For millennia, humans have sought physical relief, emotional healing, and even spiritual renewal by immersing themselves in water. Writer Lindsey Crittenden soaks it all in.
I slide up to my chin in hot, silky water. My jaw relaxes, my shoulders slacken, and my hips bob up. I’m floating without effort. At the other end of the flume—a long, rectangular tub of constantly flowing mineral water—I make out the shadows of two other bathers. No one speaks. The gurgle of water mingles with the chirping of frogs. It’s 10 p.m. and I’m worlds away from the two-and-a-half-hour drive, the city noise, the numbing freeway, the pickups on my tail, the bumpy dirt road. I feel as sleek as a seal, as light as a cork.
Like the native Wintun and Patwin, and the stagecoach travelers after them, I’ve come to Wilbur Hot Springs in the foothills of Northern California for its supersaturated solution of sulfur. Ever since my first soak 20 years ago, I’ve been hooked on hot springs. From the Baden of the Rhine Valley to the mineral waters of Tassajara Creek, the mud baths of Calistoga, and the backcountry travertine pools of the eastern Sierra, I’ve emerged transformed. Gentler, kinder, softer. Why? How?
I’m here at Wilbur to understand just what happens in hot springs.
As far back as the Bronze Age, humans have used balneotherapy—the application of mineral baths, hot springs, even geothermal mud—for healing. Hippocrates advocated bathing as a cure for disease, and Cleopatra allegedly angled for the Dead Sea property rights to provide herself with unlimited access to its beneficial minerals—largely magnesium—starting a practice that we continue each time we slather on a mud mask. To this day, in countries such as France, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, physicians supervise hot-springs treatments for up to four weeks, often covered by the government health care system. Japan has more than 25,000 onsen (thermal springs), some supervised by so-called onsen sommeliers who, like their wine-cellar counterparts, will find you just the right liquid—at a minimum of 20 degrees Celsius (about 68 Fahrenheit) and containing at least one gram of minerals per liter of water, that is. Anything less isn’t considered balneotherapy.
The benefits don’t stop at the physical. By surrounding ourselves in the sloshiness from which we came—the womb, as well as the waters that cover more than two-thirds of our planet and make up 65 to 70 percent of our bodies—we connect to our deepest selves, to each other, and to the eternal. Think of the Jewish rite of immersion, called mikvah; of the Christian baptism; of Hindus bathing in the Ganges; of Native American warriors coming together after battle in the neutral territory of hot springs; of ancient Romans gathering in neighborhood balneum and thermae to relax and gossip and do business—just as Japanese still frequent their onsen, Russians their local banya, Turks their hammam. Bathing doesn’t just clean and relax us; it gives us community and a palpable experience of the sacred.
After my soak, I find a guest book in the Wilbur hotel library. Dear Wilbur, one shaky pen wrote earlier this year, Heal me! Let me Live! They’ve given me only a few months. Another visitor enthuses that, postflume, he and his wife played like children in the swimming pool. After soaking these painful, swollen joints of mine, a third bather writes, I climbed the stairs like an abled person!
Richard Miller, the CEO and founder of the Wilbur Hot Springs resort, presides over this place as genial host and spiritual godfather. For 10 years, Miller ran the Cokenders Alcohol and Drug Program here. During that time, he tells me, no one was medicated or hospitalized during residential treatment.
A skeptic might pause at these claims, and I consider myself a skeptic. Yet, turning the pages of the guest book, I notice that the banged-up knuckle on my left hand—angry red for the past few days—has faded to a smooth pink. I glide down the hall to my guest room, fall asleep, wake refreshed.
For 30 years, Dr. Bruce Becker has been putting people into warm water. His work as a clinical professor of rehabilitation medicine at Washington State University has shown what Saint Augustine wrote more than 1,600 years ago and every parent at bedtime can confirm: bathing calms us. Or, as Becker puts it, warm-water immersion balances our autonomic nervous system, allowing the brain to make free-form associations, improve working memory, and foster creative thinking.
Water has other feel-good properties, as the naturopath Laura Figoski explains. “Buoyancy greatly reduces the pull of gravity, helping our bones, joints, and connective tissues to expand,” she says. Without gravity pulling us down, we bob more freely. We feel more free.
But there’s more to hot-springs healing than H2O—a lot more, in terms of the periodic table. Here at Wilbur, the US Geological Survey has measured more than 17 minerals, each with different beneficial properties, from antibiotic (sulfur) to arthritis-soothing (sodium chloride) to mood stabilizing (lithium). These minerals act topically—witness my knuckle—and transdermally, through our skin to our blood and internal organs.
Sunshine dances on the surface of the flume. I dip one bare foot and then the other into a shallow bowl of water at the bathhouse entrance. Before leaving home, I’d removed all traces of last month’s pedicure, the chipped lilac polish seeming as gaudy in anticipation of these waters as stage makeup. As Rabbi Lenore Bohm describes the preparation for mikvah, “No bling, glitter, embellishment. You’re trying to become as pure and unsullied as when you were born.” This isn’t mikvah—for starters, I’m not Jewish—and yet I know just what she means by “You’re appearing before God as your most essential self.”
In the middle flume, a few degrees hotter, a young woman in a bikini reads a paperback. A man hoists himself out of the far flume, his back flushed pink from its near-107-degree water, the hottest of the three. I look away.
Wilbur has a clothing-optional policy in the bathhouse, and most people opt out. Last time here, I was with my husband; now, on my own, I’m all too aware of sharing warm water with strangers in a way that I wasn’t the night before, in the shadows. I close my eyes and feel the water work on me, lapping away judgment and comparison and anxiety. Yes, we’re naked, most of us, but no one flaunts or stares. In this shared vulnerability, there’s safety, acceptance, and—as much as possible with no clothes on—modesty. No wonder the Talmud teaches that the river flowing out of the Garden, the river that Adam sat by in repentance after he and Eve were banished, became the source for all other waters.
Scientific properties can be measured and studied. When it comes to clinical research on the benefits of balneotherapy, however, conclusions are mixed, sometimes even on the same page. The website for NYU Langone Medical Center states both that “none of the evidence is reliable,” and that “there is some evidence that balneotherapy might be helpful” for osteoarthritis, psoriasis, varicose veins, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Due to developments in clinical research and the rise of prescription medicine, we no longer view hot springs as we did when, in 1776, George Washington established the young nation’s first public mineral-water spa at Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. Or in 1927, when FDR, who’d found relief from polio at Warm Springs, Georgia, bought the site. During World War II, thermal spas at Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, went into active duty as commissioned military hospitals, and up to the mid-1900s, ordinary Americans traveled to curative springs. By the mid- to late 20th century, Becker says, “health professions had lost the tribal memory of the healing power of water.” For most of us, balneotherapy had moved to the fringe: pleasant, even luxurious, one-mineral-fits-all R&R—but not medicine.
At least not according to the clinical standard of randomized double-blind studies. It’s hard to keep participants “blinded” as to whether they’ve just taken a hot bath, never mind one with the heightened buoyancy and smell of, say, sulfur. Also, because balneotherapy involves other factors, such as a healthy diet and exercise—not to mention the natural beauty of hot-springs locales and the perks of spa life—who can prove that the water alone did the trick?
After 24 hours at Wilbur, I’m sure of one thing: The healing of hot springs reaches deep. At the wind-chime grove a mile or two up Sulphur Creek, amid the clunk and clink of wood scraps and bottle caps strung from branches, a twisted hanger holds a doll-size scroll of the Torah. From another branch dangles a red tag like those you see tied to Christmas gifts: Dear Mother and Father, I wish I could have done a better job of taking care of you.
I didn’t write the note, but I sense the pain behind it and the forgiveness found here. I could sit all day letting the breeze wash over my sulfur-softened skin and feeling one with the trees, the prayers, the people in my life who suffer, who have hurt me, who have left. I’m no longer soaking in Wilbur’s waters, but I’m reaping their benefits. I feel porous, receptive, renewed.
You are beautiful, someone has spray-painted on the ruins of the old mill. “You” means you, me, the hills scraped white by nineteenth-century quicksilver mining, everything and everyone sustained by ancient waters. As I head back for one last soak, I believe it.
For water rituals from around the world, click here.
Originally published as "In Our Element" in Spirituality & Health's Jan/Feb 2013 issue.
Lindsey Crittenden is the author of The Water Will Hold You: A Skeptic Learns to Pray and The View from Below. She lives in San Francisco, where she teaches creative writing.