Ever driven up the US-1 toward Malibu and been struck with the urge to just keep driving? Good. Because if you keep going far enough -- say, up to the craggy Lord-Of-The-Rings-by-way-of-Brian-Wilson landscape of Big Sur -- you may find your intuition richly rewarded at the Esalen Institute’s clothing-optional hot springs.
Founded in the 60’s as a spiritual hideaway for the burgeoning free love movement, the Esalen Institute helped cement California’s reputation as The Place To Go When You’re Too Weird To Exist Anywhere Else. But that was then and this is now: today, Esalen caters to a more well-heeled brand of seeker, and if you want to take a dip in their baths, you must first purchase a spot in one of their workshops, while forking over a fee only The Man could appreciate.
But if you’re willing to stay up late...
Between 1 AM and 3 AM, the hot springs are open to the public. You gotta call and reserve your spot in advance. You gotta pre-pay $20. You gotta park you car on the side of the highway and watch the clock tick past midnight. You gotta stay sober – belligerent trustees of modern chemistry are unwelcome here. Eventually, a mellow employee will welcome you down the impossibly steep driveway and into a cavernous stone bathhouse. Here, too giddy with exhaustion to trifle with antiquated concepts like “shame”, you throw on your birthday suit (swimsuits are occasionally seen, but why half-ass this?), and scamper off to soak.
The baths are large stone things, pungent with sulfuric minerals, illuminated by sparse candlelight and perched atop cliffs overlooking the Pacific. You look out over the edge and your guts tingle with vertigo as waves blitzkrieg the shore far below. On a clear night, you’ll see more shooting stars than you’ve ever seen in your life. For three hours, a time in which you won’t hear a human voice above a whisper, reality takes on a loose, elastic quality. At 3 AM, when they close down the tubs and you get re-dressed in a bathhouse full of hazy-eyed strangers, you’re left with an odd sense of peacefulness as you trek back to your car. It’s the kind of experience you’d normally chalk up to existing only in a dream. Luckily for you, you know better.