I'm staying at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, a cush resort on 220 acres. My room is huge, and the grounds are lovely—the place is a popular wedding site, and you can immediately see why. Though I like it, I'm already mentally spending the advance I intend to receive for my book (tentatively titled High Noon in the Happy Valley). Since the money will go only so far, I'm relieved to find that I also dig the less expensive Blue Iguana Inn, just outside town. Although the rooms aren't as luxurious as those at the Ojai Valley Inn, they're decorated with works by local artists. Besides, some rooms have kitchens, and the restaurants in Ojai aren't all they could be. The town is funny that way: it has an effortless sophistication—and easy access to fresh ingredients—but hasn't made the gourmet leap of, say, Napa Valley.
Before I switch over to the Blue Iguana, I indulge in a trip to the spa, added to the Ojai Valley Inn two years ago. I try the kuyam, the spa's signature treatment. Joel, the young worker bee, sits me down on a tiled chaise and pours dark, rich, soft mud into my hands. "It's Hungarian," he says. "It's been whipped!" Then he leaves me alone to listen to a meditation tape. I'm about to tune out the voice altogether—"Let your internal organs relax" sent me over the edge—when I realize that underneath it is another voice, at a subliminal volume. I swear I hear it say "Lucy is wrong." I think of Mia Farrow, Vidal Sassoon, Lakshmi, and the bird that flew into the window. "Lucy is wrong." What can it mean?My book may be taking a Twin Peaks turn, meaning there will be no answer. A pathless land, indeed.
At my lowest point, I come upon one of the most together people I've ever met. His name is Marlow, and he's an acting director at the Ojai Foundation, which has been helping people get back to nature since 1979. Think eco-spiritual retreats for schools and corporations. As Marlow shows me around the 40-acre compound, our conversation is Socratic. I ask a question; he asks one back.
"Why do you think spiritual people are drawn here?"
"I like that you're thinking this way. Why do you think that you're thinking this way?"
It's both enlightening and maddening, for Marlow rarely finishes a thought before moving to the next one, quoting Rilke on the way. But his intelligence and calm are inspiring.
"Does the geology have something to do with the energy here?"
"Isn't that a bit woo-woo for your magazine?"
Touché! We pass a blindfolded girl learning to trust, a rickety old phone booth, a yurt with a male menopause book by the bed. "I don't know why the valley has attracted so many artists," he says, "but it has. Beatrice Wood, of course, and Malcolm McDowell, Larry Hagman." I laugh, and then explain that when he said "artist" I didn't think "Larry Hagman" would come next.
"Larry Hagman," he replies, "has done a lot of good . . ." followed by something or other about disadvantaged children. Mortified, I stammer that Continental was showing an episode of I Dream of Jeannie on my flight out West and that at the time I thought Hagman was underappreciated. I go back to town, where I obviously belong.
I finally find someone—Suza Francina—who agrees unequivocally with my theory that Ojai is Shangri-La. She's the mayor, though, so she would. "This is a power spot, a sacred place," says Francina. "I feel it when I wake up at dawn."
We meet for tea. I start off by apologizing for my grimacing: I'm still sore from my hike (four hours, 4.3 miles). Francina offers to "stretch me out"; the mayor is also a yoga instructor and the author of The New Yoga for People over 50.
How has Ojai managed to stay the same?"The real secret," she says, "is we fought the four-lane highway. It's our argument against development: we can't support the traffic. If you want to save your town, don't widen the road.
"I first came to Ojai forty-three years ago," she continues. "I remember when it wasn't touristy. We recognize the danger of being too dependent on tourists." I start to worry that High Noon in the Happy Valley might do to Ojai what Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil did to Savannah: bring in busloads of tourists and annoy the locals. "Of course," says Francina, "a lot of the tourists become citizens."
The patron saint of Ojai was probably Beatrice Wood, who died in 1998 at the age of 104. (Longtime residents, including Francina, boast of having known "Beato.") She was friends with Marcel Duchamp and other artists, and eventually became an artist herself. I could take or leave Wood's pottery, but am charmed by her secret for longevity—a diet of young men and chocolate.
A lot of artists live in Ojai, perhaps because of the vibe or the light, perhaps simply because other artists are here. One of my favorites is Carmen Abelleira-White, who makes artworks in a 1920's schoolhouse with things she's found around town. When turned down by Ojai's official art tour, she started the Art Detour. But even the rebel's in love with the town.
"Many people quit their jobs and move here," she says. "Until three months later and they can't get Indian food at ten P.M. I've moved away and come back. I feel nurtured here, at home. If I lived somewhere else, I'd probably still be teaching instead of painting."
I used to paint.
"Someone recently asked me," she continues, "'Is your life what you hoped it would be?' And I thought, Yes."
It is perhaps too easy to end this story at sunset, with the pink moment. But here I am at Dennison Grade, where Capra filmed the valley as his idea of Shangri-La, the perfect place.
Ojai isn't Shangri-La, I know that. Heck, I can tell that from the empty Zima bottle rolling around by my feet. (Dennison Grade, I guess, is where local kids go to be bad.) But it is close to perfect, at least to me. People seem to have their priorities straight here; they live well but modestly, and with poise.
Does the land draw a certain kind of person here?Or does it change the visitor into that certain kind of person?I wouldn't be surprised if both were true. The Ojai Valley is relentlessly beautiful, with the light shining down through the mountains all day long. Speaking of the light, everything has turned the most delicate shade of pink.
The answer, I suppose, is as I supposed. There is no answer. As Van Morrison sang, "It ain't why, why, why. It just is."
Back at local hero, I run my theory by the sweet teenager behind the café counter. "I'm here writing a story for Travel + Leisure," I say. "I believe this is the perfect town."
She scoffs, evidently unaware how rare it is for a town of 8,000 people to have three independent bookstores. "I can see why you think that," she says. "But there are the usual troubles."
I let it go. When I finish my decaf I make my way back to the counter, suavely stuffing a dollar into the tip jar. "So, um, what did you mean about troubles?"
"The girl?" she says, speaking in questions. "That was murdered?" She lowers her voice. "She went off . . . No one knows . . ."
Best-seller list, here I come! Now all I need is a drag queen.