HISTORY

Fear And Loathing In Big Sur

ILLUSTRATION BY ALLISON BRUNS
Who would hire Hunter S. Thompson to take care of a rustic Big Sur coastal estate? That ill-advised decision led directly to the founding of the famed Esalen retreat.

Legendary “gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson was known for many things: a propensity for absorbing illegal substances, a love of guns, hanging out with the Hell’s Angels and, ultimately, having his ashes blasted toward space in a rocket.

Who would hire someone like that to be the caretaker of an oceanfront estate in Big Sur? Therein lies a tale worthy of Thompson’s beloved New Journalism.

The property that Thompson oversaw in the early 1960s eventually became the Esalen Institute, the legendary retreat that is associated with a mellow vibe and was the birthplace of the Human Potential Movement, pulling together many of the threads that formed the 1960s counterculture. The summer-fall program for the New Age retreat center came to include such luminaries as Ken Kesey, Fritz Perls and Alan Watts.

But Esalen might never have even been founded if not for Thompson. In 1961, Thompson trekked to the rugged Big Sur coastline on a quest to write his second novel — or as he referred to it in a letter to Norman Mailer, “The Great Puerto Rican Novel” — in part by channeling California writers such as Henry Miller and Dennis Murphy, a young writer who had published a well-received first novel, “The Sergeant.”

As it happens, Murphy’s grandmother owned a ramshackle property in the heart of Big Sur then known as Slates Hot Springs. The family had acquired the land in 1910 with the intent of turning it into a European-style health spa, but the dream hadn’t really materialized. 

The lodge at Slates Hot Springs in Big Sur in the early 1960s. Thompson’s abortive stint as caretaker there led to the founding of the Esalen Institute. ESALEN ARCHIVES

The lodge at Slates Hot Springs in Big Sur in the early 1960s. Thompson’s abortive stint as caretaker there led to the founding of the Esalen Institute.

Shortly before Thompson’s arrival, Dennis Murphy’s older brother, Michael, returned to the U.S. from a pilgrimage to India. Attending Stanford in the mid-1950s, Murphy had fallen under the spell of Eastern philosophy while studying with religious scholar Frederic Spiegelberg. In his travels to India, Murphy became deeply influenced by the followers of Sri Aurobindo, an Indian guru who had died in 1950. 

Murphy’s friend and Stanford classmate, Richard Price, had been to a lecture by Aldous Huxley in 1960 at the University of California at San Francisco on “Human Potentialities.” Huxley made the argument that the human mind only used about 10 percent of its capacity and called on the doctors and medical researchers in the audience to develop technologies to exploit the complete power of all of the human neurons. 

From these various influences, the two men created the Human Potential Movement, and Murphy and Price began assembling the elements that became Esalen, blending Eastern religion and philosophy with other New Age ideas. Murphy and Price wanted to use Slates Hot Springs as an Esalen retreat center.

But when Murphy approached his grandmother, Vinnie “Bunnie” MacDonald Murphy, with the proposal to turn the family property into the home of his new creation, she would have none of it. She had taken to calling her grandson “the Hindu” and thought he was going to give the property to “the Indians.” 

Hunter Thompson’s colorful and eccentric writing style was evident in his earliest work, some of it written at Big Sur. MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES

Hunter Thompson’s colorful and eccentric writing style was evident in his earliest work, some of it written at Big Sur.

Enter Thompson.

Looking for an inexpensive place to live while writing his novel, the eccentric writer proposed that Bunnie make him the caretaker for the property, which consisted of a motel and several houses and cabins adjacent to concrete-lined hot baths, all set beneath Highway 1 on the rocky edge of the Pacific.

The area was occupied by a motley but interesting group of people. Author Henry Miller had been a neighbor on nearby Partington Ridge, helping the Beat Generation to discover Big Sur. Beat poets Lew Welch and Lenore Kandel lived at the retreat for a while and folk singer Joan Baez had a cabin in the woods above the coastline. As a college student at Stanford in the late 1950s, Stewart Brand, who would become one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and later created the “Whole Earth Catalog,” was a regular visitor.

Employing a caretaker for the property seemed a reasonable idea.

“As I see it, you may be better off having a reliable person living in the house,” Thompson wrote Bunnie Murphy in January 1961, “because — like other vacant buildings in Big Sur — it is very often invaded by transients, ‘beatniks,’ and other types who [have] no respect for private property, furniture or anything else.”

The Murphy family matriarch accepted Thompson’s proposal. His rent would be a mere $15 a month, and he was given the responsibilities of both security guard and groundskeeper, along with a small set of rooms adjacent to the main house. 

During the day, Thompson patrolled the grounds with a billy club. At night, he tried to capture the cadence of writers he admired by laboriously typing copies of their works. He also worked on his own novel. The manuscript, “The Rum Diary,” did not emerge until longtime friend Johnny Depp rediscovered it among Thompson’s papers in 1998.

Thompson’s time at Slates Hot Springs seemed an ideal existence for an aspiring writer. However, the responsibilities of being the property’s caretaker intruded from time to time. Late one night, Thompson went into fierce security-guard mode when two young men showed up at the retreat. They turned out to be Michael Murphy and his friend Price, who were staying in the main house. Murphy was awakened by Thompson, pointing a .22 pistol at him and shouting: “Who the hell are you, and what are ya’ doing here?” according to an account by Jeffrey J. Kripal, a Rice University professor of religious studies, in his book “Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion.”

Thompson’s pistol-packing ways got him into other trouble as well.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Slates Hot Springs was connected to a bit of a “Muscle Beach” bath scene, a chic clandestine rendezvous for San Francisco’s gays. Thompson was never tolerant of gays and so, not surprisingly, he didn’t get along well with some of the habitues of the property’s baths.

One night, visiting the baths with a girlfriend, Thompson was jumped by a group of young men at the hot springs. Badly beaten, he retreated to the caretaker’s cabin and fired his pistol through a closed window for hours. No one was hurt, but bullet holes pockmarked other buildings on the property.

MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES

Hunter Thompson’s career as a published author began in 1961 with a story in Rogue magazine — a pulpy Playboy imitator — about his time at Big Sur, titled “Big Sur: The Tropic of Henry Miller.” The impressionistic writing style that later made him famous was already on display, but his criticism of the property he was overseeing angered its owner and got him fired from his job as caretaker.

Shortly afterward, Thompson wrote to a friend: “I am surrounded by lunatics here, people screeching every time I pull a trigger, yelling about my blood-soaked shirt, packs of queers waiting to do me in, so many creditors that I’ve lost count, a huge Doberman on the bed, a pistol by the desk, time passing, getting balder, no money, a great thirst for all the world’s whiskey, my clothes rotting in the fog, a motorcycle with no light, a landlady who’s writing a novel on butcher paper, wild boar in the hills and queers on the road, vats of homemade beer in the closet, shooting cats to ease the pressure, the jabbering of Buddhists in the trees, whores in the canyon, Christ only knows if I can last it out.”

The roots of Thompson’s famed gonzo journalism style already were apparent. While he didn’t finish his novel at Big Sur, he did manage to publish an article commemorating his stay for a magazine called Rogue, a downscale version of Playboy, for which he was paid $350. 

Part travelogue, part expose of the local baths, Thompson’s article concluded: “[Henry] Miller, in one of his rosier moods, said this coast would one day be the Riviera of America. Maybe so, but it will take quite a while. And in the meantime, it will be as good an imitation of Valhalla as this country can offer, and one of the finest places in the world to sit naked in the sun and read The New York Times.”

When Bunnie Murphy found out about the shooting incident and learned about the article in the smutty magazine spreading gossip about Slates Hot Springs, she evicted the aspiring novelist. She traveled to Big Sur from her home in Salinas by chauffeur-driven Cadillac, and when Thompson resisted, she threatened to call the sheriff. 

Hunter Thompson’s career as a published author began in 1961 with a story in Rogue magazine — a pulpy Playboy imitator — about his time at Big Sur, titled “Big Sur: The Tropic of Henry Miller.” The impressionistic writing style that later made him famous was already on display, but his criticism of the property he was overseeing angered its owner and got him fired from his job as caretaker.

After eight months of high living at the springs, Thompson did not give in easily. He wrote her a final pleading letter: “Your visit yesterday was quite a shock to me and I thought I should write this letter to assure you that I am not at all happy with the idea of being evicted and will go to great lengths to avoid it. Primarily, I shall call a halt to my shooting and keep the demon rum at arm’s length — at least at a safe distance.”

To no avail. 

Thompson hung around Big Sur for several more months, hoping to continue writing his novel. The successful sale of the story to Rogue inspired him to keep at work, but by the fall he had moved back home to Louisville, Ky.

In the meantime, the Murphy family matriarch relented and agreed to let her grandson pursue his vision of a New Age retreat on the property. It was a perfect Hunter S. Thompson conclusion: Esalen, which went on to become the prism for a world that rejected violence and preached love and coexistence, had been born in gunfire.