He's Up to His Neck in Gunk—So Why Is This Man Having Such a Devil of a Good Time?

updated 08/25/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/25/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The place is kind of gooey. Everything in sight—the water in the egg-shaped pool, the stone terrace, the rows of lounge chairs with human forms recumbent on them—takes on a rusty red cast. The air is rife with the acrid smell of sulfur. Yet each year visitors by the tens of thousands come to this desert canyon in Corona, Calif, in an eager—if somewhat messy—quest for health and beauty.

Welcome to the Glen Ivy Hot Springs, popularly dubbed "Club Mud." The nickname is more cute than accurate. Strictly speaking, the stuff visitors come to wallow in is red clay, not mud, a distinction of small concern to those who praise its benefits.

The area has had a long history as a health spa, even though the Luiseñio Indians, who lived there 200 years ago, didn't exactly talk in such terms. They called the spot "Temescal," meaning "sweathouse," after the primitive mud saunas they built around the natural mineral springs. Glen Ivy opened as a full-fledged resort for latter-day Californians in 1885 and had its heyday in the 1930s and '40s, when Hollywood stars dropped in (there was an airstrip then) to refresh body and soul. Actor Paul Muni was a regular, as was W.C. Fields. Legend has it that Ronald Reagan once stayed at the resort hotel for two weeks when he was making a Western in nearby Chino.

By the 1960s, after a series of ownership changes, the property was in sad shape. "The pool was empty and dirty, and hardly anything was operating; it was the pits," says Glen Ivy's vice-president of marketing and part-owner, Michael Baim, 38. He and a small group of investors bought the place in 1977 and rebuilt the 15-acre oasis. Today Glen Ivy boasts an Olympic-size pool, twin hot spas (with temperatures set at 104°F), a slew of whirlpool mineral baths, a coed sauna, sunning decks and even a shallow pool, where guests may float on rafts while listening to a jazz combo or a chamber trio playing Bach.

The chief attraction remains the red-clay bath, a do-it-yourself mud-pack therapy performed in a 25-foot by 15-foot, thigh-deep pool. In the middle is a bird bath like receptacle that holds a mound of clay. You slop some over yourself, including the face and hair (though no mud in your eyes, please), then repair to a lounge chair for baking in the sun—about 15 minutes a side should do. When dried, most of the clay flakes away. What doesn't is scrubbed off in outdoor showers.

"About 75 percent of those who come here use the clay bath," reports Baim. "A few, however, take one look and say, 'Are you kidding?' " Despite the lack of scientific evidence of mud or clay's health benefits, believers claim its absorbant qualities cleanse the skin of toxins. Janet Zand, a licensed acupuncturist and naturopath in Santa Monica, sent an 81-year-old patient crippled by arthritis to Glen Ivy twice a week for five months, after which "she could walk without crutches. I can't say that if you jump into the clay 20 times that, lo and behold, the arthritis will be gone," adds Zand. "But the reason this therapy persists even without scientific studies is because people have been helped."

Spending time at a spa is a tradition for the well-to-do in many parts of Europe and the Orient. The attraction of clay has apparently reached the well-heeled in the U.S., where Neiman-Marcus sells the stuff at $30 for four ounces. (Club Mud runs through a ton of its clay, which is mined locally in Temescal Canyon, every week.) But no spa anywhere is more determinedly democratic than Club Mud. With no overnight accommodations, it is meant as a day-trippers' paradise, about an hour's drive from both downtown L.A. and San Diego. A weekday fee for adults of $9.75 ($12.50 on weekends) entitles a guest to use any of the pools and baths. Massages, herbal body wraps and other beauty treatments are extra. Last year an estimated 70,000 visitors did Club Mud, up 20,000 from the year before. "I like it because it's weird," says Elizabeth Gjelten, 33, a book editor from San Francisco. "I come here all stressed out, but after the clay I feel serene. I look in the mirror, and I swear I'm better-looking."

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