Esalen institute, Big Sur California
Story by Megan Freshley // @summertimewitches
I’d had recurring dreams before, but none like this. Every night the same. Like James Earl Jones telling me to build a baseball field. But instead, the dream urged me to get nude at the edge of the continent and soak myself in some sulfuric water that rained down 300 years ago and hasn’t seen light since. That is until you remove a slippery wooden cork — and the water comes from somewhere closer to the dark, hot star at the center of the earth than humans are meant to go.
Ablution: a ceremonial act of washing parts of the body or sacred containers. In the dream, I need a good abluting. And in the dream, I never make it to the hot springs. Some circumstance pulls me away from Big Sur before I get the chance, and I drive over the jade-green hills of the Central Coast with a pang that carries into my waking mind.
What would you make of a dream like that? And what is its promise, if not some wham-bam epiphany ready to redraw the course of my life. As a witch, water signifies west. Emotional healing. Dreams and psychic information. Tears, spit, and Selkies.
Someone said California is so spiritual because it’s as far west as you can go, and then if you want to keep going you have to go in. Esalen, a retreat known for its history of psychological visionaries and literary outlaws, sits perched on the very edge of everything, it seems, when you’re there. It’s a monument to introspection. It’s also home to these hot springs I can’t stop dreaming about not quite getting into.
So I buy plane tickets to San Jose to rent a car and drive three hours south past Gilroy, the garlic capital of the known universe, Monterey (pronounced “town” if you live in Big Sur), and Carmel-by-the-Sea: the last chichi outpost before cell reception dies, radio stations stop working, billboards vanish, and the sea starts loosening the knots in you with its aggressive beauty. Perilous curves pull you south through what feels like a veil between worlds. Perhaps you’ll see a glass mansion tucked into a cliff, a fox family darting across Highway One, a whale’s spout glittering on the Pacific far below.
Big Sur draws hordes of tourists pouring in year-round to take selfies at McWay Falls and Bixby Bridge — and who can blame them? Celebrities evade the paparazzi long enough to squeeze in a day or two of undocumented fun. There are SNAGs-a-plenty (sensitive new age guys), all manner of Instagram influencers, and even the occasional New Yorker.
Then there’s the tight-knit enclave of healers and homesteaders that makes up its local community. It only takes about a year of slow living in Big Sur to know not only everyone’s faces and what ridge they live on, but also their authentic longings, their fresh and healing wounds, their actual feelings on any given day. It’s a culture where dudebros can cry openly — so rare and beautiful.
That’s thanks in part to those still carrying the torch of Big Sur’s psychology-imbued past, cultivated by eccentrics like Fritz Perls, Ida Rolf, Alan Watts, Joseph Campbell, Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley, and Abraham Maslow. In true bohemian fashion, it also seems like everyone’s either a millionaire or lives in their car here, a distinction that doesn’t factor in the least into who breaks bread with whom.
I park on a Highway One turnout, inhaling air so clean it wipes the slate of my mind clean. In the blackness of the night, I can feel the old growth redwoods standing there, noticing me. My phone is only a rinky-dink flashlight now, guiding me on foot up the dirt road to my friend Coco Odyssey’s place. Her house ornaments the hill it’s on like the maiden on a ship, aptly named the Moonboat.
My bed tonight is in Coco’s apothecary, home to Wildcrafted Love — her and Shankari Linda Barrera’s outfit alchemizing the magic of Big Sur’s plant allies into tinctures, teas, and oils. The room is lined with glass jars and herb bundles, and a cauldron wouldn’t look out of place at all. From my bed, I see so many stars the sky seems overcrowded. As if that many stars must be too heavy for one universe to bear. What looks at first like empty space is dense with galaxies upon looking longer.
In the morning I finally reach Esalen and bee line it to the baths, eating a nasturtium and a bachelor’s button as a Eucharist along the way. Steller’s jays swoop overhead, and fried egg poppies float clumsily on their thin, hairy stems. I hang my outfit on its hook and sink naked as a nymph into one of the newly-filled tubs overlooking the mirror of the sea. I let the hot water cover me, staying till my fingers prune, waiting for some revelation to come strike me like a bell.