We all know it...That boring drive on the 5 Freeway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
I’ve had anxiety attacks on some of its emptier stretches, but along one span of northern Fresno County, I've learned how to make friends with the abyss.
Thirteen miles west of an exit just south of Los Banos, there’s an explosion of greenery in the otherwise barren Panoche Valley. This oasis-like place is home to Mercey Hot Springs, where a tiny dollhouse of an office is surrounded by a pool, some old cabins, a bathhouse with eclectic tilework, and a couple of rustic outdoor soaking pools.
The owner of this oasis, Larry Ronneberg, scans across tan hills that look like they’re draped in velour.
"This is an area that was pretty much forgotten," he says.
During the New Deal, there was a effort called the Rural Electrification program, and since no one was living here, there were no power lines. You can still imagine what it'd be like to come out here 100 years ago, as nothing much has changed. Just a fence here and there.
This remote outpost was first purchased in the 1840s by John Nicholas Mercey, a rancher who let locals soak in his horse troughs to cure their wounds. These days, more than just the locals visit, but Mercey Hot Springs isn’t for everyone and Ronneberg likes it that way. There’s no cell reception and a limited Internet connection.
You're nowhere near a restaurant, market, or even a communal kitchen. You have to bring in your own food and a way to cook it.
"This one here contains the equipment for converting power from batteries to AC that we use for the whole facility," says Ronneberg as he opens the door to a shed. "100 percent off-grid, there is no grid connection for five miles."
From Silicon Valley to Off-The-Grid
Ronneberg is a former Silicon Valley IT manager who looks more like a rancher than the steward of clothing-optional hot springs. He’s been slowly developing this increasingly solar-powered compound for nearly 20 years. Summed up in a word, he says his guiding vision is “harmony.”
One sign of his success is the presence of an elusive bird. The long eared owl is normally unwilling to be seen by humans, but I’ve watched it swoop right over my tub at dusk. At night it roosts in a tall feathery tree by the office.
"One very well known birdwatcher, Peter Latourrette, he had logged over 500 different species of birds, and he came here, he got a long-eared owl which he had never seen before," said Ronneberg.
Long eared owls aren’t the only rare bird you'll find migrating through. In the few years I’ve been visiting, I never fail to meet some nomadic anti-materialist living out of a customized vehicle. Like Pia Sandstrom, a midwife I’ve found in the RV area, perched on the back of an ‘88 Honda hatchback.
She’s been living out of it since the early '90s. I asked her why she doesn't live in a house or apartment.
"Because it doesn’t have wheels," she said. "So let's say I work 12 hour days, and then I have one day off. What do I want to do? Do I want to go home and clean my house, or do I want to go to the ocean and read a book?"
Wild Hot Spring Encounters
It's the middle of the week and when I arrive, I'm the only tent camper here. I'm hoping no one shows up on either side of me, but by the end of the day, I’m flanked by two sets of biker buddies.
When one of them sets up an array of booze on the picnic table and keeps asking if I’m really staying here alone, I get unnerved. My romanticization of self reliance, low budget freedom and all that relaxation I’d accumulated soaking in the tubs evaporates.
I fall asleep next to a walkie-talkie the owner’s lent me in case anything goes wrong. When I wake up the next morning, relieved I haven't had to use it, I take a walk. Nearing the edge of the property, I’m stopped in my tracks.
A large zoo-sized cat — one that looks big enough to eat me — goes loping by. Is it a bobcat? A mountain lion? With no internet signal, I can’t Google it to gauge how afraid I should be when it pauses at the edge of the road, senses my presence with a twitch of its tail, and whips its head around to stare at me.
The cat decides to move on, I’m spared. But when I return to my tent, I learn that a whole other order of terrifying wilderness once reigned over these campsites.
"In these campsites where all the stuff collects in the bases of these trees, it was just a black widow haven," says one of the bikers, Gene Steele. "You could take a little ultraviolet light at night and see them by the dozens and dozens and dozens."
It turns out some of my biker neighbors are just IBM guys. Longtime regulars Graham Butler and Gene Steele say they were too scared to visit Mercey Hot Springs before Ronneberg took it over.
"First time I came here 30 years ago, there was a couple of old ladies running the place trying to sell mud baths," said Steele. "I saw enough to know to keep going down the road."
Something In The Water
From the remnants of an old grinding stone left behind by a native Yokut tribe, it seems community has been forming around this water for thousands of years. Before the interstate 5 was built, someone put in a landing strip.
As Ronneberg explains, people used to fly in to guzzle the water by the gallon, and not because they were thirsty.
"Back in the early days of Mercey, with John Nicholas Mercey, he came to the belief that the water was causing his sheep to abort," said Larry. "There is a belief that the water would also cause women to abort. So they put in the airstrip and let’s just say it’s a theory that people would fly in to get themselves out of reproductive hot water."
Well, whatever it is, there does seem to be something in the water here. Between the owls, bikers, nomads and that feral feline, I feel like I’ve caught a glimpse of an interspecies utopia.
"Build it and they will come, it’s kind of like the baseball movie," said Larry, referring to the film "Field of Dreams. "This is the hot springs of dreams," said Larry.
Sliding off the face of civilization west of the 5 turns out to be nothing to have an anxiety attack over. And as my new vehicle-dwelling mentor, Pia Sandstrom, assesses my hatchback’s potential, she assures me, the trick to feeling at home anywhere is just letting go.