Something about Mary
Mary Hildebrand (1958-2004) was perhaps the Springs's most upbeat and engaging -- and unlikely -- manager ever. Her steely determination, largely supported by former long-term absentee San Francisco 'owner' John Foggy, grew the Springs into year-round operation in 2000 for the believed first time since its founding 124 years earlier.
< Mary, showing obvious displeasure at pointed camera, pauses from shoveling snow on bathhouse's creekside deck to offer best scowl
Miss Mary Hildebrand, by Debbie Davis
Mary & Me and Stewart Springs, by Stuart Ward
Debbie Davis was a 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, 1999-2002; created maintained bathhouse's creek cold plunge for 14 years.
"The first time I saw Mary, she was scurrying around gift shop floor re-organizing low-placed goods and getting ready to take helm from her cousin, Susie Frank, then finishing a 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 was late November 1999, and under Mary's guidance the Springs was at last going year-round.
Before, it ceased operations in 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 the pleasant-weather season, it's likely no one had even dared think of trying to keep the place open through the often-gnarly winters. Would people 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 attract new retreats, events and workshops. And extending bathhouse/office open hours til 10 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, creating two work shifts in the process.
The place had formerly kept banker hours, 10 to 6 every day, seven days a week, summer, spring, and fall, then shutting for winter.
Sauna enthusiasts who'd tried protesting
early closing by staging de facto sit-in demonstrations in old smaller sauna caved in a heartbeat when introverted but no-nonsense Linda, longtime bath attendant and wife of Mary's uncle, flung open the door and rushed in like a firefighter and began hosing down benches like no one was there. Sometimes she barely suppressed a grin as busted protesters scattered.
Mary was seasoned in helping operate businesses, having formerly worked for Ralston-Purina in Reno, NV. She was given the mandate by absentee 'owner' Foggy to try to shake the resort free of its sleepy backwater past, let the world know it was there.
Visitor volume in the not-distant past had been so slack -- being more or less off the map beyond a select circle of regulars, irregulars and stray newbies -- that leisurely soakers would sometimes claim their tub for the entire day, stretching out soaks amid sunbathing, socializing, walks and meals.
Who's minding the place?
Mary's latest resident groundskeeper had just quit on her with zero notice; he'd apparently gotten one tongue-lashing too many. An often-intense Scorpio, Mary could drive others as hard as she drove herself. At times she got downright gnarly, having no 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, that she was too scared to get out, instead driving to Weed motel and the next day demanding a refund.
Mary was still reeling from a far more serious groundskeeper fiasco and the resulting owner'ire. That man was escorted off the grounds in handcuffs by sheriff deputies and charged with malfeasance of duties. It seemed the job post was now radioactive, rife with suspicion towards whoever might hold it. The absentee steward was, understandably, wary of paying someone only to be hornswaggled.
The arrested ex-caretaker was later considered the likely culprit exacting revenge when, in the dead of night, someone with key access to the pump shed drained the mammoth hillside water tank during a mega-busy summer spell; predictable chaos ensued.
Mary had dealt with the problem by equally-sneakily deploying a pump to refill the tank with creek water, while denying that was precisely what she was doing -- even after curious visitors, hearing the loud pump, traced a long thick hose running from the creek to the tank, started asking pointed questions. Meanwhile, she emptied the entire region's store shelves of bottled water and issued it at the conference hall off the back of her laden black Eddie Bauer pickup to a huge flock of group attendees who'd booked the place for week. The grounds appeared to be some unlikely refugee camp.
Mary told me her plight of suddenly having no groundskeeper in a near-empty bathhouse lobby the day after the caretaker quit. I was tickled she confided in me, as formerly she kept a brisk managerial reserve.
The whole place was in dire need of remedial care, due to starvation budget and underpaid, often unmotivated workers.
It could've used an entire crew of caretakers to bring it back to some semblance of the former zen condition enjoyed decades earlier under Goodpastures, and which in following years would fitfully reach again.
Then it had none.
volunteers of america
To give better understanding on what would become my psyched, full-court press helping the place along under Mary's eagle eye, it might help to share a pivotal experience of mine in volunteering, back in 1973.
Seattle, Washington's former Capitol Hill Food Co-op was renowned in the early natural food movement days as the nation's only successful all-volunteer nonprofit food co-op storefront. The place was a bubbling ferment of countercultural taking care of business when I stumbled onto it after hitching to town, a wayfaring 23-year-old natural-food nut. Its mission: liberate and upgrade food stream, get real food to real people at rock-bottom prices in a down-home way.
Even though mostly homeless (or maybe because of it), I welcomed the chance to plug in and become part of the merry cause during the natural food movement's exciting early period when so many were finally waking up and insisting on real food.
I'd receive shipments, stock shelves and run the register -- "I thank you, the co-op thanks you, Jesus thanks you" -- in exchange for the joy of service working with kindred spirits to get food with integrity out to shoppers burned out on the industrial food complex's imitation, often outright poisonous, nutrition-challenged fare.
Also, I got food at cost plus one percent for volunteering 20 hours a month, sweetening the deal for one living on a shoestring...sometimes aspiring to even have a shoestring.
The experience would change my life.
Now Stewart Springs was becoming my home away from home. (I had one by then, across the valley.)
Rushing creek and the aromatic scent of pine and cedar re-awakened idyllic childhood memories of extended summer stays in California state campgrounds and national parks. And the Springs's devotion to healing mind, body and spirit in a beautiful wild setting helped me overcome a lifetime of body alienation and reintegrate being on a new level.
Apparently part beaver
The operation then had no cold plunge. Immersing oneself then could be a bit problematic due to strong currents and lack of dunkable spots. Liking to create little dams in creeks as a kid, one summer day I found myself spontaneously scooping out Park Creek gravel and moving rocks in the creek area off bathhouse stairway, hoping to create some water depth. I sensed there'd been a plunge there in times past.
Before I knew it I'd de-facto volunteered to build and maintain what eventually became a full-on cold plunge dam. It was a project I'd happily dedicate myself to for the next 14 years. (I got much-appreciated seasonal help in later years with clothing-optional summer work parties, participants trading labors for saunas, plus once-a-year hired Mexican-American crew led by foreman Jesus). Glad for the unpaid help, Mary early on began offering me unlimited free saunas and occasional free baths to even the ledger.
A sporadic service freak, it appeared I'd only been chomping at the bit for another worthy cause to plug into. Helping Mary get mineral waters to health-minded people in a beautiful wild setting -- in the process turning onto spa culture and having a chance to socialize away from my hermitage and work through sundry hangups -- qualified hands down.
I once met a visitor mistaking the place for a state park. With its routed yellow lettering on brown wooden signs, it was an easy assumption to make at first glance.
Another visitor's first impression was that of it being some sort of old Boy Scouts campground retreat.
It just had that kind of vibe.
"I'd be glad to fill in until you can find someone," I told Mary after she shared her plight in the lobby, thinking to work maybe just a day or two until she could hire sometime for pay.
I wasn't, er, what you'd call an active member of the work force then.
She seemed to think a split second, then nodded and said, "You're on!"
Little did I know I'd be that someone for the next 30 months, volunteering again about to change my life.
I'd make the place my second home, staying in unrented cabins and apartments the first half year, then moving into the shed above the Cottage for two more. Zero pay but free lodging and unlimited saunas, a bath now and then and employee discount at the owner-operated restaurant -- that was the deal. It suited me fine, as I owned my own little place, free and clear, and was financially covered elsewhere to support a modest lifestyle.
I'd been craving a dramatic change, having just turned 50, and had loads of free time.
The first month helping Mary out happened to be a historically momentous one: it was the last month of the twentieth century.
It would prove a crucial time for the Springs. It was going year-round and visitors were psyched in anticipation of the new millennium. "It's the end of the world as we know it", a hit song of the times was merrily proclaiming. Of course, technically there was one more year til the start of a new thousand-year time period, but everyone felt something extraordinary in the air then. It was like approaching the top of some impossibly grand roller coaster ride and the cars suddenly plunging, roaring down twisting tracks into exotic, new, un-imagined realms. Too, there were attendant Y2K fears of a 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 the place the very night of former seasonal closing, November 30th.
In total synchronicity, it was also my first night on duty.
Sometime during that night a mighty gust toppled the massive wooden entrance sign outside the front gates. The next morning I spent a frosty hour chipping at frozen earth with an anemic screwdriver and hammer while reminding myself to get work gloves and crowbar, feebly trying to gain enough depth to re-plant the posts securely. (The planting miraculously held until
future groundskeeper Mendara did a more thorough job in 2012.)
Then tragedy struck.
Mary's mom, Pat, dedicated to running the front desk for over a decade with long-suffering, gentle grace, alternating the post with her equally dedicated, if more rambunctious, older sister Cece, came down with a rare blood disease. It was destined to take her life inside a few short months. As soon as she was hospitalized, Mary, devastated on getting the terminal prognosis, closed down the Springs -- front gates and all -- to care for her and deal with the pending loss. It was a week before Christmas. Red lettering of the scrawled sign she'd posted in felt-tip on the front gates, announcing the sudden closure, teared in the rain.
Earlier, she'd solemnly handed me the office's big red bookings binder for safekeeping in front of cabin 15, where I was then staying. Before computer use, the heavy ringed binder was the sole record of visitor reservations going out an entire year. In that moment I felt an inkling of the gravitas of what it must mean to manage the place and being responsible for the entire operation and hundreds of visitors' travel and vacation plans.
She also handed me a heavy ringed set of keys to every place on grounds save the office. I was moved by her trust and determined not to let her down.
For an entire week I was only person in the closed resort. I kept busy puttering with groundskeeping, insulating the old sauna and laundry room ceilings and cued up future projects of my own choosing.
Leaving for town meant undoing the padlocked chain and swinging open the huge front gates and re-locking after. The gates always reminded me of the ones from the 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 since the 1980s.
I needed an antidote to shake free of the mournful vibes. An enthusiastic if guilt-ridden closet nudist at the time, one sunny cold morning as a cool-down from the sauna I'd fired up, I strolled the place barefoot-naked over the 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 a long time). It was an indescribably liberating feeling.
Before Mary left, I'd suggested we keep a trickle going in a few bathhouse tubs to prevent the water pipes from freezing during shutdown, as it got well below freezing at night.
But she nixed the idea: "No, that'd just waste water." I didn't want to argue about it or disobey her in her distressed state of mind, and so agreed not to.
Alas, the day after Christmas, when we re-opened with 26 special bath reservations, the pipes were frozen solid. Always a fair-weather resort before, there'd been no need to bury the water pipes below the frost line...or any county building code inspector nosing about and insisting on it.
Twenty-six crestfallen people were given refunds and deep apologies. Late ace grounds plumber Matt Reed and I worked long into a bitter cold night, digging down to the shallow mineral-water pipeline spanning beneath the parking lot. Pickax bounced off the frozen ground with anything less than full force, which shocked the skeleton and nerves.
Eventually we unearthed the line and defrosted it with a hairdryer. In the next year or two the place would get fully winterized, but not before several undrained water heaters in unoccupied, unheated cabins froze up and burst, drenching carpeting. And the uninsulated freshwater line for bathhouse's showers, bathroom and laundry spanning the walking bridge turned turned to ice a time or two, and the hairdryer again put to work.
As I was a very informal volunteer work-trader, not a paid employee, Mary never -- not once -- ever ordered me to do anything...except maybe shut up now and then. It was understood I'd handle the daily chores of splitting, stacking and toting firewood, empty trash; start and maintain the bathhouse lobby and sauna'wood stove fires; check water supply levels; and always be on hand to help guests, especially overnighters.
Once, there was a 3 a.m. knock on my shed door and before my dreamstate had faded I was suddenly working to help push free a snow-stuck vehicle in the parking lot in bathrobe and slippers, snow flying in the face from spinning tires doing its best to wake me up.
Mary lived on Lois Lane off Deitz Road, near I-5, some fifteen miles away. While always rushing over to the place without a thought whenever any problem arose, she really needed someone there right on the 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 out the plunge area, including installing a massive plank to span the creek to the little islet; painting all building trims a soothing rich green, covering over angry rusty red; planting new hand-lettered signs; pruning trees; replacing and painting the undersized, shot-up mailbox; clearing overgrown back trails on the grounds; trying to make a ridiculously overdue dump run with co-volunteer Michael W. (comically, the old rig, a refugee from the wrecking yard, gave up the ghost on pulling into the landfill and was towed back, trash intact (the local repairman hoping to stiff affluent but reputedly money-tight owner quoted an absurd estimate); entertaining myself and sometimes others on the piano that I'd loaned to the restaurant after yet another shady caretaker had sold the existing one and skipped out with the money; starting a much needed recycling effort; installing spray mister lines under the sundecks' roof eaves to refresh baking sunbathers on hot summer days...
Also...I persuaded Mary to make the bathhouse deck and its creekside area non-smoking (believe it or not, it wasn't); purchased new fiberglass handled axes -- the single old one was incredibly dull, dangerous-looking double-headed caution with splintered, duct-taped wooden handle; and found drinking-water-safe hose for filling the hallway water dispenser, as old petroleum-based one made water taste the same as yukky water slurped as a non-picky kid from filling station hose on hot days -- it could upset one's stomach even as one hoped to heal in the sauna. (I was stunned no one realized that; guess it took a chemical-sensitive.)
One of my proudest accomplishments was convincing Mary to at last adopt the same policy of many regional mineral springs resorts by making the bathhouse area clothing optional so fans could enjoy a more profound purifying, healing, rejuvenating experience. (See story.)
It's said heaven's in the details. There were so many things needing remedial attention from the place being long under-budgeted and neglected -- maintenance, replacement and upgrading alike -- that it was a veritable workaholic's dream. The same joy of service and empowering sense of accomplishment I felt volunteering at the co-op now infused the latest cause celebre.
Not that I was a workaholic per se. But I'd been on disability so long for a nervous condition, I was eager to give back and balance the ledgers with what abilities I did have.
Beyond sundry manual skills and landscaping interest, I appeared to have a gift for serving as catalyst to re-energize things that needed resurrecting, bring them back to life. Lord knows, the place was in desperate need of some serious re-energizing.
Thus helping along a place I resonated with so thoroughly was a delight. With Mary's vote of confidence and encouragement -- she being heartened by my total commitment after the position
had sunk to such a dispirited, sketchy level -- I followed my own far-flung, spontaneous urges to help liberate the place from its sometimes provincial, stagnant, wayward past so that it might greet the new millennium with a modicum 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 then, yuk-yuk", I could've just bought the place and 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. Nope. She returned next year in a group and introduced me in sad earnest to a friend as the former owner who'd lost the place in a poker game. (Obviously humor doesn't always translate well from one culture to another.)
* There's the thinking among some that one's name, if denoting some quality or occupation, can sometimes energize a person towards actually embodying it, like one with the 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 the fact that the last name, Ward, means watchman or guardian.
Others, not really understanding the devotion or high a fitful service freak got being locked into such a noble cause, joked among themselves how I seemed to be suffering from the 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 any better knowing the springs' profound service tradition or my intentions might've thought I was something akin to the place's own unhinged if harmless Emperor Norton, of storied San Francisco lore.
"Pretend like you own it"
As it turned out there was good reason for taking a proprietary stance. San Francisco-based 'absentee owner' John Foggy, having many business irons in the fire, was often just a once-a-year visitor, and then often only for an hour or two to do a fast scope of the current scene.
The impracticality of absentee stewardship in such a service-oriented operation made for hired management taking on far more responsibilities and decision making than normally. That is, if hoping to do a credible job and be responsive to the ongoing varied needs of the place.
He told Mary at the 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 the wisest calls on what needed doing. He didn't want to be pestered with phone calls about sundry matters that were always cropping up and requiring a decision; just the more pressing or complicated ones.
Being saddled with such heavy responsibility was at once both enormously burdensome and incredibly empowering.
As Mary's informal right-hand man, given free reign to make whatever changes deemed worthwhile, I became the place's volunteer, act-like-you-own-it, de-facto assistant manager. After she got sidelined by her mom's terminal prognosis, my responsibilities stepped up and I began punching above my weight, for better or worse exercising an outsize influence on operations.
Happily, I was spared the 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 the mandates of the absentee steward on a tight budget, forever threatening to hemorrhage, whether one approved of the them or not...the accumulative pressures of which could -- and often did -- get Stewart Springs' managers' headspaces astonishingly, hopelessly bent out of shape in record time.
Call me Mary's assistant manager lite, if you will. A volunteer creative director at large. Whimsical fine-tuning specialist. Earlier, when I saw her driving herself nuts trying to take on too much by herself and getting overwhelmed, paralyzed with indecision, I'd felt guided to tell her, "Mary, you've got to learn to delegate authority."
At the time I had no idea she'd soon be delegating so much of it 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, thus getting magnitudes more work out of me than past caretakers...and essentially for free, thus more easily keeping within the usually strangled budget.
Critters enjoyed the closed season
The operation lost crucial focus and momentum by closing each winter. A palpable stagnation set in, lingering long after the annual re-opening on March 1.
Take the start of the 1999 season. Some no-good had stolen the grounds' seasoned firewood stash during closure, leaving the bathhouse on the chilly side for months after re-opening. The place had to resort to buying wet, green wood -- all that could be had then in the depths of winter -- and trying to coax a fire to life with a pitifully small, air-leaking bellows.
Sauna-goers were frustrated trying to break a sweat inside an anemic slow-cooker that was hard pressed to get above 150 degrees F.
Wildlife made determined inroads into lodgings during the 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 leaving behind 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 chronic reputation for perhaps being a tad too rustic.
Mary, again, was grateful for all the free help and support she could get. She understood whenever I declined a request I wasn't keen on. I needed to be my own boss and work at my own pace, unclocked, to be a happy camper. It was a win-win-win situation: the 'owner' got a free groundskeeper (possibly thinking anyone willing to work so much for so little had to be crazy, but hey...), Mary stretched her 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 could be inspiring. We made allowances for her sometimes being a dictatorial taskmaster with a scary hair-trigger temper that often made for dramatic meltdowns.
She could flip out with such operatic intensity that more than one bystander catching a temper explosion was left wide-eyed, as if perhaps witnessing some improbable human atomic blast. We knew she was under enormous combined pressures from the 'owner', demanding guests, starvation budget, and an often-feuding staff, not to mention an estranged brother threatening her life over her having won legal custody of an abused nephew. She simply had to vent...a LOT.
Now it can be told
She'd sometimes find...er, creative ways to relieve tensions.
One summer evening, a retreat group deemed the music volume in the bathhouse too high. A member went into the office, where it was then controlled, and told Mary to please turn it down. Big mistake. A large group, they'd been quite demanding during their extended stay ("We need more room towels!" was a constant complaint). She was about to snap. She said okay, pretending compliance to the request, and the complainer left. Then, no doubt putting on her trademark, devilish Little Rascals' Darla grin, she locked the pass-through door and cranked up the 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, driving up to work one morning she saw that the then-Parks Creek Pottery Studio on Stewart Springs Road had set up roadside placard with a petition urging sign-ups to protest the Springs' then tenuous plan to install a mini-turbine in the creek to generate some of place's electricity needs, a creative brainstorm of Foggy's son. They perhaps felt it would interfere with free-flowing energy of creek on a subtle level, harm fish, something. Mary slammed her brakes, jumped out and threw it in back of her pickup and continued on to the grounds. Before heading into the office, she cavalierly tossed the offending item into the dumpster shed. She later feigned innocence when confronted by the deputy called up, even though the incident was witnessed and the placard promptly found.
While not condoning her sometimes lawless ways or ever comfortable with her pronounced, stark, in-your-face streak, I genuinely admired the way she had the place wired to a fare-thee-well according to her lights. And she was a total people person, openly welcoming guests in a hail-fellow-well-met spirit and attentive to their (reasonable) needs. And, as said, as a boss, at her best she could be a magnetic leader and super catalyst, charging the staff with an incredible espri de corps.
Those curious about such things maybe remember that Mary had a Scorpio sun. Scorpio is, among other things, about eliminating waste and the Phoenix rising from the ashes and bringing the dead back to life. While place wasn't dead exactly, it was a tad moribund, definitely a provincial backwaters, worlds away from the often-thriving, more on-the-ball, can-do concern it later become.
Perhaps few were aware that her Scorpio Sun was combust Scorpio Venus, which can lend a magnetic, fiery aura; plus three degrees from Jupiter, lending an air of sensationalism and idealism into the mix. Such a tight early Scorpio cluster made her, in her positive flow (vs. her negative spin outs), a veritable powerhouse of transformational energy.
She gave the Springs the massive jump-start it needed to break free from age-old, stagnant inertia and expand operations. She was preparing it to accommodate the soon swelling sea of awakening humanity turning on to and seeking rural natural healing spa retreats. With the place so nicely tucked in nature yet minutes off West Coast's main north-south freeway, there were legions of mineral spring enthusiasts and nature lovers just waiting to experience the rarefied, if peculiar, realm.
Scorpio is said to rule mineral springs in general, as such places involve elimination of waste and toxins. When a place is a pleasure resort as well, as Stewart's could be, then Libra's pleasure-loving Venus comes into play too. Mary had her 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 his wife Julia spilled over with fiery Aries -- such blazing energy no doubt needed to first get all that cold mineral water heated.
Another fascinating thing about Mary's chart was her moon phase. A person born during the brief window just before a new moon, as she was, is known as the Balsamic moon type. (In Wicca, the period's known as the dark or banishing moon.) Its energies are conducive to banishing, or destroying, what no longer serves.
According to famed astrologer Dane Rudhyar, the 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 perhaps unconscious of it, somehow felt pulled to dedicate herself to the Springs for the sake of future humanity.
The Springs staff -- though paid minimum wage or a shekel above, plus any tips for the bath attendant and housekeeper -- was made to feel like an elite team. We were not unlike a wired summer camp crew rallied on by a quirky, high-voltage head counselor.
Many workers felt privileged to have the opportunity to serve at such a historic establishment, helping visitors trekking the world over at the beginning of new millennium to relax, regenerate, and heal -- ourselves as well in the process. Mary had become a staunch believer in the place years before taking helm after it helped her mend from a rough patch. Others, myself included, pulled lives together while working there. It's healing energy can be that strong.
"Can you start now?"
I'd always thought that in that split second before bringing me on board 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, how she told massage therapist Richard that she'd always hire the first person who applied -- or, apparently, 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, cash-strapped 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 the most motivated, and/or with frequent immediate needs she didn't want to waste time interviewing and felt she could learn to work with whoever the universe first sent her way.
"Short tub or long?"
During my last half year there, in addition to groundskeeping duties I also went on payroll as bathhouse attendant for two days a week. I was the first male one in ages. (Only two in the dozen years since, Dustin, a yoga teacher; and Seth, who painted the bathhouse's beautiful, now-gone cloudy sky ceiling.) Bath attendants were traditionally women, and perhaps rightly so, but it felt good to break the gender barrier and make what I felt were some long overdue bathhouse changes. I also became the first non-family bathhouse staff member in ages.
"I'd like to see you try to run the bathhouse," Mary had challenged me earlier, planting the seed. This said in response to my well-meant but poorly received suggestions on how to improve the place a bit. They were taken personally as judgmental fault-finding by bespectacled Linda (Mary's aunt by marriage), who, as mentioned, had had a lock on bathhouse operation for ages.
Incidentally, people who remember her might not realize she wasn't born with that pronounced limp. She got it falling down the former rickety, at times slippery, stairway to cabins 16-17 while scrambling about doing double-duty as housekeeper, as the budget then didn't allow for a dedicated position off-season. Hers wasn't only serious mishap. Many left service with work-related injuries. I myself got a hernia requiring surgery from over-ambitious cold plunge boulder moving over the years (in my case, though, it was my own dumb fault).
Soon to become routine: tub scrubbing and hosing; washing, drying, and folding mountains of laundry; plus, depending on season, keeping one or both wood stoves stoked, and frequently refilling of water dispensary as thirsty sauna goers kept draining it.
It was meeting a varied stream of new arrivals and helping them enjoy their time there that made the job so exciting and rewarding. It gave me the chance to mingle with humanity in a positive way. The fact that most people were happy to be there made it enjoyable.
Again, I was more or less given discretion to run the place the way I thought best served everyone's needs. In those days the bath attendant had more independence running the place, given co-authority with front desk rather than being under it. It was a carryover from the tight family operation, in which neither ever wanted to dictate to another -- 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 such regimented Believer airs had evolved long ago in defensive reaction to conventional pill-and-procedure society slamming mineral water cures as pure quackery, trying to shut them down for fleecing the gullible by daring to make medical claims of mineral waters' healing benefits.
And maybe the Stewarts -- parents and later, daughter -- were simply old school, reflecting more conservative times.
By now lots of people realized mineral waters had actual, natural therapeutic value. The place needed to change its tune and get up to speed, lose its perhaps over-provincial, staid vibe, if greater numbers were ever to benefit from its healing waters. And have a clear space to attune to the believed energy vortex of land that seemed to dramatically amplify any given vibration brought into the realm (positive OR negative).
Psyched to have a free hand to make a few bathhouse changes at my own discretion, I had a field day. I put up new artwork, prints, plus gallery reprints of old mineral spring resorts around the nation from my private postcard collection, in the halls and tub rooms. In room 14 (home of a grand clawfoot tub favored by many), I placed a framed news photo of a triumphant Julia Butterfly, taken 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 the used sheet?" and "How cold's the creek?" A business major in junior college (before switching to Psych, then dropping out of UC Berkeley the second week), I'd apparently kept a dormant interest in business operations that now resurfaced.
People thought the place could get busy in later years -- and indeed it still did now and then. But during peak season early in the new century, the place often roared full-tilt with the great unwashed masses day in and day out, all day long.
There was the Oklahoma Land Rush...and there was the Stewart Springs Bath Rush.
It was a perfect storm: the extraordinary confluence of flush times, millennium fever, more people traveling pre 9/11 with the cheapest gas in ages; droves discovering joys of Mt. Shasta area and mineral springs; flirting with radical body freedom as if in bold, what-the-heck celebration of the new millennium; the place experiencing its honeymoon of new, year-round operation; extended hours; finally re-opened restaurant; and Mary pulling in new retreat/workshop group bookings like crazy -- one alone for 90 people for two weeks -- all while almost always keeping the bathhouse open to walk-in public as well.
During peak season and on any given extended holiday weekend, operations often hummed along in overdrive from open to close...sometimes even before and after hours when, by special arrangement, busloads and vans full of touring international visitors -- Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Spanish, French -- descended on the place to soak as a group, by rotation if the party had more than 13, the number of tubs available.
Example of how frenzied things could get: Bath attendant Morning Star Killbear was swamped by the press of humanity jonesin' for tubs during a super-packed Memorial Day weekend. The waiting list for tubs stretched out forever. She was working triple-time cleaning tubs, trying to keep up, and in her rush slipped and fell on the wet hallway floor, fracturing her leg.
While lying there and people busy about her creating a makeshift splint, one determined woman swept up in the soaking-fever frenzy pointedly ignored the calamity and stepped over Morning Star to scope the readiness of tub room #12 that she'd just been working on, intent on maybe claiming it. Realizing the show must go on, I jumped in and grabbed the hose and proceeded to scrub my first tub ever. Morning Star held the hose in place from the floor while splinting efforts progressed, a mischievous little smile on her face, trouper even when down.
Office manager Cece, 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 a relief worker would cover. Then there was barely time to pee, let alone scarf any fast snack -- forget an even half-way leisurely lunch -- without losing critical momentum and having serious operational log jams build up, upsetting visitors and soon driving overwhelmed attendant nuts. That was turning a tub every six minutes all day long, in addition to every other duty.
Fresh laundry from both bathhouse and lodgings pulled out of dryers created periodic textile mountains piled on the work tables, awaiting folding and sorting, in addition to overflowing hampers of wet dirty laundry waiting to get into the industrial-sized washer. A worker was expected to wash and fold it all, off the clock if need be, before going home, or come in early the next day if on shift again and fold for free. Ill will between workers thus often cropped up, if, rebelling from being made to work off-clock, unfinished laundry was left for the new shift to deal with.
This could leave one feeling impossibly backed-up right out the gate: "She left a mountain of dirty laundry for me!" was a not infrequent whine to the manager. One often wondered why management could seem so weirdly dysfunctional and contentious in those days; illegally exploiting minimum-wage-plus-a-quarter help was a good part of the reason.
During open hours rapid folding of fresh sheets and towels was done every spare moment, other workers often pitching in at the long work table. This, 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 the sauna (the old, smaller one, two-thirds the size of the later one); every tub was taken and there was a mile-long waiting list; 15 people might be lounging on deck, another 15 lolling in and around creek, yet others finding alternate dipping and sunning spots upstream and down; a half-dozen newcomers crowding the office, then half the size; more lined up out door as if excitedly waiting to catch the premiere of a new blockbuster movie...
We wuz mobbed!
Inspired to keep up to speed with Mary's frantic 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 a blur of balls aloft: not letting the drinking water stand go dry or run out of clean towels and sheets, cleaning tubs second they drained for the 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 ways, mobilizing forces I'd forgotten I had. I re-joined humanity. People who knew me were astonished by the change...
...and I owed it all to Mary for giving me a break, a chance to prove my worth and work on building on the efforts of others, in the process allowing me the honor of helping the place along during a noteworthy turning point in the realm's evolution.
A more conventional-minded person might've said of my offer, "Er, thanks, but I don't think so" -- if not laugh outright with a dismissive "You're kidding, right?", the dispiriting response I once actually got at a used bookshop in town. As anyone who knew her would agree, Mary herself was not conventional by any means. It appeared she valued fellow non-conventionals: misfits, freaks and rebels united. The first non-family office manager she'd hire on replacing her aunt Cece on forced retirement was a spry young woman, Natalie. She sported a prominent gold nose ring.
Mary's trust in allowing me to do things according to my scattered creative impulses kept me busy as I wanted to be. Having become a dedicated sauna buff, I bought a sauna thermometer (naturally, the place didn't have one) and worked to keep the room a toasty 180+ degrees F. This to the delight of fellow sauna enthusiasts -- and dismay of those complaining it was TOO hot.
Incidentally, the latter were invariably the same ones who passed on the cold plunge as too cold and often wouldn't take a cold or even tepid shower to cool down. Obviously such visitors, while perhaps loving idea of nice hot bath, resisted outright, or remained ignorant of, the hot-cold therapy regimen behind taking saunas...despite it being an essential part of the time-honored, core reason for coming to such places. It was perhaps an obvious sign of how the Springs, as we'd become more and more a 'hot tub culture', had faded away from its original radical-purifying/healing focus under its succession of sometimes woefully misguided legal stewards. see History.
With enthusiastic approval of most, I'd eucalyptus-spray the sauna air. So much so, I eventually bought it by the quart. The aromatic essential oil had long been traditional in saunas, clearing the respiratory while delighting the olfactory. I'd twirl a small towel overhead to disperse the rich scent while spraying, soon learning that's how it's done in Germany's famed Baden-Baden. (A witty friend, Stella, dubbed me the Stu-calypticopter.)
Exit stage left
Departure from my posts was in stark contrast to the 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 my temper and speak rashly.
One young bathhouse attendant unfortunately had a name rhyming with that of my long-ago first love, 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 the place beyond it providing a measly paycheck. She goldbricked whenever she could, closing the 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 ignored them for 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 the place's sometimes uber-contentious work environment. Once, an innocent bathhouse attendant was tacitly accused of stealing a gift shop item by the front office person, normally jovial but with an apparent catty streak. The attendant wreaked revenge by refusing to respond to walkie-talkie, the system then used to announce new arrivals from the office, predictably creating operational chaos and soon fairly unhinging the office person, leading to her eventual firing.)
Mary at one of mandatory staff meetings in bathhouse lobby said she'd had it with staff bickerings and having to constantly play mother hen to smooth out erupting squabbles. She was losing critical focus and momentum for more 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."
I seem to remember her looking pointedly at me as she said this.
Thinking to try to make a peace offering, I volunteered to take over the woman's time slot running the bathhouse after she asked, through another, if I would (bad sign). When a moment came to at least be civil enough to thank me, no thanks were forthcoming. I lost it then, right in front of an old regular. She countered back with a shrill "What's your problem?", and word got back.
Even then, Mary showed a diplomatic side possibly few knew about. I admired it even as I was about to get the ax, earnest service run meeting an ignoble end. She always tried to make firings as easy and considerate as possible to minimize the chance of problems down the road. Mary approached me out on the grounds where I was snapping off dead tree twigs 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 with busy season just starting. I don't know what to do."
Pregnant silence. Her thoughtful approach of course gave me the chance to be noble. Realizing it was my Waterloo moment, I sighed and said, "That's okay, Mary, I 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 the woman on her bluff to quit and let her go too; small comfort.)
Tears welled. 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 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.
Over time they became semi-feral and were only occasionally fed for years til I befriended them. While her offspring quickly took to hanging inside at night in the shed they'd claimed before I moved in, the mamma, 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 the animal kingdom focus, and,that night, like magic, mamma cat hopped through the open window and onto the bed to join me and offspring every night from then on.
That was in May, 2002. After living and working at Springs for what felt like ages, it was maybe time to move on. Give new people a chance to plug in and experience their own potentially rich reward serving there. A few years later I'd again work the bathhouse another one-year stretch under the 'owner's' managing daughters, Crystal and Astra, who took over after Mary's sudden tragic departure from this world.
I like to think I did Mary proud in helping the springs make quantum leap into the twenty-first century. I know I felt blessed for having such a golden opportunity to serve the realm.
Wired family management
I once talked to yet another aunt, Mary, whom I didn't even know existed. Not until Aunt Cece in office one day handed me the phone receiver.
A big group was staying in A-frame and had an electrical circuit trip. No one could find the breaker box to reset it despite an exhaustive search. So Cece called up Aunt Mary. It turned out she used to work there, too. For all I knew,though she maybe hadn't set foot on the grounds in years, she proceeded to tell me with quiet authority, "Check under the kitchen sink counter cabinet to the left. The one you want in the breaker box is the double switch on the left row, three up from the bottom."
Mary was part of a long dedicated family managership of Stewart Springs -- sisters, cousins, nephew, sons, in-laws. Legend has it they'd approached owner Foggy in the early 1980s after the place had closed due to lack of business and the inability to find any good management fit.
They talked him into reopening it under their auspices, promising to do their level best to make the place pay...and willing to work cheap. Who could refuse such an offer? He must've thought, Wow, the locals love the place so much, they'll work there for peanuts! This place might prove a goldmine after all if I just let them do their thing.
The family's dedication to the place, as if grokking spirit of the founder and wanting to provide the same down-home, low-key, retreat experience --whereby one could purify, heal and rejuvenate in the arms of nature while tuning into realm's mystical properties -- was something of a miracle.
I'd realize much later that whatever I 'd managed to contribute to the place was made possible only for standing on the shoulders of all their endless hard work, determination, and tireless devotion.
An example of how far the family's dedication went: They ran a van shuttle service to and from Redding Airport, some 70 miles south, for guests who flew in. Some regulars from Chicago and New York vacationed there every year; the place was treasured as a fabulous, little-known, low-key destination resort.
A book could be written on their years running the Springs.
Speaking of books: as Debbie in the first story mentioned, Mary and her mom, Pat, and aunt Cece kept a secret journal. In it was recorded the sometimes seemingly silly questions callers asked over the phone and, to amuse themselves, the 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 get pretty darn high sometimes."
Incidentally, it was her aunt Mary that Mary was named for.
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