It’s been a rough few years for the Esalen Institute.
The famous countercultural institution, founded in 1962, has served as a bastion of free thought and alternative living, drawing famous writers, tech moguls and influencers to its remote campus in Big Sur for decades. Its workshops span the metaphysical and spiritual, lending the center an air of bohemian transcendentalism. But at its core, it’s been a place where, traditionally, curious people get together and talk.
Now, those traditions are in question.
A huge landslide in the area in late 2016 buried Highway 1, severing the retreat center — and much of Big Sur — from the Bay Area visitors on which the region depends. After a six-month closure, Esalen reopened, welcoming back seasoned old-timers and techie truth-seekers alike, who make the pilgrimage to unplug and center themselves.
Esalen’s weekend workshops were fully booked when, in March, the coronavirus pandemic froze activity across Northern California, again shutting off the flow of visitors. The center furloughed all but a skeleton crew and went dormant, suffering revenue losses of nearly $1 million per month, CEO Terry Gilbey told The Chronicle at the time.
Then in August, the Dolan Fire consumed 125,000 acres along Big Sur’s bluffs and burned the slopes above Highway 1 nearly to Esalen’s front gate, prompting a full-scale evacuation. When staffers returned five weeks later, they discovered the center’s water supply infrastructure, built into the surrounding landscape, had been crippled.
“It took us 10 days to restore drinking water to the property,” Gilbey said.
Now, the scorched hillsides towering above the center are stirring up anxiety about the possibility of another round of catastrophic mudslides. “There’s definitely some flashback moments,” Gilbey said. State and federal crews are working to stabilize the slopes in advance of winter.
After the bruising seven-month hiatus, Esalen began accepting guests again on Monday, even though Monterey County remained in the lowest (purple) tier of the state’s COVID-19 reopening blueprint at press time. Like other beleaguered businesses statewide, the center is just beginning to find its footing amid new…