I’ve done road trips before, but not like this one. This, my trip of grief, starts off as the 100-mile “road trip of no.” No pressure, no company, no course-charting, no rushing, no ruminating, no music, no talking, no shopping, no stopping, unless I want to—which I don’t. Above all, no freeways. That is, “No highways!” to Siri, who takes instructions well (my Siri sounds like a British butler), and politely agrees to do his best to avoid them. Mind you, he interprets freeway as highway and highway as route, but that’s his problem. In grief I’ve learned to ask for help. And to accept it.
Some say a year is the minimum for grieving, facing birthdays and holidays and traditions without a loved one. While I’m not yet there, grief counseling has healed my soul enough for me to know that grief also hammers the body. Heartache festers in me as brittle anguish (resistance to it) and sludge (the residual torpor of despair). Hence my destination, Sycamore Mineral Springs in San Luis Obispo, a resort and spa that originated at the turn of the century as a way station between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
From my home in Santa Barbara, I head north toward the scenic byway of Highway 1 and the solace of simpler times. When I feel lost, I like to slow down and look for signs, omens if you will, for guidance. I poke along on back roads through the California of the “good old days,” through towns with two diners and one gas station, through sweeping farmland dotted with John Deere tractors, past chicken coops and dogs with jobs. Wild turkeys hail my approach by skittering into the roadside brush.
The tub setting evokes “national park” while the tub names harken to the California of the 1930s, when taking the waters was considered vanguard and exotic.
Two hours on, I’m padding around the spa foyer in a robe and flip-flops. A loosely Spanish-style compound on 116 forested acres, Sycamore is the sort of roadside attraction that out-of-town fans return to year after year and area residents go to for birthdays and anniversaries, lost weekends and girls getaways. My fellow spa-goers include multigenerational families, silver-haired couples, newlyweds, gal pals, a 30-something with dreadlocks to his knees.
Those looking for gilt and marble, designer amenities, or weight-loss programs and colonics won’t find any of that here. Along with a basic menu of facials and massage, the resort offers a swimming pool, a lagoon, a garden, a labyrinth, and 74 rooms and suites, each with patio and hot tub. The main draw, though, are the 24 Hillside Hot Tubs fed by 101 to 104° F artesian wells. A soak in their natural elixir of sulfur, magnesium, potassium, and sodium is said to ease joint and muscle pain, which in turn reduces stress and encourages restful sleep.
Give or take a few meditation cairns and Buddha statues, the tub setting evokes “national park” while the tub names (Shangri-la, Paradise, Xanadu . . . ) harken to the California of the 1930s, when “taking the waters” was considered vanguard and exotic. My tub, Gemini, up a few flights of stairs, bubbles away amid a wooden enclosure open on one side to what you might see outside a tent: a tangle of sycamores and redwoods. I drop my robe and slip in.
The water burbles away while I watch mockingbirds build a nest in a tree stump. Now and then the water belches, as if to tell me to lighten up. Okay. I lean forward into a frog-legged position, chin on my forearms, forearms resting on the tub ladder. Nice. Flipping over, I try happy baby yoga pose since it fits the tub, too. Ridiculous. But fun, and no one can see me exploring these childlike impulses. Mostly I let my mind wander while the water melts the tension in my body. It’s an effortless meditation and primes me for the treatments to come.
The Perfect Touch: Treatments that Work
First up, the Stone Crop Essential Facial. Thinking I might try it at home, I ask Adry Gonzalez, the esthetician, to tell me each step in her process. The succulent-based Eminence products have a pleasing earthy fragrance, the application of which involve bi-symmetrical strokes, circular sponges, brushes, eyedroppers, and the cooling sensation of a little quartz roller. “To reduce puffiness,” she tells me. But I barely hear her from the safe place of twilight consciousness.
In grief’s journey, letting go to deep relaxation is a milestone. The aptly named Integrative Swedish Massage that follows extends that bliss to my toes while bringing me gently back to Earth.
Sycamore honors include winning “Best Massage” in the local weekly’s readers poll for 16 years running. True to accolade, Carole Heckathorn, the massage therapist, approaches the task at hand like an air traffic controller, tackling congestion in my body with seasoned efficiency. I alternately breathe into and yield to the breakdown of the brittle and the sludge. The result? For the first time in a long time I feel—if not yet whole of heart—at least all of a piece. And I remember what faith and optimism feel like.
I look forward to a glass of wine in my room (the Cambria Chardonnay rivals anything in France), a light dinner at the Gardens of Avila Restaurant (Chef Edward Ruiz, San Luis Obispo born and raised, is brilliant with local vegetables), melting into the king bed (with puffy cloud of a duvet), and what I anticipate to be tomorrow’s leisurely 100-mile drive home.
I take the back roads once again. And once again I look for signs and stay open to the moment. When I pull over to marvel at a stand of wild oaks draped in lace lichen my car gets stuck in the mud. It’s then that I discover I have no Siri and no cell service. What to do? I try pushing the car and it won’t budge, but soon enough a truck passes by, backs up, and—yes!—just like the good old days in California, the kindly driver offers me a tow. An angel, I’d say. Note to reconnected self: Next time, just be mindful of muddy shoulders. I’m okay, I’m getting there, I’ve got this.
Trish Reynales is a Santa Barbara-based travel and arts writer and the former editor in chief of Virtuoso Life and Caribbean Travel + Life. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including C Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and The Los Angeles Times.