Saturday, April 2, 2011

Pilgrim to Esalen

This is the story of driving to Esalen, to get to the lady doctors' retreat. It is late March, and ever since the massive tsunami in Japan, which started with the earthquake there, we have had soaking drenching rain. The hills are so wet that we are starting to have mudslides which are dangerous, along with some falling trees. Usually the trees fall when the rainy season starts, as the ground loosens. But these are trees that made it through the rain and wind all winter, and now the ground is SO wet, they are falling. SO it is worrisome to be out driving. I also get worried because of the body-memories of the accident in which I hydroplaned, and almost died. It comes back, every time I see a slick road, and the anxiety worsens when rain is sliding down the windshield. So I was determined not to have a difficult drive, and they had said that although there was a landslide on Big Sur south of Carmel, so the northern route was closed, the southern route was still open, and would add another two hours at least, to the drive, but would be safe. There is a narrow place behind the San Antonio mission, near Lake Nacimiento, behind the Fort Hunter-Liggett army base, which goes due west from Hwy 101, over the mountains to Big Sur, and comes out just below the New Camaldoli monastery, which is just south of Esalen. This road was also open, but it is narrow, dangerous, with frequent rock and mudslides, and very windy-curving road; and they said not to attempt it after dark.
I got to Cambria at about 5 pm, with good golden evening light, and no rain all day on Monday. I had to work til 1:30, so left the office much later than I wanted to-- but got immediately on the road. Driving north into Big Sur past Hearst Castle, the ocean looked stormy, full after the rain, and the hills were so wet and velvety green I had to stop frequently to take photos. There were cattle on the hills down close to the sea. The rivulets were full, cascading down the mountain. There were gorgeous hawks floating on the updrafts, and the seagulls flying close to the waves. At Salmon creek, the water was pouring from a cataract on the steep cliff. Then there was a sign saying "road closed"-- and just beyond that, a big land-mover bulldozer. The guy in the bulldozer told me that there was another slide the night before (Sunday) and the road would not be open for at least 5 days. I drove back to the inn at Ragged Point, and called Esalen. They said they would refund the room cost, and were sympathetic. I met another woman physician who couldn't get through, and she had decided to stay the night there, as she had her aged mom with her, and they were tired. It was almost 6 pm when I turned around to go home, figuring I could get home by about 9 or 9:30. Around King City, it was getting dark, and I thought maybe I could stay in the hotel next to the Ft. Hunter-Liggett army base, and so I took the road west, thinking I would get up early and go over the Nacimiento road early in the morning. Well, they have changed the road, and it didn't ever seem I was near any hotel, or the mission either. Suddenly I was on the mountain, in the Los Padres National forest. It was open. So I just kept going, thinking "ok, I guess I WILL get there tonight!" This was not so smart, but I kept saying to myself, "I am a Peace Corps volunteer-- I can DO this!" After a few curves in the road, and passing one white pickup truck, I realized I was likely to be totally alone on that road. I kept the high beams on, but realized they looked like parking lights, in what they could illuminate. The air was balmy, spring-like. The road runs next to a creek. I opened the windows and the skylights-- the roar of the full-spate creek and some frogs were filling the air. The wet mountainside had some trickles, and musty smell, and new shoots of ferns. The big live oaks were gorgeous in the headlights, and some willows, over the tops of the newly plowed areas with piles of dirt along the road. Probably 1/3 of the road had been newly plowed, and you couldn't see over the sides of those piles of dirt. The road was so sinuous and winding, I felt that at any moment I would fall into the creek, or a humk of mountain would fall on me. I felt that it was just like Dante, in the middle of my life, in the middle of the night, losing my way in a dark forest. Overhead, I had opened the skylight, and there were masses of stars in the dark sky-- no lights for at least 50 miles in every direction. A great white horned owl flew over about 10 inches above the skylight-- I thought it might enter the car-- it was so powerful-- a watching wild spirit. I kept creeping along at 10-20 miles an hour, being glad I had just had the car checked, and that I had gotten gas just a little before King City, so almost had a full tank. But it was definitely that feel of being alone on the mountain, possibly never to be found again. The road climbs slowly, then at some point it starts to descend. Utter blackness ahead, unable to see past the piles of dirt on my right or left, as we twisted through the pass. No other cars. Finally, I felt the air change, and we were at the sea. Ahead of me were millions of stars in an uninterrupted sky. I saw a sign saying HWY 1. So I had made it to the Big Sur. I turned right, heading north. NO cars. Empty, silent; and then a one-lane place with monstrous backhoes and bulldozers parked alongside, and the signal lights still working. The sky was immense, full of stars. I passed the monastery, and then was on the two-lane empty road, heading toward Esalen. I got there at 9:45 pm. I was exhausted, and yet exhilirated! I would be able to see those fantastic women doctors; brilliant, powerful, amazing, strong women-- and participate in the retreat! Shangri-la! I had to find my room, and then I went down to soak in the baths. Lowering my tense body into the hot water, I looked up at the sky full of stars, and thanked God for the help getting me there. I had not really intended to take that road, at least at night, but it happened. It was such a metaphorical lesson in just putting "one foot in front of the other"-- and so I continue to continue...
The next morning, I woke up to a sunny bright spring day, at the place which always feels like heaven to me.