I was skeptical.
Ojai was billed as "Palm Springs for hippies", but never having been to Palm Springs, nor really seen California's version of modern hippie-ism, the description didn't give me much to go on. I pouted for most of the drive from LA; the almost-boyfriend next to me in the driver's seat was quiet. After a long, sad winter in New York City, I wanted to fuse my body with the Pacific Ocean and the sand. I didn't understand why our first trip out of the San Fernando Valley had to involve driving east.
The drive from his apartment in Studio City is an easy 90 minutes without traffic. Longer if you go the scenic route, and longer still if you live in the South Bay, leave on a Friday afternoon, or employ any of the other caveats Angelinos use to make this place seem less sprawling than it is. Once you make a hard right away from the blip of stunning coastline in Ventura, the drive to Ojai takes you through hills of dry brush, sweeping horse ranches and shady, sun-speckled roads. The way out of Ojai smells more intensely of orange blossoms than one would think possible.
When I arrived in Ojai the first time, my life was straddling two cities, two coasts; a fork in the road with 3000 miles between prongs. The man driving the car had a mission: sell this girl on California; more specifically, on staying here with him. We were on day five of a 30 day relationship crucible that was mostly my idea. I moved into his apartment from February 1 to 28 with the provision that we would go up and down the coast of California for at least half of those days. "I want to see more than just LA," I told him. "LA doesn't interest me".
Going through some post New York minimalist thing, I had brought a carry on's worth of clothes for a month-long trip. I bought a cheap straw hat and a pair of sunglasses at LAX; items I didn't own as a Brooklyn/Manhattan commuter who sometimes went days without seeing the sun. I was very aware that these $5 aviators were the physical lenses through which I would judge a place capable or incapable of becoming my next home. The deck was stacked from the get go. I had already complained about the distance between things, the charmless buildings, the lack of fetishized bread products, as New Yorkers are wont to do. Still, it was February and I was wearing a sleeveless silk shirt, and that's not nothing.
We landed at the Ojai Rancho Inn, a little red motel that's clearly been touched by an experienced, sharp-eyed designer. The desert chic is at just the right level- atmospheric but not overbearing. The rooms are comfortable and airy, but not so new that they feel sterile. "I wonder how many people have used this," said my travel partner, staring at an in-room jacuzzi built for two. I grimaced. It didn't stop us from trying it out later.
We fell asleep early with the windows open, only to wake up at 2am and run to shut them, shivering together as we tried to work the thermostat in the dark. "The desert can drop like forty degrees at night," I said- pulling the number out of some distant memory that hadn't surfaced 'til now.
Our day was laid out by the front desk. Everything about us screamed "here from LA for the weekend", all sunglasses and skinny jeans, and our itinerary reflected it. Bicycle into town on complimentary hotel cruisers. Breakfast sandwiches at Knead Baking Company, which could be lifted straight out of Silverlake. Palo santo candle shopping at Shop Summer Camp, the retail embodiment of Ojai desert chic. Touring olive groves at Ojai Olive Oil Company; Instagram gold. We did it all with enthusiasm. The palo santo candle went to my mother's house with a note that said "from the sunshine". The lemon-infused olive oil went to a dinner party in Pasadena a few weeks later, when I was meeting the now boyfriend's oldest friends. At the end of the day, lounging by the Rancho Inn's pool, microbrew in hand, I stared up at the Topa Topa Mountains, waiting for the promised "pink moment" at sunset and felt a sudden panic.
"We're missing it," I said aloud.
I pointed and he understood. I had a whole thing about mountains; I wanted to be up there.
Twenty minutes spent speeding through orange groves, then we settled breathless on a bench in the hills. An older couple approached then turned away; let the kids have their moment. I tell people I decided to leave New York the day I saw a subway rat eating another subway rat, but that's not really true. It was the moment I realized that the people who made up my life there, the friends, the room mates, the exes, would all move on from it, whether I did or not. That an apartment- even a great apartment with a back yard, two blocks from the Bedford L- wasn't a good enough reason to stay at the fair. I leaned more of my weight into the man next to me. I breathed in orange blossom and jasmine.
I insisted on the long way home down the 1, my fingers out the open window on the passenger side; as close to the ocean as I could be. I checked the weather in New York, something I'd taken to doing as a ritual; proof that I was in the right place. It was a moot point anyway; the great apartment on North 9th St. belonged to someone else now. You can't go back to what isn't there. In my purse I had stashed two sticks of palo santo. Their sweet, coconutty perfume saturated the lining of the bag and everything in it. Six months later when the man in the other seat and I moved in together, I burned one of those sticks in our new apartment, waving it gently from corner to corner, channeling a spirituality I don't possess or believe in. It's not about the cleansing or the ridding of bad energy. It's about the sense of time and place; the rightness of now.