In Sunday’s New York Times Travel Section there was a profile of Esalen, the grandpappy of all counter-culture, human potential, spiritual education, yoga, hot tub, massage, meditation and group hug retreats in the country. Based on my own experience there, I’d say that the Times got it about right.
Esalen is in Big Sur, California, a 90 minute drive south of Carmel-by-the-Sea via Highway 1. It was founded in 1962 by an eastern religion fan, Mike Murphy and an ex-mental patient, Dick Price. During its 52 years it has hosted such notables as Joan Baez, Timothy Leary, Hunter S. Thompson, Alan Watts, Joseph Campbell, Henry Miller and yours truly.
Reading the Times article brought back memories of my visit to Esalen. I can recall the exact weekend because it was the same weekend that Los Angeles was largely burned to the ground by those who decided that the Rodney King assault trial verdict was bogus and who had access to gasoline, matches and tire irons. Excitement ensued.
My invitation to visit Esalen, enjoying the hot (spring-fed) tubs overlooking the Pacific and getting a professional relaxation massage, came from a close friend who knew that my personal life was in shambles thanks to a plaintiff, dueling and expensive attorneys and an overbearing judge.
My friend and I arrived at the retreat on a Saturday morning, early enough that many of the campus guests were sleeping in, no doubt after a night of gazing at each others’ navels, and other body parts, before retiring to their private quarters for herbal tea and Tantric sex.
Esalen is a “clothing optional” facility and in my experience, virtually all visitors opt for what I call “The Esalen Suit” or “The Buck Nekkid Option”. I determined to be no different so as not to attract unwarranted attention by walking amongst the naked, wearing permanent-press khakis and clown shoes.
My friend and I disrobed in the bathhouse. (Aside: The bath house roof also served as Esalen’s Massage School and personal massage area.) I believed that we must have been the first to arrive but soon discovered that other souls on a spiritual quest were already stewing themselves in the hot-spring waters pumped into individual claw-footed tubs that lined the walkway. The large communal tubs were located farther out from the bath house at cliff-side. As nonchalantly as a naked person can walk past naked strangers soaking in steaming mineral water, I ambled in a manner that communicated, “I am one with nature and my nakedness is proof of how comfortable I am with displaying my manliness and skinny ass to total strangers”.
Upon arriving at the the most remote large stone tub, we quickly submerged up to our necks. No easing into the steaming water for us, no-siree. We used the “lobster in the pot” approach. It would be a few minutes before our bodies lost the natural impulse to jump screaming from the water and plunge into the icy Pacific. Relaxation finally won out.
We had soaked for 10 or 15 minutes, solving the world’s most immediate problems, when my friend quietly announced that we may soon have company. Before he could warn me not to, I turned to look. Lumbering our way was a women of such immense proportions that it was impossible not to stare . Hers was a very, very large Esalen Suit. She smiled warmly and made straight away for our tub.
Her hot tub entrance technique, unlike ours, was slow and deliberate, which meant that before she finally submerged to her neck, we were subjected to an up-close and clinical inspection of skin flaps and folds and the body parts hidden within same. When she made her final descent into the water, enough displaced that it spilled over the side and into the Pacific. I could make this stuff up, but I’m not.
Introductions were made and small talk commenced. She was much interested in the Los Angeles situation. We shared what we knew as I marveled to see her breasts bob to the surface and remain there as if filled with helium. We had talked for only a minute or two when my friend’s massage therapist appeared and they whisked away to the bath house roof, leaving me and my new best friend alone to get to know one another better. This was odd because heretofore, when I had the privilege of seeing a woman’s bare breast, I already knew her pretty darned well. Before we had a chance to really become acquainted, a male friend of hers beckoned from the bath house and she said her goodbyes. Her exit from our hot tub of love was strenuous, highly unceremonious and wince-inducing.
Before I could relax in my solitude, yet additional naked bodies headed my way. There were several empty communal tubs but mine seemed a magnet. My newest naked friends were a Los Angeles couple who were also hungry for riot news, Esalen not allowing radios, TVs, newspapers and such. She was early 30’s with cover-girl skin, a moderate tan with no lines, beautiful face, short blond hair, professionally hi-lighted, and a body that could have walked straight out of a Playboy shoot, not that I concentrated on her particulars. Her companion was well past 70 and on him, gravity was working its magic. He was in modest violation of the Esalen spirit by wearing a white Panama hat.
During my replay of what I knew about the LA riots, I was to confirm visually that breasts do indeed, float. I tried to maintain my attention on his hat and her hairline but must confess that I failed several times. These failures caused me to fumble over my words, stutter and provide a very unprofessional news report. Neither of them seemed to notice.
Toward the end of my mangled report, my massage therapist arrived, glanced at her clipboard and called out my name. Raising my hand as if I were a third grader with an answer, she indicated that it was time to go to the roof. I eagerly bound from the steaming water prepared to walk away briskly before any real evaluation of my manliness could be made. The hot water had done parts of me a favor, if you get my drift, so it was all good.
However, just as I positioned myself for an energetic walk to the bath house, my massage therapist, a woman who went by the professional title of “Lioness”, recognized the LA couple as two of her massage students from earlier in the week. Well, Esalen being Esalen, this required a few minutes of pleasantries. Meanwhile, I was standing in the ocean air wondering what to do with my hands and experiencing the sensation of “shrinkage” due to the chill. Should I jump back in the tub? That might seem rude to Lioness who, by the way, was covered neck to toe in a mu-mu and wearing a large straw hat. Should I turn and face the bath house, thus turning my back on my new-found friends? That didn’t seem polite either. So I just stood there smiling wanly and shrinking. Oh, that I could have disappeared all together.
Finally, Lioness wrapped up the chit chat and, after a round of very pleasant goodbyes, we retired to the roof. The details of my massage are neither salacious nor interesting. All I will say is that it was very professional and occasionally relaxing.
About midway through my hour session, the LA couple appeared and commandeered the massage table next to mine, in order to practice some of their newly-acquired massage skills. He lay on the table and his personal Bunny began working him over. I soon realized that the massage that he was getting was far, far different from the one I was getting. His included her oiled hands gently caressing his weathered skin, as well as other of her oiled body parts rubbing softly against his back and shoulders. My massage included the use of iron-strong hands and sharp elbows digging deep into the muscle tissue to the point that tears welled in my eyes. My massage induced groans. His massage induced moans. I turned away in self-defense and to maintain some modicum of dignity. When my hour was up, the LA couple had gone. For that, I was much relieved.
My friend and I got dressed and went to the cafeteria for an organic fruit, vegetable and meat-free lunch. Most of the other diners were in their Esalen Suits; but all of the servers, I’m delighted to report, were fully clothed.
As we finished lunch on the glassed-in porch, we saw the LA couple walking across the lawn toward the Pacific, hand-in-hand. He had added a sweatshirt to his ensemble but nothing more, just the Panama and the sweatshirt. She continued to show off one of the better Esalen Suits on the property. I’d show you a picture but, alas, camera phones were yet years away in 1992.
Observoid of the Day: Two words that should never appear together in the same sentence are “naked” and “grampa”.