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Journey to the Garden of Youth

This was the sort of sign that had once, negatively perhaps, defined me. My Stanford friends had been willing to open such doors--the doors decorated with question marks, the doors with colored lights and dancing shadows on the threshold--whereas I sought the safe and familiar. But now, at fifty, my curiosity had caught up with theirs. I took my shoes off on the porch, placed them on the provided rack and opened the front door.

The door led to Asia. Behind a reception desk, two young women in Japanese robes hovered over a well-filled appointment book. Enzyme baths, they told me, were a form of heat therapy popular in Japan. For sixty dollars I could spend thirty minutes gazing at a Japanese garden and sipping enzyme tea. Then I would be buried up to my neck in a steam-heated blend of cedar fibers, rice bran and imported vegetable enzymes. Osmosis, they said, was the only enzyme bathhouse in America. I made an appointment for that evening.

With the afternoon open, I pointed toward Kenwood, my final night's destination. The forty-five-minute drive, which took me through the wine-country capital of Santa Rosa, gave me time to appreciate a terrain that reminded me one minute of the Scottish Highlands, the next of France. The Kenwood Inn and Spa, however, put me squarely in Tuscany. My room was furnished like a Venetian palazzo and was clearly meant for romance. No telephone, no television, no minibar, just a fireplace, a balcony and a bedside CD player stocked with in-the-mood jazz disks. Alone, alas, I napped.

And now I'm in a Japanese robe in the quiet room at Osmosis. Seated on a futon, I contemplate the spotlighted bonsai and stone lanterns in the garden beyond the glass wall. A young woman named Tara is on her knees before me, making small talk and pouring a hot, green liquid into a clay cup. ("One pill makes you larger," Grace Slick sang in '67, "and one pill makes you small.") And now I'm in a very humid, dimly lit room, where Tara has me remove my robe, and I step into a large, square planter filled with cedar sawdust, and as I lean back into the prepared cavity, Tara pushes and mounds the reddish pulp over my body until I am buried in heat. And now as I lie in this baking soil and stare out the window at distant stars, my mind flees to hilltops in Ireland, dunes in Scotland, the ninth tee at Sea Ranch--to places where the wind wakens and braces an aging soul. I am told afterward that twenty minutes is the maximum treatment. No, I reply. Thirty years.

Finally, the cathedral. With sunlight filtering through soaring redwoods, the ninth fairway at Northwood Golf Course looked like Westminster Abbey. Only narrower. Alister Mackenzie is thought to have perfected this effect at Augusta, but redwoods are taller than pines. In any event, I found myself fumbling for my prayer book. From the tee, the 527-yard par five presented a green carpet runner for a target. Closer to the green, the redwoods pinched in, leaving a thirty-seven-yard gap. An even tighter opening was the one between two trees guarding the second green--a thirty-two-yard space that looked about right for a hammock.

My first thought was that North-wood, at 2,858 yards, was a course for yard gnomes. Then it struck me as closer in character to the nine-hole, par-three layout at Augusta, where the pros play a frivolous tournament on Masters Wednesday. Rich men build such courses on their estates to amuse guests on a Sunday afternoon. Rich men, in fact, continue to play Northwood. Right across the Russian River is the Bohemian Grove, summer retreat of tycoons and statesmen.

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