When I went to the revival of the first rock opera, Hair, a few years ago, out of nowhere tears flowed down my face during the rendition of Let the Sunshine in/ Aquarius. I looked over at my girlfriend and she asked “What’s wrong. It is a joyful song, it is a hopeful message.” I responded, “You had to be there.” And she was from a different country and generation, and the Age of Aquarius was just a song. For me and many of our generation Hair codified our culture’s ideals and vision. In September 2015 a real world expression of that vision incinerated. It may be rebuilt, but it won’t be the same. Harbin Hot Springs’ latest incarnation was a direct descendant of flower power in the best sense of that term. The recent conflagration elicited a similar reaction in me of a long ago vision finally, inexorably GONE.
When the Valley Fire in September, 2015 descended on an ancient hot springs resort, buildings over a hundred years old turned to ash. All that remains is the twisted dragon shaped iron works and the pools. Originally a haven of the local indigenous people, nineteenth century entrepreneurs capitalized on the then massive demand for the ‘cure’ and built a succession of resorts in this spot in northern California. Located in an out of the way canyon near Middletown, CA (named for its location as a stage stop middle way between Calistoga and Clear Lake).
A lifelong counter-culturalist (even in my disguise as a inner city high school principal), I discovered Harbin Hot Springs in the mid-90s. A quirky, enigmatic, poet friend peeped to me almost on the down low about this edgy place two hours north of San Francisco. One weekend we rolled up from LA. That first day felt like a homecoming for me. Disregarding the signs that prohibiting alcohol and drugs, we fired up before entering and sat in a perch in the oaks overlooking a motley crowd of hippies of all generations, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and styles. After the first few minutes, the titillation of dozens of naked bodies strolling around wore off and a kind of reverie settled in. Peace, love, and happiness prevailed. The natural hot springs pool accommodated about a dozen people—all in meditative silence. Around the regular pool and the heart-shaped pool people carried on soft conversations, but mostly sat and read or napped.
Slowly Harbin developed into my own Shangri-la, where I regularly sought respite from the pressures of the career, modern life, and my everyday self. At Harbin, I could count on meeting new friends, whether alone or with a friend. Odd encounters frequently happened, like the time I ‘accidentally’ ran into an acquaintance from home two years running. Or a couple years ago when I wanted to watch the NBA finals and went to the local brewery and met someone I had just spoken with in the pools. Sometimes I had romantic encounters, but mostly it was community. By showing up there, we self-selected into this tribe from the Age of Aquarius.
That same vibe happened back in the sixties/ seventies, when every kid in the concert or the demonstration was a friend simply because we were there. We shared values. Everyone was pre-qualified as a fellow traveler of the Sixties counter-culture. Harbin felt the same. It attracted like-minded souls from around the world. I once had a didjeridoo healing from a young woman from Israel and after that kept running into her. Then there was the German woman who lived in Santa Fe, NM I encountered two years in a row.
Harbin was resurrected from ruins of a failed commune by Ishvara (originally Robert Hart) in 1972, who then sold the property to a religious corporation, Heart Consciousness Church in 1975. For the past fifteen years on my annual trip I marveled at the on-going, quirky enhancements to the magical vibe. One year they added a winding path decorated with dragons and hobbit-like railings from the store front to the market. Several years ago a major improvement arose in the form of the Temple which looked like an old time big top circus with perfect acoustics. The pools stayed largely the same except for the addition of sauna and steam bath rooms. Lately, as a sign of our increasingly digital age, electronic devices were banned from the deck area due to privacy concerns.
Harbin wasn’t all quiet and peace. They could party with either unconditional dance or live concerts providing entertainment along with the free, couch-filled movie theater. At the dances, free flowing half naked guests and residents gyrated to the dj music—No partners (just like at psychedelic concerts at the Fillmore in San Francisco).
Community vibes could happen anywhere at Harbin. The communal kitchen operated as the center for visitors. You could leave excess food in the community box. Help yourself. That applied during meals as well. Many times I’ve shared my food with strangers. Of course, no meat was allowed in the kitchen.
The heart of Harbin was the staff: Over the years I had many engaging conversations with the staff and they all had a story. Not drop-outs, but drop-ins to a calmer and freer lifestyle. I’ve met engineers, clowns, and teachers who now played the roles of housekeeping or cook or security. For some, Harbin was a temporary refuge from the struggles of the world, and for others it became home. As the community aged the quarterly newsletter reported the passing of longtime residents.
Hippie ideals of peace, love, and community rooted and prospered at Harbin largely due to the vision and commitment of Ishvara. Ishvara is not a man who seeks notoriety, but at the same time has always harbored big dreams for Harbin. As true hippies they honored they appreciated the history of the place and the character of the 100 year old buildings. Our parents’ generation had celebrated the modern in all things; new tract homes were preferred to older areas like Ocean Park and Venice. But when hippie evolved out of beatnik, the upbeat, positive hippie converts gravitated to older neighborhoods which had great appeal. Old stuff had character and soul and that is what we craved—authenticity. In those days the approbation slung at someone or something hopelessly square was—Plastic. Plastic, the phoniness of it epitomized our ethos.
The old buildings were rehabbed and restored standing as links to earlier times. Nothing at Harbin was plastic, fake, bogus. The old buildings that had survived numerous fires before this time succumbed to the ravages of nature and are now gone. Now only ruins of the concrete foundations and the stone fireplace chimney and the pools remain.
The Age of Aquarius prospered and flourished at Harbin Hot Springs from 1978-2015, forty years. And now it is gone. Yes, it can and will be rebuilt, but the vision expressed in its last incarnation is over. Hippie dreams have completed their cycle. We had a 130 acres of our vision and now it’s gone. Whatever rises in its place won’t be the same. It won’t have the same weight of history, of connection to the lineage of the 1960s, and heritage of the original settlers. The bromide ‘change is constant’ doesn’t say much until we face major transitions which compel reinvention.
I have an old friend from the original hippie days who made a fortune in the fast changing garment industry. And when I told him about Harbin’s destruction, he reported a ceremony a recent temple dedication in downtown Los Angeles. A crew of Tibetan monks made a sand mandala and according to their custom blew it away—Impermanence.
Harbin’s oasis of the Age of Aquarius has now returned to dust and whatever shall rise up will be 21st century. This old hippie hopes they keep a foot or a toe in the 20th Century and remember the tradition of a glorious place where hippies of all ages, ethnicities, and classes lived in harmony with each other and nature. Nature has its due, and we are part of nature. But time is real and there is no rewind.