Magazine article Sunset

Calistoga Mud Baths

Magazine article Sunset

Calistoga Mud Baths

Article excerpt

A personal journey into the ooze confirms the many pleasures of Napa Valley's thermal retreat

PEOPLE OFTEN hesitate the first time. I think it's the mud." The hot springs attendant has politely turned away from where I'm poised, literally, over a steaming vat of volcanic ash and peat moss, so I can just barely see him smirk.

Of course it's the mud. It's hot, it's thick, it's nearly black, and a milky gruel is puddled on its surface. Steam rising from this manmade fumarole is at once slightly acrid and slightly sulfuric--slightly, I imagine, like the hot breath of hell.

I remind myself that it is hope for rejuvenation of body and spirit after the rigors of the holidays that has brought me to the brink: suspended over the ooze in the recommended crab-clinging-for-dear-life-to-the-edge-of-the-pot position. This is definitely not a natural holding pattern for man or crab, and after deciding that hot mud is preferable to prolonged defiance of gravity, I gingerly lower my backside into the muck.

WHOSE IDEA WAS THIS?

It was the novelty of sitting in hot mud that first put Calistoga on the map. Hot mud and even hotter salesmanship. Although Native Americans and early Spanish settlers used the area's natural hot springs, it took a fast-talking, big-dreaming entrepreneur named Sam Brannan to turn geyser water into gold.

After making a fortune selling shovels to prospectors during the Gold Rush, Brannan snapped up the steaming geysers and hot marshlands at the northern end of the Napa Valley with the idea of creating a resort modeled on New York's famous Saratoga Hot Springs.

Although no records remain, local legend has it that Brannan was the first to mix volcanic ash from nearby Mount St. Helena with hot mineral water to concoct Calistoga's famous mud baths. He opened his Hot Springs Hotel in 1860, promoting it as the "Saratoga of California." One evening over supper, apparently after amply enjoying the fruits of his own nearby vineyards, he held forth on this theme a bit too intensely, proclaiming, "I will make this place the Calistoga of Sarafornia."

Calistoga stuck, and for 10 years Brannan's resort attracted the likes of Leland Stanford, Robert Louis Stevenson, and P. T. Barnum.

In 1870, a divorce settlement put Brannan out of business, and fire later razed most of the Hot Springs Hotel. By the 1920s, other resorts offering mud baths had been built, but it wasn't until the early 1950s that Calistoga's reputation as a thermal destination really began to grow. Today seven spas offer traditional mud baths, and four others offer a variety of New Age treatments.

HOW CLEAN IS MUD?

My own hesitation wasn't about bathing in mud so much as about bathing in mud other people had bathed in. Spa operators acknowledge that they don't change the mud after every bath, but they do flush it with hot mineral water between uses.

Although mud baths are not monitored by government health agencies the way public pools and spas are, Nicole Parizeau of the Environmental Health Division of the Napa County Environmental Management Department says her office has received no complaints about mud baths in 25 years. Some bathers have, however, complained of individual skin reactions to a variety of spa treatments.

After I've pushed and wiggled my back and legs into the viscous 105 [degrees] mixture of ash and peat moss (the latter added to soften the texture of the ash), the attendant finishes covering me with mud. This is, according to the brochure, the first step in a "treatment" touted as the ultimate in relaxation therapy.

The attendant places a cool, damp towel over my forehead. I realize I am not resting on the bottom of the tub but am actually suspended in the hot, steaming earth. The thick mass of the mud surrounds me, and the heat quickly presses deep into my joints. I'm told some people find this claustrophobic, but supported by the mud, I actually feel almost weightless as the muscles in my shoulders and back relax. …

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