I slipped off my bra and took a deep breath. Just the undies left. I hesitated a moment, then, feeling silly, yanked them off and stuffed them into my bag. All ready. Avoiding eye contact with everyone else disrobing, I grabbed my water bottle and towel and walked quickly outside. In the changing room surrounded by shed clothing and artificial light, my body had been something solid and material. But under the dark swaddling of the moonless sky I didn’t feel its weight or notice its contours. Everything was softening, blending with the night air.
I headed to the furthest pool and sank into the hot water. Curls of steam wrapped around my head, filling my nostrils with the yellow smell of sulfur. A couple got into the pool and perched against its edge, watching the waves swell and crash into silver foam against the rocky shore below our cliff-side perch. In the darkness, their bodies were flat silhouettes carved against the pinpricks of starlight filling the sky.
After a while my face grew hot and flushed. I lifted an arm out of the water and watched the vapor dance around it in the cool air. Through the swirling steam the stars above pulsed and fuzzed. For a moment I thought I’d caught the smudge of Andromeda, but when I tried to focus on it, the patch seemed to blur with the surrounding stars and melt back into blackness. Only when I looked away did it then reappear; a massive galaxy burning bright, slipping in and out of shadow.
The enveloping warmth of the water began to make me feel drowsy and dissolved. I sat on the pool’s rocky ledge and let the air bring back shape to my jellied limbs. Looking up I saw a short streak of light, thin and sharp, cut the sky. A fellow bather noted the shooting star with a soft murmur. Considering how anxious I’d been about being naked around a group of strangers, it was surprising how quickly I’d forgotten their presence.
Once my body felt sufficiently sturdy I went over to the individual tubs. They were lined up within a partial enclosure that amplified the thunder of the waves as the sound tumbled furiously between the concrete walls. I climbed into one and turned on the tap, enjoying the hot water stream over my body. The tub was long and deep and I let the water run until it began to slosh over the lip and I was submerged up to my chin. Focusing on a patch of sky visible beyond the enclosure I watched the stars shimmer and hiss. When the dizzying heat got to be too much I took a long drink of water and felt the cold radiate down through my throat and into my belly.
I soaked for over an hour, my body again growing soft and amorphous. Nearby, a couple got out of the tub they were sharing and wrapped themselves in towels. They paused for a moment to look out across the dark expanse of ocean, and then headed inside. It was time for me to go inside too. I knew though that when I left that vaporous world of steam and starlight the spell would be broken. My body would be solid again, terrestrially tethered.
Before leaving for the changing room, I wrapped myself in my towel and lay out on the stone ledge. The towel was damp from condensation that had collected on it throughout the night and it made me shiver in the cool air. Above, the stars burned bright. In just a few hours the rising sun would blot them out. They’d still be there though, each giving off unseen energy and light until nighttime sent them shining once again.
Located in Big Sur, Esalen‘s hot springs are available for night bathing from 1 – 3 a.m. every day. Access is $35 per person and same-day advanced registration via their online system is required. The night bathing is extremely popular and often sells out almost immediately, so have your browser open and ready for when registration opens at 9 a.m. PST.