On the desk in our rooms alongside a leather-bound journal was a list of Ranch Values to guide us through the week. They suggested we try to connect with nature and remove “can’t” and “won’t” from our vocabulary. Alabanza encouraged us to remain in the present. “Don’t think about ten pounds from now, don’t think things like ‘When I get off this hike, I’m going to have the biggest cup of coffee,’ ” he said. The therapeutic value of this was both long-term and emergency advice for the ordeal of the next day.
We were awakened at 5:30 a.m. by the sound of chimes and a knock at the door. After wrestling with a foam roller in stretch class and devouring a microscopic slice of a frittata, we piled into the van and set out for Sandstone Peak. Glasscock joined us for the first hike, along with Alabanza and two other staff members. It all started off rather bucolically as we walked through a grassy valley of undulating, sun-dappled hills. Three of the guests moved to the head of the pack and quickly disappeared beyond the horizon. I tried to keep in step with Glasscock, grilling him about his previous life as a real estate finance guy and his passion for fixing up dumpy Malibu beach houses. But before long, talking was a strain. After about an hour and a half, the group stopped under the canopy of two ancient California oak trees. “Are you all right?” somebody asked me, concerned by my bright red face and the spreading sweat stain on my shirt. Oh, yeah, fine, I said, even though I was already exhausted.
Only an acute fear of rattlesnakes and mountain lions kept me from lagging too lamely at the rear as we began to climb up, and up, and up. Trina, the Palo Alto sprinter, and the rest of the speed demons in the group had passed me long ago. Three hours in, my legs began to shake. The switchbacks seemed to go on forever. Every 10 steps I stopped, gasping for breath, reaching for branches to steady myself. When I finally stumbled into an open, rocky, lunar-like landscape, I spotted Alabanza coming down the trail. I must have looked like someone who was about to vomit up several quarts of water and a frittata because he stopped to give me a pep talk. “Your body is detoxing,” he said with a friendly smile. “It’s all those sugar substitutes. It takes a while to get them out of your system.” It didn’t take that long, as it turned out. I began to find a rhythm: walk, stop, vomit, sit; walk, stop, vomit, sit. The trail seemed like punishment for having logged so many hours in front of a screen. I would have sworn off Wi-Fi forever just to be done with the hike.
Back at the ranch I was too exhausted to eat. I crawled into bed and collapsed, only to be awakened 45 minutes later by a knock on the door: time for the abs workout. Sit-ups? Crunches? Are you kidding?! That night Alabanza consoled me by telling me that Monday was really the toughest day. Everything would get easier from here.
And it did, sort of. Toxic Tuesday turned out to be less debilitating. On the hike up from the Pacific Coast Highway, we crested a ridge shrouded by the cool morning mist, then descended into a valley that went on for miles, and I entertained escape fantasies. By Wednesday, I was so weary, I completely lost track of time. Food and rest—not Twitter—were all I could think about. Alabanza kept urging us to “strive to learn who you are in this process.” I was learning that I have a let’s-get-this-over-with view of hiking. I was learning that I am the sort of person who does not think three almonds is a decent snack. I am also the sort of person who is prone to counting the number of forks laid out at each place on the dinner table to figure out how many courses we will be served. Nothing is as painful as self-knowledge.
Then I had a relapse.
Several guests had been surreptitiously checking e-mails at the end of hikes while they waited for stragglers like me. So I, too, stashed my iPhone in my pack on Thursday morning and headed off to stretch class. We would be hiking above the Pacific Coast Highway again and having lunch on a beach where there was perfect cell phone reception. No harm could come from one quick update.
As we headed toward Mugu Peak, above the Pacific Ocean, I found my pace and my place at the back of the pack with a lovely woman from Dallas named Kelley. “I’m not too proud to be the last in line,” she said, as we climbed through the fog, crossing a ridge and then back up another big hill. Every once in a while we’d shout to each other the food we were craving—“Pizza!” “Chopped salad!” “Starbucks Venti skim latte!” The mere thought of coffee kept me going for a few hours, but by mile five we were cursing again. It’s when the body is spent and you have to keep going for another five miles that you find your resolve, strength, and endurance. When we finally arrived at the bottom of the hill, on the PCH, we ducked under a tunnel and emerged onto the beach. And just as we reached Alabanza and the rest of the gang, my phone rang. Loudly.