I am a veteran of what was once known as the intensive workshop. I suppose you could even say I was a workshop junkie and not be inaccurate. It was the era of est, and Actualizations and Lifespring. It was the moment in time for Brugh Joy's two-week retreats, complete with verbal- and food-fasts and walking over hot coals and sharing. In short, it was the late seventies, and the task at hand was to follow in the footsteps of the sixties' "tune in, turn on, drop out" streak across a psychedelic sky. In place of the love-in, we "sat in" rooms, listening to trainers teach us how to take responsibility for our feelings, our choices, and ultimately our lives. At that time, I was an intense person, and those brief blasts of confrontational, nonstop, self-help-all-the-time workshops suited my disposition to a TNT. I was cramming for enlightenment. I was trying to be a better person, or at least I'd die trying. And after 18 or so workshops, I felt I had reached my goal.
I don't know if I got there, though I got somewhere. But that was then. Lately, I've had the feeling I need a tune-up. Nothing dramatic, but you can't be too "all right," can you?You can be too thin (see Karen Carpenter), and for the most part you can't be too rich (that one you really have to take case by case). But too all right?I missed my short 2-, 5-, even 14-day blasts of self-improvement with other like-minded travelers. So when I needed a spa break and someone suggested a new wellness retreat in Canada, the seventies part of my soul wanted in on it.
The Alive Resort for Wellness & Longevity is not your average spa, but it is an homage to those workshops I missed so much. Hidden in the forest high on a hill outside of Lumby, the tiniest of towns in British Columbia, the "resort" is housed in what looks like a wooden farmhouse with views of the Mabel Valley as far as the eye can see. From the first moment, you feel as if you're arriving at some relative or friend's house: you walk inside and are asked to take your shoes off, then you're immediately seated in a dining room and fed the first of many scheduled meals. (There's really no snacking in between unless you feel comfortable raiding what is a replica of your mother's kitchen. I sure did.) Afterward, you carry your bags upstairs to your room and find that there's no TV, no phone, and limited closet space. There are two twin beds or possibly even a queen in case you wish to share with a spouse or friend, but you'll get the same feeling you've had when you've come home for the holidays to your parents' place, only to discover that your old bedroom has now been converted into a generic guest room.
Outside the lodge, you find yourself nestled inside a healthy hush of glorious scenery, surrounded on all sides by tall trees covering rolling green hills, leaving a few generous patches for small farms, where herds of cows graze peacefully. There are hiking trails and waterfalls and vistas you can explore by yourself, with the resort's dog, Chance, or with a group. Initially, I found all this disorienting. Beautiful scenery, though charming, and fresh air, though novel, are no substitutes for a really good cigarette after a healthy meal. In Los Angeles, I live enveloped by a constant hum of dusty white noise. Noise is a fundamental part of the air I breathe. There's no noise at the Alive Resort, dusty white or otherwise. Does this sound like your typical resort?Not to me. What we have here is an honest-to-goodness retreat: a place one goes to reflect on whatever is dogging one at that particular moment in time.
I don't know about you, but enforced reflecting makes me nervous. I've decided that this is because when I was young, my brother and I would have dinner with our mother (what am I talking about—this still happens!) and at some point she'd say, "All right, dear, after we all have our nice meal, we're going to sit and visit." Visit?! My eyes would search for my brother's eyes. Isn't there a horror film called The Visit?I love my mother (if you don't believe me, ask me where she lives. Ready?Give up?Next door! So we can "visit" anytime!), but to visit right after dinner is like swimming after eating. In any case, I, or you, or lots of people come to Alive Resort to reflect and transform the health of our lives, which includes abstinence from caffeine, smoking, alcohol, and recreational drugs. We also come to disconnect from e-mail and phones, or, more precisely, from the entire outside world.
But how did you get here from there, you might ask, while smoking and drinking liquor and caffeine, or simply eating your red meat and white sugar and not exercising?
I certainly wondered this myself, having arrived with my friend Kim and an extra suitcase of diet soda, after reading in advance that there would be an eerie absence of caffeine at the Alive Resort, and that perhaps I should wean myself from the substance a few weeks prior to my stay. Somewhat of an impossibility for me since I ingest the substance constantly. Other than that bit of essential truancy, however, I was willing to place my chemical-laced body into the capable, holistic hands of the small, committed staff.
These hands had begun their work 18 years earlier alongside the original owners, Phil Brewer and his wife, Eileen, who is also Alive's head chef, chopping, mixing, baking, steaming, and whipping up ingredients from their own garden. At that time, Alive was called the Silver Hills Guest House, and for many years was run on a by-donation basis out of Phil and Eileen's home. Something like 1,000 guests from all over North America came through their doors, many staying for long periods of time, others returning year after year. But it was difficult to stay open with very few of these donations coming in, and, to be honest, Phil Brewer is too nice. Someone needed to get him to a "tough businessman" workshop—and that someone was Vic LeBouthillier, publisher of the health-obsessed Alive magazine.
Not that Vic is tough; he's just able to rearrange things so that Phil and Eileen can finally earn a living. But I bet that isn't easy, because Phil loves his message. He loves the stuff he's learned about living longer and feeling better so much that he wants to give it away, as though it belongs to everyone. Vic's mission, albeit with an eye for turning a profit, was much the same as Phil's: teach guests how to prolong life, increase physical health, and reduce daily stress. So Phil and Vic combined their forces, added an Aveda spa and renovated the house, and, last year, the groovy, neo-hippie Alive Resort for Wellness & Longevity was born.
Wilbert was here, as far as I could make out, because he was at a crossroads. He was 83 years old, his wife had died a little over a year ago, and he was having a crisis of faith. He had prayed his partner wouldn't be taken, but she was. And now when he prayed, often there was silence. Many of the other people here were in their seventies or eighties or were younger and sick (by sick, I mean 37 years old and dealing with cancer). There was one woman who was very close to my age but looked considerably older, as she was being brutalized by osteoporosis. Several of the 14 guests were young, and had come just to jumpstart a healthier lifestyle. Can this stuff be treated with Hot Stones in Heaven or the Wellness & Longevity Detoxification Wrap?I'm not sure, but both of these, and more, are offered at the resort by three therapists, who might be the busiest employees on staff.
In a way, I was the perfect person to visit a place like this. Not young, but not exactly old either. Not dying, but on the other hand, I could never be accused of living well. Having been a substance-abusing, smoking meat eater, I'm everything the good people at Alive want to help heal. To that end, after I arrived and put my bags into my room, I was rushed in to have a consultation with the resort doctor as he scanned my medical history. "I see here you take rather a lot of medications," he said, looking up quizzically through wire-rimmed glasses. I exhaled deeply. "Perhaps the people here can find you some healthy alternatives to one of these mood stabilizers." Before the first of my five days was over, I got word that Vic was determined to save me; I had been earmarked for a visit. Somehow I managed to successfully avoid a one-on-one with Vic for a few more days.