There were a few signs that FATHOM contributor Crystal Meers needed a vacation: She had two BlackBerrys and an increasingly pronounced cramp in her right thumb. And a weekend in Mexico had her searching for an internet connection in the middle of the desert.
When I was invited to The Ranch at Live Oak, a week-long luxury bootcamp, I jumped at the chance to check it out (and by jumped I mean marked my reply email as "urgent"). Aside from the lack of cell phone reception and wifi, The Ranch attracted me in other ways. Some would label me a health nut -- a label quickly dispelled after seeing the dark side that a good Scotch, a bowl of guacamole and a gelato sundae bring out in me. But it is true that I am always intrigued by the latest and greatest in fitness and wellness.
The Ranch was inspired by the hardcore, no-frills, share-this-bathroom-with-a-stranger-and-like-it Ashram. The people who survive The Ranch often sing its praises (after they finish complaining about everything else). I had heard the food was phenomenal: Chef Kurt Steeber made a name in the Bay Area at Zuni Café. I also loved the idea that most of the produce grows on the premises.
Another draw was the challenge itself. Would I be able to hike twelve miles every day? Even without my iPod? Would my arms give out mid-chaturanga? Could I even do a pull-up? Was the world going to fall apart when I didn't email it back in fifteen seconds? Would people still text me? How many birthdays would I miss without Facebook?
In early November, I gathered my workout clothes, a hydration backpack, hiking socks, broken-in trail runners, and sunscreens for the various circumstances I imagined I'd find myself in (stuck on a mountain, stranded in a valley), and made the 90-minute drive from Silver Lake to Malibu. The Ranch itself is a real beaute. The sprawling 1920s hacienda-style estate, a former boys' summer camp, sits on 100-plus acres and has been transformed into fourteen well-appointed private cabins with common areas, indoor and outdoor dining areas, two workout facilities, a year-round organic farm with goats and chickens, and owners Alex and Sue Glasscock's private home.
Besides the many guests determined to lose a few inches or jumpstart a health kick, there are textbook type As looking for a time out from running the show at home, at work or both. As soon as we arrived, program director Mark Alabanza, a wilderness and wellness expert and Ashram alum who has been with The Ranch since its 2010 opening, encouraged me to reliqunish control and the urge to micromanage or multitask. It's a no-options program: hike during the hikes, eat during meals, participate in the fitness classes. There's no alternative, no opting-out, no skipping, and no quitting. It made sense to me: If I was going to ignore a trainer, eat a burger, and sleep in, I might as well be at home.
Our group of fourteen was all women -- a rarity, we soon learned. Friends had traveled together from Boston, Seattle, and Westchester; a few loners like myself showed up from Canada, Germany, and New York City. Three had done the program before, and I took the high return rate as a really good sign. I definitely had I-wish-so-and-so-were-here moments, but going solo meant I had no one to complain to, which forced me to keep a (mostly) positive frame of mind even when I was sick and tired of walking/stretching/being reminded to hydrate/eating carrot sticks/drinking herbal tea and would have liked to vent. I did tell anyone who would listen that it was annoying to follow a massage with weight training. That just sucked.
Every day was pretty much the same. Around 5:30 a.m., one of The Ranch Hands would come by my room with a chime and a friendly holler. I'd head to yoga, then prep for the Santa Monica Mountain trails by wrapping my feet (blister prevention), eat breakfast, ride in the van, and hike, hike, and hike some more. At some point, we'd stop for a snack. I use the word "snack" loosely, because six almonds with a pinch of salt should be classified as a "bite." Getting a whole crisp apple on the trail felt pretty much like Christmas. It only happened once, but it was a special occasion. (A returning hiker remembered it as a highlight of the year before.) When lunch happened on location, tables were set with rustic linens, the coconut water flowed, and we'd each have a bowl of soup. Back at The Ranch (were you wondering how long it was going to take me to use that phrase?), the mid-day meal was much heartier: beet and bean salad, a wrapless burrito. Look how hearty:
After lunch, there was a little downtime, but everyone was expected to break a sweat at the fitness center during resistance training or circuit class unless they were in a massage (the highlight of each and every day, especially in the life-changing hands of Steve Schwartz). Then, depending on the time, we'd either go back to the workout class or go straight into yoga. I would typically run as fast as I could back to my room to put on a bathing suit, grab a robe, and get in the hot tub. One repeat Rancher told me the hot tub saved her from getting sore on her first stay, and I'm glad I followed her lead.
Dinner was promptly at 7 p.m., during which I savored each and every bite. Evening entertainment consisted of a briefing on the next day's hike, an opt-in session with the chiropractor, a nutrition lecturzzzzzz -- sorry, thinking about reading pasta box labels puts me to sleep. That's about as much as they mixed it up, which was just fine. Because by the end of the day I wanted nothing more than to go back to my zen den, crawl under the fluffy covers, and crash.
Repeat for six days, and you're done. You can shake it up with an as-spiritual-as-you-wanna-make-it meditation class, or an acupuncture treatment with Dr. Shlomit Michaely. You might also want to get in your car and drive away. At some point, you'll want to move in. Daily laundry service and no responsibilities will do that to you.
If you had asked me the value of a trip like this on day one, I would have stared at you blankly and then fallen over because I was so spaced-out and nauseous (totally normal, by the way). By day three, I would have told you the trip was breaking my computer addiction. I did check my email once in the business center, where I found two bits of irritating news that I could do absolutely nothing about, an exercise in letting it go. By day five, I would have happily espoused the The Ranch message of getting back to basics, which is what makes the place unique.
Balancing work and life, as well as a sensible diet and good old-fashioned exercise, goes a long way in the world of overtime, over-indulgence, trendy spins on the food pyramid, and the latest workout craze. As I drove away, leaving the bucolic bootcamp behind me, I felt clear-headed, energized, grounded, and like I really needed to eat more cauliflower. I think it's fair to say I hit the refresh button.
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