Black Sheep Hot Springs…how does that saying go? You either have a problem with authority or you become an authority problem. —Adams


The Valley Fire banished
the pilgrims, burnt the forest, and overwrote everything that came before it—everything except the waters. In the blistered, barren valley the only sound now is of the water, still flowing hot through melted and broken pipes.

Who can say that it wasn’t this quiet once before? For 3,000 years, the Lake Miwok people lived and worked here. They slept in the nude and carried their shelters on their backs. They revered the feathers of birds, especially the red ones of hummingbirds and woodpeckers, which they believed connected them to an ancient source of heat and light with many names, among them fire. Because they had no written texts, the Miwok’s history and language are mostly a mystery. What we do know about the geologic and human history of the area can be found in Ellen Klages’s excellent book, Harbin Hot Springs: Healing Waters, Sacred Lands. Klages moved to Harbin in 1987 and lived there for four years, during which she got interested in the place and wrote the book, which the resort published. Harbin has been many different things, she tells me over the phone: a sacred Indian land, a resort for invalids, a sportsman’s club, a family resort, a countercultural mecca, and, now, a disaster zone. It has cycled through a multitude of identities—but always, even when there was little else, there was the water. 

Two million years ago, Lake County was an inland sea, home to ancient creatures. Geologic activity formed the Coast Range and unleashed magma from beneath the earth that created volcanoes and drained water miles into the crust. This geologic tumult eventually stabilized, but it left a 13-mile-wide magma chamber beneath the land that boils the water far under Harbin. The water turns into steam, which in turn heats the groundwater closer to the surface. The groundwater wends its way through cracks in the earth, leaching lithium, sulfur, iron, and arsenic, before emerging in springs with temperatures of up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. As Klages puts it in her book, hot springs “are the final stage of thermal activity in volcanic regions, lingering on for eons as visible proof of the unseen fires below.”

The Lake Miwok hunted around the springs and bathed in them, and their shamans used the waters as an entrance to the spirit world. Other tribes, too, came for the waters’ curative powers. “Then, as now [circa 1991], the springs area was both a sacred place for healing and a kind of resort,” Klages writes. Later, from far outside the Lake Miwok territory, “beyond the beyond,” came the Spanish, who began converting the indigenous tribes to Christianity and forcing them to labor at the newly established missions in Northern California. The population of Lake Miwok, through disease and marriage and massacre, dwindled. When Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1821, the land in and around Lake County was parceled into ranches. California’s annexation by the Union and the discovery of gold drew hundreds of thousands of settlers, some of whom bought Mexican land grants from the new government. One of them was Archibald Ritchie, a wealthy San Franciscan who acquired the hot springs land in one of his purchases. After Ritchie died, the property fell, in 1856, into the possession of one James Harbin, who managed in the document-sparse time to get his name permanently affixed to the springs.

Harbin soon sold the place to two men who built the first hotel a decade later. Eventually it wore the flamboyant appellation the Harbin Hot Springs Health and Pleasure Resort, boasting waters good for curing “female complaints.” In the decades that followed, its mainstream appeal shifted from health to recreation and back to health again. Automobiles and improved roads allowed San Francisco society folks to more easily make the journey north and east, a trip that took five hours before World War I (and, sometimes, in terrible traffic, takes about that long now).

In the 1950s, as American pastimes leaned away from soaking in hot prehistoric squid water, Harbin fell into disfavor. It burned at least four times between that era and now, through negligence and maybe some light arson. In the late 1960s, it was occupied by a mystico-scientific group that founded Harbinger University, which at first was dedicated to the scholarly exploration of physics and UFOs, but soon descended into the same kind of heedless hedonism that characterized the darker side of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.

Free love and drug use were rampant. People slept anywhere they could, strummed guitars, and lived according to their most basic desires. “If it was too hot, they broke a window to get air,” writes Klages. “If it was too cold, they used the furniture for firewood.” The waters were fouled, the conditions grim. Drugs seeped out into neighboring communities, where their legacy is still seen in the rampant methamphetamine use in Lake County. Relations with Middletown soured, and police officers and health officials became frequent visitors. Eventually, the lotus-eaters wandered off and the place closed. On weekends, locals shotgunned the buildings for good measure.

After that, Harbin nearly became a few more things—a golf course, a state park—before a man named Robert Hartley bought it in 1972. Hartley (who has been called Ishvara since a yogi gave him the name in 1977) oversaw Harbin’s transformation into something that allowed all of its past incarnations to coexist: It became a place for healing and expression, a venue for spiritual exploration and holistic living, and a testing ground for new types of communities. Hartley and others established a nonprofit called the Heart Consciousness Church, to which he sold Harbin. A relatively stable managerial system, says Klages (not to mention the disappearance of those ’60s-era “people on acid, wandering through town”), began mending relationships with Middletown.

Now 82, Hartley has long since turned over management of the resort in favor of a very American kind of spiritual practice, playing the stock market in the morning and meditating in the afternoon. After fleeing the fire—he left his hillside cottage above the pools with only a laptop and the clothes on his back—he moved to San Jose for a while, before coming back to a Harbin-owned house in Middletown. When, one afternoon, I finally reach him there by phone, I ask what drew him to the springs in the first place. “Freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom,” he chants. “Don’t have to wear clothes; don’t have to measure up to anybody else’s expectations; and can decide what kinds of relationships we want to have with each other.” 

This, more than anything, explains how Harbin transformed from an isolated mountain community into a wildly popular resort over the last four decades: It became whatever you wanted it to be. The holy writ of freedom, Harbin’s one true belief, drew in seemingly everybody. Here were the nomadic New Agers who carried their shelters on their backs; there the modern Victorians coming up from the city. You’d hear a multitude of languages at the showers or in the locker rooms. The hotel and cabins filled up well in advance (camping space was generally available); massage reservations came with a waiting list; workshops on various kinds of sexual healing were always up on the bulletin boards. Some people came to be repaired, some to just get away from it all, but their motives all melted into one shared desire: to Be Here Now. At Harbin, the secular soaker and the spiritual seeker could percolate meditatively side by side, naked or not, whatever. 


PART IV: DIASPORA

I think of all the changes that I’ve seen, from the raw-sewage-on-the-lawn-Grateful-Dead-making-acid-in-the-kitchen era to the kind of victim-of-our-own-success place that we were before the fire. It was so crowded all the time, just packed, packed, a thousand people on the weekend. And at each moment when I saw a change happen—like, “Oh gosh, we have to filter the water, nobody’s gonna come anymore”; “Oh no, we’re gonna have to charge more money, nobody’s gonna come anymore”; “Oh, now you gotta wear your pants when you go to the restaurant, well, nobody’ll come anymore”—that didn’t happen. The thing that worked, the magic, was that nobody took credit for it. We all just loved each other.  —Adams


The resort’s management
learned that Harbin had been destroyed from photos and videos posted online by trespassing pilgrims. They shared the information on Facebook, and before anyone had officially confirmed it, everyone knew: Harbin was gone. Most of the staff would have to be dismissed. The far-flung network of global Harbinites living around the Bay Area and in France, Israel, Italy, and beyond began reaching out to their suddenly homeless or jobless brethren. Work was found at other springs; camping space was offered in Hawaii. 

HR manager Richardson says that a survey a few years back put the average age of residents at Harbin at 50. He thinks that older Harbinites—the ones who get regular Social Security checks—can afford to wait out a reopening, but many others will have to relocate, perhaps permanently. “The younger residents, I think, are more motivated to move on,” he says. “They need income.” 

Shane Powers moved to Harbin in 2012 after nearly a decade in the East Bay, forced out by high rents. He worked security, studied massage, and lived in a tent on the property. After the fire, he and a few other Harbinites camped on the coast near the Russian River for days. “We just sort of hunkered down and regrouped,” he says, “and tried to reconnect with everybody as much as we could.” For a week the Harbin community tried to find itself. Many weren’t on Facebook, so it was word of mouth as much as anything. When Powers returned with the others to the springs, his tent was gone. Now he is subletting an apartment in Middletown and trying to figure out what to do next. “I don’t really know for sure if I’ll stick around for the rebuild, but for right now, that feels the best for me,” he says. “I can’t go back to the city for sure, unless I get some high-paying job.”

When the resort does reopen, there could be an entirely new community, populating an entirely new Harbin. This could mean a somewhat new Middletown as well. Harbin, along with energy company Calpine and the county casinos, is one of the largest employers in town. In a county where unemployment was at 8.2 percent before the fire, the former den of licentious, drug-addled hippies is now an essential part of the local economy. In town halls and fire recovery meetings, the Middletown government has been unambiguous in its support for getting the resort rebuilt and reopened ASAP. The community of supporters and seekers have been doing their part as well: Just a month after the fire, more than $200,000 in donations had poured in through Facebook. Tentatively—very tentatively—management is suggesting the springs could reopen as soon as May.

Whatever Harbin becomes next, Hartley and others insist, it will continue to enshrine their original, guiding vision. “We’re planning to completely rebuild, and to do so in a different way because we’re not constrained by history,” says Hartley. “The place was gradually built over the last 150 years and burned down and rebuilt and so forth. You can’t just rebuild what was, because part of the charm of it was age, and you can’t reproduce that.” Instead, he says, they’ll reconsider what the place can be. He sounds like he’s looking forward to this new era, and to the freedom freedom freedom of starting over from scratch.


PART V: MAGICAL
 THINKING

Well, we’re cleaning up, and we’re thinking about it, and it won’t be the same—ever. It’ll never be the same. I look at it, I see the ghosts of buildings that were there. So I need to wipe my visual slate. I hope it just rains like hell this winter. The land is gonna slide around and be in different places, and the water is determined to flow down the hill, and we need to find a way to direct that. I really want to let that creek loose. I wanna let it be free, to run through the way it’s supposed to. —Adams


Spend some time
around a disaster, and it starts to mess with your mind. You see an untouched house next to an immolated wreck and think about how capricious it all is. You see intention, preference. You see an ironic sense of humor in the fact that the smokers’ deck at Harbin was spared from burning. It’s a scary and dangerous thing to assign motive to nature, of course—you very easily slip into that personification of forces that’s so ancient and familiar. It’s how gods are born.

One afternoon a month after the fire, I talk to Sama Morningstar, a yoga instructor at Harbin whose apartment was an herb garden away from the fire line. “I’m sitting in my apartment now, looking out my window, and everything is as it was before—and then I step outside and look at the neighbor’s, and everything is gone,” she says. “It’s pretty amazing and miraculous how the burning happened and didn’t happen around here.” 

While they go through the motions of recovering from one disaster, everyone is thinking about the next one: the eastern Pacific weather phenomenon known as El Niño, which this year may be the strongest ever recorded. It might bring rain to quench the state’s drought but also, perversely, cause mudslides on the barren hills, a disaster of water born of a disaster of fire. The evacuees who have returned to Middletown are reminded constantly of the compromises required to live so near to nature—but they are unwilling to acquiesce to the inevitable. In fact, coming back and building again is becoming its own inevitability. 

I feel this strongly when talking to Harbin managing director Adams. We meet five weeks after the fire, at the Bar X Ranch, part of the 14,000-acre holding that the Heart Consciousness Church bought from the Skaggs family, a storied retailing clan that founded or ran Payless, Safeway, and Albertsons. Adams has been at Harbin 30 years and had a cottage right next to the pools. Originally from Arkansas, she still has a minor tributary of an Ozark accent running through her pleasant growl. She sits in a chair in the corner of the living room of a surviving house on the Skaggs property. The place is being renovated into housing for her and a few other members of management. Her arms are crossed over a cane. As she leans forward, in an untouched farmhouse surrounded by utter devastation, her telling of the story of the fire, and of Harbin, is more incantation than recitation. As she talks, she is holding back tears.

The rebuilding is already taking shape in her mind. With the old temperamental buildings gone, Adams sees an opportunity to use green construction methods, to create a definite sense of architectural identity rather than the kludge that years of hardship and necessity had made of the resort. Management has signed a contract with the Seattle-based green architecture firm Mithun to design the new version of Harbin. Meanwhile, the cleanup is going well. Crews have removed six inches of topsoil and foundations in some places. Most of the big shade trees are gone (though a few sycamores remain). The toxic remediation has also spared important aspects of the property, like the labyrinth, the fountain, and of course the pools. 

What no one knows is how far the diaspora will have spread, and how strong the pull will be to bring the seekers back. Adams is desperately hoping for that May reopening—a “very optimistic guess,” she adds. The pools will be swimmable by then, maybe. People could do some camping, perhaps. Bodyworkers and administrators and gardeners and cooks will be working again, ideally. These are not guarantees, just aspirations. “It’s not based on anything but hope and spit,” Adams says. Before she gets up to leave, I ask her if the fire has diminished the appreciation of nature that brought her and everybody else out here in the first place. Her answer, like all of her answers, is a good one:

What are you gonna do, get mad at the world? I don’t know. It’s a natural cycle for this part of the country, to burn and regrow and burn and regrow and burn and regrow. The tragedy, you know, the loss of it, is human scale. The financial cost of a fire is in human structures. Trees grow back, grass grows back, birds come back. It goes on and on and on. So, no, you don’t get mad at the place for burning when that’s what it’s supposed to do. It’s a candle—it’s supposed to illuminate the page.

 

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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