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  • Jackson WellSprings: Behind the walls

    The view from Highway 99 belies the scene inside
  • Gerry Lehrburger is an emergency medicine physician, botanist and herbalist who is a member of Oregon's Advisory Committee on Medical Marijuana and also owns the legendary Jackson WellSprings outside of Ashland.
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    • If you go
      Jackson Wellsprings, 2253 Highway 99 N., Ashland, OR 97520, 541-482-3776
      • Wellness Faire: Local natural health practitioners, psychic readers and a dozen other health-related vendors off...
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      If you go
      Jackson Wellsprings, 2253 Highway 99 N., Ashland, OR 97520, 541-482-3776

      • Wellness Faire: Local natural health practitioners, psychic readers and a dozen other health-related vendors offer information and sample treatments from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, April 14, and on the second Saturday of each month in the Community Room

      • One Love Festival: Cornflower, David Kae and other musicians perform May 25-28

      • The Festival of the Sun: Celtic music, performances and workshops, June 29 through July 1

      • Peace Village Festival: Aug. 17-19

      • Honey Harvest Festival: Aug. 24-26

      • Samhain celebration of death ceremony: Oct. 29 through Nov. 1
  • The busy season hasn't started yet at the Jackson WellSprings.
    On this recent Saturday afternoon, condemned cabins, battered trailers and Ken Kesey-style camper buses greet visitors who turn past the faded sign on Highway 99 onto the pitted gravel drive.
    On the front lawn, leafless black locust and poplars trees are not ready to shade the teepee and tent dwellers, dancers and drummers who will arrive for warm-weather powwows and peace parties.
    Next to the deserted circus-tented Casbah area, the original 1920s stone-clad building stands solemn like a fortress, hiding the closed Café Namaste, the empty massage rooms and the three people standing around the deck adjacent to the all-important artesian mineral pools.
    "Come back later," says owner Gerry Lehrburger at the beginning, middle and end of an hourlong tour of the 35-acre property north of Ashland. "This place will look a lot different later."
    He may be referring to the weeks ahead when the winter campers with black pirate flags and blocked truck windows leave to make way for the summer tourists. "The tribe," as Lehrburger calls them, are singles, couples and families who return to the hot springs each year just as Native Americans did for centuries.
    Or when he says come back later, he could be talking about the sun festivals, mystic garden parties and other public celebrations that have attracted thousands of day-trippers and overnighters to the property.
    Or he could mean when the medicinal herb garden is in full bloom.
    Lehrburger, 59, an emergency medicine physician, botanist and herbalist who is a member of Oregon's Advisory Committee on Medical Marijuana, points to the Kabalistic Tree of Life diagram posted at the entrance of the garden.
    He explains that the hortus medicus is laid out based on ancient principles of "as above, so below." From these plants, he says, tinctures and fluid extracts, tonics and syrups, lotions and soaps can be made to help the head, heart and nervous system.
    The garden, as well as eight acres of the nearby Sacred Garden Meadow, is managed by the tax-exempt Health Research Institute educational trust that was originally incorporated as the Lehrburger Charitable Trust. The trust sponsors educational, environmental restoration and botanical projects.
    "We do it in an educational and research format. It's safer that way," says Lehrburger, who is a partner with Ashland Emergency Associates, a team of doctors who have a contract with Ashland Community Hospital. Medical colleagues there refer to Lehrburger, who believes in conventional and alternative health care, as "the six-figure hippie."
    "Established medicine is wary of all of this," he says, overlooking the garden. "But that is changing, slowly."
    Lehrburger, who has been a physician in Ashland for 33 years and uses the email name "Doc Out of the Box," had a medical clinic with an apothecary and massage institute in the Jackson House in Ashland in the 1990s.
    But it was closed by the American Medical Association, he says, for using forms of healing "that were not accepted even though they were time tested."
    He and two partners bought the Jackson Hot Springs in 1995 for its hydrotherapy potential and renamed it Jackson WellSprings.
    Water rights to the hot springs, revered as a birthing sanctuary by Pacific Northwest tribes, were purchased in the 1860s by the Jackson family to be used for "natatorium and sanitarium purposes." It was one of about six mineral spas near Ashland at the turn of the last century and the only one to still be operating.
    "People would come here by train for a week of rejuvenation," says Lehrburger. "That's what put Ashland on the map back then. What took it off the map was modern medicine and lumber mills that put so much ash in the air that it was appropriate that the city was called 'Ashland.'"
    When Lehrburger and his then partners bought the property for $930,000, it was a "trash heap," he says. "It was disrespected." He says his crew brought out "hundred of yards" of debris and began to "restore the sanctity of the area."
    The message went out immediately that the new owners of the WellSprings would not tolerate drugs. In the past, Lehrburger says, park residents have made meth and sold drugs, but there have been no drug offenses in the last few years, according to Jackson County sheriff's records.
    "We work closely with sheriff and police to minimize the use of drugs and to monitor it," says Lehrburger, who added that he believes marijuana is a pain control medicine. "There is medication and there are drugs. We are not meant to use medicine habitually."
    Since Lehrburger took over, land and waterways have been cleared of noxious weeds and mud pools have been converted into cement-lined baths. Grassy areas, especially in the back near the outdoor kitchen, are now places for retreats and workshops.
    The property borders a railroad constructed during the 1870s' gold rush. The original reinforced wall built by Chinese workers is now called the Buddha Skywall, under which solstice, equinox and cross-quarter days festivities are held.
    Lehrburger says the improvements have happened slowly, because he has chosen to pay for them as he goes. "To me, there is no rush. I'm here for my great-grandchild, for my children's children's children and the ancestors," he says. "If you see yourself in that, what's the rush?"
    The swimming pool, which holds 80,000 gallons of mineral water, was also renovated. A fence around it is decorated with a painting of an Inuit double thunderbird and a sculpture of the Hindu protector Ganesha.
    "We mix the old and new," says Lehrburger as he walks underneath a doorway crowned with Buddha eyes in the steam and sauna area. A lotus motif is embedded in wall tile and drawings of bamboo climb the wall. Tucked into tight spaces are private Jacuzzi tubs, which replaced the original claw-foot tubs.
    "This will all look different when we put up the hanging flower baskets," he says, reluctantly but dutifully continuing the tour that began in the office, where a few spa visitors with six-pack-size ice coolers pushed through the screen door and paid $8 for themselves, $3 for their children to spend the day soaking, swimming and splashing.
    "This is a very busy place," Lehrburger says. "At night, it is at full capacity," when only adults are allowed and clothing is optional. On Mondays, when the pool is drained and clean water is pumped in, he says 100 women drop in for a six-hour women-only time.
    Throughout the year, he calculates there are 50,000 day visitors to the property, drawn in by the water, music, belly dancing and fire dancing.
    The calendar posted at www.jacksonwellsprings.com/events uses teeny type to fit in all the private and public activities.
    To one side of the original building is the community center, where on the second Saturday of the month, vendors at the Wellness Faire sell herbal tonics, flower essences and altar objects. Tie-dye fabrics cover tables and makeshift massage tables are lined up and ready for customers with cash. The fair, state organizers, is a credit card-free zone.
    In upcoming weeks, the community center — which once was the caretaker's living area — will be used to teach tantric massage to couples, meditation to those attending the Sacred Feminine Retreat and as overflow for the Peace Village Festival.
    "Gerry is very generous with his land," says the red-haired woman who serves as a "Melissa" — a guardian — of the Goddess Temple, which invites visitors inside daily (women only on Monday; men only on Tuesdays). On May 5, temple protectors in galactic pixie gear will witness the marriage of the Green Man to the Lady of the Land.
    The Goddess Temple is housed in a geodesic dome near a bee education center, the College of Melissae, in the Sacred Garden Meadow. It is accessed by walking past the Casbah, where a few backpackers have arrived to hang out around the fire pit, through a locked wooden gate and far from the highway.
    Passersby on Highway 99 see the abandoned structures along the road and can only imagine the work that has been done to restore the property and the work still needed.
    But Lehrburger, his salt-and-pepper hair pulled into a little ponytail, says that if he did nothing else but continued at the same pace, "and the rest of the world crumbled around us, we would look very good."
    He continues: "Medicine is crumbling. A lot of the infrastructure is crumbling. But if you base your business model on water and seeds and food and bees and goddesses, those things aren't going away."
    Yes, a lot populates the WellSprings. Only not a lot of people. Not yet. Come back later.
    Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com. Reach news assistant and staff librarian Nicholas Morgan at nmorgan@mailtribune.com
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