Highway One and Esalen: 1934 and 1964

Leslie, my stepfather, pulled the gearshift into compound low and headed our four-thousand-pound Packard down the side of another steep ravine, towards the sea level creek below that ran on out into the ocean. Rain was still pounding continuously, and our huge car began slipping and sliding through thick mud.

My grandfather, John Patrick Adair, sitting next to me in the back seat, was poised leaning forward, gripping the back of the seat in front of him, where my mother Ruth was sitting. He kept saying over and over, “I’ve lived a long, good life. If this is the last day, it’s O.K.”

Reaching the bottom, our car bounced across through the rushing creek, and then painstakingly worked its way up the wall of mud on the other side, to finally level out onto the next section of newly built highway. I, eleven years old, felt completely confident in my stepfather’s driving, and continued to read my book.

It was the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, 1934. We were driving north up the new Pacific Coast Highway One, now finished except for bridges that soon would be built to span the distances across these ravines. We had started from Cayucos, just north of San Luis Obispo, and were headed sixty miles up the coast for a very special holiday celebration.

When our Adair family had left their homestead in Clovis, New Mexico, to live in San Francisco, my Uncle Charlie had gotten a job working for the California Highway Department. His current assignment was as foreman of a crew of about forty workers, who had been hired to build this new stretch of Highway, starting from San Luis Obispo, towards a second crew who had started from the other end, building south from Monterey. Now, after six years of dangerous blasting, digging, and construction, these two teams had finally met along the coastline in the middle. Except for struggling through the ravines with no bridges, we could now drive one hundred thirty miles of cleared and flattened road, on asphalt, from San Luis Obispo to Monterey.

When the project first started the Highway Department employed other workers to build multiple portable, two-bedroom houses for Uncle Charlie, his workers and their families. As each segment of the road was finished, the portable houses were then hauled further north to another location near the current construction, and the families moved with them. The same system was used by the crew working their way south.

Our goal this particular day was to drive all the way up the southern half of this brand new highway, to a huge plateau where the Esselen Indians had once lived, but where the portable houses of both those work crews were now situated. Tonight we would have a big party to celebrate both the meeting of the two work crews and the coming of the New Year. Tomorrow my family and I would continue driving the rest of the way north to San Francisco.

Torrential rain slowed us down, but after three hours of harrowing travel, we out-drove the rain, arrived at the portable houses, and connected with the rest of our family: Uncle Charlie, Aunt Mary, and my cousins Ruthie and Bert, who were both students at UC Davis. After hugs and greetings, Aunt Mary said, “It’s time to go for our baths, before it gets too dark.”

My Mom, Cousin Ruthie, Aunt Mary, and I grabbed our towels and clean clothes, and followed Aunt Mary across the plateau to the edge of a cliff. The sun was low. The view was magnificent. The sea was pounding far below us, and high cliffs were above and behind us, north and south as far as we could see. Aunt Mary picked up a thick strip of bark from off the ground. She showed us that on one side had been crudely written MEN and on the other side, WOMEN.” She explained that we were to hang it on a sturdy post showing the “Women” side, and then no men would come down to bother us.

The path was well worn, and she explained that the Esselen Indians had been using this path to the hot springs for time out of mind. We slowly followed the well worn path down the cliff. As we walked we could hear the pounding surf, as well as the sound of floating sea otters pounding clam shells on their chests with a rock, in order to break them open so they could eat.

Suddenly the path ended onto a wooden platform about twenty feet square. There, spouting out of the cliff from behind us, hot mineral springs gushed, I learned later, at eighty gallons a minute and 119 degrees Fahrenheit. The crews had set up this platform with a chest-high barrel to catch some of the hot water, two huge porcelain bathtubs, and buckets to hold the water until it was cool enough for us to bathe. We four stoppered the two tubs and then poured the somewhat cooler mineral water from the buckets into each tub.

Then, as my mother said, “We took off all of our clothes in front of God and all of the fishes,” and bathed and rinsed off in the mineral water. As we got out of the tubs, we pulled the stoppers and let the used bathwater run down the cliff into the ocean, cleaned the tubs, filled the buckets back up again with fresh hot water, dried ourselves, dressed, and hiked back up the path to the plateau where the houses sat. At the top of the path Aunt Mary took the “WOMEN” sign off the post and lay it on the ground to show that the bathing platform was ready for the next group of bathers.

The party was scheduled for this New Year’s Eve at the large fueling station building. One room was reserved for all the kids to settle down in their sleeping bags, and the big room was set up for dancing. They had hired a fiddler and harmonica player to provide entertainment, set up tables for pot luck foods, brought a few chairs in, and were embarking on a celebratory party that night.

Carolyn at age 11-1/2
Carolyn at age 11-1/2

At age eleven-and-a-half, with my full growth, my skirt ten inches from the floor, I considered myself adult. I danced with the men, and partied as an adult. However, there was this twelve-year-old girl named Twinkle. She was smaller than I, and of all the people in my past she twinkled less than anyone I knew. I tended to ignore her, especially when her mother bedded her down with the little kids in the sleeping area set up in the back room. The evening wore on with lots of dancing, music, and fun with these families who had worked hard for six years, and would now be going their separate ways. I was busy dancing with all the men, and having fun.

Then I noticed my stepfather Leslie was standing on the sidelines during a dance break, with my mom on one side and my cousin Ruthie on the other. Twinkle’s mother came up to talk to them. She asked, “How old is your Carolyn?” Apparently my mother and Cousin Ruthie had decided that they would not divulge my age, because there was her twelve-year-old Twinkle bedded down with the children, and here was eleven-year-old Carolyn being accepted as an adult. But they had not discussed this with Leslie.

When the question was asked, Leslie, obviously pleased and proud of me started to say, “Our little girl is…” then turning to my mother suddenly asked, “what are you hitting me for?” and turning to Ruthie asked, “what are you kicking me for? Our little girl is eleven years old.” Twinkle’s mother had nothing more to say at that time, and Leslie was teased for years about his reply.

The next morning we piled back into the Packard and headed on north to San Francisco.

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Thirty years later my husband Bob and I had been camping at Big Sur, and were driving south on that same section of Pacific Coast Highway. It was summertime, and the road was crowded with cars speeding both ways. As we drove up towards the location, now renamed the Esalen Institute, I saw that it was all fenced off, with several permanent buildings, and a swimming pool fed by those same hot springs.

Loudspeakers blared, filling the air with the sound of Joan Baez singing popular folk songs. I couldn’t hear the ocean pounding below. I could look down and see the sea otters, but could not hear them pounding their shells with rocks. As we drove closer, dusty parked cars were crowded along both sides of the road. The whole area was overrun with hippies. They were sitting or lying around on the ground, and the air was permeated with marijuana smoke.

Bob and I parked our car, and started to work our way through the crowd. The trail, where thirty years before my family and I had walked down the path to the hot springs, was now blocked off. Barefooted girls wearing long, tie-died muu-muus were standing along the edge of the cliff, swaying to the music, seeming to be in stupors, and looking in danger of going over the ledge. Everyone was wearing dark glasses, smoking cigarettes, looking numb. Bob, after politely asking first to get permission, took photos. I saw no food, only drugs and their effects. This was a new era.

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Carolyn at age 11
Carolyn at age 11
Age 12
Age 12
Age 12
Age 12

Age 13
Age 13

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