By Wilson Walker


MIDDLETOWN, Lake County (KPIX 5) — For the generations of people who fell in love with Harbin Hot Springs, the 2015 Valley Fire’s destruction of the famed clothing-optional resort was heartbreaking. Now, the public can finally return to see what was lost, and what has been reborn.

“Harbin used to put on workshops about personal change and development,” said Eric Richardson, one of Harbin’s managing directors. “This is the biggest workshop we’ve ever done.”

All over the property workers were busy making last-minute preparations Friday for the retreat’s reopening. Guests will not be able to stay overnight for at least several more months, but they will be able to use the pools during the day, as well as limited food, massage and yoga activities.

To say it’s been an uphill climb just to this point would hardly do the effort justice. “We’ve been climbing a mountain and we just got to the first ledge,” Richardson said of the effort. “There’s a long way to climb beyond this, but we can rest here for a little bit.”

In every direction there is evidence of the love that went into this job: the artisan-crafted handrails, the detailed woodwork, the thoughts embedded in the concrete, and the trees that were salvaged from the fire itself. “Planed it down, and you can see how it makes a landscaping effect with the diffused lighting,” explained Harbin director Will Erme, pointing to the salvaged wood that now adorns the retreat’s expanded sauna.

Three-and-a-half years it has taken to get here, an effort that spanned at least two more fire in this very area. The men and women who are rebuilding Harbin know they are not alone in this struggle.  “We’ve been through this, and we know how hard it is to get started,” Erme said. “Again, it took us three years just to get to this point.”

So for Harbin lovers who come back, they will still see evidence of the fire all around them. “Hundreds of thousands of trees were lost in this canyon, maybe a million,” Richardson said, pointing to the scorched hillsides. But some of the trees that burned are still alive. And Harbin, like the land itself, is a collision of what was lost and what has come afterwards.

Every guest who returns here will have to sort through those emotions, just like those who who have had to rebuild a retreat that also serves as their home. “I’m sure there’s going to be, since we experienced the same thing, a sense of loss,” Erme says. “But it’s going to be tempered with being able to slide back into the warm waters again, and experience that sense of peace.”

Harbin reopens this weekend, but for day use only. Visitors will also want to make a reservation, as the current facilities can only handle so many people. But after three-and-a-half years, visitors can finally come back and get in the water.

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