Weed, Calif. — A middle-aged couple, each dressed in nothing but a thin sheet, stood on the riverbank and contemplated the rushing water of Parks Creek. From my spot on the nearby bathhouse deck, I could see the dry-erase board where someone had scribbled the water temperature: 40 degrees.
The man dipped in a toe and yanked it back. Sensible folks would have retreated to the sauna. But then they would have been deprived of the full Stewart Mineral Springs experience.
There is a method to enjoying the rich mineral waters at this bohemian resort near the base of Mt. Shasta. It starts with a short, nearly scalding soak in one of 15 individual tubs in the bathhouse. The filmy therapeutic waters are so rich in earthly deposits that more than 10 minutes at a time can irritate the skin.
So it's then on to the giant, wood-fired sauna for as long as you can stand it. And finally, the dunk into the icy creek. Soak-sauna-swim. Repeat three times.
The swim is crucial. Native American lore has it that the dip into the icy-cold creek washes all the surface toxins off your body, removing the stress from your life and boosting the immune system. The man standing creek-side below understood that. He stepped out of his sheet and within moments was fully submerged and swimming around as if in a heated pool.
I was impressed. My own dip into the creek was far shorter.
The remarkable thing was that I went in at all. Yet in this steaming-hot melting pot of Stewart Mineral Springs, guarded urban types like me mix freely with the clumps of New Agers, lumberjacks and granolas. On an earlier visit, as my wife, Erin, and I walked up the driveway, an older woman in a sundress had momentarily stopped packing her microbus to greet us: "Hello beautiful peoples!"
We first happened upon Stewart Mineral Springs a couple of years ago. We had recently moved to Sacramento and were looking to spend a summer weekend at a mountain town not yet sterilized to suit the traveling hordes seeking an inland Sausalito.
Still relatively new to California, Erin and I were unaware that here the words "hot springs" were synonymous with "naked people." When we arrived, the thickly wooded grounds, in a canyon with meandering footpaths, bridges and gazebos, seemed empty. We strolled silently under the tall trees and over the soft beds of pine needles, down to the creek. A few yards off stood a large woman, buck naked, her tattooed back to us. Erin put her hand over her mouth to muffle a gasp.
The next morning, we headed down to the springs with every intention of soaking in one of the 15 private bathing rooms and making a quick, fully clothed escape. But once in the steaming hot tub, the draw of the creek became irresistible.
Soon, we too were skinny-dipping in the freezing waters.
California's rustic side
JUST off Interstate 5 in the northern reaches of the state, the springs are in a part of California that doesn't seem like California at all. Lumber mills. Rail yards. General stores. Northern Maine comes more readily to mind.
The facilities at Stewart Mineral Springs, for better or worse, are equally rugged. Burke Williams this place is not. It has an aging summer camp feel. Creaky floors. Plastic deck furniture. Mineral-stained tubs.
A narrow hallway passes through the wood-shingled bathhouse, past the private-tub cubicles, ending in a common space where a fire crackles in a wood stove. Guests shuffle through on their way to the sprawling porch overlooking the creek.
Signs urge silence, and New Age music wafts softly through the hallway. The quiet is periodically interrupted by the manager, a gruff woman, stomping through, directing patrons to this tub or that, or bursting into the sauna to toss impossibly large logs into the stove.
On our most recent trip (in April), Erin and I decided to forgo the battered $50 rooms at the springs and splurge on an inn in McCloud, a well-preserved 108-year-old lumber town 25 miles south. Our first night there we had the run of the Guest House, a giant, century-old Victorian with three common rooms, a sprawling wraparound front porch and a rolling front lawn.
We wondered how this inn and a handful of others like it could stay in business in McCloud. The next night we understood: A crowd of rail enthusiasts arrived for the weekly excursion of the Shasta Sunset Dinner Train. Every guest at the inn but us had paid $89.95 for a three-hour moving feast along the rail line.
We were content to experience the region's railroad history alongside the tracks, strolling through the historic downtowns that were built around trains. During a morning jog through McCloud, we passed a nifty general store, the majestic McCloud Hotel and the mill that kept the community prosperous for the earlier part of the 20th century.