Despite their name, the baths at the Esalen Institute, cut into the cliffs at Big Sur, have little to do with getting clean. In fact, you shower beforehand. The baths are about something else.
No one is self-conscious about the nudity, and from our attitude and bearing you would think we were all decked out in our Sunday best, headed for church.
The building is cut into a cliff, open to the ocean so you can hear the waves crash on the rocks below. There are large concrete tubs in the sun and the shade, as well as claw-footed porcelain tubs for one or two. Fed by hot springs, the water feels soft, like liquid silk. It’s all in the open, and no one wears a stitch, so it’s easy to feel like you’ve died and gone to heaven. There is such an abundance of flesh that by the end of the weekend I am tempted to cry “Enough! No more! Save it for next week, when I’ll be back at my community pool where everyone’s in board shorts and tank suits.”
There is a talking side and a silent side. The talking side is a good place to get to know your fellow workshop members who, for me, are other writers. No one is self-conscious about the nudity, and from our attitude and bearing you would think we were all decked out in our Sunday best, headed for church. But it’s strange to be deep in conversation with someone you know … well, barely. We are subtle. We have learned not to stare, certainly not to leer. I can talk politics with a woman in the tub and not look down once. But under the water I feel her nakedness; I can sense it when she shifts position or stretches her legs or leans over the ledge to watch the surf.
On the sundeck, I wait for my massage therapist. The young woman on the next table is just beginning hers. The woman slips off her towel; she’s wearing nothing but a woven chain around her waist, which the masseuse asks her to remove. When she does, the gesture is so intimate and revealing I have to gasp. It reminds me of the old joke about two guys at a nudist colony who pass a particularly buxom woman, and one turns to the other and says “Man, wouldn’t you like to see her in a tight sweater!”
It’s not that all these bodies are so perfect; there are all kinds of bodies here. But there is something attractive about any body whose owner is comfortable with it, confident in it, and enjoys how it feels languishing in the hot water or soaking up the sun. The bodies here exude that confidence.
In my fifties—unlike in my twenties—I generally have little problem with, um, unwanted excitement in these settings. For one thing I have more experience mastering my arousal, and for another, the hormones just aren’t flowing as strongly as they used to. Unfortunately I lose such mastery when my wife comes down to the baths with me. (The same thing happens at nude beaches when, after lying next to each other naked in the sun, she’ll get up and say “I’m hot, let’s go in the water,” and I’ll say “You’ll have to wait a minute, honey, I’m hot too, in fact I’m a little too hot,” and she’ll wait while I think of baseball or calculus or the stock market.) At the baths, she curls up next to me and puts her arm around my neck, or stretches her body in the sun, and I am called to attention and have to cover up or turn aside. Left alone momentarily in the shower, she soaps me up, and I think I am never going to get soft, I am going to have to spend the rest of the weekend with a towel or a notebook or a lunch tray positioned carefully in front of my crotch. And I pray that no one comes in, and of course I also hope that someone does. But I also store the scene for later reference, and I think my wife does too.
When you start the day in the baths—if you can drag yourself out—you find that the writing in the workshops comes easier. The process of self-revelation has already begun.
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.
Really enjoyed your story, John, and thanks for sharing. I particularly enjoyed the non-judgmental — indeed very positive — aspects of the nudity that you describe. Most particularly, that the process of (literal) self-revelation generated by the nudity then carries through to the process of writing. As I now think of it, that makes eminently good sense.
That said, I also really liked your address to the sort of considerations that we naive nudity “virgins” still ponder. Such as the sheer sensory overload of such an abundance of flesh (“Enough!”) And the one thing that us guys particularly fret about, knowing how our anatomies can tend to reflect (and betray) our thinking.
Lovely, delicate story, John. I love that you are your spouse can still arouse each other so effectively (and you need to think of baseball or the stock market…so funny!). But the warmth and sensuality of this piece is palpable.
Having been to the 1am baths recently I can attest to the beauty of the place, though it was night and in the dim light, one really couldn’t see anything clearly. The views to the sky and the ocean below were spectacular and we and our friends did, indeed, become very mellow. However, though you know from my story, I have no problem with public nudity, that was not the case with my husband or the other couple we went with (it was also quite chilly that April evening), so we were covered in bathing suits. Indeed, my husband hissed at me as we entered the changing area and so so many nude bodies, “Don’t you dare get naked in front of our friends”. I respected his point of view, except for the moment in the shower when I peeled off my suit to wash off the sulphur, covering what I could, as quickly as I could. As they say, different strokes for different folks.
Thanks, Betsy. It’s an extraordinary gift that Patti and I still have that effect on each other, even after all those years. I’m sorry you didn’t have the chance to go nude at Esalen. It really is a welcoming place for free spirits like you.
I am sure I would have enjoyed the experience, but it was wonderful all the same. Our female friend was quite startled by all the flesh (all shapes and sizes), so I couldn’t add to her distress. I had enough trouble just seeing my way from the changing area down to the baths, as the light is quite dim and I really can’t see in low light at all and no sense of where we were walking on such a slippery surface, so I was fine being led by our friends (hubby scampered ahead, heedless of my situation). Clothing was the least of my worries.
Nakey is the way to go. This is a beautifully written version of what I’ve been trying to express for years. Nicely done, Mr. Zussman.
Great story, John. I love your carefully discreet discussion of what goes on in such a setting. It is almost – but not quite – enough to make me want to try it myself.
This is so wonderful and amusing and somewhat true. When I go down, I am fairly insecure for at least several minutes…then I relax and enjoy the relaxation. As I get up to leave, I am shy again. Still it doesn’t stop me from enjoying the warmth and the people at the baths.
Have been catching your past stories in the Missed section John, and glad I caught this one!
Thanx for giving us the full monty!
Glad to, as long as I can do so in words and not pictures! Thanks for being such an avid reader.