Mudder’s Day: Neck Deep in a Calistoga Mud Bath

Bill Newcott describes the experience of getting utterly mucky on purpose.

Mudding at The Roman Spa Hot Springs Resort (Photo by Bill Newcott)

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I am as filthy as I have ever been. I am not just muddy; I am one with the mud. Mud I am and to mud I have returned. From my shoulders down, there is not a crease nor crinkle of my body that is not locked in the warm, oozing, sucking embrace of black, lumpy, seemingly sentient mud.

I can’t help but wonder what my mother, gone more than 40 years now, would think, gazing down from the pristine halls of Paradise, watching her son, naked as the day she gave birth to him, sunk to his neck in the one substance she loathed more than dust bunnies under his bed; more than grass stains on his corduroy pants.


This was all my idea, of course. When I found myself visiting the north Napa Valley town of Calistoga, primarily expecting to spend my days sipping wine under grapevine-shrouded trellises, I could not help but notice signs for hot springs spas dotting the sides of its main street, Route 29.

Specifically, signs proclaiming the dirty delights of “Hot Mud Baths.”

You don’t see those signs lower in the valley, down in Napa and Sonoma, where the locals hang fancy vineyard shingles that resemble those of Beverly Hills aestheticians. It’s up here, where the valley’s low-lying mountain ranges press together with red-hot passion, that the volcanic forces that created the nutrient-rich soil of Napa Valley are still at work. Hot water, the juice from that tectonic embrace, pushes to the surface, and when you mix that with native volcanic soil and a few other choice ingredients, you create the soothing, supposedly health-inducing slurry that is the stuff of therapeutic mud baths.

I am standing in the modest lobby of the equally modest spa behind The Roman Spa Hot Springs Resort, an establishment that has been doing dirty work in Calistoga since the early 1970s. There are other mud bath spas — Dr. Wilkinson’s Backyard Resort and Mineral Springs, the Calistoga Motor Lodge — all of which have long histories of service. But I like the “Roman” appellation. It whispers of elegance and, maybe, a hint of decadence.

Also, irony. Because esthetically, the spa building at the Roman Spa has less to do with Nero’s Palatine Hill than with a neighborhood Jiffy Lube. The walls are plain, the ceiling low, the furniture defiantly utilitarian.

But behind the desk are two smiling, warm-eyed young women who sign me in. One of them, Norah, ushers me down a narrow, dark-paneled hallway. I am heading toward a door at the far end bearing the simple words, “Mud Room,” but Norah guides me to a door on my right. Inside are two massage tables. The thick-shaded window allows just a few slivers of light in. On a small corner table, incense sticks stand in a glass jar, smoldering. Over a speaker system floats what I’ve come to call “Spa Music,” that peculiar piano genre that consists mainly of a long series of chords that never quite resolve themselves; just when you think the pianist is going to get to “ta-daaaah!” the whole sequence starts all over again.

“You can take off all your clothes,” says Norah, managing not to sound like my dermatologist’s assistant, Tiffany, who also says that, but with a tone of muted regret. “Put on this robe and these flip-flops, and I’ll come back for you in a couple of minutes.

“If there’s anything you want to bring into the mud room with you, put it in this bag.”

Norah leaves, the door clicking behind her. For a moment I wonder what in the world I would want to bring into the mud room, and then it occurs to me I want to being my phone. I think I’m going to want a picture of this.

I’m sitting on the edge of a massage table, my flip-flopped feet swinging, when Norah returns.

“Let’s go to the mud room,” she says.

I am following Nora for the final few feet, toward that door. She swings it open, and I am at once intrigued, yet not surprised, by what I find there. The room is about the size of a one-car garage. The walls are glazed with earth-tone tiles. To my left stand a pair of shower stalls, each draped with similarly earth-toned curtains. And to their right, against the opposite wall, are two low, extra-large tiled tubs.

The mud baths.

One of the tubs is filled with what looks like jet-black water, its surface placid and smooth. The other is quite something else: A lumpy, thick, mass of what could well be 100 gallons of black bean curd.

I stop in my flip-flopped tracks, realizing that two things can be true. One, I cannot imagine immersing myself in that shimmering stew. And two, I cannot wait to do just that.

“So, I’ll leave you here and you can take off your robe and get in,” says Norah, and I wonder if anyone has ever forgotten to take their robe off first. “I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”

I don’t turn to make sure Norah is gone when I hear the door close. My eyes are on the mud. I remove the robe and place it on a small table—resisting the urge to simply shrug the thing off and let it float to the floor, the way people do in romance novels and perfume commercials.

Sitting on the tub’s tiled rim, I sink my feet into the mud. Never have I seen my body parts disappear so completely beneath a surface. It is as if I am dipping my legs into a black hole, from which no light — nor limbs — can escape.

I rise to my feet, intending to step to the center of the tub and lower myself in. But I’m unprepared for the energy required to walk in what feels like an enormous bowl of steel-cut oatmeal. After expending no small effort getting into position, I lower myself, inch by inch, into the slowly yielding mass.

At this moment, I realize I am not immersing myself in this mud; I am sinking into it. It is not an unpleasant sensation, but I am startled by a childhood flashback:

In my memory, I am on the living room floor watching an episode of Jungle Jim, staring in gape-jawed horror as a screaming man is sucked to his death by jungle quicksand (which, in retrospect, actually did resemble a pool of steel-cut oatmeal).

“Save me!” he screams, but Johnny Weissmuller can only stand helpless as the poor sap gurgles his last, leaving only his pith helmet floating above him.

Shaking that trauma, I tell myself the mud tub is only a couple of feet deep. Still, I am already in up to mid-chest, and I am not feeling the bottom. I can feel my feet down at the other end of the tub, but they are seemingly suspended in a muddy limbo, as well.

It dawns on me: I’m floating. Mud, after all, is largely water, and people float in water. So, rather than continue trying to discern where the mud ends and the tub begins, I choose to drift off into a state where I can’t even tell where the boundary is between the mud and me.

I close my eyes. I imagine I can feel the incursion of mud as it glurps in and around my contours. I gently pump my legs in a pedaling motion, and I immediately recognize the sensation: It’s the same one I get when, in dreams, I try to run, but my legs will barely budge.

I hear Norah opening the door. She places a cool, wet cloth on my forehead. The mud is 102 degrees, she tells me. And I can stay in here for 15 minutes. At Norah’s invitation, with two fingers I apply to my face a layer of cosmetic mud from a small glass bowl. This will do my complexion not one whit of good, I tell myself, but it does seem like a requisite step.

Leaning my head back on a small pillow, I feel myself exhaling with unusual resolve. It’s at this point, I suspect, that an awful lot of people go to sleep. But I won’t have it. This is, I am quite certain, my one and only mud bath, and I am not going to miss a minute of it.

A volcanic mud bath is a tactile experience, to be sure, but it is also olfactory. The smell of this stuff hit me the second Norah opened that door, and now here I am, almost at nose level with it. I’m trying to sort it out, like the sommeliers down the street detecting hints of cherry and leather in an expensive Cabernet.

There is, of course, sulfur. I suspect that is from the hot springs water. But there are also other scents; rich yet subtle smells that speak of the nutrients that mud bath enthusiasts insist draw toxins from the body and replace them with health-promoting gifts from Mother Earth.

My wife, Carolyn, who abhors all things dirty, swears she can smell worms in the soil after a rain, and so she refuses to even walk across a wet patch of grass. I glance at the empty mud bath tub next to mine and recall an advertisement for a nearby spa, promoting couples’ mud baths. For me, few things would be sexier than to see beautiful Carolyn muddied up in the tub next to me. And for Carolyn, I am sure, few things would be more utterly, mindbendingly horrific.

I reach for my phone, which I’ve set on the side of the tub. Gingerly, and discovering there is still facial mud on my fingers, I press the “video” button, scanning myself from wet cloth-covered head to wriggling toes, emerging in the distance. The danger that I’m going to drop my phone into the mud is undeniable. I wonder if there are any lost iPhones or Galaxies floating in this morass, awaiting eventual excavation, like mammoth bones from the La Brea tar pits.

The 15 minutes slip by like mud down a sluice. Here comes Norah with new instructions: Step into the shower, use the nozzle to get as un-muddied as possible, then slip into one of the two whirlpool mineral bath tubs that lie on the side of the room opposite the mud baths.

Left alone again, I brace my hands on the sides of the tub, try to lift myself out—and realize I’m not going anywhere. It’s almost as if I’m attempting a pommel horse routine while encased in concrete. Only a sustained effort finally results in me budging upward, and as various parts of my body emerge from the bath, I can hear the sound of that mud sucking at them, as if it’s trying to pull me back under, unwilling to yield without a fight.

Now I am standing beside the tub, looking down, regarding my mud-covered body. The irresistible urge is to take one full-length shot of what will undoubtedly be, unless I happen to die in an Amazonian mud slide, the dirtiest moment of my life.

In the shower, I keep thinking I’m finished until I discover yet another deposit of mud clinging to an impossible-to reach region of my body. Finally, I feel ready for the mineral bath. I lurch across the room and quickly jump in, just a little worried that Norah will step through the door — and am shocked to discover the water is way too hot.

Now I’m jumping back out, frantically fishing around for the the plug and fumbling with the faucet to add cold water. And I wait, circulating the water with one hand, wondering how I’ll explain this to Norah if she returns.

Happily, she doesn’t. By the time Norah pops through the door I’m in the tub, bubbling contentedly away. I don’t tell her about my adventure. I guess there are people who don’t mind emerging from their whirlpools poached.

The cool-down phase (Photo by Bill Newcott)

Another 15 minutes, and now I am in the cool-down room, which also happens to be where I left my clothes back in the days before I’d ever had a mud bath. I am lying there in my robe, eyes closed, listening to the eternal piano loop, my nose filtering through all the scents at hand: remnants of sulfur, soft incense, a sheen of mineral bath oils.

Norah slips in and gently places a cucumber slice over each of my eyes.

I allow myself a micronap, and I have the briefest of dreams: Johnny Weissmuller, pulling that poor guy out of the quicksand at the last moment.

“Here,” he says. “Put these cucumber slices over your eyes. You’ll feel better.”

If You Go:

The Roman Spa Hot Springs Resort is located in Calistoga, northern California, about a two-hour drive north of San Francisco International Airport. A 55-minute mud bath, including a mineral bath, dry mud mask, and cool-down phase (including cucumbers for your eyes) costs $135.

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