By Nancy LeRoy, Guest Blogger

IMG_0725September 30, 2009. San Luis Obispo was hot and sunny.  My GPS took me there from Tucumcari NM through Bakersfield and then across the mountains on California highway 58 – through an endless curlicue of sharp curves on a narrow, two lane road. I drove almost two hours, the sun low and golden behind mountains the color of ripe grain, me gripping the steering wheel so tightly I expected to find calluses on my palms when I finally arrived at sea level.

The Sands Inn in San Luis Obispo would be my final stay in a motel. The Sands offered the usual free breakfast, and as I toasted my toast (bread brought from home), I noticed that all the free breakfasts boasted by all the motels across the eleven states I traveled were identical: tiny little, mushy looking sweet rolls, rubbery beige bagels, waffle batter and the waffle iron, little plastic containers of margarine labeled “butter,” stacks of small jam rectangles (mostly grape), paper packages of instant oat meal, plastic juice dispensers, see-through containers  of cheerios and bran flakes, and foil packages of Philadelphia cream cheese. Two motels offered, in addition, apples and bananas.

I got to Esalen mid-afternoon on Sunday, but went first to South Coast, a mile and a half from Esalen on Highway 1, where the Work Scholars live and where I’d been told I would room with Rick in cabin 146.
I’m here as an Esalen Staff fill-in, working mornings as part of the grounds maintenance crew, a group of six Work Scholars. My day begins with a 15-minute meditation at 7:45, then breakfast in Esalen’s lodge, a brief meeting with the rest of the grounds crew outside before tending to whatever area of the grounds we’re assigned to.

The baths and hot tubs are down below.

The baths and hot tubs are down below.

A Work Scholar at Esalen pays a monthly fee  for a room (usually shared with three others) and three delicious meals a day, and in return is required to work 32 hours a week.  Scholars tend to all of the “back stage” areas of Esalen that the paying guests aren’t involved in:  grounds maintenance, cabin/room cleaning, kitchen, garden or farm.  In the evenings from 8 to 10 p.m., Scholars from all work areas meet together to participate in whatever Esalen program is scheduled for that month.  Details are in the Esalen catalog on line at Esalen.org.
The Work Study program for October, for example, is titled “Streams Of Energy,” involves Eastern bodywork and movement, including Reiki 1 Certification, a thorough overview of Shiatsu Massage, an introduction to meridian theory, and an easy-to-learn, powerful Chi Kung form. “Various meditations, self-massage, and improv games will be used to encourage awareness and expression,” according to Esalen’s catalog.
Because I’m a staff fill-in, I’m doing none of it, so my days are shorter and easier, allowing me more time to enjoy the space and participate in some of the creative activities that Esalen lays on for the paying guests who come to participate in weekly or weekend workshops. For example, on Monday I attended  an hour and a half of a group called “Rise up Singing,” where singers, non-singers, shower-singers learn rounds and, according to the beautifully voiced leader, Lisa, find “vocal freedom.”  While my vocal cords remained just as incarcerated as ever, it was fun, especially since I was sitting between a professional jazz singer and a choir master.  It was fun and certainly nothing something I’d ever have the chance to do in DC.
My work as part of the grounds crew is to cut and plant succulents in various gardens around the property, watering and ridding the beds of weeds and lopping off dead blossoms from other plants as needed. Lots of squatting, bending, pulling and kneeling. That, along with the mile and a half walk along Highway 1 to and from Esalen from South Coast, makes me really tired. But I’ve done it only two days so far and hope springs that I’ll get used to it. Wednesday is a day off for the grounds crew, so I finally have enough energy to do more than just read my email.
Rick, my roommate is a real gift. He’s a neat freak like me. Our room is pristine, our bathroom free of wet towels and our sink without a splash of toothpaste spit, each wall on either side of the sink lined with little shelves on which we have neatly placed our different toiletries. Our closet is his on the right, mine of the left; the chest of drawers is the top three for me, the bottom three for Rick. His big white towel hangs on one of the wooden hooks outside one wall near the bathroom, mine on the opposite. He’s charming and thoughtful and really, really neat. Some of the people who live at Esalen have rooms that look like crooks came in and tossed the place looking for drugs or gold.
I’ll stop here before getting into more detail about Esalen and what goes on here and start again tomorrow. But for now, I’m about to go to the hot tubs and lie wonderfully naked in really hot mineral water that gushes into the rock-hewn tubs from the mountainside. The baths rim the edge of the mountainside, so bathers can watch as white surf roars over rocks and boulders below. It’s a little after 5 p.m. now, and the sun is low and golden over the water.