Big Sur’s California Dreamin’

Untrammeled wilderness and new age enclave, Big Sur retains its rugged beauty and quirky charm

Big Sur's dramatic vistas entrance residents and day-trippers alike. In 1912 or so, watercolorist Francis McComas described the landscape as the "greatest meeting of land and water in the world." (Catherine Karnow)
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In the beginning, Esalen was open to anyone "and free to good-looking women," says Mary Lu Toren, a professional gardener and wife of Miller Library director Magnus Toren. The original idea, she says, grew out of the Esselen Indians' belief that the baths had healing qualities. Visitors bathed together nude. Scented tapers were placed at the edge of the pools, intended to counter the sulfur fumes seeping from the water. "I can still smell those lovely candles," Toren recalls. "No one talked. You looked out at the ocean, or up at the hills. No negative thoughts were allowed, and the baths weren't for partying."

That came soon enough, along with the ever-increasing presence of drugs, sex and general misbehavior. One night in 1961, so the story goes, Esalen founders Murphy and Price, accompanied by folk singer Joan Baez and some other Esalen regulars, walked to the baths with Dobermans on leashes and dispersed a group of drug-addled revelers from San Francisco who had convened for an orgy.

Esalen evolved into a venue for psychotherapists of every persuasion; proponents of meditative and massage techniques; and academics from many disciplines. Co-founder Price was killed, at age 55, in 1985 by a falling boulder, while hiking in a Big Sur canyon. Many people, says Toren, felt that "with him died an era of honesty and openness, of true spirituality and integrity."

Murphy continued on alone, overseeing Esalen and attempting to put the institute on a more secure financial footing, largely by bringing in more paying guests for workshops and seminars. (Murphy remains involved in Esalen's work but stepped down as chairman in June 2008.)

In 1998, El Niño-induced rains triggered a mudslide that ripped away most of the old Esalen bathhouse. The $5 million replacement cost included hillside stabilization and an earthquake-proof foundation.

Today, workshops are offered for substantial fees in a quirky array of blissed-out topics, from Harmonic Presence: Primordial Wisdom to The Music of the Spheres. Last year, some 15,000 guests attended Esalen; an all-inclusive weekend stay costs a minimum of $385. Esalen director Gordon Wheeler, a clinical psychologist from Harvard, was hired in 2004 and charged with putting Esalen firmly into the black. "We've always been about personal and social transformation," which, he adds, means developing heightened awareness that "the world's in tough shape," and, as a result, "we have to step up locally as well as globally." As for Big Sur, Wheeler says "it's the land of the individualist and legendary because of that. It's outlaw country."

From time to time, sections of coast highway pavement, destabilized by torrential winter rains, have plunged into the ocean. (In 1983, a heavy-equipment operator was killed during road repairs, after a landslide sent him and the machine over a cliff.) Beginning in the 1960s, Don McQueen helped repair these gaps; McQueen recalls 20-hour workdays, rain so intense that workers couldn't hear each other talk, and a wall of mud slamming down the Little Big Sur River and, in less than a half-hour, washing out the road.

McQueen also worked on Nepenthe, the bar, restaurant and Big Sur landmark named for the forgetfulness potion in Homer's Odyssey. Nepenthe opened in 1949 on a point just north of Castro Canyon, on land that had been owned by movie director Orson Welles and his wife, Rita Hayworth. It was patronized not only by locals but also by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, much of whose film The Sandpiper was shot there. (The 1965 movie concerned a free-spirited single mother living on an isolated stretch of California coastline.) "Nepenthe was incredibly welcoming in the hippie era," says Mary Lu Toren. "Every month, there was an astrological birthday party for locals, with dancing on the deck."

Just down the road, Helmuth Deetjen's Big Sur Inn was transformed into a nonprofit trust following his death, at age 76, in 1972. Today, its upscale menu and romantic setting attract baby boomers and younger couples. Organic Big Sur greens with chanterelles, Scottish salmon and New Zealand venison have replaced what manager Torrey Waag calls "Deetjen's mystery stew." But there is no Wi-Fi for visitors. "If a guest needs to get his e-mail," Waag says, "we send him up the road to the Henry Miller Library."

The Ventana Inn and Spa, which opened in 1975, was Big Sur's first luxury resort. Designed in an artfully rustic style, Ventana transformed Big Sur into a "destination," to the dismay of some locals, many of whom nevertheless showed up to play dominoes at the bar. "Then they got all formal," says a former patron. "Waiters and waitresses were told they couldn't hug their friends anymore when they arrived. [Local] people stopped going."


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