Relaxation's Name is Mud
Stockton Record February 13, 2005

Antoinette May

Oosh goosh . . . it’s wonderful


Remember mud pies? Not the luscious chocolate kind served today as restaurant desserts, but the squishy-wishy ones you made from puddles long ago.

The gooey monument was poked and molded with fingers that reached eagerly into the ooze. Generally the mud worked its way clear up to your elbows, and, if you weren’t awfully careful, onto your clothes. It was hard to resist taking off your shoes and stepping in it. Ooh! Agh! Mostly you remember how good the mud felt.

Watching two small kids wallow like happy hippopotami, prompted me to research more adult pleasures. Google has plenty to say about mud baths. There was even a questionnaire to check.

Would you prefer a mud bath alone? Only with people of the same sex? Only with the opposite sex?

I chose Charles, my opposite sex husband.

Would I want to be nude or clothed?

A no brainer. Mud and clothes don’t mix well. Had the quiz master ever taken a mud bath?

Further research revealed that mud baths are an ancient tradition. Mud mixtures—a combination of volcanic ash, peat moss and natural spring water—not only feel good but detoxify the system while soothing muscles and joints. In other words, besides being down and dirty, mud baths are good for tennis elbows and arthritis.

For centuries, mud baths have been a staple in Japan, Scandinavia, Turkey and along the Dead Sea, but the more familiar mud mecca of Calistoga also has long standing traditions. For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, the native Indians, Guapos (meaning “brave, handsome ones”), soothed away their aches and pains by wallowing in the volcanic mud.

Their mountain-girdled valley nestled at the foot of Mount St. Helena was called “Tu-la-ha-si, the beautiful land.” The hot, spongy turf was “coo-lay-no-maock, the oven place.” In 1823, Spanish explorers changed the name to “Agua Caliente,”hot water.”

It remained for Sam Brannan, one of the great opportunists of the 19th Century, to give the site

its permanent name. By turns a miner, newspaper editor, gambler, and banker, Brannan knew a good thing when he saw it. The lush valley with its fumaroles and springs was a Saratoga waiting to happen.

“I’ll make this the Calistoga of Sarafonia,” he proclaimed one night in 1859. A slip of the tongue that stuck.

Brannan’s dream didn’t happen in his lifetime. A location 70 miles from the amenities of San Francisco reached only by carriage or horseback—after one managed to get as far as Vallejo—was a hard sell even for him. It would take the advent of automobiles and a burgeoning wine industry to put Calistoga on the tourist map, but today it’s the most spa-ified city in the western USA.

Enough research! I was ready for the wallow and selected the Oasis Spa at random.

It proved a good choice, but first I have to level with you. My husband wasn’t into mud at all. Charles doesn’t remember how great mud pies used to be because he never made one. In the olden days when he was a boy, mud pies were considered girly. All that health and history research may have impressed him a little; but if my birthday hadn’t been coming up, I wouldn’t be writing this story. . .

The Oasis waiting room was small, but inviting. Almost immediately an attendant (male) led us to a locker room, then left. We undressed and wrapped ourselves in sheets. He took us next to the mud room where two sarcophagus-like tubs were filled almost to the brim with brown ooze.

“Just get in and wiggle down,” he instructed, then left.

Eagerly, I stepped over the side and sat down, but settling in was like squeezing into a sponge cake. You can’t rush it. Slowly, deliciously, I wiggled my body further into the ooze and relaxed.

“How do you feel, Charles?” I asked, looking over at him.

“Hot and helpless.”

Well, it is hot, 102 degrees, but that’s cozy on a cold winter afternoon. As for helpless? Helpless is part of the appeal. You settle back and allow the ash, clay, peat moss and spring water to work their magic.

“How do you clean this mud?” Charles when the attendant returned with glasses of citrus flavored water.

Up to our necks in sludge, we listened attentively as he explained that the mud is pumped through 212 degree water and thoroughly raked between customers.

For the next hour he returned periodically with water and cold face cloths. It ended way too soon for me. Even Charles had gotten into the swoosh of things and reluctantly eased out of the ooze.

The next step was a mineral springs shower. It took awhile to get the mud out—all of it. From there we stepped into adjoining bubble baths. What can you say? It was decadent, but doesn’t everyone deserve to be totally indulged sometime?

The pampering wasn’t over yet. Wrapped in soft cotton blankets, Çharles went his way, I mine for massages. When we rendezvoused at the exit, I beheld the fervor of a convert. Now he wants to come back for his birthday.


Beryl and Tom Ryan at the Oasis Spa consider their spa a healing space. She is a nurse, he massage therapist. Their goal is to reduce stress and put good energy back into the planet. The price--$120 for a mud bath and hour-long massage hasn’t changed in 10 years. 1300 Washington St. Phone: 800 404-4772.

Calistoga has 16 spas that run the gamut from funky to fabulous. You can view them by clicking

We stayed at the Roman Spa—a hotel, not a spa--because of its proximity to the Oasis Spa. The rooms and gardens are lovely and there are three heated mineral pools. We spent a good part of the day trying to decide which we liked best. The hotel is only a block “downtown”. 1300 Washington St. (707) 942-4441.

Calistoga, a town of only 5000, has thus far resisted yuppification. It has excellent wineries, galleries and boutiques but still retains the “old” Napa feeling. We had an excellent brunch at Café Sarafornia, 1413 Lincoln Ave., and a no holds barred dinner at Brannan’s. Sam Brannan, a true von vivant, would take pride in his namesake. The food, ambience and service are first class. You can learn more about Brannan, hot springs and history at the Sharpsteen Museum, 1211 Washington. Phone 707 942-5911.

Copyright © 2002-2010 Antoinette May