Something about Mary
Mary Hildebrand (1958-2004) was perhaps the Springs's most upbeat and engaging -- and unlikely -- manager ever. Her steely determination, supported by former long-term absentee San Francisco owner, John Foggy, grew Springs into year-round operation in 2000 for believed first time since founding 124 years before.
< Mary, showing obvious displeasure at pointed camera, pauses from shoveling snow on bathhouse's creekside deck to offer best scowl
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Stories to date:
Miss Mary Hildebrand, by Debbie Davis
Mary & Me and Stewart Springs, by Stuart Ward
Debbie Davis was long-time Stewart Springs massage therapist and close friend of Mary's
Miss Mary Hildebrand
Before I was blessed with the gift of giving massage at Stewart Mineral Springs, I knew Mary from playing fast pitch softball on Ernie’s Raiders. We were the #1 team in Siskiyou County and undefeated for years and years.
Being a guest of Stewart Mineral Springs since 1977, I actually experienced our after-soak sauna as a “step down onto”, sawdust covered floor. I laid down on a wooden cot where the bathhouse attendant covered me with a wool blanket and tucked me in to enjoy my steam.
I had been visiting the grounds for years and one day found my dear friend Mary was managing the springs. We were so happy to see each other. She gave me the official manager-guided tour of the facilities and the grounds. She was so sweet to have taken the time out of her busy schedule and given me special treatment. She always had a way of making guests feel very welcome and also very special, and that always included me every time I visited the springs.
I came up to do the bath and there was Mary, sitting at the desk next to the front desk staff, Miss Pat [Mary's mom] and they were both smiling from ear to ear. Those two women had a book and made regular entries almost daily. The book was called “The Dumbest Questions I have Ever Heard at the Desk at SMS” and it was Top Secret. No one knew they were laughing over the fresh entry and turned to me with questionable belief that people could even think these thoughts.
Quickly putting on their professional faces, they asked me how I was and what I’d been up to. On sharing my massage school graduation, Mary and Pat agreed I needed to get on the list of massage therapists and to do an interview with Arnie, lead therapist.
Then Mary invited me to her house for a Raider Party. (Not only was Mary an Ernie’s Raider, she was a hope-to-die Oakland Raiders fan). So I accepted: potluck, big screen TV, painted silver and gray on her two foster children’s faces, silver and black 4X4 truck, and fireworks to light off in the driveway after every touchdown and every extra point. Party girl - she loved to celebrate and share that love with family and friends.
Once I got on board it wasn’t long before I felt like family at the springs. She tended to confide in me, her happy times, like her boys working at the springs, the extra bookings for lodging and baths, getting permission to paint and fix things and buy massage oil and massage sheets. She loved being at the springs and the opportunity to work with her mom, Pat, and her aunt Ceci.
She always, always stuck up for me and my integrity in all matters, and she did the same for all that she loved at the springs. When things weren’t going so great, she either avoided me at all costs, or expressed her anger to me, which is not the same as at me. She allowed me to be there for her as she was there for me.
Volunteer assistant manager to Mary for two and a half years; created, and for over 14 years maintained bathhouse's creek cold plunge.
"First time I saw Mary she was scurrying around gift shop floor, re-organizing low-placed goods, getting ready to take helm from her cousin Susie Frank, then finishing gracious 12-season run.
"Mary looked so meek and unassuming. Little did I realize the force of nature bracing to shepherd the Springs into the new millennium."
Mary & Me and Stewart Springs
It's late November 1999, and under Mary's guidance the Springs was going year-round for first time in its history.
Before, it had ceased operations each winter, December through February. In yet earlier years, it was open only seven months from April Fool's Day to Halloween. With often-modest visitor volume even in pleasant-weather season, likely no one had ever dared even thought of trying to keep place open through often-gnarly winters. Would people even come? Would they get snowed in? Would water pipes freeze? (Yes to all.)
The venerable old restaurant was re-opening as well after being shuttered for ages.
If that wasn't enough, Mary was working overtime to sign up new retreats, events, and workshops. And extending bathhouse/office open hours til 10 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, creating two work shifts in process.
Place formerly kept banker hours, 10 to 6 every day, seven days a week, summer, spring, and fall, shutting for winter.
Sauna enthusiasts who tried protesting
early daily closings by staging de facto sit-in demonstrations in old smaller sauna caved in heartbeat when introverted but no-nonsense Linda, longtime bath attendant (and wife of Mary's uncle), flung the door open and rushed in like a firefighter. She began hosing down benches like there was no one there and sometimes barely suppressed a grin as busted protesters instantly scattered.
Mary was seasoned in helping operate businesses, having formerly worked for Ralston-Purina. She was given mandate by owner to try to shake resort free of sleepy backwater past, let the world know it was there. Visitor volume in not-distant past had been so slack -- being more or less off the map beyond select circle of regulars, irregulars, and stray newbies -- that soakers could sometimes claim their tub stall for the entire day.
Who's minding the place?
Mary's resident groundskeeper had just quit on her with zero notice. He'd gotten one tongue-lashing too many. Often-intense Scorpion, Mary could drive others as hard as she drove herself. At times she got downright tyrannical, having zero patience for workers goofing up or slacking off. He'd recently let his large German shepherd roam free at night. It so terrified a late-arriving cabin guest as it stood outside her just-parked car, intently staring at her, she didn't dare get out, instead driving to Weed motel and next day demanded a refund.
Mary was still reeling from a far more serious groundskeeper fiasco and resulting owner Foggy's ire. That man was escorted off grounds in handcuffs by sheriff deputies, charged with malfeasance. It seemed job post was now radioactive, rife with suspicion towards whoever held it. Owner was understandably wary of paying anyone only to be hornswaggled.
Arrested ex-caretaker was later considered likely culprit exacting revenge, when in dead of night someone with key access to control shed drained the mammoth hillside water supply tank. It happened during mega-busy summer spell and so, predictably. chaos ensued. Mary solved major problem by equally-sneakily deploying pump to refill tank with creek water. While denying that was precisely what she was doing -- even after curious visitors heard loud pump and traced big hose from tank down to creek and began asking pointed questions -- she emptied the entire region's store shelves of bottled water and issued it at conference hall off the back of her black Eddie Bauer edition pickup to huge flock of group attendees who'd booked entire place for week. Grounds appeared to have become unlikely refugee camp.
Mary told me her plight of suddenly having no groundskeeper in a near-empty bathhouse lobby the next day after caretaker quit. I was tickled she finally confided in me, as formerly always kept a brisk managerial reserve.
The whole place was in dire need of remedial care, due to starvation budget and often unmotivated workers. It could've used an entire crew of caretakers to bring it back to some semblance of former zen condition, enjoyed decades earlier under Goodpastures and which in recent years would begin fitfully reaching again.
Then, suddenly, it had none.
volunteers of America
To give better understanding on what became my own dedicated full-court press helping place along under Mary's eagle eye, sharing a pivotal experience volunteering back in 1973 might help.
Seattle, Washington's former Capitol Hill Food Co-op was renowned in early natural food movement days as nation's one successful all-volunteer nonprofit food co-op storefront. Place was a bubbling ferment of countercultural taking care of business when I stumbled onto it after hitching into town, wayfaring 23-year-old natural-food nut. Its mission: liberate and upgrade food stream, getting real food to real people dirt-cheap and in down-home way.
Even though mostly homeless (or maybe because of it), I welcomed the chance to plug in and become part of merry cause during natural food movement's latest pioneering days. I received shipments, stocked shelves and ran register -- "I thank you, the co-op thanks you, Jesus thanks you" -- in exchange for joy of service working with kindred souls getting food with integrity out to shoppers burned out on imitation, nutrition-challenged fare. (Also, got food at cost plus one percent for volunteering 20 hours month, considerably sweetening deal as one living on shoestring.)
The experience had changed my life.
Now Stewart Springs was becoming my home away from home. (I had one by then, across valley.) Rushing creek and aromatic scent of pine and cedar re-awakened idyllic childhood memories of visits to summer campgrounds in state and national parks. And Springs's devotion to healing mind, body and spirit in such rare natural setting helped me overcome lifetime of body alienation and slowly reintegrate body, heart, and soul on higher level.
Place then had no coldplunge. Liking to build little dams in creeks as a kid, one summer day I found myself spontaneously moving Park Creek rocks around below bathhouse, hoping to build up precious water depth.
For immersing oneself then could be a bit problematic, due to strong currents and lack of dunkable spots. Before I knew it I'd de-facto volunteered to build and maintain a full-on coldplunge dam, a project I'd contentedly dedicate myself to for the next 14 years. (Got much-appreciated seasonal help in later years with summer c/o work parties, participants trading time for saunas, and once-a-year hired Mexican-American crew, led by Jesus). Grateful for unpaid help, Mary offered me unlimited free saunas and occasional free baths in exchange.
Sporadic service freak, it appeared I'd only been chomping at bit for another worthy cause to plug into as a volunteer. Helping Mary get mineral waters to people in beautiful wild setting, in process turning onto spa culture while working through sundry hangups, qualified hands down.
I once met a visitor mistaking place for a state park. With its routed yellow lettering on brown wooden signs, it was an easy assumption at casual glance. Another visitor's first impression was that of old Boy Scouts campground.
It just had that kind of vibe.
"I'll be glad to fill in until you can find someone," I'd told Mary after she shared her plight, thinking to work maybe a day or two until she could formally hire a worker for pay. I wasn't, er, what you'd call an active member of the work force then.
She seemed to think split second, nodded, then said, "You're on!"
Little did I know I'd be that someone for the next 30 months, volunteering again dramatically changing my life.
I'd make the place a real second home, staying in unrented cabins and apartments first half year, then moving into shed above Cottage for two more. Zero pay but free lodging and unlimited saunas, bath now and then plus employee discount at then-owner-operated restaurant -- that was the deal. It suited me fine, as I was financially covered elsewhere and had loads of time on my hands then.
The first month helping Mary out happened to be a historically momentous one: it was the last month of twentieth century.
It proved a crucial one for Springs beyond going year-round, visitors wildly anticipating new millennium. "It's the end of the world as we know it", as song of times merrily proclaimed. Of course, technically there was one more year to start new thousand-year time period, but everyone felt something extraordinary in the air then, like approaching top of some impossibly grand roller coaster before plunging down and roaring along mysterious twisting tracks to parts unknown and barely imagined. Too, there were attendant Y2K fears of possible global technology crash stirring the pot.
First indication: nature seemed to contest our audacity trying to go year-round by sweeping a violent storm over place the very night of former seasonal closing, November 30th.
In total synchronicity, it was my first night of duty.
Sometime during that night one mighty gust toppled the massive wooden entrance sign outside front gates. Next morning I spent a frosty hour chipping at frozen earth with anemic screwdriver and hammer, reminded to get work gloves and crowbar while trying to gain enough depth to re-plant sign posts securely. (Planting miraculously held until future groundskeeper Mendara did more thorough job in 2012.)
Then tragedy struck.
Mary's mom, Pat, dedicated to running front desk over a decade with gentle grace, alternating with equally dedicated, if more rambunctious, older sister Ceci, came down with a rare blood disease. It was destined to take her life a few short months later. As soon as she was hospitalized, Mary, devastated on hearing terminal prognosis, closed Springs -- front gates and all -- to care for her and deal with pending loss. It was a week before Christmas. Red lettering of scrawled sign she posted in felt-tip on front gates announcing sudden closure teared in the rain.
Earlier she'd solemnly handed me office's big red bookings binder for safekeeping in cabin 15, where I was then staying. Before computer use this heavy ringed binder was sole record of reservations going out an entire year. In that moment I felt an inkling of the reality, the gravitas, of what it meant to manage place, responsible for operation and hundreds of visitors' travel and vacation plans. She also handed me a heavy ringed set of keys to every place on grounds except office. I was moved by her trust and determined not to let her down. Home alone
For an entire week I was only person in closed resort. I puttered with groundskeeping, insulated old sauna and laundry room ceilings, and cued up future projects of own choosing. Leaving for town meant undoing padlocked chain and swinging open huge front gates and re-locking after. Gates always reminded me of gates in 1933 King Kong movie. Ridiculously impressionable, I felt like an extra, opening them and freeing or keeping in -- who, what? To my knowledge, the gates hadn't swung shut in ages.
As I walked around suddenly deserted wintry grounds, place had a rare stillness, counterpoint to ceaselessly moving creek. There seemed an eeriness, some forlorn feeling, as if place needed healing too. Maybe it was saddened knowing of coming demise of one of its dedicated keepers.
I needed an antidote to shake free of this energy. Enthusiastic if guilt-ridden closet nudist at time, one sunny cold morning as cool-down from sauna I strolled place barefoot-naked over snow, until feet started to freeze. That was a surreal feeling -- "to bare where no one's dared bare before..." (or at least not in long time). It was an indescribably liberating feeling.
Before Mary left I'd suggested we keep trickle going in a few bathhouse tubs to prevent water pipes from freezing during shutdown, as it was getting well below freezing at night. She nixed the idea: "That'd just waste water." I didn't want to argue about it or disobey in her distressed mindstate.
Alas, the day after Christmas when we re-opened for 26 special post-Christmas bath reservations, pipes were frozen solid. Always a fair weather resort before, there'd been no need to bury water pipes below frost line...or any county building code inspector nosing about to insist on it.
Twenty-six crestfallen people were given refunds. Late ace grounds plumber Matt Reed and I worked long into bitter cold night digging down to shallow mineral-water pipeline spanning underneath parking lot. Pickax bounced off frozen ground with anything less than full force that shocked skeleton. Eventually we unearthed line and defrosted it with a hairdryer. In next year or two place would get fully winterized, but not before several undrained water heaters in unoccupied unheated cabins froze up and burst, drenching carpeting; and uninsulated freshwater line for bathhouse's showers, bathroom and laundry, spanning walking bridge, turned turned to ice a time or two, and hairdryer again put to work.
As I was a volunteer work-trader, not a paid employee, Mary never -- not once -- ordered me to do anything except shut up now and then. It was understood I'd handle such daily chores of splitting, stacking and toting firewood, empty trash, start both bathhouse stove fires on cold mornings, sauna fire alone in warm weather, check water supply levels, and always be on hand to help overnight guests.
Mary lived off Deitz Road some fifteen miles away. While always rushing over to place without a thought whenever any problem arose, she needed someone on grounds. Such a secluded operation without a resident or two watching over things and helping out guests was not an option.
Beyond such duties she left me free to tackle whatever projects struck my fancy: pulling thistle weed, zenning plunge area; painting building trims soothing rich green, covering over angry rusty red; planting new hand-lettered signs; pruning trees; replacing and painting undersized shot-up mailbox; clearing overgrown backtrails on grounds; trying to make ridiculously overdue dump run along with Michael W. (old rig gave up ghost pulling in to landfill and was towed back, trash intact; local repairman, hoping to stiff affluent if reputedly money-tight owner, had quoted absurd estimate); entertaining self and sometimes others on piano I'd loaned to restaurant after yet another shady caretaker had long before sold existing one and skipped with money; starting recycling program; installing spray mister lines under sundecks' roof eaves to refresh sunbathers on hot summer days...
Also...persuaded Mary to make bathhouse deck and creekside non-smoking area (which, believe it or not, it wasn't then); purchased new fiberglass handled axes -- the single old one was incredibly dull, dangerous-looking double-headed caution with splintered, duct-taped together wooden handle; found drinking-water-safe hose for filling water dispenser, as old petroleum-based one made water taste same as yukky water sipped as non-picky kid from filling station hose on hot summer days -- it could upset one's stomach even while hoping to heal in sauna. (Was stunned no one realized that before; guess it took a mild chemical-sensitive.)
It's said heaven's in the details. There were so many things needing attention from place long being under-budgeted and neglected -- maintenance, upgrading, remedial fine-tuning -- that it was a veritable workaholic's dream. The same joy of service and empowering sense of accomplishment felt volunteering at the co-op now infused new cause celebre.
Not that I was a workaholic per se. But I'd been on disability so long for nervous condition that I was eager to give back and balance ledger with abilities I did have. Beyond sundry manual skills, I also appeared to have some gift for serving as catalytic force to re-energize things.
Thus helping along a place I resonated with so thoroughly was a delight. With Mary's vote of confidence and encouragement, I followed far-flung, spontaneous urges, and so helped her liberate place from a sometimes provincial, stagnant, and wayward past so it could greet the new millennium with a semblance of style and grace.
"Why, you must be the owner!"
With my first name pronounced the same as venerable founder's last, I naturally took constant ribbing. If I had a dollar for every time I heard on introducing myself, "Oh, you must be the owner, yuk-yuk", I could've just bought place, said "Yes, I am; please enjoy your stay," and been done with it.
Finally, to amuse myself, I thought up a tall-tale reply, spoken straight faced: "No, I used to own it, but I lost it in a poker game. The new owner took pity on me and lets me stay around to help out." I told this to a German visitor, thinking she surely knew I was kidding, like everyone else. But she returned next year with a group and, in sad earnest, introduced me to a friend as former owner who'd lost the place in poker game! (Obviously, humor doesn't always translate from one culture to another.)*
*There's thought that one's name, if denoting some quality or occupation, can actually energize person towards embodying it, like one with last-name Burns becoming a firefighter, or a Baker becoming...well, a baker. Perhaps a Stu Ward becoming a steward at Stewart's wasn't all that peculiar after all...especially when adding fact that last name means watchman or guardian.
Others, not understanding devotion or high a fitful service-freak got being locked in service mode for what was deemed a noble cause, joked among themselves how I seemed to be suffering from bizarre delusion that I actually did own it. One local always embarrassed me by loudly greeting me, "Mr. Springs!" in the lobby. In time I came to realize how one not knowing me or my intentions better might've thought I was indeed something like place's own unhinged if harmless Emperor Norton of storied San Francisco lore.
"Pretend like you own it"
As it turns out, there was good reason for taking such a proprietary stance. San Francisco-based owner John Foggy, having many business irons in fire, was often just a once-a-year visitor, then often only for an hour or two.
Absentee ownership always makes for hired management taking on far more responsibility and decision making if hoping to do good job and be fully responsive to ongoing and varied needs of a place. He told Mary at start -- as he likely told every manager before and after -- that as he wasn't there she had to think and act as if she owned the place in order to make wisest calls on what needed doing.
Being saddled with such heavy responsibility was at once both incredibly burdensome and empowering.
As Mary's informal right-hand man, given free reign to make whatever changes deemed worthwhile, I became place's volunteer, act-like-you-own-it, de-facto assistant manager. After she was sidelined by mom's rapidly failing health, my responsibilities stepped up even more.
Happily, I was spared mundane details of any full-fledged manager: revenue tracking, budgeting, employee time sheets, bookkeeping, hiring and firing; shepherding employees to do what needed to be done on time and with focused energy; dealing with occasional distraught guest; trying to carry out mandates of absentee owner on painfully tight budget forever threatening to hemorrhage, whether one approved of them or not...duties of any salaried manager, accumulative pressures of which could -- and often did -- get managers' headspaces astonishingly bent out of shape.
I was Mary's assistant-manager lite, if you will. Volunteer creative director at large. Fine-tuning specialist. Earlier when I saw her driving herself nuts trying to take on too much herself and becoming paralyzed with indecision, I'd felt guided to tell her, "Mary, you've got to learn to delegate authority."
I had no idea then she'd soon be delegating so much to me.
Seeming to have intuitive wisdom about employee's abilities, she allowed me to operate within my creative scatter-gun approach, contentedly engaged in juggling latest chosen projects and thus getting most work out of me for free, while more easily keeping within often-strangled budget.
Critters enjoy closed season
Place lost crucial focus and momentum by closing each winter. A palpable stagnation set in, lingering long after annual re-opening March 1.
Take start of 1999 season: some no-good had stolen grounds' seasoned firewood stash during closure, leaving bathhouse on chilly side for months on re-opening. For place had to burn wet green wood -- all that could be gotten then in depths of winter -- and try coaxing fires to life with pitiful, small, air-leaking bellows. Sauna-goers were frustrated trying to break a sweat in room struggling to reach an anemic 140 degrees F. (160 degrees F. is minimum heat for for inducing free sweat in dry sauna; and Finns, true sauna freaks, deem anything under 180 degrees F. NOT a real sauna.)
Wildlife made determined inroads into lodgings during closed time. This required housekeepers' duty list to include "Check dresser drawers for leavings". This did not refer, as I first thought, to a guest maybe forgetting a sock or two. Such dilemmas were why Springs had to work triple time to bring place up to acceptable cleanliness standards if ever hoping to lose a reputation for being a tad too rustic.
Mary, again, was grateful for all the free help and support she could get. She understood whenever declining a request I wasn't keen on. I needed to be my own boss and work at own pace, unclocked, to be a happy camper. It was a win-win-win situation: owner got free groundskeeper (possibly thinking anyone willing to work so much for so little had to be crazy, but hey...), Mary stretched budget, and I enjoyed the service experience of a lifetime.
Anyone who got Mary and learned to roll with the punches found her quirky enthusiasm contagious, her wild cowgirl attitude and full-tilt Springs dedication inspiring. We made allowances for her sometimes being a hard taskmaster, with hair-trigger temper often making for dramatic meltdowns.
Indeed, she could flip out with such operatic intensity that any bystander catching it was left wide-eyed, feeling as if they were witnessing some improbable human atomic blast. We knew she was under enormous combined pressures from owner, guests, and often-feuding staff, not to mention estranged brother threatening her life over taking legal custody of abused nephew. She simply had to vent a lot.
Now it can be told
She'd sometimes find, er, creative ways to release tension. One evening a retreat group deemed the music volume in bathhouse too high. A member went to office where it was then controlled and told Mary to turn it down. Big mistake. A large group, they'd been too demanding during extended stay ("We need more towels!" was frequent whine) and she was about to snap. She said okay, pretending compliance to request, and complainer left. Then, no doubt putting on devilish Little Rascals' Darla grin, she locked pass-through door and cranked volume even higher. Amid desperate plea through now locked glass-windowed door -- "No, turn it DOWN" -- she pretended to misunderstand. "Oh, you want it louder? OK!"
Another time, while driving up to work one morning she saw then-Parks Creek Pottery Studio on Stewart Springs Road had set up roadside placard with petition on it urging sign-ups to protest Springs' one-time plans to install mini-turbine in creek to generate electricity. They perhaps felt it would interfere with free-flowing energy of creek on subtle level and harm fish. Mary slammed brakes, jumped out and threw offending critter in back of prized black Eddie Bauer pickup, then continued on to grounds where she unceremoniously tossed offending item into shed dumpster. She later feigned innocence when confronted by deputy called up, even though incident was witnessed and placard promptly found.
While not condoning her sometimes lawless ways or ever comfortable with pronounced stark, in-your-face streak, I truly admired the way she otherwise had the place wired to a fare-thee-well according to her lights. And she was a total people person, genuinely welcoming to guests and attentive to (reasonable) needs. At her best, she was a magnetic leader and super catalyst, charging staff with incredible espri de corps.
Those curious about such things maybe knew Mary had Scorpio sun. Scorpio is, among other things about eliminating waste, Phoenix rising from ashes, and bringing dead back to life. While place wasn't dead exactly, it was a bit moribund, definitely a provincial backwaters, a concern worlds away from often-thriving, on-the-ball, can-do concern it would later become for a good while.
Few knew her Scorpio Sun was combust Scorpio Venus, which apparently can lend magnetic, fiery aura; plus three degrees from Jupiter in Scorpio, lending an air of sensationalism and idealism to mix. Such a tight early Scorpio cluster made her, in positive flow (vs. negative spin out), a veritable powerhouse of transformative energy.
She gave Springs the massive jump-start needed to break it free from age-old stagnant inertia and to expand operations, preparing it to accommodate today's swelling sea of awakening humanity turned on to and seeking healing spa retreats. With place tucked in nature yet minutes off West Coast's main north-south freeway, there were legions of mineral spring enthusiasts and nature lovers waiting to take the plunge.
Scorpio is said to rule mineral springs in general, as such places involve elimination of waste and toxins. When place is pleasure resort as well, as Stewart's can be, Libra's pleasure-loving Venus comes into play too. Mary had moon in Libra. (Myself, sun on Libra-Scorpio cusp, also had both bases covered.) Of course, any sign can relate to Springs -- founder Henry, for instance, was a Leo, and wife Julia spilled over with fiery Aries -- such fiery energy no doubt needed to get all that cold water heated.
Another, equally fascinating, thing about Mary's chart was her moon phase. A person born during that brief window just before new moon as she was is known as Balsamic moon type. In Wiccan religion, period is known as dark moon phase, its energies conducive to banishing or destroying what no longer serves.
According to famed astrologer Dane Rudhyar, thin sliver of crescent moon represents "the seed state of future growth." "This type of personality is, in its highest manifestations, prophetic and completely turned towards the future..." Thomas Paine had it. I'm convinced that Mary, though maybe unconscious of fact, felt pulled to dedicate herself to the Springs for sake of a future humanity.
Springs staff -- though paid minimum wage or shekel above, plus tips for some -- was, again, made to feel like elite team. We were not unlike wired summer camp crew rallied on by quirky, high-voltage head counselor.
Many felt privileged to have opportunity to serve such a historic establishment, helping visitors trekking the world over at beginning of new millennium to relax, regenerate, and heal -- plus, not least of all, ourselves. Mary had become staunch believer in place years before taking helm after it had helped her mend from a rough patch. Others, myself included, pulled lives together while working there.
"Can you start now?"
I'd always thought that in that split second before bringing me on board that she'd assessed my potential and intuited I was the right person for the job. It was only years later I learned, much to my chagrin, that she told massage therapist Richard she always hired the first person who applied -- or, apparently, even volunteered -- for any position.
Such an unconventional hiring policy would take applicants by surprise. Used to long drawn-out application procedures and competition for sometimes-scarce open job slots, even low-paying ones, people hired in twinkling of eye were more apt to to do their level best to not let her down, out of sheer gratitude. Either Mary believed the first person to apply was most motivated, and/or with immediate needs she just didn't want to waste time interviewing and felt she could learn to work with whoever the universe sent her.
"Short tub or long?"
During my last half year there, in addition to groundskeeping duties I also went on payroll as bathhouse attendant two days a week -- first male one in ages. (Only two in dozen years since, Dustin, and Seth, who painted beautiful, now-gone cloudy sky ceiling.) Bath attendants are traditionally women, and perhaps rightly so, but it felt good to break gender barrier and make what I felt were some long overdue bathhouse changes. I'd also become first non-family bathhouse staff member in ages.
"I'd like to see you try to run the bathhouse," Mary challenged me earlier, planting seed. This was said in response to well-meant but poorly received suggestions on how to maybe improve place a bit. It was taken too personally by bespectacled Linda (Mary's aunt by marriage), who'd had a lock on running bathhouse forever. (People who remember her might not know she wasn't born with a pronounced limp; she got it falling down slippery stairway to cabins 16-17 while scrambling about doing double-duty as housekeeper, tight budget then not allowing for dedicated position off-season; she wasn't only one. Many left service with work-related injuries. I myself got a hernia requiring surgery from cold plunge rock moving.)
Soon becoming routine: sundry bathhouse duties of tub scrubbing and hosing; washing, drying, and folding mountains of laundry; plus keeping two wood stoves stoked and frequent refilling of water dispensary.
It was meeting varied stream of new arrivals and helping them enjoy their time there that made job so exciting and rewarding, giving one the chance to mingle with humanity in positive way.
Again, I was more or less given discretion to run place in way I thought best served everyone's needs. For in those days bath attendant had more independence running place, given co-authority with front desk rather than being under it. It was carryover from tight family operation in which neither wanted to dictate to another if possible -- one understandably being reluctant to bark orders to one's aunt, mother, or in-law...or take them.
The bathhouse really needed changes in order to throw off its creaky, almost mildewed, past. It sometimes felt like an old rural health sanitarium. Possibly in past such regimented Believer airs evolved in defensive reaction to conventional pill-and-procedure society dismissing mineral water cures as pure quackery.
But by then lots of people knew mineral waters had true therapeutic value and place needed to change tune and get up to speed, losing over-provincial vibe to allow greater numbers to benefit from waters and have clear space to attune to believed energy vortex of land, which seemed to dramatically magnify any given vibration brought to realm (positive OR negative).
I put up new artwork, prints, plus gallery reprints of old mineral spring resorts around nation from private postcard collection, in halls and tub rooms. In room 14 (the grand clawfoot tub, favored by many) placed a framed news photo of a triumphant Julia Butterfly right after coming down from Luna; DJ'ed music offerings favoring Enya and Ladysmith Black Mambazo; and posted new signs to help stamp out perplexity on matters like "Where's the sauna?", ""Where do I put used sheet?" and "How cold's the creek?" Business major in junior college before switching to Psych and then dropping out of UC Berkeley, I'd kept dormant interest in business operations that apparently now resurfaced.
People thought place could get busy in later years -- and indeed it did now and then. But during peak season early in new century, place roared full-tilt with the great unwashed masses day in and day out.
There was the Oklahoma Land Rush and then there was the Stewart Springs Bath Rush.
It was a perfect storm: an extraordinary confluence of flush times, millennium fever, more people traveling pre 9/11 with cheapest gas in ages; droves discovering joys of Mt. Shasta area and mineral springs, and flirting with radical body freedom, as if in bold, what-the-heck celebration of new millennium; place experiencing honeymoon of historic year-round operation; extended hours; re-opened restaurant; and Mary pulling in new retreat/workshop group bookings like crazy -- one alone for 90 people for two weeks -- all while mostly keeping bathhouse open to public.
During peak season and on any given extended holiday weekend, operations often ran in overdrive from open to close...sometimes even before and after hours when, by special arrangement, busloads and van-fulls of touring international visitors, often Chinese, other times Russian, Japanese, Spanish, or French, descended on place to soak as group, on rotation if more than 13.
Example of how frenzied things could get: Bath attendant Morningstar Killbear was swamped by press of humanity jonesin' for tubs during super-packed Memorial Day weekend, the waiting list for tubs stretching out forever. She was working triple-time cleaning tubs to try to keep up and in her rush slipped and fell on wet hallway floor, fracturing leg.
While lying there and people busy about her creating makeshift splint, one determined woman swept up in soaking frenzy ignored calamity and rudely stepped over to scope availability of tub room #12 that she'd been working on, hoping to claim it. Suddenly realizing the show must go on, I jumped in and grabbed hose and proceeded to scrub my first tub ever. Morningstar held hose in place from floor while splinting efforts progressed, mischievous little smile on face, trouper even when down.
Office manager Ceci, Mary's aunt, told me at end of one 10 to 6 day that we'd turned 86 baths. This was before enforced break periods, when relief worker would cover. Then there was barely time to pee, let alone scarf fast snack -- forget any even half-way leisurely lunch -- without losing critical momentum and having serious operational log jams build up, upsetting visitors and soon driving attendant crazy. That was turning a tub every six minutes all day long in addition to all other duties.
Fresh laundry from both bathhouse and lodgings pulled out of dryers created periodic textile mountains on work tables awaiting folding and sorting in addition to overflowing hampers of wet dirty laundry. Worker was expected to wash and fold it all, off the clock if need be, before going home, or come in early next day if on shift again. Ill will between workers thus cropped up if, rebelling from being made to work off-clock, unfinished laundry was left for new shift to deal with. This could leave one being impossibly backed-up right out the gate: "She left a mountain of dirty laundry for me!" was not infrequent whine to manager. (One often wondered why place could sometimes be so weirdly dysfunctional in those days; illegally exploiting minimum-wage-plus-quarter hired help was good part of the reason.)
During open hours rapid folding was done every spare moment, other workers often pitching in, lest new arrivals be kept from rooms for want of fresh bed sheets and towels throwing off housekeeping completions, or bathers run out of drying towels and modesty-preserving cover.
How busy was it? Twenty people might be packed in sauna (old, smaller one, two-thirds present size); every tub taken with mile-long waiting list; 15 people lounging on deck with another 15 lolling in and around creek; yet more finding alternate dipping and sunning spots upstream and down; a half-dozen newcomers crowding office, then half the size; more lined up out door as if waiting to catch premiere of a new blockbuster movie...
We wuz mobbed!
Inspired to keep up to speed with Mary's revved pace and keen on-the-ball focus and eager to flex my long-dormant dynamo side, I felt in my prime at 50. I thrived on the constant challenge to stay on top of things, like a juggler learning to keep blur of balls aloft: not letting drinking water stand go dry or run out of clean towels and sheets, cleaning tubs second they drained for next waiting visitor, keeping sauna fire stoked, freshening foot dip basins, changing CD music, giving tours... The responsibilities of it all pulled me out of my old reclusive shell, mobilizing forces I'd forgotten I even had and re-joining humanity. People who knew me were astonished by change...
...and I owed it all to Mary for giving me a break to prove my worth, in process gaining honor of helping out at place during what turned out to be historic turning point.
A more conventional-minded person might've said of my offer, "Er, well, thanks, but I don't think so" -- if not laughing outright with dismissive "You're kidding, right?", dispiriting response I once got at a used bookshop in town. As anyone who knew her would readily agree, Mary herself was not conventional by any means. So of course she seemed to value fellow non-conventionals. (Freaks united.) The first non-family office manager she'd hire, replacing her aunt CeeCi on retirement, was a spry young woman, Natalie, sporting prominent gold nose ring.
Mary's trust in allowing me to do things according to scattered creative impulses kept me busy as I wanted. Having become a dedicated sauna buff, I bought a sauna thermometer and worked to keep room a toasty 180+ degrees F. This to the delight of fellow sauna enthusiasts...and dismay of those complaining it was too hot. The latter were invariably the same ones who passed on cold plunge as too cold. Obviously, such visitors, while perhaps loving idea of nice hot bath, resisted hot-cold therapy regimen, despite it being time-honored core therapeutic reason for coming to such places. (Obvious sign of place having faded away from original radical-purifying/healing focus under succession of new 'owners' over decades. see History)
I liked to eucalyptus-spray the sauna air and so bought it by the quart. Aromatic essential oil has long been traditional one in saunas, clearing the respiratory while delighting the olfactory. I twirled a small towel overhead to disperse rich scent while spraying, learning that's what they did in Germany's famous Baden-Baden. (Witty friend Stella promptly dubbed me the Stu-calypticopter.)
Exit stage left
Departure from posts was in stark contrast to propitious arrival. At time an impossibly romantic fool and emotionally green for my age, I'd develop impossible ephemeral crushes on certain staff members. Awkward situations developed over time as quixotic, tender, but unexpressed feelings were met with indifference -- or worse, leading me to lose temper and speak rashly.
One young bathhouse attendant unfortunately had a name rhyming with that of the long-ago first love of my life, rendering my overly impressionable mind to fairly take leave of its senses.
She'd become Mary's latest pet and was determined to uproot her old one -- me -- and seemed to have zero respect for place beyond providing modest paycheck. She goldbricked when she could, sometimes closing laundry room door to space out with escapist reading. This set me off apart from any other hurt feelings, seeing paying visitors waiting for her to help them get started while she coldly ignored them as long as possible. She became hostile towards me in return, leading to our exchanging heated words, then declaring cold war and extreme aversion to working together.
(Similar employee wars erupted time to time in place's sometimes uber- contentious work environment. Once, an innocent bathhouse attendant was tacitly accused of stealing gift shop items by front office person. She wreaked revenge by refusing to respond to walkie-talkie, system then used to announce new arrivals to bathhouse from office, creating operational chaos and soon unhinging office person, leading to her eventual firing.)
Mary at one of mandatory staff meetings in bathhouse lobby had said she'd had it with staff bickerings and having to play mother hen to smooth out constant squabbles. In process, she'd lose critical focus and momentum over pressing matters. So she gave an ultimatum: "The next staff person I hear about arguing with another in front of a paying guest will be fired - I don't care who it is."
Of course the next person turned out to be me.
I'd volunteered to take over that woman's time slot running the bathhouse after she asked, through another, if I would, and when moment came to at least be civil enough to thank me, no thanks were forthcoming. I lost it in front of an old regular, and word got back.
Even then, Mary showed diplomatic side possibly few knew about. I admired it even as about to get the ax, earnest service run meeting ignoble end. She always tried to make firings as easy and considerate as possible to minimize chance of problems down the road. Mary approached me out on grounds where I was snapping dead tree branches and lamented, "Stuart, she's threatening to quit on me if I don't fire you - the housekeeper, too [don't ask]. I can't afford to lose them both with busy season starting. I don't know what to do."
Pregnant silence. Her thoughtful approach of course left me with opening to be noble. I sighed and said, "That's okay, Mary, I've had a good run. I'll leave."
How diplomatic is that? She let me help her out of a tight jam by quitting! Anytime, don't mention it. (Mary, likely sensing I'd been set up, later called woman on her bluff to quit and let her go too; small comfort.)
Soon tears welled in my eyes. I felt like Johnny Carson on his last Tonight Show. I knew that among other things I'd be leaving were three black cats I'd befriended and who always slept with me in the shed.
A mother and her two offspring, I learned years later that they'd stowed away in late head massage therapist Arnie Sanchez's car before he left his cat-rich home for work, years earlier. On arrival they jumped out and ran off. They became semi-feral and were only occasionally fed for years til I befriended them. While offspring gladly took to hanging inside at night, the mamma cat, who I'd named Babushka, stayed away -- until one day there was an animal kingdom healing workshop that harpist/healer Eric Bergland invited me to participate in. I tuned into animal kingdom focus, and, that night, like magic, mamma cat hopped through open window over bed to join me and offspring every night from then on.
This was May, 2002. After living and working at Springs for what felt like ages, it was time to move on, give new people a chance to plug in and experience rewards of serving there. A few years later I'd again work bathhouse another one-year stretch, under owner's managing daughters Crystal and Astra who took over after Mary's sudden departure from the world.
I like to think I did her proud, helping the springs make quantum leap into the twenty-first century. I know I felt blessed to have served the place then.
Wired family management
I once talked to yet another aunt, Mary, whom I didn't even know existed until Aunt Ceci in office one day handed me the phone.
A big group staying in A-frame had an electrical circuit trip and no one could find breaker box to reset it despite exhaustive search. So Ceci called up Aunt Mary. It turned out she used to work there too. For all I knew, she hadn't set foot on the grounds in ages yet proceeded to calmly tell me, "Check under the kitchen sink counter cabinet to the left. The one you want in box is double switch on the left row, three up from bottom."
Mary was part of a long dedicated family managership of Stewart Springs -- sisters, cousins, nephew, and in-laws. Legend has it they had approached owner Foggy in '80s after place closed due to lack of business and inability to find management fit. They talked him into reopening it under their auspices, promising to do their level best to make place pay...and willing to work cheap. Who could refuse such an offer? He must've thought, Why, the locals love place so much they'll work there for peanuts! This place might prove a goldmine if I just let them do their thing.
Their dedication to place, as if grokking spirit of founder, wanting to provide a down-home, low-key, retreat experience whereby one could purify, heal and rejuvenate in arms of nature, was something of a miracle. Whatever I managed to accomplish there was possible only for being able to stand on their shoulders of hard work and tireless devotion to place.
Example of family's dedication: They ran a van shuttle service to and from Redding Airport for guests who flew in. Some regulars from Chicago and New York vacationed there every year, as place was treasured then a fabulously secret, low-key destination resort.
A book could be written on their years running Springs.
Speaking of books: as Debbie in first story mentioned, her mom, Mary, and aunt Ceci kept a secret journal. It recorded sometimes silly questions callers asked over phone and, to amuse themselves, wacky replies they dreamed up. Examples: Q: "Do you heat the creek water?" A. "Yes, we try to keep it 40 degrees for you." Q. "How high are you there?" A. "Well, it varies; but some of us do get pretty high at times."
It was her aunt Mary that Mary was named after.
Related story on changing cover-up policy to clothing-optional in year 2000 under Mary's management