In bed, curled around my husband, Patrick, my fingers entwine whorls of chest hair. Both of us are sixty-eight years old, having lived almost thirty of those years with each other. I draw comfort from the heat and calm of his sleeping body, the feel of his beating heart.
But I am restless. So much change all at once—my mum maybe losing her eye, my daughter traveling far from home, the magazine I’ve edited for many years soon ending. . . . Gingerly, I extricate myself, scooch across the bed toward the night table and reach for my new smartphone. So I won’t wake Patrick with its blaze, I dive down and draw the phone under the covers. Here I read my messages, click, slide and tap. Junk, junk, junk. A headline bolts through my nervous system: “Wilbur Hot Springs Burns.”
“Patrick,” I burst out, “Wilbur Hot Springs burned down.” And he, “Oh my God!” then descends back into sleep. I wish I could.
Almost every autumn since we got married, Patrick and I have celebrated our October anniversary at Wilbur, far out in the country. We’ve hiked the dusty trails amid the brown hills of the nature preserve and soaked in the primordial waters of the hot springs.
The news of the fire is shocking but weirdly inevitable. That shambling wooden Victorian hotel/spa was highly flammable. Built in 1915, a revival of a more modest hotel built in 1864, Wilbur is nestled in the Coastal Range foothills of Colusa County, California, in a 640-acre valley used for mining in the 1860s. When we’ve driven there from Berkeley in the dry autumn season, increasingly, over the years, with droughts and rising heat, we’ve passed through brown hills scorched by fire.
In the weeks after the Wilbur fire, I remember our initial visit. This was our first weekend for just the two of us since our three-year-old daughter, Caitlin, was born. It was 1992, one year to the date after the Oakland Hills Fire razed almost four thousand homes in the Berkeley and Oakland hills. And three years almost to the date after the Loma Prieta earthquake shook the Bay Area—sliding tectonic plates, ruptured bridge, buckling freeways, Marina fires. The hot springs themselves, rising from deep in the earth’s molten underbelly, brought up images of burning magma powering the shifting, scraping and colliding of continents shaping and reshaping the planet. Now, hunkered down under the covers, the sulfur smell of the Wilbur waters comes back to me, salty/sweet rotten-egg stink born of anaerobic bacteria living far below the earth’s crust.
Patrick and I drove north, then west along Cache Creek, through Indian land of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation—“Yocha Dehe”: literally “Home by the Spring Water.” We jig-jogged across a small highway, then, as the sun was going down, left pavement behind to bump along Bear Valley Road, three miles of rough dirt. We were stopped by a formidable wrought-iron barrier. Massive gate, desolate road, deepening dusk. I was unnerved. With a vague sense that I was stepping into danger (“I know it’s silly,” I told Patrick) I sidled out into the evening air redolent with earthy sulfur odor. I unfastened the latch, leaned my shoulder against the heavy wrought-iron gate, pushed it open so Patrick could drive through, then dragged it closed.
Slowed to a creep, our old Honda rattled along the pebbles and across a bridge. Before us, the sprawling Victorian hotel seemed to materialize in the gloaming. Three floors, enclosed verandas on the ground and second floors, dormer windows with a cupola on the roof. From the parking lot, we took the dark walk back along the creek past the decaying frames of the old baths—I love how they’re called flumes—of the original hotel. A western screech owl called its double trill.
Following late dinner in the dining room—high ceilings, white glass chandeliers, Tiffany lamps, guests playing the lute and piano—we headed for the voluptuous couches in the library. Surrounded by readers reclining in overstuffed tip-backed armchairs, Patrick and I unloaded our bag of books, in contrasting genres. Like us. Patrick had packed economic history and whodunits, and I ambitiously brought novels and Buddhist books. But as I relaxed into postprandial comfort, I eyed Patrick’s stack and absconded with one of his pocket mysteries. Our tastes diverge, but not on these. Hercule Poirot and a houseful of intrigue. I read with abandon. After some time, I looked up and surveyed the guests. Of course; it was perfect. “Murder at the Hot Springs,” I whispered to Patrick.
We laughed as we climbed the stairs for bed. Even before we’d actually entered the baths, we felt the thermal charge rising from deep in the earth’s core. Our city-numbed bodies relaxed and woke up. “I’m so glad we came here,” I nibbled on Patrick’s ear.
The next morning we descended to the fluminarium for a soak, and I felt in my belly the thrum of active geology. I had felt this inner voltage before—as a child picnicking in Sicily with my family by the volcano Mt. Etna; in my twenties camping near Old Faithful at Yellowstone; in my thirties at Harbin Hot Springs—each a power node on a vast life grid, a portal from the quotidian to geologic time. Each tapped into immense stories of volcanism, of grinding tectonic plates, of fire and ice—measured in billions of years, and dating back to the beginnings of things.
When I was in my early twenties, teaching in a community high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I team-taught a class called Beginnings and Endings. My co-teacher, Jonny Kabat, who a few years later introduced me to Buddhist meditation and fundamental teachings on change, was then a graduate student in molecular biology at MIT. Jonny transfixed the students with tales of the Big Bang, expanding and collapsing universes, and the coalescing of the sun and the planets. I recounted fables of creation—the Turtle of the Maidu Indians, the Spider of the Krachi people of Togo—and of extinction—the Hindu Kali Yuga and the Maya Apocalypse. Big Change.
Entering the flume many years later at Wilbur Hot Springs, my thoughts burst and collided—full of beginnings and endings. I remembered the cycles of fire and ice as the cosmos evolved, hot to cold and back again, five great mass extinctions of millions of species . . . Spent, I closed my eyes, stretched out my limbs, let the water hold me up, released all thought. . . .
In the afternoon, Patrick and I strolled along the Bear Valley trail out into the nature preserve far from the hotel, beyond the resort boundaries. We had no idea where we were going. We followed the foaming creek with its outcroppings of mineral-glazed rocks and passed the remains of mines, one fenced off with a metal grid. We approached the entrance and squinted to see through the iron mesh. In the dimness, a swish of wings, long ears. I jumped back. “A bat?” In the deep recesses of the former mine, something swept through and vanished.
As we followed the trail, the rocky soil crunched under foot. Jagged scars along the hillsides revealed red rock where minerals had been extracted. I had a sense of stepping back into history. I pictured the opening of the first hotel/spa reaping the benefits of the mineral-rich waters. And before the spas, I pictured the miners traveling to California to seek their fortunes, some in gold, in copper, here at Wilbur, in mercury, used in the Sierra to help extract gold. As we hiked further into the preserve, I thought of the local Indian tribes—the Patwin, Pomo, Wintun and Colusi—who knew well the healing powers of the springs.
On a near slope, a galloping shadow swarmed up the hill. A covey of wild boars. Bristly, barrel-shaped, long-snouted, they disappeared over the crest, transporting us centuries back when herds of elk and packs of wolves and coyotes roamed free through the rises and valleys of the Coast Range. Thrilling to imagine.
In the distance, through a heat haze, I thought I saw a column of water shooting up toward the sky. I shielded my eyes to see a geyser. Unmistakable. I pictured the slow movement of boiling mineralized water, far below the surface, traveling deep underground through pressurized fissures in the crust, building steam forced into a column, erupting as this jet.
As we approached the geyser, we saw that the water spouted from a concrete shaft, then splashed down that shaft along corroded channels tinted over the years by the mineral salts to greens, maroons and pinks. Steaming water pooled in a rocky moat at the base. Patrick pointed to a pipe in the moat collecting the geyser water and carrying it down a slope.
We followed the pipe. Through the bushes, there was a glimmer of white. An abandoned refrigerator? A cattle trough? And there we saw it. Cast iron, claw feet, ample basin. Just off a trail, by a creek, fed by a geyser. Who would have thought? Dumbfounded, we circled, checked it out. It turned out there were two pipes feeding in—one sloping down from the geyser, carrying burning hot water and the other sloping down from the creek, carrying icy cold. As we explored the mechanics, the geyser sputtered a few last dribbles and stopped spewing.
Our eyes met. In unspoken conspiracy, we both turned to scan the trail for other intruders. No one anywhere in sight. Were we trespassing? We both looked back and met eyes again. The two of us loved baths. Patrick pointed to a nearby tree limb where someone had left a blue towel that fluttered in the breeze. Was the owner of that towel nearby? Shading my eyes from the sun, I scanned up the trail and back toward Wilbur. Patrick scrambled over to the creek and shook his head. No one. All this without words.
Cautiously, I reached my hand into the tub. A perfect heat. Patrick started taking off his jeans. To hell with permissions. The intrigue of a stolen dip overrode caution. I pulled off my tee shirt and shorts. With a cursory glance up and down the trail, I shed my bra and underpants and, with a hand from Patrick, stepped in. The pristine water spilled over the sides.
How to fit two people in a small bathtub? We started to laugh. First we faced each other, legs crossed; we splashed and teased, tried hooking our legs over the sides of the tub. Finally, Patrick leaned back, resting his head against the rim, legs apart, knees bent, and I settled in between, cushioning the back of my head against his chest. So soothing. I released a long sigh. The tub held us safe, deliciously warm. Neither one of us spoke.
Around us rose the hills, all shades of burnt orange and ochre, and the graceful California valley oaks already autumn gold. We breathed in the tart scent of dry grasses—California fescue, golden fairy lantern, creeping wild rye, purple needlegrass, pine bluegrass, peregrine thistle.
We sat silent in the bathtub in the open air for a long time. Over a rise a flock of wild turkeys squabbled. An Anna’s hummingbird flitted past with its high squeaking. A finch sang, melodious and sweet.
At some point I wriggled around so we were facing each other again, cross-legged, still silent. Patrick’s hairy chest and my bare breasts rose just above the water, our cheeks bright, enlivened by the heat and the primal charge of this active fault zone.
Taking me by surprise, the geyser began to gurgle again, boiling water sputtering from somewhere far below. I remembered that the very first life may have been catalyzed in a volcanic zone by a deep sea vent, a vast distance beneath the surface of the ocean.
Now the geyser rumbled and with increasing force spouted from the shaft. It felt like time to go. Patrick climbed out, offering me a hand. Still wet, I pulled on my clothes, took a few moments just standing still, surveying the geyser, the surprise tub, Patrick, my accomplice. My guy. How astonishing to be here, to be alive.
Late that evening we returned to the flumes. We chose the one open to the night sky. Buoyed up in the mineral-rich waters, we stretched our bodies long. We rested our heads against the edge of the flume, our toes gripping the opposite side, and stared up into an amazement of stars, the Milky Way a sweep of glow.
My mind slipped again into geologic time—way back, even before our own galaxy had formed—to a great nebula of icy dust stretching over a void, swirling, drawn inward, powered by the force of gravity, coalescing into our sun, then gasses spinning around that sun, condensed and gathered into their own spheres, forming the gaseous outer planets, the rocky inner planets, one of which was Earth.
I could feel in my limbs, in my own core, that this earth, that we two tiny people soaking in a hot springs, were in that Milky Way, were part of the whole crazy unfolding.
Six months after the Wilbur fire, I am in bed lying next to Patrick. It is early morning and I am restless. I contemplate beginnings and endings on a vast scale.
Another asteroid will almost inevitably collide with the earth; there will be further heatings and coolings, extinctions and revivals of life until the sun scorches and engorges the earth. There’s so much that cannot be controlled.
But due to human carelessness, the world will get hotter; ice will melt and seas will rise. Homelessness, wars over scarce resources, starvation will increase. For billions of years this earth may continue to cycle the sun and turn on its axis. At least some form of microscopic life may continue, but humans will surely disappear.
And yet here I am. Still with Patrick. Both of us will soon be sixty-nine. The valley oaks are blazing gold. Vibrant autumn color. I think of Wilbur. The 1915 Victorian hotel decimated by fire is now being rebuilt. I’d love to go back. And it’s October, time for our wedding anniversary. We will celebrate. There’s no way to know how many more we will have.