OJAI

Af­ter a per­sonal tragedy, Olivia Stren went to Cal­i­for­nia to re­cover. She soon dis­cov­ered that the land, like her, was bat­tle- scarred but hope­ful.

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“I felt a strange kin­ship with the land­scape—we had both been vis­ited by some kind of hell­fire, but here we still were....”

I’m at Alisal Guest Ranch and Re­sort, a 4,047-hectare dude ranch about 30 min­utes out­side of Santa Bar­bara, Calif., and I’m rid­ing a horse called Zippo through the Santa Ynez Val­ley. There is some­thing pri­mor­dial and cin­e­matic about the land­scape here: an emer­ald vast­ness that looks like it still be­longs to the Span­ish va­que­ros, con­jur­ing a myth­i­cal vi­sion of Cal­i­for­nia as a golden land of bounty, a dream of a place that prob­a­bly never ex­isted. Mistle­toe-bearded val­ley oaks and ancient sycamores that look like he­roes in a Stein­beck novel dec­o­rate ea­gle-touristed glens greener than Vivien Leigh’s cur­tain dress in Gone with the Wind. Golden ea­gles are not the only cel­e­brated guests to visit the prop­erty since it opened in 1946. Doris Day was a fre­quent vis­i­tor; Fly­ing Ebony, a bay stal­lion and Ken­tucky Derby win­ner, was re­tired to stud here;

and Clark Gable mar­ried model and so­cialite Lady Sylvia Ashley in Alisal’s library, which is next to my room—a study in cow­boy co­zi­ness, all sad­dle browns and south­west­ern vir­gin­wool Pendle­ton blan­kets.

This was about a year ago, and I re­mem­ber look­ing past Zippo’s vel­vety brown ears and tak­ing in the splen­dour of the scenery as a cou­ple from Santa Bar­bara talked about how much they hated the movie Side­ways. “Tourists are still com­ing in droves to drink Pinot Noir!” the woman said to her hus­band, who nod­ded in de­spair. “Santa Bar­bara and this val­ley have never been the same.” Mostly, though, what I re­call is the event that led me here. Two months ear­lier, in the sharpest depths of win­ter, I lost a preg­nancy at 22 weeks. It was an ex­pe­ri­ence that I will re­duc­tively and sum­mar­ily de­scribe as un­speak­ably painful. The next cou­ple of months were a blur of grief and sad­ness; I can hardly re­mem­ber any­thing about that time, ex­cept that I spent most of it in bed cry­ing. It was around then that I re­ceived an in­vi­ta­tion to visit Cal­i­for­nia’s Cen­tral Coast. It some­how felt like an in­vi­ta­tion to sur­vive, so I booked my ticket. In ret­ro­spect, this was an ur­gent, pro­tec­tive need for de­nial and es­capism but also a need to move to­ward the light.

The (lit­eral) light is par­tic­u­larly splen­did in Ojai (pro­nounced Oh-high)—an un­re­lent­ingly beau­ti­ful city 90 min­utes north of Los An­ge­les. There is the so-called “pink mo­ment” at dusk, when the set­ting sun bathes the val­ley in a blush­ing alpen­glow, tip­ping moun­tain peaks in crowns of pink light as if by a magic wand. But it’s the moun­tain­sides that struck me most. When I ar­rived there in early spring, the area had been rav­aged by hor­rific wild­fires. I drove past hills and moun­tains that were singed and patched with strag­gles of ghostly black­ened bushes but also flecked with green. I felt a strange kin­ship with the land­scape—we had both been vis­ited by some kind of hell­fire, but here we still were: com­pro­mised and bat­tlescarred but try­ing to come back to life.

I’ve long had an emo­tional con­nec­tion to Cal­i­for­nia. I first vis­ited San Fran­cisco when I was 15 and loved it— its cloud-skimmed but­ter­milk-and-pis­ta­chio-coloured Vic­to­ri­ans,

I felt a strange kin­ship with the land­scape— we had both been vis­ited by some kind of hell­fire, but here we still were...

its histri­onic hills—with the kind of ar­dour you can only muster at that age. My dad lived in Cal­i­for­nia be­fore I was born, and I grew up hear­ing about his time at Berkeley (where he got his PhD in the ’60s), which some­how bound Cal­i­for­nia in my imag­i­na­tion to ro­man­tic no­tions of youth and free­dom. About six years ago, I got mar­ried at San Fran­cisco’s City Hall and hon­ey­mooned at San Ysidro Ranch, out­side of Santa Bar­bara—where Vivien Leigh and Lau­rence Olivier got mar­ried, where Jackie O. and JFK hon­ey­mooned and where John Hus­ton spent three months loung­ing around the bougainvil­lea and pen­ning The African Queen. When I vis­ited, bun­nies with tails as fluffy as the lo­cal gar­de­nias hopped about the chef’s gar­dens and bizarrely loud hum­ming­birds gath­ered nec­tar from the flow­er­ing quince. But the ho­tel, pre­pos­ter­ously pic­turesque, had been com­pletely de­stroyed by the fires and the mud­slides. (It’s sched­uled to re­open some­time this spring, af­ter an ex­ten­sive restora­tion.)

I was in deep need of ex­ten­sive restora­tion, too. Af­ter a cou­ple of days at the Alisal, I checked into the Ojai Val­ley Inn. Birds chirped fes­tively from 200-year-old oak trees as if to greet me. (I’d be singing, too, if I lived there.) The prop­erty looks as if it were lifted from An­dalu­sia—a foun­tain­spout­ing fan­ta­sia of white­washed build­ings, hand-painted Span­ish tiles, coil­ing path­ways, pool-blue skies, wild­flower-dressed mead­ows... all ac­com­pa­nied by the scent of orange blos­som. “It’s pixie sea­son!” I was told re­peat­edly by the bell­hop, the concierge, my Uber driver and a sales clerk at Bart’s Books, an out­door book­store where weath­ered rare pa­per­backs en­joy cit­rus-per­fumed breezes. “They’re here!” ev­ery­one said about the pix­ies, as if they were talk­ing about vis­it­ing celebri­ties. But pix­ies are a kind of lo­cal celebrity cit­rus—a pe­tite, deeply per­fumed tan­ger­ine that only grows in Ojai’s utopic mi­cro­cli­mate. The way a tourist might take an open-top bus tour of the man­sions in Bev­erly Hills, I de­cided to ride a bike into some nearby pixie or­chards. The pix­ies blazed amid lux­u­ri­ant green boughs, amid con­stel­la­tions of richly fra­grant waxy white flow­er­lets; it’s a scent—in­tox­i­cat­ing, life-val­i­dat­ing—that has stayed with me ever since.

That af­ter­noon, I wan­dered (pos­si­bly tres­passed) around those or­chards, through petals of ripen­ing af­ter­noon sun­shine, through the delir­ium and stub­born­ness of that scent, and it pre­sented me with the first mo­ment I’d had in a long time in which I felt the small­est bloom of hope­ful­ness. It also gave me the con­vic­tion that cit­rus tourism and ther­apy should be a thing. I rode back to the ho­tel, my bas­ket full of pix­ies, each a lit­tle planet of plea­sure and sun­shine and hope.

OJAI VAL­LEY INN The Ojai Val­ley Inn is set to sto­ry­book ef­fect on 89 hectares of hills and wild­flower-flecked mead­ows. As if just breath­ing the (orange-blos­som-, rose­mary- and laven­der-scented) air here weren’t in­dul­gent enough, visit the on-site api­ary and par­take in some honey-tast­ing with the res­i­dent bee­keeper, re­lax with a fa­cial at the spa, which uses Mal­ibubased marine line Osea, and en­joy some val­ley-to-ta­ble dining at the inn’s Olivella and Vine.

Take an hour-long horse­back ride to the prop­erty’s Adobe Camp and en­joy flap­jacks by a camp­fire amid the tow­er­ing sycamores. Or head to lo­cal vine­yards (there are over 100 winer­ies and tast­ing rooms in Santa Bar­bara County) to sam­ple some Syrah, Gre­nache Blanc and that most fa­mous Cal­i­for­nia va­ri­etal, Pinot Noir. (Thanks to Side­ways and Paul Gia­matti’s Pinot Noirob­sessed Miles Ray­mond, Pinot Noir pro­duc­tion in Cal­i­for­nia has pur­port­edly gone up 170 per cent since the film’s re­lease in 2004.) ALISAL GUEST RANCH AND RE­SORT

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