Divine perspiration

The nascent River School on the banks of the Truckee River creates a space for self-reliance, sustainability, a sweat-induced form of rebirth and the artful dodging of red-hot stones.

Tom Stille, who owns the River School with his wife, Kathie, moved to Reno in 1967 to be Washoe County Superintendent of Parks.

Tom Stille, who owns the River School with his wife, Kathie, moved to Reno in 1967 to be Washoe County Superintendent of Parks.

“Where’s my bag of tobacco?” isn’t a phrase you’ll normally hear coming out of my mouth. But today is a special occasion. I’m going to my very first sweat lodge at the River School at Mayberry Bend, www.mayberrybend.com. The tobacco is an offering to the medicine man. I convinced a friend to come with me by promising that it was basically a sauna and would guarantee a radiant, spa-fresh glow. But neither of us has any idea what to expect as we approach a group of people milling around a large, smoking outdoor fire.

Most of my life is spent avoiding sweat at all costs; vigorously turning pages is about as active as I get. Yet here I am, standing gingerly on gravel in my bare feet as Bing Eagle, the sweat lodge leader, wonders aloud whether the decal on my T-shirt will melt through and fuse to my skin. Is it too late to take back my offering and run?

We gather near a tiny igloo-shaped structure made of branches, blankets and plastic tarps. Eagle warns us about the potential hazards of the lodge. Eleven people will be crammed into it around a central fire pit filled with red-hot stones—so hot that when Eagle’s assistant accidentally drops a stone on the small rug outside the lodge, the stench of burning fabric fills the air within seconds. Eagle tells us that the lodge will be pitch black and fairly cramped, and it may cause panic for some. Indeed, the conditions will prove to be too much for one woman, who scrambles for the door after just a couple of minutes and doesn’t come back.

Standing in a circle, we each get “smudged down,” or briskly whisked with burning sweetgrass and feathers. Next, we receive a dab of essential oil on our foreheads to help open the third eye (a concept Eagle borrowed from Eastern philosophy). We crawl on hands and knees into the lodge, curling up to make room for others. The assistant carries in the glowing stones one by one on a shovel—a terrifying experience if you’re seated next to the door, as I am. When we have enough, Eagle closes the flap and dashes herb-infused water onto the rocks. They hiss and fade to black, and we’re in the dark.

I find it surprisingly comfortable inside. The hot stones, strewn with tobacco, give off a pleasant, humid warmth. It’s not the scalding steam of a sauna, but it’s enough to induce a languid drowsiness. The lodge is about 8 feet in diameter, with a vaulted ceiling, which gives the feeling of openness despite the cramped quarters. In this sensory-deprivation chamber, the only stimuli are Eagle’s soothing voice and the unrelenting, steamy heat. If only there were a bit more room to stretch, it’d be downright wombtastic.

There are four rounds, each with a theme: ancestors, community, family and self. Eagle tells stories that tie in with each theme—some from his own past and some traditional Native American folktales. He accompanies himself by beating a small drum and shaking a rattle or by singing and chanting. In the dark, the effect is eerie and a little melancholy. It’s hard to gauge how long each round lasts—15 and 30 minutes, maybe? Time is subjective inside the darkened lodge. Without watches (jewelry is discouraged because the metal becomes hot), we try unsuccessfully to reckon time by the sun during breaks. A few brave souls wade in the chilly river, but most of us reach for our sweatshirts and stay by the fire, where Tom Stille, who owns the River School with his wife, Kathie, joins us.

The Cleansing Power of Dirt
Stille is tall and slender, wearing a dark shirt and pants that contrast sharply with his shock of white-blond hair. He has a gentle, kindly smile. He just turned 65, but he looks years younger. Although he jokes about being retired, it’s obvious that Stille has no intentions of slowing down any time soon.

Originally from Iowa, Stille earned a degree in horticulture and recreation and also studied landscape architecture. He moved to Reno in 1967 to serve as the Washoe County Superintendent of Parks. He taught at Matthew University in New Zealand for three years and instructed a group of UNR horticulture students in landscape design at his studio. Stille has also been a landscape architect and garden builder.

“Parks and recreation was really my focus,” says Stille. “I was more interested in creating the space for recreation to happen.”

Now, Stille has found that space. “I’m slowly getting out of building commercial gardens and home gardens, and [instead I’m] showing people how to do it themselves,” he says.

Working with the environment and striving for agricultural self-reliance is a major focus of the newly formed school’s teaching. “Here at the River School, we have six curriculum areas,” Stille explains.

There are dance and music, healing arts, yoga and Eastern philosophy, teaching how to grow food at home, river ecology, social justice and permaculture, which Stille says “is all about [making] our communities more sustainable.” The school’s location on the banks of the Truckee River is no accident. Stille and his wife bought the property in 1992, envisioning it as a demonstration garden as well as a venue for music, art performances and classes.

Stille is hoping to hold outdoor classes for a local Montessori junior high school next year and is working to create a similar program with a Waldorf elementary school.

“We’d really like to show kids how to grow food and prepare it and eat it and stay healthy,” he says.

Just three months old, the River School is already developing a roster of yoga, dance, art and fitness classes, as well as hosting special events like Tell-A-Bration, an international storytelling festival held Nov. 19.

“It’s a very stimulating time for me,” Stille says. “I’ve been around long enough to have a lot of wonderful people around to help me do what I do.”

Back at the sweat lodge, we finally emerge on hands and knees. After four hours, I’m sweaty, tired, covered in dirt and reeking of smoke and tobacco. But I feel surprisingly refreshed. I even have that spa-treatment glow I promised my friend. Who would have thought that getting sweaty and dirty would feel so cleansing? The River School, it seems, has much to teach us.