Sunday, July 20, 2008

Harbin Hot Springs is a little outpost of hippiedom, nudity, and healing hot waters nestled just North of Napa County in a valley between mountains. It is hilly, rocky and rough, honeycombed with unpaved paths and hiking trails on which you can spot tall tanned men wearing skirts and floppy hats, or yoga goddess women, or white-bearded skinny refugees from the sixties who look as if they have been subsisting on nuts and berries for decades.

It is not ideal for someone with a disability. Carla and I knew this when we decided to go; fools rush in where angels fear to tread. We are both fools enough to say, "What the hell. We'll make it work."

And we did. We laughed a lot, cried a little, had to ask for help a handfull of times, got scared clinging to narrow rocky stairs, but we made it through without any broken bones. I'm calling that a roaring success.

For me, ironically, Harbin is a great place to work. In summer the sun is too fierce to use the pools at mid-day so I usually retreat to the library for hours and work on poems and essays while everyone else has blissful tantric experiences in the warm pool. Carla is similarly pale-skinned, so we both spent a lot of time just hanging out in our room or on the shady lawn. She worked on material for Lisa's upcoming wedding; I lounged and read poetry.

In the evenings we made perilous journeys up to the warm pool, where there was a sign that said, "No Sexual Activity in the Pools." "Sexual activity" was a phrase interpreted loosely by the twosomes and threesomes and foursomes who circled in each other's arms, legs around waists, whispering in ears, floating on backs with breasts bobbing skywards. You can't beat Harbin for people-watching--and you know that whatever scenario you're imagining for the folks you're observing, the real story is likely to be even more bizarre.

Carla and I talked and laughed and cried; we stumbled from place to place, relying, like Tennessee Williams heroines, on the kindness of strangers, i.e. any strapping young man I was able to commandeer to help us. The most vexing parts were the stone steps. There was a flight of about nine of them down to our room, a daily Everest for Carla, who scaled them with her usual pluck and some support from me. But it was harrowing. If someone with ALS falls and breaks a bone, they don't recover easily, and it can send them into a tailspin of life-shortening complications.

It will likely be Carla's last trip there--barring an ALS-reversing miracle. It's just too hard.

The staff and residents were friendly and helpful to us. They sent security guys in little golf cart thingies to pick us up from the warm pools and transport us back to the gazebo. Everyone was nice--well, one guy who helped us out of the pool at night also hit on us and was kind of sleazy, but he did make the scariest transition safer, so I forgive him. Everyone else was just purely nice. There was retail therapy to be had in the tents full of hand-dyed silk hippie clothing, there were lush trees and the black shoulers of the mountain rising around us, there was a full moon and beautiful stars.

There was everything and nothing to say. I mean I already know it, she already knows it. We know what we mean to each other. There are years of history to rehash of course, and there's always men, men, men to talk about, marriage and singlehood, dating and committment, sex and kids and parents and cities and friends and theatre and art and how amazing and strange and unexpected this road that has taken us from raw young women to here has been, expecially the heartbreaking twists of this last year. Our talk ranges from profound to the very mundane, from "Those pants look great on you!" to musings about karma, to tears of grief, and then in the next moment, laughter over how ridiculous we both can be. That's the poetry of it, more than I could ever fit into any one poem.

We did discover that the warm water lets Carla walk freely under her own steam; there's no fear of falling. She did some lovely independent graceful laps around the big warm pool, weaving in and out amongst the tantric couples. It seemed to help her leg cramps as well. The search is on for the DMC-ers to find her a good warm pool in the Bay Area that is handicapped accessible where she can continue to exercise her legs and enjoy the soft embrace of warm forgiving motherly water.


Carla Zilbersmith said...

I love you

Anonymous said...

i second that emotion.

Anonymous said...

How beautiful to have been able to step inside the poem of this beautiful, scary, wonderful, nutty and loving trip you both took together. Thank you so much for sharing it with us....

Anonymous said...

Ali, You are most definitely a "word person." Thank you for taking Carla and for your beautiful description of the trip.
Edith (most definitely a "spatial/color person")

Anonymous said...

I'm off to Harbin in the middle of August, and loved reading about this beautiful trip you took with Carla, Ali. The happiness you describe reflects the magic of that place, but you two brought your own magic as well - how very wonderful. What a journey you are sharing with her - and with your readers...

Love, Vicky

Alison said...

Thank you, everyone. Edith, I read your emails from London, so I actually know you are a funny and vivid "word person." I am very grateful to be able to share this thing with Carla with so many other loving hearts. It is too big for any of us to hold alone.