I attended a revival of the first rock opera, Hair, a few years ago and, out of nowhere, tears flowed down my face during a 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.” She is from a different country and generation, and to her 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 is being 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. But when it rises again, like the phoenix, will it be true to its Sixties’ tradition?
When the Valley Fire in 2015 descended on Harbin Hot Springs, buildings over a hundred years old turned to ash. All that remained was 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 ‘water cure’ and built a succession of resorts in this spot in northern California in an out of the way canyon near Middletown, CA (named for its location as a stage stop mid-way between Calistoga and Clear Lake).
A lifelong counterculturalist (even in my disguise as an inner city high school principal), I discovered Harbin Hot Springs in the mid-90s. A quirky poet friend told me on the down-low about this mysterious place. One weekend we rolled up from LA. That first day felt like a homecoming for me. Disregarding the signs that prohibited alcohol and drugs, we fired up before entering, then perched in the oaks overlooking a motley crowd of hippies of all generations, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and life-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 mandatory meditative silence. Around the regular pool and the heart-shaped pool, people carried on soft conversations, but mostly sat and read or napped.
Harbin developed into my own Shangri-La, where I regularly sought respite from the pressures of career, modern life, and my everyday self. At Harbin, I could count on meeting new friends, sometimes amorous, whether alone or with a friend. Odd encounters frequently happened, as in the time I ‘accidentally’ ran into an acquaintance from home two years running. Or, a few 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. We were all from the same Aquarian tribe. Like the vibe back in the sixties/ seventies, when every kid at the concert or the demonstration was a friend simply because we were there. We shared values and culture. Harbin felt the same. It attracted like-minded souls from around the world. I once had a didgeridoo healing from a young woman from Israel which touched me so deeply I cried.
The hippie 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, which he heads. For the 20 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 and had perfect acoustics. The pools stayed largely the same except for the addition of sauna and steam bath rooms.
Harbin wasn’t all quiet and peace. They could party with either unconditional dance or live concerts providing entertainment in addition to the nightly free movies. At the dances, free flowing half-naked guests and residents gyrated to dj music—No partners (just like 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 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 them 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.
Hippie ideals of peace, love, and community rooted and prospered at Harbin largely due to the vision and commitment of Ishvara. Ishvara was not a man who sought notoriety, but at the same time had always harbored big dreams for Harbin. As true hippies they honored 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 and when hippie evolved out of beatnik, the hippie converts gravitated to older neighborhoods, like Haight-Ashbury. Old stuff had character and soul. We craved—authenticity. In those days the approbation slung at someone or something hopelessly square was—Plastic.
Under Ishvara, the old buildings were rehabbed and restored, links to earlier times. Nothing at Harbin was plastic, ersatz, or bogus. But the classic old buildings that had survived numerous fires before are now gone. Only ruins of the concrete foundations, the stone fireplace chimney, and the pools remain. The Age of Aquarius prospered and flourished at Harbin Hot Springs from 1978-2015, almost forty years. And now it is gone.
Yes, it will be rebuilt, but the vision expressed in its last incarnation is over. Hippie dreams have completed their cycle. We had 130 acres of our vision and whatever rises in its place won’t be the same. It won’t have the same weight of history, connection to the lineage of the 1960s, or heritage of the original settlers. The bromide ‘change is constant’ doesn’t mean much until we face major transitions which compel reinvention.
Harbin’s oasis in the Age of Aquarius is now returned to dust—whatever shall rise up will surely be 21st century. This old hippie, though, hopes they will keep a remembrance of a glorious place where hippies of all ages, ethnicities, and classes thrived in harmony with each other, and with nature. Nature has its due, and we are part of nature.
Hopefully, Harbin, will be, as is the Los Angeles Free Press, reincarnated with the ideals of old, along with new thoughts and strategies for creating a freer, more just and harmonious world. Time is real and there is no rewind, but we can influence its unfolding.
[Ed.s’ Note: Read more by RW Klarin in this secction of the LA FP – Remembrances – or a whole more in his memoir/ self-help book—Living the Dream Deferred (2015)
In fact, you can even read about him with a short jump to our LA FP Staff page with a simple click HERE.]