I’m riding VIA Rail’s Spa Train, billed as “The Route to Well-Being.” It’s a fun promotion where you ride trains between your choice of 18 Ontario spas. Judging by the other passengers, Spa Train is the perfect getaway for brides and bridesmaids to get smashed on rails, detox with herbal wet wraps, doze in the shuttle van, wake up on another train, and then do it all again.
I’m travelling solo but I don’t feel alone because I’ve found a great guru online. Derek Sivers ran a successful music company for years. But when his life unravelled, he sold the company, travelled the world and now writes pithy articles on how to live a more effective life.
My favourite Sivers article is “No more yes. It’s either HELL YEAH! or no.” He explains: “If I’m deciding whether to commit to something, if I feel anything less than, ‘Wow! That would be amazing! Absolutely! Hell yeah!’ — then my answer is no. This way,” he says, “you won’t settle for ‘it’s not so bad’ — and instead face up to what you really want.”
I love this idea and vow to test it at spa No. 1 in Ottawa. I arrive at Brookstreet Hotel’s Au Naturel Spa, which offers an “intimate environment of soft-spoken luxury and understated elegance.” Which is awfully nice of them. I’m about to strip for the Monticelli Fango Wrap when they dangle the offer of a 75-minute Hydrofusion. Basically they wrap you in “soft creamy mud” and stick you in a “capsule-shaped machine that provides humid heat to your body.”
That sounds weirder than sci-fi, so I say, “Hell yeah! to Hydrofusion!” They massage my scalp, swaddle me like a naked baby and tuck me into a futuristic space egg. As I’m lying there, my head poking out like a newborn chicken, I dreamily apply the Hell Yeah! test to choices I’ve been agonizing over.
Should I take that job? Maybe … so that’s a No. Should I freeze my ass off in Canada this winter? No! Should I learn to surf in Hawaii? Hell yeah!
Hell Yeah! or No is a very childlike state of mind — and remarkably freeing. I fell fast asleep, floating in a watery cocoon that symbolized my newly buoyant life.
Next morning, I rode the train to Cobourg, Ont. My spa No. 2 is Ste. Anne’s, a lovely, bucolic, 400-acre “country inn and spa.” Well-to-do Torontonians speak of its healing powers with hushed reverence.
Everybody’s cheeks are glowy here, like someone buffed them with $1,000 bills. Guests drift around in hooded white robes, under a hypno-soundtrack of chirpy birds and chanting women. It feels like a cult, but the good kind of cult where the food rocks, and you’re not forced to sleep with the bearded jerk in charge. Or at least I wasn’t given that option.
I read another smart Sivers article called “There’s always more than two options.” He says when someone claims they have only two options, “beware. It means they got stuck.” He says, “Great insight only comes from opening your mind to many options. Brainstorm them all, from the hybrids to the ridiculous. It takes under an hour, but has always helped my friends feel less stressed” and helps them “get excited about a decision that used to feel like a dilemma.”
Powerful advice. My whole working life, I’ve boxed myself into a corner, choosing a City Cubicle I Hate or an Industrial Park Cubicle I Despise. But now there’s a third option: I can write on trains while sucking back a frosty lager.
Same with spas. Normally, you’d pick a facial or massage. Instead, I opt for their Golden Moor Mud Bath. Minutes later, I wake up buried under muck in a soundproof underground chamber. I hear water dripping, frogs croaking and monkeys squawking, none of which I can see. Can’t move. Trapped in quicksand. Is this death? Did my helicopter crash in the jungle?
When they hose the mud off, it feels like you’re being waterboarded, except you’re face down and it smells like mint. As I watch the muck spiral down the drain in this soundproof room, I realize that if war breaks out, they could easily convert to a torture facility. It’s always nice to have options!
My final stop is Elmwood Spa in Toronto, a handsome, peaceful “urban oasis” for working stiffs. And I mean that literally. My back is gnarled and grumpy after years of hunching over laptops. I tell the giant masseuse, Lester, that I need my hunched back for when I’m surfing in Hawaii.
“When’s that?” he asks.
“Um, I keep putting it off,” I say sheepishly.
Then I remember a third Sivers article, entitled: “Shut up! Announcing your plans makes you less
motivated to accomplish them.”
Sivers says studies show “people who talk about their intentions are less likely to make them happen.” He says psychologists found that “announcing your plans to others satisfies your self-identity just enough that you’re less motivated to do the hard work needed” to achieve your goals.
Less talk, more rock. Got it. I silently point at the Deep Tissue Massage option and Lester goes to work. He swiftly drills into a massive knot in my upper back. I gasp in agony. He jackhammers deeper. My spine shrieks. Millions of fearful skin cells beg him to “Stop, stop, STOP!” My mouth’s open but I can’t make a sound. I feel my mind wailing in mute terror. I’m silently screaming for mercy.
Suddenly, I realize this is the scream I’ve been burying for months. It’s the pain from my lost marriage. The pain I hid so deep, deep down that I’d never have to deal with it. The pain I can’t talk to Dad about.
Lester stops, leans over and whispers, “Are we still friends?”
I pause. Think about that good and hard. Then I slowly nod “yes.” He smiles then continues the torturous release.
Later, I limp to the lobby where I see an odd painting by a native artist. It’s called Spirit Power and — I’m not making this up — the painting depicts a horned animal licking a naked man’s rectum. We can see inside the man’s body. The animal’s tongue is so long, it reaches up the man’s throat and out his mouth. The man looks shocked, relieved, but faintly embarrassed, as if he’s thinking, “Thanks, pal. If I could reach that spot myself, I wouldn’t have to ask you.”
That’s when it hits me. Like in the sci-fi film Fantastic Voyage, spas are microscopic spaceships that fly deep inside our bodies. We invite them to travel inside us to touch places we can’t reach ourselves … physically or emotionally. Or in other words: We go to spas so they can stick tongues up our behinds.
I’m speaking metaphorically, naturally. No spa offers this service … yet. And as God is my witness, I will not rest until I find one that does.
— Ken Hegan
• Ken Hegan will talk about surfing after he’s done it. His spa train trip was supplied by Tourism Ontario.