The Big Sur coast is best explored by Zeppelin, or alternatively, in a 1965 VW microbus with a flaxen-haired hippy girl.
It is said that the topography is rivaled only by Kauai’s Napali coast for steepness from mountaintop to ocean floor. As a result, there is very little horizontal land left to make a living. Some have managed, and grandly too. Henry Miller was one of them. Miller is remembered in the world of letters as the author of Tropic of Cancer, Spring Break and Tropic of Capricorn. These weren’t summer travelogues but books deemed to be obscene in 1961 in the United States and were banned until a watershed Supreme Court case – Grove Press Inc. V. Gerstein. It was this case that helped overturn centuries of book banning in America. It was one of the cornerstones of freedom of speech and of the sexual revolution. Today these books are tame enough to leave in the rec room of a Baptist church.
To me Big Sur will always be synonymous with free love and the perfection of a certain hippy ideal. (Classic definition of a hippy: Someone with long hair having more fun than you are.) Sure, Henry did his part by living and writing in Big Sur but really it has always been the allure of this wild stretch of coastline combined with its absence of commercialization that made it an ideal place for hair and consciousness to grow.
Right in the middle of all this steepness and solitude is the Esalen Institute. Reportedly an ancient Indian ceremonial site situated at a sulfur hot springs, it has long been a redoubt for retreat, renewal and a place to plot your next moves. In 1910 Michael Murphy’s grandfather bought the land and in 1962 Michael and Richard Price established Esalen.
Recipe for Esalen:
Take equal parts: Burning Man Post-Freudian personal responsibility
Add a desire for self-improvement
Stir in humor, respect for the earth and human functions like eating, sex and death
Add an unreasonable belief in absurd religions
Pour into a hot tub and steep under the Milky Way until you reach a state of grace.
Over the years many charismatic teachers, great thinkers and a good many nut jobs have passed through the gates including: Susan Sontag, Buckminster Fuller, Fritz Perls, Ray Bradbury, Carl Sagan, Aldous Huxley, Ansel Adams, Alan Watts, Joseph Campbell, Timothy Leary, Linus Pauling, Richard Feynman and so many others. Of course these were the seminar leaders. The attendees are, as Dennis Hopper so aptly put it, “Far out, man”! Yeah, he hung out there too.
Is that Don Draper third from the left? Yes, in fact.
I have been to Esalen many times over the last 40 years and continue to find it meaningful even when surrounded by some of the most inaccurate estimations of the universe imaginable. Esalen is a magnet for fringe thinking. And I mean all sorts of fringe like the radical atheist, Sam Harris, sharing space with Deepak Chopra, radical spiritualist. Even though there is a severe tilt in the direction of magical thinking the atmosphere is charged with goodwill and peaceful intentions. On any given day there are about 100 seekers encountering one another in this oasis from the complex and conflict ridden real-world beyond the entrance.
Years ago Esalen had a reputation of being a place where morals were lax. And there has been a free spirited atmosphere from the beginning but in the last 50 years the U.S. has morphed to a place where Henry Miller’s sexually provocative books are now quaint and we are under siege from all direction by licentiousness. If anything Esalen is a dramatic departure from the lies, guns, greed and pornography obsessed aspects of modern life. At Esalen one finds a free marketplace of ideas and a remarkable absence of people sitting in judgment of others. In the end Esalen is a place of heightened moral integrity. And listen, it isn’t some secret insider deal here. Just check out the catalog online and take the plunge.