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Spoon—or platter? It was 9 in the morning on a bright fall Saturday at the inaugural Heritage Gathering at the Ojai Valley Inn—an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property—and I had a decision to make. Soren Mitchell, an artist enlisted to teach a class on the art of wood carving, had just asked us to select from a pile of dirt-encrusted wooden planks and produce our choice of serving utensils. Time was of the essence: The day’s schedule was packed with opportunities to learn different homespun survival skills—“back to roots living” courtesy of lectures and demonstrations and hands-on instruction in everything from how to grow a garden and dry herbs for tea to how to raise chickens, make broth, pickle, preserve, make soap, ferment indigo dye, do shibori, and create sourdough starters. Goat yoga had been canceled because of lack of interest. Hatchet-making was sold out.
What would bring 25 participants paying a couple of thousand dollars each to the cushiest resort in Ojai, California, to spend a weekend learning what are essentially farm chores? That’s what I had headed west to find out, both inspired by my own encroaching ennui—a hollow sense that some combination of convenience culture and the miasmatic horrors of the news were slowly poisoning my soul—and lured by a rash of luxury resorts offering a sort of highlight reel of rural life as a wellness treatment akin to a hike or a massage. “If they did this where I live, in Marin, they’d get 300 people, easy,” a woman in her mid-40s told me as she sanded down a shard of redwood. “Everybody wants to be doing something like this.”
“People are yearning for the rustic,” Lauren Malloy said, as she walked with me to the corner of the lawn where the pig we’d later eat for dinner was roasting over an open fire. Malloy and her friend Emma Moore co-founded a blog in 2016 that chronicled how they incorporated antiquated skills and traditions (fermentation, livestock rearing) into their modern lives. They called their project Women’s Heritage and organized meet-ups for their readers. A year later, they opened Heritage Goods and Supply, a retail space for their favorite fashion brands, home goods, and homesteading supplies in Carpinteria, California. Ojai Valley Inn was their first pick for the Gathering. (Alongside its golf, pool, and spa scene, the resort is leaning in to hands-on experiences: cooking classes with James Beard Award winners at the sprawling epicurean events center, as well as macramé classes, rock painting, and terrarium building. Guests can even make their own aromatherapy products.)
It can be intimidating to embark on a campaign of retro-agrarian self-sufficiency—doing it on vacation is a pain-free (and Instagram-friendly) way to find out if it’s for you. “I think the whole homesteading movement can be really intense for people, because I’ve even felt that, and I milk my own cow,” Malloy said. With possible future Gatherings in cities like Austin and New York, Malloy and Moore’s methods allow for a sort of Goop-inflected approach for those who want to sprinkle a little back-to-the-land-ism into their lives, rather than revolt completely. “I don’t want to live off the grid and be a farmer,” said Malloy, who, with her husband, Keith, a surfer and filmmaker, founded Patagonia’s Worn Wear recycling program in 2013. “I just want to learn a little more, find my passions, and do what I can.”
That night at dinner on the lawn, at the behest of Jeffrey Zurofsky, who’d taught a class called Respecting Fire: The Primal Cooking Source, guests served the person next to them from the buffet, rather than helping themselves. “Don’t ask each other what you do for a living,” Zurofsky directed. “Ask your dinner mates when was the last time that they cried tears of joy.” At the table, I accepted a hunk of freshly baked sourdough, picked the wood splinters out of my indigo-stained palms, and tried to answer the question.
I was certainly moved on a soul level, if not to tears exactly, a few days later, at the eight-tent Dunton River Camp (from $1,300, all-inclusive) in southwestern Colorado, where I rose before dawn to wrap myself in blankets, go out on the deck of my glamping-style tent, and watch the sun rise over the mountains. A pair of hefty black Percheron draft horses named Pat and Paul meandered nearby. It was the peak time for viewing the fall colors in one of the most ridiculously picturesque valleys in the entire American West, and the aspen trees were an audibly shimmying and glowing gold. I sat there in total quiet, barring the trees and the odd equine sigh, for hours, nearly paralyzed by my own contentment.
Four miles up the road at Dunton Hot Springs (from $925, all-inclusive), a 19th-century ghost town has been brought up to 2020 standards for those looking to play pioneer. There are no televisions, and the weather dictates most of what’s available in terms of activities. Apart from the hot coffee delivered in tin milk crates to your cabin in the morning, there is no room service: For the most part, guests in “town,” as the resort is called, go to the Saloon to eat communally, at one long table, three times a day, from a menu based on what’s fresh and available. (The dinner bell rings when it’s served, but you can also go by the open-plan kitchen during the day to see how the bison sausage gets made.)
It’s all of the satisfying simplicity of a home on the range with none of the attendant concerns about, you know, survival. The property offers several ways to fulfill one’s own country fantasies: horseback riding, fly-fishing, guided hikes, sleigh rides, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, ice climbing, spa treatments, a jewel box of a library (where Jewel, a frequent guest, reportedly wrote most of her autobiography, Never Broken), and its own iron, manganese, and lithium-rich natural hot springs. I fished, I rode, I hiked, I soaked. I spoke with a Midwestern couple on their third visit who said they plan to come every year. They praised the sustainability, authenticity, and total immersion in a slower, quieter way of life. “You just feel better here,” he said.
I knew what he meant: I found myself spending a lot of time staring at the world around me, feeling the land’s history in a way that had never been quite real from amid the glass and cement of Manhattan. When I reached for my phone it was only to send pictures of the view. I felt closer to the earth, and to the people who live by working with it rather than by ignoring it; I was attentive to what Heritage might call “the roots,” and yet I felt less encumbered than I had in a long time. It may have been the lithium in the hot springs, but westward expansion began to make a certain amount of sense.
And so just a jog farther west, and a few hours north in Montana, at the Resort at Paws Up (from $1,540), a celebrity-beloved, 37,000-acre, four-season summer camp for the whole family, I arrived with plans to continue my pursuit of nirvana by getting my hands dirty. Paws Up has programs for that: Along with paintball, rappelling, ATV tours, and the occasional ax-throwing expedition, families lodging in Jacuzzi-bearing, flat-screen-filled, multifloor log cabins can opt to spend a day with a “real-deal Montana mountain man” who offers a wilderness workshop called Gettin’ Primitive. It includes hands-on instruction in edible plant identification, fire making, knot tying, longbow archery, shelter building, and tracking.
At dinner, I met Jackie Kecskes, Paws Up’s equestrian manager. In 2018, Kecskes began a mustang rescue and rehabilitation project with the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Program; Paws Up now offers a Mustang Mindfulness Demo. Her enthusiasm was infectious. “You gotta do a cattle drive,” she said. “You’ll see— our horses love having a job to do.” Which is how I found myself the next day under a clear blue sky astride a palomino named Custer, pursuing a runaway Corriente and two calves along the banks of the Blackfoot River.
Custer and I pursued them through fragrant sagebrush and thorny brambles, between trees and over rock scrambles. I whooped, I hollered, I became increasingly aware that designer jeans are really not made for this. I realized I had reached a rare (for me) singular focus on the task at hand, retrieving these cows who were hell-bent on going their own way. And then the cows did redirect, and I had some briefly tangible proof of my efforts, that my small machinations in this world had a real effect, even just for a minute and across species, and even I was surprised by my elation. Did I cry tears of joy? No. But that evening I did call my family. “Next vacation,” I said, “we’re going west.”