Mud Baths

Down ‘n’ Dirty

Michael Amsler

A little mudslinging does a body good

By Paula Harris

HERE WE ARE,” announces “Ramona,” my white-uniformed, pink-lipsticked spa attendant as we round a corner from the changing room to the mud baths at Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs in Calistoga–the volcanic-mud capital of Northern California. She gestures to the tubful of thick brown glop bubbling and splattering nastily across the white tiles, then takes a shovel and turns the steaming mess over a few times.

Omigod, I think, it has bits in it.

“Hand me your bath towel and hop in,” she coos with a barely disguised smirk of amusement. Yeah, um, right. Hesitating, I try to purge my mind of all the filthy thoughts that surface as I look into the murky depths: slimy ditches, barnyard troughs, exploding septic tanks.

The mud continues to belch and Ramona continues to look amused.

Naked, apart from a white towel turban, I sit on the edge of the tub, gingerly slide in one leg, and feel the hot muck squelching between my toes and then ooze boldly everywhere else. “Don’t worry, you’re not going to sink,” assures my trusty attendant, noticing my worried glance. I swear I see her lips twitch. “It’s only three feet deep.”

Once I’m immersed, Ramona piles more mud on top of my torso, packing it down with her hands. By the time she is done, her palms are almost black. The mud feels heavy, like a warm, wet blanket. “Be right back,” she chortles and is suddenly gone.

I am immobile, left to contemplate this strange sensation that’s touted as an ancient health and beauty treatment. The basis for the traditional mud bath used at Dr. Wilkinson’s is volcanic ash left over from the eruption of Mt. St. Helena. The mud is brought in dry each morning and mixed with the boiling mineral water from the gurgling geothermal well on the property. A little peat moss is added for texture.

I know that the mud is kept in the tubs and reused several times over, boiling water being used to sterilize it between clients, but still I hope this is a fresh batch. Before I can dwell on this any further, Ramona reappears. “Water?” she inquires like a good sommelier, placing a plastic tumblerful on the side of the bath. Luckily, the bent straw reaches my mouth, because there is no way I can extricate my arms.

Next, Ramona applies a peppermint mask to my face, places cucumber slices over my eyes, and suggests I drift off for a few minutes. Lying motionlessly suspended in the goop, like a bug caught in amber, I begin to feel tensions slipping away. I inhale the dank, fresh earth smells seeping up from the concoction.

The bits no longer bother me.

ALL TOO SOON, Ramona helps pull me out of the glop. A warm, tangerine- and lavender-scented mineral whirlpool bath, a steam bath, a shower, and a brief nap while I’m swaddled in warm blankets top off the treatment.

While mud-wallowing is definitely a down ‘n’ dirty experience that can even seem off-putting to the uninitiated–just recall how your mother always told you not to play in it–mud baths endure as a popular aesthetic treatment.

The main benefit, say spa practitioners, is that the mud is detoxifying and thus cleansing. It is usually administered as a heat treatment used in tangent with steam or hot water, and so encourages a high amount of perspiration, which purifies the system and leaves the skin cleansed, smooth, and refreshed. In addition, sufferers of muscular aches and arthritis may find the mud bath soothing because it eases muscle and joint pains.

“People have been taking mud baths all over the world for centuries traditionally and historically for arthritic and rheumatic ailments,” explains Dr. John Wilkinson, a sprightly former chiropractor and founder of 46-year-old Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs. Now age 84 and thriving, Wilkinson reveals, “Yes, I do still take a mud bath now and again, I read the newspaper in there. It’s total relaxation.”

According to Wilkinson, mud treatments also provide a much-needed respite from a fast-paced world, and are part of an overall alternative health-care trend. “Mud baths and hot springs fit right into that total alternative health-care picture,” he says.

Although the mud is a natural resource rich in minerals, Wilkinson is cautious when asked about its curative and beautifying properties. “We don’t claim that the mud has any magic chemicals,” he’s quick to point out, adding that many clients, women in particular, have remarked that their skin “feels milkier or creamier” after the treatment.

My own skin feels a bit softer, my body lighter and relaxed after the treatment. As I leave the spa, I think, “This could be addictive,” and note a distinct a sense of well-being. I sleep exceptionally well that night.

But, be forewarned: Expect to find tiny mud-pie remnants behind the ears the next day.

Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs is located at 1507 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; 942-4879. A one-and-a-half hour treatment costs $55. Golden Haven Hot Springs is at 1713 Lake St., Calistoga; 942-6793.

From the January 14-20, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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