High above the Napa Valley, it’s vineyards, “fold, fallow and plough” far beneath, is a ridge of volcanos and dense Douglas fir forests. On the slopes of Mount Saint Helena in the Mayacama Mountains is a place where the madrone trees grow like giants struggling against the sun stealing ever taller evergreens and a place where Robert Louis Stevenson took his new bride Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne in the spring of 1880. They were on their honeymoon and lived in an abandoned three-story miner’s bunk house here in the woods. He was suffering from tuberculosis and Fanny, a San Franciscan, had been the Scotsman’s friend, nurse and lover.
They were broke. He was ill, and they slept on hay and hauled their water in by hand, but he began a journal which became the little book, The Silverado Squatters, detailing the Napa Valley characters he met. It became the piece that introduced him to American readers, and 4,343 foot Mount Saint Helena became the model for Spyglass Hill in Treasure Island.
Romantic? You bet and so are his novels. Much of Mount Saint Helena is now a State Park named in Stevenson’s honor, commemorating his time here and the book he wrote about the Napa Valley.
Katie and I were hiking here after our own romantic sojourn at Harbin Hot Springs, not far up the road. We spent a quiet weekend soaking in the natural mineral waters together, as I am about to head off to hike the Continental Divide Trail in a week or so. At between 2,500 and 3,000 miles, it’s going to be a long summer and a bit of time soaking and hiking together at Harbin was just what we needed.
If you haven’t been to Harbin, or not in a long time, it’s a place for quiet, a peaceful spot up a canyon of hot and cold springs that has been used therapeutically since the Lake Miwok called it Eetawyomi, the Hot Place. Just over the hill from Calistoga and situated east of The Geysers - the largest complex of geothermal power plants in the world - it’s a land of recent volcanism, and there’s still heat in the ground. At Harbin, it bubbles up and is caught in pools that range from 112 degrees Fahrenheit to a chilly 60 degrees. I could only stay in those for a few minutes at most. They are right next to each other enabling a hot and cold clash of the senses that left me breathless.
Bathwater temperature pools allow you to soak and float for hours barely aware of raindrops on the water and steam in the air. Images remain with me of the Buddhas in shadow at night and the hot pool by candlelight; an ice cold spring water dip and the shock of awakening every surface nerve at once as I moved to the hot pool; of sculptures and mosaics, lush vegetation, winding pathways and budding figs waking from winters chill; the roar of a big wind through timber bamboo and the air so cold it snowed for a short time on Sunday afternoon.
The baths are clothing optional but the surprise of nakedness quickly wore off. I became aware of the beauty of a landscape in the folds of the human form. Seeing the smooth roundness of a long leg, thigh upon thigh, I was reminded of the rolling ever overlapping hills and folds of Diablo’s lower slopes, blond in summer’s dry grass, at a distance so smooth; the loveliness of large and small, old and young, somehow letting go of body images; inner peace in the quiet of naked bliss; peaks and crags of mountains and of the aged and young, and long hair that flowed like a smooth swale stream, or down, splashing like the small waterfalls that abound at Harbin.
Any awareness of beauty in nature stems foremost from the exquisite allure of our own bodies. It is so deftly put by that most perfect of English novelists, Jane Austin, at a time when she could not write in detail of these things. Under those constraints she penned one of the most sensual descriptions of a landscape ever put to page. Dead center in Pride and Prejudice, at its heart, as Elizabeth is riding to Darcy’s mansion for the first time and her confrontation with a hall of sculptured nudes, she travels through a landscape, as close to a women’s intimate form as you’ll ever read. She is riding across the hills and braes of her own budding awareness of love. It is her own beautiful body in that landscape. And here at Harbin I felt that connection, the love of beauty anywhere and the human design.
Harbin simply gives you the quiet time to sit with your own form and the forms of others. Each a vessel of divine beauty, an echo of the landscape and the landscape an echo of each.
The property is large and we hiked for miles in the hills coming upon small offerings and stone medicine wheels in tucked away thickets, views and vistas of mountains ranging, folding into purple dimness. I joined morning yoga class in the temple, and floated in the warm pool as the sun rose yellow behind a silhouette of bare fig trees, big leaf maples and cottonwoods. The bays were the only trees near the baths still green in winter. We soaked and we hiked and we spent time together. It’s a place for that.
A rushing stream courses through the valley fed by waterfalls and springs all along its length. Just above this stream, I happened upon “the Buddha of the Figs,” a spot that inspired a work by my artist sister twelve years ago. A waterfall courses down from a great height and all along its plummeting path, the roots of the surrounding fig trees have grown into a nearly continuous mat, an elaborate living braid. The water makes its way above, now below the roots and all is watched over by a seated Buddha, balanced precariously on the steep bank. I sat and listened to falling water and felt the life of that incredible fig and the tenuousness of that seated man on a lotus blossom. The roots have grown to almost cover the whole of the waterfall, much more so than twelve years ago. They will go on to eventually incorporate that little man in the braid of their life.
It was hard to leave. I felt like one of Odysseus’ men, ashore in the “Land of the Lotus Eaters” who after eating of the lotus, forgot home, forgot the world. Any blissful state is prone to this, but in our busy lives a touch of the lotus might not be bad at all. It could add some balance to our frenetic, artery choking, heart attack prone, stressful lives.
On our way home we stopped at Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, half way between Harbin and Calistoga. It was late in the day and we only had time for a short walk. At under a mile, the hike from the trailhead on Highway 29 to the Stevenson monument was just right.
As it is gradually uphill all the way to the monument, I would rate it as a moderate hike, but the trail itself is well maintained and easy to walk on. Towering Douglas Fir are slowly crowding out an understory of large madrone trees, and the bays fill the forest with their wonderful scent.
The site of Stevenson’s old mining camp is merely a flattened landing part way up the mountain, shadowed by firs and bristle cone pines and jagged lava flows. A carved granite book was placed on a stone pedestal in 1911 by the “Club Women of Napa County,” to commemorate the writer’s stay in that place.
We had a little more time so we continued up the trail. It is badly eroded and becomes difficult for a third of a mile before breaking out onto a smooth gravel road which leads to the top of Mt. Saint Helena four miles further.
We didn’t have time for the full climb, but we continued on up the forested road maybe half a mile until at a bend we opened onto a chaparral hillside and unobstructed views of Calistoga and the Napa Valley flowing out like a river of spring green to San Pablo Bay, Mt. Diablo perfectly centered above it all.
For all the years we lived on Arlington Way in Martinez, nestled into that tight canyon, my living room window looked out over the Carquinez Straits and far in the distance was Mt. St. Helena. This was the first time I had seen that view in reverse, and it was magnificent. The afternoon haze gave it an etherial look, as through a frosted lens, only a hint of reality in the landscape. A “Pied Beauty” spread out below of furrowed fields and trees that rolled and billowed like green earthbound clouds, of hills and braes and people living throughout. We are people looking for balance, for our place in the landscape and within each other.
Harbin Hot Springs has a strict no photography rule. I have included photos of Sharon Neal Williams' scratchboard works created after time at Harbin in 2000. They convey the peace of the place better than I possibly could with a camera.
“These blessed mountains are so compactly filled with God’s beauty,
no petty personal hope or experience has room to be . . . . the whole
body seems to feel beauty when exposed to it as it feels the campfire
or sunshine, entering not by the eyes alone, but equally through all
one’s flesh like radiant heat, making a passionate ecstatic pleasure
glow not explainable. One’s body then seems homogeneous
throughout, sound as a crystal.” - John Muir