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You're Soaking In It!

The reopening of Esalen marks the continuing tradition of the ultimate student getaway

By Sarah Phelan

THE MOON IS FULL and you've got the urge to do something wild and off-campus. You've already ridden Wilder Ranch, kite-surfed Waddell Creek and cruised Pacific Avenue.

But now you need a way to chillax, which means it's time for you to make the holy student pilgrimage to Big Sur to soak in the "after midnight" hot mineral baths at the world renowned Esalen Institute.

Forgive the invocation of religious imagery, but for lovers of this unique getaway, it's especially appropriate, since the baths will go through a resurrection of sorts when they reopen Nov. 15 for their famous 1am-3am public sessions. Four years ago, this relaxation destination had a near-death experience when an El Nino-induced mudslide destroyed the bathhouse and closed Highway 1 in both directions, thus isolating the institute for months.

"For a few days, we enjoyed being able to do handstands in the middle of the road, until we realized that if nobody could come, none of us would get paid," says Esalen's executive director Andy Nussbaum. "It was a major blow."

Use It or Lose It

With experts saying the bathhouse was on the most difficult construction site they'd ever seen, it looked for a while as though the structure might be permanently relocated. But spurred by the beauty of the location and a sense of "use it or lose it," the institute rebuilt at the original site.

As Esalen co-founder Mike Murphy explains, "Because the structure was already there, we could get approval from the Coastal Commission, but if we'd left it, we might have lost the opportunity forever."

As you walk down the dirt track that leads to the baths, consider that over the past few years, hip-booted construction workers had to wade through 119 degree water across slippery rocks, and use oxygen lungs while displacing sulfur dioxide 40 feet above the ocean just so you could soak your butt at this phenomenal location, which is named after the Esselen Indians who once lived here.

And even by moonlight, you can't fail to be impressed by the bathhouse, which holds seven large tubs, four massage rooms and up to 60 people and was designed by world famous architect Mickey Muenning.

Muenning, who first came to a workshop at Esalen 25 years ago, describes the baths as "the heart of Big Sur."

"I was late for that workshop and the first thing that happened was the instructor turned off the lights and told us to walk round the room and feel whoever we met all over. I bumped into a voluptuous lady--and stayed."

Muenning, who was recently named by Architectural Digest as one the 20th century's outstanding architects, has created a structure that allows bathers to be either totally immersed in or totally protected from the vagaries of the Big Sur environment, whose mood swings can catch even the most seasoned traveler off-guard.

The self-effacing Muenning is quick to point out that many other artisans were involved in the project, custom-designing everything from metal hand railings to the perpetual fountain that greets you at the door of the bathhouse, which cost $5 million to restore--an investment for which you'll soon be eternally grateful.

Quiet, Please!

One thing to notice on entering the bathhouse is the choice of "Silent" or "Quiet" sections, with most of Esalen's famous bodywork being housed on the silent side.

But even is you are part of a large excited crowd, chances are that within 10 minutes of sitting in the tub, a quietude will settle on your group, putting you into a quasi-meditational state as you listen to the sounds of the ocean.

"As the mind quiets, your brain waves slow down and increase in amplitude, your blood pressure drops, and lactic acid dissolves," says Murphy, noting that Esalen has one of the largest collections of research into meditational states. "The changes are more complex that we can name, but we can feel them, and you'll walk uphill a different person from one who came down."

If after a soak in the baths, you find yourself wanting to learn more about the Esalen Institute, which is devoted to the exploration of human potential, there is a way that won't break the student piggy bank: Esalen offers 28-day work scholar programs, which involve a 32-hour work week, plus intensive weekend classes.

"Students are the nuts and bolts of our work force, and do everything from gardening and cleaning to cleaning tubs," says Murphy, adding that there's also a yearlong program.

"Eventually, we want to give students credit towards their culinary, environmental, gardening and sustainability studies," says Murphy.

And the baths' project manager Jerry Parks hopes that students can be involved as interns in Esalen's long-term plan, which he says revolves around sustainability.

"So far, we're only using a small portion of the spring's available water and heat. In the future, we plan to use it to operate the dining and laundry rooms. And we've done this while being sensitive to the archaeology, geology and biology," says Parks, noting that a variety of sensitive plants, animals and insects frequent the place.

Ecology Minded

Whatever the structural changes, says Murphy, the original reason he founded Esalen remains the same, namely, "to try and midwife the stupendously alive and significant birth of human nature and possibility."

Noting that Esalen introduced the concept of human ecology in 1963, "which was before anyone even knew how to spell the word," and has furthered relations with Russia and China and is "now involved in reaching out to Islam," Murphy says getting eminent thinkers to come and speak at Esalen has never been a problem. Historian Arnold Toynbee, theologian Paul Tillich, two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling, philosopher Alan Watts--the list goes on and on.

"We've been and will continue to be relevant in every decade, and more than ever there is a need for relevancy," says Murphy. "We have provided an environment and venue for people to come and talk about different ideologies; we have the relevance and freedom that academia doesn't provide. And we're the only place on the planet that has an annual convention to discuss the empirical evidence for the survival of bodily death, to answer whether something survives, yes or no?"

Keeping Esalen going, the governance of the place, has been another story.

"There are so many opinions, so many freethinkers. We created a new social invention, but to preserve those freedoms, to put legs on as spirited an enterprise as this, has been a challenge, since freedom fighters may not want to think about long-term structure," says Murphy, adding that Esalen is 40 years old this month.

There's something about the mingling of spring, fresh and salt water, of sun and fog and all the big emotions that Big Sur evokes that make you want to believe that Esalen will be there forever. You, on the other hand, won't, so get your butt down there soon.

For information and directions, check out www.esalen.org.

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From the September 25-October 2, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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