Just before 1AM on a quiet Monday morning, a group of strangers met clandestinely on a turnout off Highway 1 near Big Sur, marked by an unlit sign. No one spoke at first as people came out of their cars and stood waiting. There was an atmosphere of anticipation and curiosity. Finally, someone broke the silence with, “Has anyone done this before?” Someone answered and the group gathered together to listen.
A little time went by before a short middle-aged bearded man wearing a beanie appeared through an open gate. He approached the group silently, stood near the group, coughed, and waited expectantly until the group gathered around him. Once every eye was on him, he began, in an annoyed business manner befitting the concierge from the Grand Budapest Hotel, to read the rules. “You will check in with the guard, you will not take pictures, you will not wander the grounds, you will not be loud, and you will be off the property by 3AM. Does everyone understand?” All the heads bobbed agreement to rules and the bearded man with a beanie began a role call, checking off names on a clipboard he pulled out from under a plaid jacket.
When he finished, he silently turned around and led the way down a steep driveway to a not so brightly lit guard shack, decorated with a string of white lights. There sat a guard watching a show on his Apple computer. The bearded man stopped at the shack, knocked a few times and waited for the guard to come out. “This is Charlie,” said the bearded man, “sign in with him. He will let you know when it is getting close to 3AM.” Charlie the guard looked like he was in his late twenties and shared the plaid hipster look with the bearded man. Unlike the bearded man, Charlie had no beard and smiled as he chatted with some of the group. After signing everyone in, the bearded man led the way down the path.
Every so often, a building would be lit along the path, revealing some of the retreat’s layout; otherwise what lay to either side of the path remained in darkness. Most of the group walked in quiet contemplation of what they were seeing and others murmured amongst themselves. After walking a few minutes, the group came to a lit walkway that led them down to a building set onto the side of a cliff and bore a resemblance to Tony Stark’s house in the Iron Man movies.
“There are seven pools in the building,” started the short bearded man after reaching the building’s entrance, “one of which is on the roof.” He explained the layout of the hot springs as if to children. “Please shower beforehand and only use one of the provided towels.” With extreme annoyance, he added, “Remember to be quiet and to leave by 3AM. No one will show you the way out.”
The group moved inside the building, which had the minimal amount of light to see by. Throughout the building, the sounds of the crashing waves below could be heard. Across from the changing room was a big room full of showers with sliding full size windows, open to the night air. This was the room that stuck most out over the cliff and a bather can see the waves crashing below and the moon shining high above. There were no lights near the outside pools, only the full moon, when not covered by a cloud, lit the paths between them. Some of the people sat on the edges of the pools, leaning over to see the crashing waves and others leaned back, enjoying the sounds of the waves and the hot water soak.
Throughout the two hours, the people rotated, trying each of the pools. Each pool was tiled and about eighteen inches deep with water. A couple of the pools were circular and others were square. Faucets were placed at the edge of the pools that controlled the amount of hot spring water that flowed. The additional water heated the pools and provided an approximate way to control the temperature. One level, contained several claw-footed bathtubs, lined up in a row, where an individual hot springs bath could be drawn and enjoyed. One such bathtub contained only cold water for a cold-water soak.
Charlie the guard never came to tell the night bathers when to leave. Slowly, the number of night bathers dwindled after 3AM, often disappearing by twos. The walk back, through the retreat, past the now empty and dark guard shack, and up the steep driveway was a relaxed, contented walk. The night bathers drove off into the night, back onto Highway 1.
Note: This was our experience at the Esalen Hot Springs Retreat Center, near Big Sur, California. The hot springs pools were only open to the public from 1AM to 3AM, by same day reservation only.