“Five dollars please young man,” requested the mustachioed thirty-something man wearing only flip-flops and beads. I handed over the money and proceeded to the men’s changing room. Slowly I undressed for this first time in public nudity, anticipation rising I joined the crowd in the park-like grounds. Even though it was 1971, still a bold act for a 21-year-old kid from the suburban conformity of the San Fernando Valley. Just ten miles from my childhood home, I had landed at Los Angeles’ haven of the liberated human body and mind.
Given the zeitgeist of these times of building twenty-foot border walls, ethnic registries, and 24-hour surveillance, I wondered ‘could that memory have been real?’ Not just the practice, but the ideals. Audaciously the founder, a journalist and father-figure of American nudism, Ed Lange called his human potential naturist (or nude) club—Elysium Fields referencing the classic Greek mythology of the after-life playground. In the Sixties such idealistic names were the norm.
I learned about Elysium in a purloined copy of Playboy magazine, but it took several months for me to find out its exact location. Being young and fairly inexperienced, I was curious and excited about the expanding sexual/ social revolution and Elysium sounded like a perfect place to join it. Being a hippie radical, I regularly visited the Free Press Bookstore (ground zero for the counter-culture in LA) on Fairfax Ave, and one day someone slipped me the directions to Topanga Canyon’s clothing-optional club. The two canyons that mattered in Los Angeles back in the Sixties and early Seventies were Laurel and Topanga. Over-looking Hollywood, the former was the vortex of the burgeoning hippie rock scene of LA, whereas the hard-core back to the land hippies landed in Topanga. LA’s closest alternative to San Francisco’s Marin, Topanga hosted love-ins, festivals, and other hippie events back then (and still does to this day). With lots of open space, it epitomized local favorite, Canned Heat’s hit song, ‘Goin’ Up the Country.’
Entrance to Elysium Fields, Topanga circa 1970s
In those revolutionary times, a few experimental communities, each with its own flavor, emerged in Topanga,. The most notorious, Sandstone required a special invitation due to its partner-swapping parties. Another was known for esoteric spiritual rites like yoga, incense, séances, chanting and so on. And then there was— Elysium Fields.
After numerous successful lawsuits the LA County Supervisors gave final permit approval, and Elysium Fields flourished as a private membership-only club until the 1990s. A good neighbor, the club was well-respected member of the Topanga community. Unfortunately, after Ed Lange died in 1995 his two daughters sold the property for $2.5 million. The executive director, Betty Meltzner and her husband poured their personal money into a new property in Malibu, but it soon floundered.
On a hot summer’s day, I enlisted my buddy, the Silver Tongue, (whose soft, understated voice was like a FM DJ) and raced through the mountain curves in my Triumph sports car (top down), a potent mix of anxiety and fear kept my pedal on the floor. Just north of the center where the Post Office, a head shop and the general store served local residents, a plain street sign announced Robinson Rd. Twisting and turning uphill for a couple miles, we arrived at a solid, wooden 10 foot fence with a regular house gate and purchased our temporary memberships. Forking over the high admission charge (in those days $5 would buy two record albums or a ticket to see the Animals at the Hollywood Bowl), we summoned as much cool as possible for a two horny, young guys from the Valley.
Once we got over the initial jitters, we had fun sipping wine, looking at the girls behind our sunglasses, and cooking in the hot tub. I envied the regulars who had booked the private meditation room in advance. I made a few contacts but didn’t get lucky that day. In addition to the recreational activities, human potential workshops (a la Esalen) were offered on various days. I planned to come back for enhancing my aura, thinking it may help me get girls, but I never did. My consciousness was still wrapped up in my Berkeley college days and the political revolution, not personal enlightenment.
Although I embraced the counterculture ethos of skinny dipping at youth hang-outs like Tahquitz Falls in Palm Springs, Elysium was more than kids self-consciously jumping into the water. Distributed around the lush lawn a couple dozen ‘grown-ups’ ranging in age from 25-50—all naked—‘frolicked.’ Not just lying around, but playing volleyball and shuffleboard or chatting and sipping wine, while several waited for a turn in the sauna/ hot tub. All in all, a civil, calm adult scene. We meandered on the look-out for young women to ogle among the mostly ‘mature’ women in the grounds. Feeling quite exposed and nervous the whole time, it felt like a dream, a Maxfield Parish painting from the 1920s, all fuzzy and ethereal. Mentally I took notes: Life lesson #1 most bodies are average, more or less, without clothes. Lesson #2 when nudity is the norm, it isn’t titillating, but actually relaxing, pretense is dropped along with clothes.
Both lessons were regularly affirmed for me years later during my annual trips to Harbin Hot Springs, a clothing-optional neo-hippie resort north of San Francisco, until it burned to the ground in 2014. On the other hand, non-participation invites the voyeurism seen at Black’s Beach near La Jolla in San Diego in the 70s. When the word got out that people were disrobing at Black’s, the cliffs above soon became a magnet for all kinds of with binoculars. The scene was ruined. That never happened to Elysium. Maybe it was the admission fee and the secluded location, but it exemplified the highest hippie ideals; free love (not just physical), community, consciousness expansion, and fun.
Fast forward to 2016 and the emergence of my seniority in age, if not maturity, one of my interests now is pilgrimage to the old counter-cultural scenes. What was the back story? What was it about? What did it contribute to my life and others? What, if any, survives the decades? We live in a continuous present with ever thickening layers of experience over experience, which often results in embellishment, denial, and puffery. With that in mind and wondering if I could find any artifacts and spirit of the old Elysium Fields of Topanga, I drove up there recently.
The Robinson Road sign still points to the highlands where bucolic spaces welcome dogs and beat-up old vehicles. I passed fancy restored homes closer to the highway, and then higher up, California oaks thicken and the yards get bigger and some with old trucks and equipment rusting in the weeds. My thoughts drifted back to that day decades ago and the spirit of possibility I felt. This day I sensed or saw nothing evocative of that magical day in 1971, just a few Buddhist prayer flags and a phone pole with a flyer announcing a lost dog and guitar lessons. Your classic Topanga life that could’ve been 1991, 1971, or 1951, still expressing eccentric individualism and California country living. Although in my Porsche Cayman (still in a sports car), I drove slower this time taking it all in. At the assigned address, a foreboding gate blocked the entrance. My only option to get closer was farther up Robinson Rd around the backside where I saw the familiar lush, green lawn, surrounded by a few out buildings. And empty. No people. No dogs. Like an empty movie set. I tried to imagine that day with the hip, exploratory young and middle-aged adults of LA who came up here to explore consciousness and sexual freedom, but no ghosts appeared from the oaks and the luxury cars.
Entrance to the former site of Elysium Fields, Topanga Canyon, CA
Today that site and most of Topanga look the same, but the visit revealed the lessons of Elysium. A significant element of those free-wheeling times in the Sixties/ Seventies, Elysium made a mark as a real-world example of progressive culture that transcended ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation. For me, my vision of community, creativity, and expression was solidified in the rustling leaves of the oaks. Now, it is my turn to share the hope and the ideals that I tasted that day over forty years ago. Even in these potentially dark days of moralistic, hypo-critical family values national leaders, experiments in liberation and community continue and always have. Deep in my heart and many others of my generation, the experiments of those days aren’t forgotten. Its seeds continue to sprout in healthy, consciousness-expanding, uninhibited resorts and communities all over the world. Elysium was a dream, but the dream didn’t die.