THE BOOK CAME SAILING ACROSS THE room without warning, a projectile with a message. A few minutes earlier, we had been rudely warned by the half-naked man in the easy chair that the library at clothing-optional Harbin Hot Springs was a conversation-free zone. Half offended, half amused, we lowered our voices to a mocking whisper.
But this did not mollify our bare-chested co-patron, and, apparently despairing of the power of language to convey his displeasure, he resorted to a more primitive mode of communication. In an instant, the calm that had washed over my body after hours in the sulfur spring water dissolved into bristling tension. My friends suggested that we retreat, but before leaving, I glanced at the title of our assailant's chosen weapon. We had been driven from the room by Zen and the Art of Archery.
In the literature handed out to arriving guests, Harbin Hot Springs is described as a "New Age community," and it lives up to its billing. Nestled in a forest about 40 miles north of Calistoga, Harbin offers the kind of mind-body smorgasbord that leaves California vulnerable to parody. From re-balancing and breathwork to workshops on love, intimacy and sexuality, guests can sample a gamut of self-improvement possibilities that would make Woody Allen jump out of his skin.
Integral to the healing philosophy at Harbin is the freedom to disrobe and roam the premises au naturel. But while visitors are invited to leave their clothing behind, other kinds of baggage are not so easily discarded, as the library altercation demonstrated. (Shortly after our confrontation, the angry Zen master was talking up a storm with other guests who had gathered in the library for a 12-step meeting.)
Nary a trace of apparel is to be found in the pool area. Indeed, anyone wearing a swimsuit would stick out like a streaker in a schoolyard. Harbin protocol demands discretion -- a sign with a heading that reads "SEX?" urges guests to report any unwelcome advances -- but my urban-bred voyeuristic tendencies were quickly awakened. Besides, once out of the wintry February cold and comfortably submerged in the 98-degree water, one had little to do but watch the parade of undraped humanity scurrying back and forth between the pools and the dressing room.
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If I wanted a rationalization for my visual fixation, it was provided by the fact that talking is strongly discouraged in and around the pools. In addition to the "SEX?" warning, another sign requests that conversation be kept to a whisper. This is partly to facilitate a meditative environment and partly to prevent the pools from turning into a predatory meat market. The policy achieves these goals, but also fosters a kind of passive lechery. You can look, but you can't touch. Of course, such prohibitions don't apply to the many couples who frequent Harbin. Embracing each other with varying degrees of desire, these blissed-out pairs, both gay and straight, seemed to inhabit private domains within their liquid surrounds. Some would stare languidly at one another, as oblivious of the profusion of nude forms around them as of the falling rain. Others would take turns cradling their partners in their arms while moving slowly through the water.
It was at 1 a.m. on Saturday night that this ritual reached its bizarre zenith. Sitting in a near-empty pool beneath clearing skies, I watched as a striking young man with shoulder-length hair performed the aquatic massage known as watsu. His partner was a woman perhaps 10 years his senior. He placed one arm under her neck and another beneath her legs, allowing her to stretch out her entire body. Eyes closed, breasts protruding from the water, she floated rapturously through the night. And all the while, he stared unwaveringly at her, trancelike, as if in some nocturnal dream.
This water dance easily ranked as the exotic highlight of my short stay at Harbin. But the greatest revelation was how quickly I adapted to the novelty of full bodily disclosure. Unaccustomed to such displays, I had approached the weekend with a combination of trepidation and lurid fantasy (the latter stoked by my friend's unfulfilled promise of a watsu session with some unclad water goddess). Yet after a short time in the pools, these residual adolescent inclinations gave way to a wholly unexpected sensation of liberation. As the shock of my own and others' public nakedness wore off, I found myself reveling in the sheer physicality of Harbin. Stripped to the bare essentials, enveloped by nature, I began to metamorphose into some primordial variation on myself.
This, then, was the allure of Harbin. I had no need for passion-breath workshops or services at the New Age Church of Being. Sitting nude on a bench in a rainstorm, still warmed by the heat of the pools, I felt myself coming alive.