Time to Slow Down. So reads the sign at the entrance to Wilbur Hot Springs, a 19th-century DIY sulfur-springs resort, where guests come to take the waters and vanish off the grid. Last week I visited for the first time in an attempt to regain stability in my otherwise chaotic and too-loud life. It worked.
Never underestimate the effect of hot water on the body and soul. After a few panting breaths, I exhaled deeply, unclenched my knees, and let myself float in the salty-soft water. The silence and intense heat forced my attention inward. Drip-drop, drip-drop—that’s all I heard. At last! my mind had stopped chattering.
Inside a Japanese-style redwood bathhouse beside a gurgling creek, the baths are laid out in a series of flumes, three long, narrow tubs with waters ranging from 101ºF to 109ºF. The flowing water reeks of minerals, mostly salt and sulfur, but there’s lithium in it too—some say that’s why everyone at Wilbur looks so blissed-out and mellow. When sunlight hits the water, it glows green. (Fear not: the tubs are frequently drained and scrubbed with a German-like fetishism for cleanliness.)
Wilbur is no skirt-and-sweater spa, but neither is it the stomping ground of drum-beating hippies. Though the baths are clothing-optional, modesty prevails; clothing is required elsewhere. And people wouldn’t dare even kiss in the tubs. This ain’t Harbin. There are no en-suite bathrooms, nor an on-site restaurant. Guests shower outdoors in the bathhouse, and feed themselves from a giant communal kitchen, the center of the inn’s social scene.
In the daytime, guests wander off on hikes and bike rides of the surrounding 1800-acre nature preserve, scoping out hilltop vistas and 19th-century silver mines. Others silently vanish into yoga postures or disappear with a book or journal. But come evening everyone reappears, gathering in the kitchen to prepare their dinners, chopping veggies on a giant butcher-block island before an 18-burner commercial stove.
I made fast friends with two hardcore backgammon players while I prepped a pork loin. As it roasted, we threw dice in the living room, an enormous space with sofas and tables, board games and billiards, and musical instruments tucked in the corner. After losing twice, I took solace in a tattered copy of Bach’s Invention No. 1 that I found in the piano bench, a piece I hadn’t touched in 20 years. Nobody seemed to care when I played a sour note.
Our vaguely Victorian-looking room inside the 1915 inn building had two comfy beds, a wicker chaise lounger, oak dresser, and white-porcelain washbasin with a cold-water tap. (We could have chosen a less-expensive dorm room, but I came with a friend and we wanted privacy. Had I come alone, I’d have chosen one of the tiny single rooms, charming for their sloping eaves and rough-hewn wood paneling.) The shared bathrooms were spotless. Electricity at Wilbur is solar-powered—don’t count on charging any battery-powered devices unless you bring a solar charger—and there’s no internet connection. The only communications device is a single outdoor pay phone in a cedar-sided booth, which I never once used.
Quiet is the order of the day—and it is an order. Conversation isn’t allowed outdoors in the bathhouse (but you can chat on the pool deck) or indoors in the inn’s library. Though I twice got (politely) shushed during my visit for laughing in the library, I was grateful for the mandate of silence. Really, how often do you get to travel beyond cell-phone range, with neither television nor traffic interrupting the quiet? After two days, nature sounded downright loud—the cawing of crows, the roaring of wind through pine boughs, the chirping of songbirds hiding in the oaks. It took nearly two days for me to slow down, escape the frenzied pace of the city, but I managed to do it: I actually caught myself whispering as I inquired about extending my stay another night.
IF YOU GO: In summer, the weather is blazingly hot; rooms have no a/c, only fans. If heat bothers you, go soon or wait till fall. Pack a towel, slippers, and down pillow if you dislike foam. The inn sells chocolate, tea and snacks, but not much else. Bring everything from coffee and flour, to meat and butter. Williams, the closest town, is 40 minutes away. For a (far) better selection, buy groceries at home. It’s okay to bring wine to Wilbur. The kitchen stocks salt and pepper and basic equipment. There are ovens, but no broiler. The knives are lousy. Bring any special equipment or unusual baking dishes you might need. If you’re going to bake or roast, I’d also suggest an oven or meat thermometer. When in doubt about what foods to bring, remember, you can never go wrong with a nice dish of pasta.