A hurricane of fire destroyed our other ‘home’ — Harbin Hot Springs
Poor little Middletown, California. It looks like ground zero of a nuclear blast. It’s just gone. Nothing left but ash, devastation and grief.
I’ve always liked Middletown. It was at the top of my list for “places to move to when Winters gets too fancy.” (Read: Overcrowded, touristy town that’s too precious for its own good, where locals become invisible, irrelevant and uninvited. Are we there yet? No. But that seems to be our trajectory. See: Commercial development approved on downtown city parking lot without any additional parking requirements — existing merchants asked to fund a parking assessment.)
Middletown is sweet and hokey, comfy and cute… a bit weathered, a bit underfunded, but clearly a community. You can feel it.
My husband and I have traveled through Middletown many times over the years on our way to Harbin Hot Springs, our special sacred place. We were handfasted (married, pre-Christian style) in the amazing swirled-roof Harbin temple six years ago, and we return for anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, happy times and sad, and sometimes just because. We’d know when it was time to return. You can feel the need to go “home” just as you can feel the need to eat or sleep.
The Valley Fire that roared through Middletown and the Cobb Mountain area last weekend like a hurricane of fire beneath a towering, billowing mushroom cloud of smoke devoured everything in its path. Including Harbin Hot Springs.
We got the crushing news on Sunday morning, and pretty much wandered around in a stupor all day. Harbin. Gone. We couldn’t quite wrap our brains around that notion. We were just planning to go again, now that the weather is cooling off. And now… nothing but scorched earth. Even as I think the thoughts and type the words, I find it impossible to comprehend. In my head, it’s all still there — the gurgling and babbling of streams and fountains, the funny, cocky bluejays bouncing across the lawns, the Harbin deer — nearly oblivious to humans — wandering through the brush, munching on bark and leaves, the amazing warm mineral pool, the scrumptious food, the peace and quiet that sinks into your bones, the wide expanse of stars in the night sky and most of all, the spirit of the people who come and go there, day after day, all on the same vibe, a never-ending inflow and outflow of blissful spirits.
Harbin was the hub where all those with that vibe — a deep wish to live in love, serenity and connection — could find each other. It didn’t matter if you’d never met before, you’d “know” each other just by virtue of being attracted back to that home, that heart, over and over again. This was where we belonged.
If I was stressed, I’d relax as soon as we’d arrive at Harbin’s front gate. I could exhale. If we couldn’t get there for real, I’d go there in my mind and walk the path past the temple, through the garden and on up into the pools, remembering every tree, bush, bench and statue, and it would tide me over until we could come “home” again.
Besides a community of common spirit, the ground itself vibrated with sacred energy, and one of the reasons it was so palpable was because of something Harbin didn’t have: cell phones. Besides the fact that there’s almost no cell signal there, the use of cell phones in any public place is not allowed. Do you even remember what it’s like to not hear bells, whistles and chimes going off randomly all around and people yakking at the top of their lungs about all sorts of mundane nonsense? Even better, Harbin didn’t allow amplified sound, televisions or radios. When you get rid of all that background static, you can hear the leaves in the breeze, the gurgling streams… croaking frogs and chirping crickets. It’s the sound of bliss. Whatever stress you had when you arrived ceases to exist.
Whenever it was time to leave, I’d always imagine that somehow, someway, I’d carry that Harbin spirit back to Winters. I’d manage for awhile, but it would dissipate as soon as life’s little concerns started nibbling away at my refreshed serenity. Sometimes, I prompt myself in the morning by thinking, “How would I start my day at Harbin,” and sit quietly outside with my cup of coffee, alone with my thoughts, absorbing nature rather than picking up my iPad or turning on the TV to get a full frontal blast of the world’s nastiness. I can close my eyes and visit Harbin in my mind, and sit in an Adirondack chair on the lawn with the three Goddess statues and listen to the breeze and the birds, and try to carry that into the rest of my day.
Yes, bringing some Harbin home. That was my wish. I never imagined that it would materialize as Harbin’s ashes dusting both our cars on Sunday, carried there on the wind, spattered with little dots of rain overnight like splashes of tears.
Of course, some will scoff at my grief and say, “Oh, it’s just a place, it can be rebuilt.” I’d like to think so, but the reality of California building codes will prevent the re-creation of those funky, ratty wonderful old wooden buildings with all their weird quirks, creaking with the weight of time and so much love. When the Harbin owners jump through all the state’s hoops, I fear what emerges will be about as unique and amazing as a cardboard box.
“Just a place.” Spoken only by those who’ve never been there. Harbin is “just a place” as a yawn is to an orgasm.
I hiked one time to the top of a hill overlooking San Luis Obispo with my son. It was so quiet up there. I could see all the cars and traffic, but not hear it. Nothing but the breeze in the grass, a buzzing bug or two, birds chirping. I looked down upon the congestion and stress, recognizing that although it was there, from that hilltop, I was no longer part of it.
Harbin. It’s that. I know the “real” world is out there, biting and barking… but it didn’t matter. I was home.