I lie chin-deep in mud, literally, trying to recount how I ended up here.
In the beginning—that is, of the wellness movement—there was only mud and geothermal water, the sum and substance of Man’s prescription for pain relief. No ibuprofen, Prednisone, morphine, Medicare or lymphatic massage.
Long before some marketing guru came up with the catchy acronym of SPA – Sanitas Per Aquam, meaning health through water—humans soaked in a compound of warm mineral-rich water gurgling up from underground and mud or clay to assuage suffering from what today’s medicine men would call rheumatologic disorders, a cluster of arthritic diseases that turn joints into throbbing epicenters of hurt.
Mineral Springs & Modern Science
Among the many civilizations that for millennia took to the miraculously healing muddy mix, the Wappo Tribe of indigenous peoples had the good fortune, not to mention the smarts, to settle some 4,000 years ago at the northern outpost of a valley that came to be known as Napa, in California. Surrounded by close to 100 geysers spitting up hot water full of all kinds of mineral traces that modern science eventually discovered were beneficial to one’s health , the Wappo added ash from volcanic activity that had ended some 10,000 years ago.
It took many more years for western science to scrape up some evidence that what’s now called Balneotherapy may alleviate the pain associated with some diseases. In a study published in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases in 1990, sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis were treated with combinations of daily mud packs, hot Sulphur baths or combinations of both for two weeks at a spa hotel. Statistically significant improvement was reported for a period of up to three months following treatment.
Another, published in the International Journal of Clinical Pharmacology Research in 1999, showed that a synergic association between a pharmacological treatment, in this case the antidepressant Trazodone, and mud packs helps relieve symptoms of fibromyalgia, an inflammatory disease (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10450540).
All of this became profoundly and suddenly relevant to me when I woke up one morning on assignment in Kauai unable to move, all my joints nearly frozen due to a disease later diagnosed as polymyalgia rheumatica, an autoimmune dysfunction in the arthritis family. Sure, Prednisone, the go-to corticosteroid magic bullet, gave some surcease of pain. But still, come on—give my aching body a better break than popping synthetic chemicals for the estimated three years it sometimes takes for the malady to mysteriously disappear as mysteriously as it appeared.
The Oven Place
And that is how and why I end up at Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort in Calistoga—or, as the Wappo had named it, Coo-la-no-maock, the oven place— which is, with my own good fortune, a mere 65 miles from my home. The town— later named Agua Caliente, then Hot Springs Town before entrepreneur Sam Brannon’s famous slipped spoonerism (he meant to call it the Saratoga of California) stuck—has a population of 5,200 people and some 1.2 million annual visitors, according to the local chamber of commerce. Despite growth in the last 20 years, and the prospect of a new Four Season Hotel in development, it retains the vibe of a sleepy Western cowboy town, still with wooden hitching posts along the main drag.
“People come to Calistoga when they want Napa Valley without traffic and pretentiousness,” Anne Ward Ernst, the editor of the Weekly Calistogan, tells me over lunch in town, naturally accompanied by a nice glass of Chardonnay from nearby Chateau Montelena.
Sure, many come to stroll downtown’s Lincoln Avenue lined with souvenir shops, olive oil purveyors, and wine retailers. They also come to sip and sample from the 50 local wineries, to dine at very good restaurants, and to check out the nearby geyser and Petrified Forest. But the town’s biggest draw since the time of Sam Brannon has been its mud and thermal springs, with about two dozen hotels and motels offering treatments and small pools.
Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort: Mosaics & Magic Mud
The man arguably most responsible for putting Calistoga’s mud on the map in the mid-20th century was John, aka “Doc” Wilkinson, a chiropractor and all-round health nut who was convinced that the local mud was magic medicine. In 1952, he and his wife Edy opened Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort, using his own self-proclaimed “secret” recipe of volcanic ash and hot mineral water.
The resort is still family owned—the Wilkinsons’ children Mark and Carolynne are as quirky and colorful as their parents were—and steeped in old-school, homey unpretentiousness, with the late Mrs. Wilkinson’s colorful, handmade tile mosaics showcased around the property.
Dr. Wilkinson’s, along with Indian Springs across the street, Calistoga Spa Hot Springs a few blocks away and a few others off Lincoln Avenue, represent the old school approach to mud, as I learn in my few days sampling the best of the town’s resort spas.
In simplest terms, a mud bath involves sinking into a large concrete tub filled with a glop so dense you need an attendant to shovel it on top as you wriggle back and forth, settling down into the brown elixir. Eventually only your head extends above the stuff, rather like a garden cabbage.
Submerged in the mud for just 10 to 12 minutes is quite enough time, the attendant at Dr. Wilkinson’s explains as he dabs my face and feeds me water through a straw. “Any more and you‘d become too dehydrated. You’d feel dizzy, headachy and have some . . . problems,” he says, with disturbing vagueness.
“Call me if you need anything. I’ll be just down the hall,” he tells me before I hear him walk away.
“You bet I will,” I mumble, sweat already trickling down my face, tickling my nose, and wetting my lips.
It takes a few minutes to accept that there is nowhere I could go. But suspended in the mud, with no weight on any of my limbs, I experience a sensation I hadn’t felt for a long time: the absence of pain. For those precious minutes I want to reincarnate as a Wappo, pre Common Era.
The attendant soon returns and then slowly uproots me from the gooey depths. My body feels like a soggy noodle and it takes me several minutes to shower off the mud that had lodged in every crevice.
Solage Calistoga: Good Vibes and Mudslides
Over the next days I also wonder what the Wappo—the appellation itself possibly an Anglicized bastardization of the Spanish word guapo, meaning alternately beautiful or handsome—would have thought of how the mud experience has morphed in the new age.
At the Bathhouse of Solage Calistoga, for example, I take what they call the Mudslide, a three-part detox. First I select from a choice of essential oils (among them mint, lemongrass, lavender), to be mixed with the mud and mineral waters. As I lay on a slab of stone, the practitioner slathers me with a thin layer of it. As it hardens and cakes, I can feel sweat between the mud and my skin, as though I am a human sweat lodge. In stage two, I am ushered to a tub full of the warm mineral waters in a secluded outside area, as the Wappo would have done. But what comes next would have certainly jolted America’s natives.
I settle down into a So Sound Lounger (yes, that’s the brand name), a vibrating recliner nothing like your old La-Z-Boy. I am told its curved shape distributes my weight evenly, to recreate the zero gravity position of astronauts’ seats. I put on a headset and listen to harmonic tones at about the frequency of a B flat, emoting an “acoustic relaxation” said to emulate the ambient sound of nature. Later I find published research that attempts to corroborate that “whole body vibration” has benefits for a variety of diseases. (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD009097.pub2/full). All I know is that when I stand up, I feel like I have landed from another planet. The closest thing I can imagine it simulates for the indigenous people of thousands of years earlier is being caught in one of many earthquakes that rippled up and down the California coast.
Calistoga Ranch: Soaking Pools & Scrubs
Calistoga Ranch, part of the Auberge Collection, sits hidden in an eastern hillside facing the valley, outside the hot geothermal water belt that runs under the center of town from which in-town spas draw directly. Its soaking pool waters come instead from an on-property spring rich with various minerals and heated by the hotel. But its spa, in a magnificent wood building, compensates with spectacular views and a true sense of the pristine, nestled among the ancient oaks and creeks. A teepee could not have felt more in synch with the environment. Its 150-minute Calistoga Cure treatment begins with a body scrub and segues to an outdoor mud or mineral salt bath, the water stained a light caramel. The finish is a full-on deep massage, mine administered under the masterful hands of Tomoko Simons, an eight-year veteran at Calistoga Ranch. Renewed, refreshed, reinvigorated—all these words don’t even touch the feeling of being reborn.
By the end of these few days, I have to look down at my body to see if it is still attached to the rest of me, so blissed out do I feel. I wish I could report I was “cured” and pain free for life. A week later, alas, the achy-breaky had returned. All the more reason to plan my next return to Calistoga.
Calistoga, More than Mud
- Getting There: Calistoga is 74 miles north of San Francisco (via Highway 101 North, to Highway 37 East, to Highway 121 North, to Highway 29 North); 64 miles northwest of Berkeley (via Interstate 80 East to Highway 37 West to Highway 29 North); and 80 miles due west of Sacramento (via Interstate 80 West to Highway 113 North to Covell Road exit West, which becomes Highway 128 West, to Highway 29 North).
- Staying There: Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort was recently given a facelift but does not pretend to be what it is not. It’s immaculately run without frills, owned by the same family that founded it in 1952 (rooms and bungalows from $195, mud and massage treatments from $139).
- Indian Springs Resort & Spa underwent a $20 million expansion and renovation earlier this year, maintaining, however, details of the exterior and inside from its earliest days. It boasts one of the state’s largest outdoor natural hot Sulphur water-fed pools (rooms and bungaloos from $250, mud from $95).
- Solage Calistoga, an intimate luxury retreat consisting of 83 studios, also underwent a renovation, of $1.1 million, after a change of management from Auberge Resorts to Solage Hotels & Resorts (cottages from $370, signature Mudslide treatment $110 for 60 minutes, $160 for 90 minutes;
- Calistoga Ranch, set back in a forested canyon on 157 acres overlooking Napa Valley, with 50 free-standing accommodations made of oak that seamlessly blend in with the surroundings (from $645, Calistoga Cure, $425 for 150 minutes).
- Eating There: Chef Brandon Sharp, who has collected a Michelin star 6 times at Solage’s Solbar, earlier this year opened Evangeline, a French-cum-Creole bistro on a side street in town, very worth the long wait for a reservation. At Calistoga Ranch, the Lakehouse dreamily overlooks Lake Lommel, which Chef Bryan Moscatello joined in June to deliver complex layers of tastes using local produce, fish, game and meat, such as roast California quail with apricots and lavender from the Ranch’s garden; and California halibut with wood roasted allium and Asian uni pudding. Another newbie eatery since last winter is Sam’s Social Club, as part of the facelift at Indian Springs Resort Chef Kory Stewart uses an Argentine wood-fired grill to turn out everything from skewed salmon Skewer with charred scallion tahini to St. Louis style ribs.
- Other great dinner options: Calistoga Kitchen and JoLe at the Mount View Hotel. The local go-to for breakfast since about 1890-something: the Café Sarafornia.
- Drinking There: Schramsberg is the sparkling wine maker, a registered historic landmark founded in 1862. Served at official State functions by every U.S. Presidential Administration since Nixon toasted China’s Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972 with the Blanc de Blancs. (Tasting tours by appointment only.)
- Sterling Vineyards, at 300 feet above the valley floor, is as famous for its aerial tram, the only one in Napa Valley, as for its wines, chosen to be the exclusive pour of the 2013 Oscars. (10:30am – 4:30pm, $15 entry includes tram, tastes of several wines and self-guided tour, plus complimentary wine glass.
- Brian Arden Winery, Calistoga’s newest entry, opened in May 2015, specializing in Zinfandels but the Cabernet Franc is not to be missed either (11am to 4:30pm, Wednesday to Sunday.
- Chateau Montelena, renowned for bringing international attention to Napa Valley wines when its 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay won a coveted award at the 1976 Judgment of Paris blind tasting. Private island, open to members of its Cellar Master Club, includes picnic setup.
- Also There: Old Faithful Geyser, not exactly as thrilling as its Yellowstone namesake, but still a natural phenomenon that draws young and old from around the world (open daily year round from 8:30am to 8pm.
- Petrified Forest, the world’s largest petrified trees, frozen in time from 3 million years ago, give or take a year. Half-mile trail, either guided or self-guided (daily fall hours through Oct. 31, 10 am to 6 pm.
- The Sharpsteen Museum, chock-a-block with chachkas from olden times, including a 30-foot long diorama of the town in the 1860s, a must-see for any history buff (open daily from 11 am to 4 pm.