Quarantine Me at Asilomar

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Quarantine me as long as you like. Just make sure you quarantine me at Asilomar.

For this peculiar time, there may be no more desirable California place than that small strip of coastal Monterey County known as Asilomar. It’s more than just an unusual state park, with a state beach, hotel, and conference grounds.  It’s also a versatile refuge where Californians can either isolate themselves or be with others. 

And in a state as wired as ours, Asilomar is the rare place where Californians might find some peaceful sleep.

I’d been pining for Asilomar’s pines long  before the coronavirus shut down our daily lives. Months ago, my family made reservations to spend a few days of April’s spring break there. Asilomar is that rare location where I, an energetic person who works all the time, can actually relax.

Two weeks ago, Gavin Newsom blew up our plans. The governor closed the conference grounds and hotel so they could be used to quarantine passengers exposed to COVID-19 on the Grand Princess cruise ship. As of this writing, as many as two dozen passengers may be there. And Asilomar could become a major center for quarantines as the pandemic worsens.

This prospect has raised concerns among Monterey peninsula citizens and media. But such worries miss the point of the place. Just as California has been a refuge for people around the world, Asilomar has long been a refuge for Californians. In this sense, it’s long been one of California’s Californias.

Asilomar’s origins lie in the efforts of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) to shelter and train young women as they relocated from farms to cities in the early 20th century. For this, YWCA needed a West Coast conference grounds for meetings and camps.   Asilomar, designed by Julia Morgan (later Hearst Castle’s architect), opened in 1913. A Stanford student invented the name by combining the Spanish words for refuge (asilo) and sea (mar).

By the 1920s, Asilomar was used year-round, by camps, colleges, churches, conferences, and all sorts of Californians seeking refuge. A distinct vibe of “quietness” developed. A 1931 newsletter by camp workers described the “differentness” of life where the sounds included “the moan of the wind and the drip of water from the fog-clad pines.” The document also observed how refuge at once removes us, and connects us:

Selfish desires must be given up for the sake of the group. But as the summer moves on week after week, this adjustment is soon made and the individuals are moving as one united body, ready to work or to play as occasion demands.  

Asilomar nearly didn’t survive the Great Depression. In 1934, the YWCA voted to close and sell Asilomar. But no one would buy it. Asilomar was briefly leased to motel owners. During the war, it served as living quarters for military families from Fort Ord.

Post-war, the YWCA reopened the grounds as a money-making conference facility, even as it was trying to sell the place. By the 1950s, Pacific Grove residents and other local communities, afraid the property would be sold to a glass company for sand extraction, formed a Save Asilomar Committee. That inspired state legislation that made Asilomar a state park in 1956.

The place has grown since. In the 1960s and 1970s, new structures were added according to a master plan by San Francisco architect John Carl Warnecke, best known for his JFK memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. The state acquired adjacent land for environmental reasons, and restored Asilomar’s dune ecosystems. 

Over time, Asilomar has developed a reputation as a good location for serious thinking—especially for Californians getting together to talk over the future of science and technology. Most famously and controversially, in 1975, a meeting there produced a historic agreement in which scientists ended a moratorium on recombinant DNA research and designed new “Asilomar Conference” guidelines for genetic manipulation that effectively constitute a voluntary honor system. 

The ethos remains simple and rustic, which is part of what makes the place so versatile and valuable. It also feels gloriously disconnected. The rooms don’t have phones or televisions. The beds are simple and comfortable. The rates are reasonable.

You don’t do much at Asilomar—you can walk the trails or the beach, do some bird-watching, rent a bike, play volleyball, or play pool at the tables at the main lodge. Those guests now in quarantine can’t leave their rooms, but, for that, I mostly envy them. Asilomar is a terrific place to catch up on sleeping and reading. 

On my last Asilomar visit, I re-read Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and underlined this passage: “Under the thinning fog the surf curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness.” 

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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