The Complicated Past and Present of a California Utopia

Cody Delistraty

The Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, was once a bastion of hippie counterculture. Today, it’s more boutique retreat for the glamorous set. I spent a long weekend finding out if the ghosts of its past—and its countercultural heart—remain. 

You pass over a narrow bridge in your tiny rental car as the road begins to curve, and after two hours of driving south from San Francisco, the hills open up, revealing to you the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Sandy dunes soar up along the shoreline highway. The sunlight refracts off the water. A briny breeze comes through your rolled-down windows. The scene is that of a thousand seaside montages blurring together—a canvas of grass greens, sand tans, and aqua blues. You grab the wheel tighter as a Ferrari jumps in front of you, disappearing around a series of hairpin turns and dusty roads.

For another hour you follow the…

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