The Ojai Valley
Is it possible there's a place where everyone is content?Where all is right with the world?You bet your burrito. It's a town called Ojai, about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles. Erik Torkells takes you there
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.
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.
Ojai is an easy drive from Los Angeles—about an hour north of the city. As for weather, the summer can get very hot. But the beach is only 20 minutes away.
Ojai Valley Inn & Spa 905 Country Club Rd.; 800/422-6524 or 805/646-5511; doubles from $245. The address is no fluke— the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa feels like a country club, what with its golf course and country-club clientele. The 211 rooms are spread across 14 buildings, flowing down a hill. The ones at the spa (they're newer) are nicer, but farther from everything.
Blue Iguana Inn 11794 N. Ventura Ave.; 805/646-5277; doubles from $95. Homey, with an emphasis on local art. Spend more for a room away from the road.
Moon's Nest Inn 210 E. Matilija St.; 805/646-6635; doubles from $95. A former schoolhouse, now a B&B. The people who bought it three years ago have given it a fresh makeover.
Ojai Foundation 9739 Ojai-Santa Paula Rd.; 805/646-8343; from $25. Sleep in a yurt and help with the chores.
Maravilla Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, 905 Country Club Rd.; 805/646-5511; dinner for two $110. Ojai's best restaurant by far. Interesting combinations—seared ahi tuna with tempura asparagus on a Chinese pancake—in a vaguely rustic room. Suzanne's Cuisine 502 W. Ojai Ave.; 805/640-1961; dinner for two $60. The menu is all over the place: salmon on sauerkraut; tomato, feta, and onion salad. But the place hops as Suzanne works the room (she's the one who looks like Linda Evans after a tussle with Joan Collins on Dynasty).
Ranch House S. Lomita Ave.; 805/646-2360; dinner for two $75. Ojai's most famous restaurant has a pretty garden with patio seating; the food has lost its luster, though.
Boccali's 3277 Ojai-Santa Paula Rd.; 805/646-6116; lunch for two $20. A white building across from an orange grove, with picnic tables. Pizzas, pastas, Italian sandwiches.
The Summit 12689 Santa Paula-Ojai Rd., Santa Paula; 805/933-9898; lunch for two $12. Old-fashioned fast food, from bacon cheeseburgers to chili fries.
Shops, sights, spirituality
Local Hero 254 E. Ojai Ave.; 805/646-3165.
Bart's Books 302 W. Matilija St.; 805/646-3755. Legendary 36-year-old outdoor used-book store.
Krotona Institute of Theosophy 46 Krotona Hill; 805/646-1139.
Krishnamurti Library & Study Center 1130 McAndrew Rd.; 805/646-4948.
Lake Casitas Recreation Area 11311 Santa Ana Rd., Ventura; 805/649-2233. For boat rentals, call 805/649-2043.
Ojai Ranger District Office 1190 E. Ojai Ave.; 805/646-4348. Get trail maps here.
Center for Earth Concerns 2162 Baldwin Rd.; 805/649-3535. By appointment only (and they mean it).
Meditation Mount 805/646-5508. Meditate in a group or on your own, with a wonderful valley view.
Pink Moment Jeep Tours 805/653-1321; from $35 per person. They'll take you up the mountain to view the sunset.
George Stuart's Gallery of Historical Figures 805/646-6339; open weekends May-December.
Studio of the Hills 805/646-2000. Home of Zubin and Shahastra, who've set up a walk in the woods with stops that challenge you to think about who you are. By appointment only.
Carmen Abelleira-White at Art Detour Studio 805/646-9809. By appointment only.
Outside the Ojai Coffee Roasting Co. (337 E. Ojai Ave.; 805/646-4478), there's a quirky poem taped word-by-word onto a lamppost.