Calistoga: Neck Deep in the Big Muddy

Had a very busy week with Sun events in San Francisco, for which my husband joined me on the tail end of his two-and-a-half month research trip to Columbia, MO. I was thoroughly flattened by the time my conference responsibilities ended on Thursday (with a tour of the show floor and several long conversations), and still not over the nagging sinus infection/cough I’d had for at least a week.

Thursday night we stayed over in San Francisco, but didn’t do much. Friday we took off up Highway 101 for the wine country, stopping for lunch with a friend in Mill Valley. Traffic was heavier than expected (I should have calculated for a Friday afternoon), so I called to reschedule my appointment at the Indian Springs Spa in Calistoga for 5 pm rather than 4.

I started with a 50-minute massage which, while not as thereapeutic as the massage therapist I see in Colorado, was certainly relaxing, and helped work out some of the knots of a long, hard week.

Then it was on to the famous Calistoga mud bath. Many establishments in the town offer this, but at least three people had told me that Indian Springs – probably the oldest spa in town – is the best.

A mud bath is actually an hour-long process that starts with wetting yourself thoroughly under a warm shower from the local mineral geyser. Then you are led into a room containing concrete baths that look deep enough to drown in, filled with a gently-steaming, viscous black substance. I’m probably not the first client to look rather askance at it.

The attendant helped me step into a tub and lie down; it proved to be shallower than it looked, so that, with my butt resting on the bottom, the top of my body was just at the surface of the volcanic ash mud. The density of this stuff was such that my arms and legs floated, and I had to push down to get them under the surface.

The attendant slathered mud all over my front, including my lower face (she asked first), and left me to cook, my head resting uneasily on an inflatable plastic pillow. Every time I raised an arm to pull the pillow more securely under my head, the mud on my upper arm would separate from my torso in wet, sucking chunks, leaving the exposed flesh looking very white by contrast. When I sniffed it experimentally, the mud was largely odorless, smelling only faintly of soil.

After a while the attendant came back and asked if I wanted more mud on. The additional inch thickness made me much hotter. Shortly after, she asked if I wanted a cold compress on my forehead, and I gratefully agreed.

I was ready to get out soon after that, though I’m not sure I had stayed the allotted maximum of 15 minutes. The attendant scraped the bulk of the mud off my limbs with the side of her hand, then helped me get out of the tub – it would have been difficult to pull myself out of that thick, clinging goo.

I took another mineral-water shower to get the rest of the mud off, then was bundled into a deep, Victorian-style tub filled with hot geyser water. The attendant kept bringing me cups of cool lemon-and-cucumber flavored water, and a wooden manicure stick was supplied so I could get the final mud out from under my nails.

Then there was a steam room in which I was told to stay “as long as you want,” which wasn’t long. Finally, I was wrapped in a towel, led into a curtained wooden cubicle on a quiet corridor, and left to rest for 15 minutes with cucumber slices on my eyes and a cold compress on my forehead.

Enrico, meanwhile, had been lounging and reading in and around the big mineral-water pool. After I’d taken a final shower and dressed, I drifted dreamily out to find him waiting outside the spa building.

“What was that supposed to do for you?” he asked.

“I don’t know, good for the skin I guess. It was certainly relaxing.”

“Well, you do look kind of glowy.”

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