Big Sur Spiritual Encounter
by Judy Dash
Chicago Sun-Times, May 25, 1997

Big Sur is not a national park, but the lush redwood forests and magical seascapes within its 90-mile expanse along the Pacific Coast assure its status as a national natural treasure. Poets and philosophers, songwriters and artists long have been inspired by the area's mysti-cal/spiritual properties. All the better reason to see it with the guidance of the folks at the Esalen Institute, Big Sur's prime purveyor of self-awareness workshops, from Gestalt psychology to couples massage and inner golf. Steve Harper, a soft-spoken man with a love of Eastern spirituality that he intertwines into his hiking programs, leads three- and five-day Big Sur Wilderness Experiences. Participants are based at Esalen, where they can partake of huge, healthy buffets and soak in the communal, clothing-optional cliff-side hot tub overlooking the Pacific. An excursion we sampled took us up the Tan Bark trail of Partington Ridge, a steep ascent through towering redwoods, wild strawberries and fragrant fennel, and along a winding creek with cascades of tiny waterfalls. At the trail entrance, we followed Harper's lead, and bowed to the forest - a Shinto-inspired gesture that expressed our reverence for all living things. Then we joined Harper in clapping twice, a kind of wake-up call announcing our arrival to creation that also was supposed to stir our own inner alertness. Per Harper's suggestion, most of our hike was in silence, so we could concentrate on our breath and be fully present to the sights and sounds around us. Back at the trail-head, we crossed the road and followed a path down to Partington Cove, where we watched sea otters frolicking in the foamy surf, swimming on their backs, and diving for fish. Then, facing the ocean, we joined Harper in a respectful bow of farewell.

Judi Dash is a free-lance writer in Ohio.