“Please do let me know,” says my second masseuse in two days, “if the pressure is too much.” I snort-laugh into the face cradle. The pressure? It’s been too much for a while now. Deadlines. Red-eye flights. Fraying infrastructure (damn termites!). More deadlines to afford bug-related repairs. Pressure, pressure, pressure. But not this weekend. Yesterday I arose before dawn and got behind the wheel. My goal: to return to the place of my birth—Northern California—where the smell of fallen oak leaves and tarweed soothes like only a childhood sense memory can. Oh, and while I’m at it, I’ve set another goal: Over the next three days I will stop every 24 hours, at least, to be pummeled by a professional.
I’m sure my type A approach to relaxation sheds light on why I’m so stressed in the first place. But I’ve gotta start somewhere. For me that means getting over the Grapevine, through the nation’s breadbasket, across the Golden Gate, and into Napa. Wineries? They’re beside the point on this trip. I won’t stop until I’m submerged, chin to toes, in hot mud.
The little town of Calistoga, famous for its mineral waters and volcanic ash treatments, is home to Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort, which looks like it’s hardly changed since opening in 1952. I stagger in past the neon sign and order “The Works”—a ten-minute dip in the smelly, peaty muck (they spray a citrus mist to mask the stench), a long soak in a private tub, a visit to the steam room, and a 60-minute massage. I emerge rubbery and spaced-out, but flopping back into the driver’s seat, I’m more able to appreciate all that I’d ignored on the way: the drought-parched blond hills speckled with dark green oak, the rows of grizzled vines, the narrow snaking roads. I go south a few miles to St. Helena and check groggily into the Wydown Hotel, an old clapboard with a sleek, modern interior. After taking advantage of the free wine (for hotel guests) at the Materra tasting room next door, I seek out dinner.
St. Helena’s motto is “Napa Valley’s main street” and it’s more quaintly picture-perfect than rustic Calistoga. A stroll down St. Helena Highway (there are sidewalks) offers boutiques, galleries, and some insanely good food, including the black cod at Terra, served in shiso broth and marinated in sake. I sleep like I’m dead. The next morning, after a black truffle-fontina omelette at French Blue across the road, it’s time to go. Can’t be late for massage number two!
Forty minutes west in the Sonoma Valley hamlet of Glen Ellen, the Gaige House awaits. The inn is elegant and intimate, with bathtubs each as big as a pond. I don a sumptuous robe and head for the spa. I’m going for 80 minutes this time. If I’m lucky, my right shoulder (frozen from too much mouse use) may begin to thaw.
As I half doze, the silence of the room seems almost loud. I’m aware of my heartbeat. But my brain still hums. Did the dinner reservation for Glen Ellen Star that I’ve made on OpenTable go through? Have I gotten any e-mails? Though my body is looser, my mind remains taut—at least until I taste the brussels sprouts with brown sugar-bacon marmalade later that night. Astounding.
The next morning I awake ravenous. Breakfast at the Gaige House (it’s included) is in a lovely, windowed space whose light makes everyone look friendly. I realize I’ve left my phone in my room, and for the first time in months, such an absence doesn’t fill me with panic. Baby steps.
Today I travel 45 minutes west to Freestone, on the other side of Sonoma County. I’m due at the Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary, where a cedar enzyme bath (think hot mud only with tree bark, sort of) precedes massage number three. It smells better than in Calistoga but is a bit scratchy, like being buried in steaming corn husks. The pressure? It’s perfect. Facedown on the table, I finally feel a slowing in my synapses. The only deadline that matters is the 6 p.m. closing time of Wild Flour Bread across the way. If I get there by then, I can nab a cheese fougasse to fuel my drive home. If not, I’ll make do.