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The Ojai Valley

Just look at it, a valley so beautiful Frank Capra used it to represent Shangri-La in his film Lost Horizon. No, forget Lost Horizon: the movie that comes to mind in Ojai today is Pleasantville, in which two kids get sucked into a fifties sitcom. Where else will you find a downtown where the locals actually hang out, an independent department store, fast-food restaurants that don't advertise on national television?Shops are staffed by well-adjusted youths; cars stop religiously for pedestrians. But in other ways, Ojai's been updated: there's a film society, a farmers' market (fresh fenugreek!), countless cafés offering soy milk, and something called a yogaversity. How's this for a perfect example of small-town trust?The night before the Fourth of July parade, everyone marks a place with a chair and leaves it there overnight.

Perfection on that level is dull, though, and Ojai (pronounced "oh-high," by the way) delivers on the quirky front, too. The Ojai Valley, you see, has long drawn people yearning to go deep. "The magnetic center of the earth is here," the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1878. "Spirit-minded people come to reach the God centers in themselves." A partial list of the groups that have called it home: Church of Tzaddi, Life Divine Center, Sufi Order, Vortex Institute, Science of the Mind, Siddha Yoga Dham, ECKANKAR, Church Universal and Triumphant, Sathya Sai Baba. On top of that, you have a layer of hippies and artists; ceramist Beatrice Wood—often called the Mama of Dada—lived in Ojai, where she was a follower of resident Jiddu Krishnamurti, thought by some to be the next messiah. Krishnamurti, with Aldous Huxley and others, founded the Happy Valley School here in 1946 (it's one of at least 20 private schools in the area). Then there's a thin layer of celebrity frosting. Anthony Hopkins, Bill Paxton, Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche all have houses here.

When I proposed to the editor of this magazine that I write a story on Ojai she smiled beatifically. She looked away or inside or somewhere but definitely not at me, and whispered, "Ojai." Then she paused. "I had such a wonderful bike ride there." Pause. Smile. Pause. I had to know: What is it about this town that blisses people out?

Way back when, the peaceful Chumash Indians ruled the valley; they were conquered by the Spanish, who were conquered by the Americans. By 1923, the town had been conquered by one Edward Libbey, a glass manufacturer from Toledo, Ohio. He first came in search of a winter retreat, and proceeded to commission the post office tower, the arcade of shops, the pergola, the Ojai Valley Inn, the El Roblar Hotel (now the Oaks, a spa), Civic Center Park (now Libbey Park), and several other buildings. "Without Libbey," says David Mason, florist and unofficial historian, "Ojai would just be another little Western town."

So why isn't the town called Libbey?Because it was originally named after Charles Nordhoff, a travel writer who toured California in 1871. His pied-piper prose brought so many tourists that valley residents were inspired to incorporate as Nordhoff. The name lasted until World War I, when Nordhoff sounded too German for comfort and was changed to Ojai, possibly a Chumash word for "the nest" or "moon," depending on whom you ask.

Local Hero, one of Ojai's three independent bookstores, becomes my preferred place for coffee breaks. "Be careful," says a clerk after I tell her my theory that this is heaven on earth. "You might have an accident like I did and end up staying. I came for a month and I've been here four years." I figure her for the town malcontent until she points out that it's a hard place to live if you're in your twenties, since 30 percent of the residents are retired.

That could suck. So I wait a full hour before deciding that I'm going to move here. I've got it all figured out. I'll take a year off, soak up the vibe, maybe work at Local Hero, and write a book not unlike John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Berendt stayed on the hardcover best-seller list for four years, and this place is so kooky I won't even have to fudge the truth the way he did. All I need is a drag queen and a murder.

I head over to the Krotona Institute of Theosophy to do some research. Krotona was founded by Albert Powell Warrington, a Virginia lawyer who thought Ojai was "impregnated with occult and psychic influences." This leads me to think about Rosemary's Baby, Mia Farrow, and that Vidal Sassoon haircut that was supposed to be a sign of her madness but instead made her look pretty darn chic. Suddenly, a bird flies into the picture window and stumbles off, dazed. A sign?But of what?

The main spiritual figure in Ojai history is Krishnamurti, who came to town in 1922 and died in 1986. Originally trained by the Theosophists, he never claimed to be a prophet, writing instead that "truth is a pathless land." If the photo on the wall is any indication, his resemblance to Tyrone Power might have inspired more than one follower.

The librarian, Lakshmi, comes over. I explain my quest to find out why Ojai makes people so happy. "I believe it was the Chumash's peaceful way of living that has brought us all here," she says.

"The Indians?" I say, forgetting that it's not kosher to call Native Americans "Indians," especially to someone from south Asia. I change the subject. "I'm hoping the weather holds," I say. "I want to see the pink moment." The pink moment, when the sun bounces off the mountains at dusk and bathes the valley in pink light, is a matter of intense local pride.

"We will pray," she says.


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