Poor little Middletown. It looks like Ground Zero of a nuclear blast. It’s just gone. Nothing left but ash, devastation and grief.
I’ve always liked Middletown. It was at the top of my list of “places to move to when Winters gets too fancy.” (Read: Overcrowded, touristy town that’s too precious for its own good, where locals become invisible, irrelevant and uninvited. Is Winters there yet? No. But that seems to be our trajectory.)
Middletown is sweet and hokey, comfy and cute … a bit weathered, a bit underfunded, but clearly a community. You can feel it.
My husband and I have traveled through Middletown many times over the years on our way to Harbin Hot Springs, our special, sacred place. We were handfasted (married, pre-Christian style) in the amazing swirled-roof Harbin temple six years ago, and we return for anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, happy times and sad, and sometimes just because. We’d know when it was time to return. You can feel the need to go “home” just like the need to eat or sleep.
And now, we can’t.
The Valley Fire that roared through Lake County last weekend like a hurricane of fire beneath a towering, billowing mushroom cloud of smoke devoured everything in its path. Including Harbin Hot Springs.
We got the crushing news on Sunday morning, and wandered around in a stupor all day. Harbin. Gone. We couldn’t quite wrap our brains around that notion. We were just planning to go again, now that the weather is cooling off. And now… nothing but scorched earth.
Even as I think the thought and type the word, it’s incomprehensible. In my head, it’s all still there — gurgling, babbling streams and fountains, funny, cocky bluejays bouncing across the lawns, the Harbin deer — nearly oblivious to humans — wandering around munching on bark and leaves, the heavenly “warm pool,” scrumptious food, peace and quiet that sinks into your bones, the wide expanse of stars in the night sky and most of all, the spirit of the people who come and go, day after day, all on the same wavelength, a never-ending inflow and outflow of gentle, blissful spirits.
Harbin was a hub. It’s where all those yearning to live in love, serenity, compassion and connection could find each other. It didn’t matter if you’d never met before, you’d “know” each other just by virtue of being attracted back to that home, that heart, over and over again. This was where we belonged. It was also where many lived. Harbin didn’t have employees, it had residents who did all the work in exchange for living in paradise. Like the birds and the animals, they were part of the environment.
Besides a community of common spirit, the ground itself vibrated with sacred energy, and one of the reasons it was so palpable was because of something Harbin didn’t have: cell phones. There’s no cell phone signal up there, which is irrelevant really, because cell phones aren’t allowed in any public place. Do you even remember what it’s like to not hear bells, chirps and chimes going off randomly all around and people yakking loudly about all sorts of mundane nonsense rather than interacting with each other?
Harbin also didn’t allow alcohol, amplified sound, televisions or radios. When you eliminate all that background static, you can hear the leaves in the breeze, gurgling streams… croaking frogs and chirping crickets. It’s the sound of bliss. Whatever stress you had when you arrived melts away instantly. You can exhale.
Unfortunately, I can’t be at Harbin all the time, unless I become a resident (also an option on my “Winters too fancy” list). But I could always go there in my mind. I can close my eyes and walk the path past the temple, through the garden and up to the pools… I can see every tree, bush, bench and statue… sit in an Adirondack chair on the lawn and listen to the breeze and the birds, and try to carry that into my day.
Sometimes I remind myself, “How would I start my day at Harbin?” and then sit quietly outside with my morning coffee, alone with my thoughts, just absorbing nature, rather than picking up my iPad or turning on the TV to get a full frontal blast of the world’s nonsense and nastiness.
Whenever it was time to leave, I’d be determined to carry that Harbin spirit back home, which would last until life’s concerns and obligations started nibbling away at my rejuvenated serenity. Yes, bringing some Harbin home was always my wish. I never imagined it would materialize as Harbin’s ashes — its cremains — dusting both our cars last Sunday, carried there on the wind, with dots of overnight sprinkles like tears.
Certainly some will scoff at my grief and say, “Oh, it’s just a place, it can be rebuilt.” I’m not so sure. The reality of California building codes will prevent the re-creation of those funky, ratty, wonderful old wooden buildings with all their weird quirks, creaking with the weight of time and so much love. When the property owners jump through all the state’s hoops, what emerges will be about as unique and amazing as a hospital waiting room.
“Just a place.” Spoken only by those who’ve never been there. Harbin is “just a place” as a yawn is to an orgasm.
A couple years ago while in San Luis Obispo, I hiked to the top of a hill with my son. It was so intensely quiet up there. I could see all the cars and traffic, but not hear it. Nothing but the breeze in the grass, a buzzing bug or two, birds chirping. I looked down upon the congestion and stress, recognizing that although it was there, from that hilltop, I was no longer part of it.
Harbin. It’s that. I know the “real” world is out there, biting and barking… but it didn’t matter. I was home.
— Email Debra DeAngelo at firstname.lastname@example.org; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com and www.ipinionsyndicate.com