It’s the beginning of my second visit to the Ranch, and the world is outside the fence where it should be. Telephone reception is spotty at best, and the computers are slow in the computer lounge. Some people have telephones in their “suites” but I am happy to live without all of those electronic links to the outside for a week. I do use the alarm clock, however, or I’d probably never get up. The rooms are so cozy and the bedding so deep and warm and soft, I sleep like a baby, and dream wildly in color every night. Every night.
It’s still dark and the heater is cycling on and off. Do I get up for the hike or go back to sleep. It’s colder than shit Christmas Eve. My little casita has heavy curtains, drawn tightly closed against the night. I get up and pull on my long underwear, thick wool socks and hiking boots. Where are my bloody gloves and hat? I wash my face, or rather splash it with cold water, grab some chap stick and my heavy jacket and head out the door. It’s so womblike and comforting inside it takes an extraordinary act of will to actually step out the door, but I’m already awake and dressed in too many layers to back down now.
My first time here, probably 5 or 6 years ago, I brought way too many clothes. I guestimated I would need one outfit for the early morning hike each day, one for the day exercise classes, and one for evening. Multiply that times 7 and you’ve got two honking suitcases that scream “newbie”. I learned pretty quickly that everyone wears the same thing for the hike every morning- and no one cares or even notices.
Passing through the vine covered arch guarding the secret garden of Los Flores I see the kitchen staff coming to work. I walk to the main lounge on the other side of the ranch, the flames and warmth of the wood fire inside reflecting off the glass windows, dark shapes moving across the panes as the “mountain climbing group” heads out. I wave at friends and friends to come during this time together- old and new, as they skip past me on an early morning quest for some serious climbing. I’m doing the second shift, more casual, less athletic two mile rolling hills walk like yesterday, or maybe the organic vegetable garden walk. Frittatas and chocolate zucchini bread. A little decadent, designed for only one visit a week, and perfectly suited as my reward for getting up and doing the hike in the first place. Motivation.
Hey, if I’m going to pay this kind of money and spend most of my time in physical activity, I can easily justify using food as a motivation. The rest of the year at home I save up my weight watchers points for the weekend, for wine, for decadent meals in decadent cafes.
I pull open the side door of the lounge and see lots of red noses, and faces huddled over steamy cups of tea with agave nectar. I see that our special guests this week, a rabbi and his wife from New York, and a researcher lecturing on ability of monkeys to communicate with humans are joining us for the hike. Despite the hour, we are all in good spirits, commenting on how bizarre it is that we are not just lying in our warm, soft, delicious beds, that we actually signed up for this.
There are about 20 of us and we step outside a disorderly line disappearing into the chilly damp morning just before sunrise, breathing through our mouths, weaving our way past sculptures and landscape lighting, past the yoga and dance studios, past the grape vines barren in the winter chill, past the labyrinth along the path at the base of Mt. Kuchima. The staff strong and lean herds us up the trail, and follows the last guest - it’s a big property, they don’t want to lose us. Walkey talkies abrupt screeching, staccato notes from the mother ship a lifeline to civilization, or the sighting of a mountain lion, or our approach to the garden. I pull off my gloves as the day and my metabolism kicks in, and we pause for a moment near the hollows in the stones where acorns were ground. A little historic commentary by the young lady for the first timers, and then we pause for a moment and In the silence before we continue our walk, I hear the sound of the chanting Kumeyaay Indians from the burial grounds far above us.
We continue on the path, around hills, slight inclines, through farm gates, past horses and burros and goats and chickens, up the road, over the bridge, across the creek. Chatting for moments as the path narrows and clumps of guest form, but mostly walking quietly, enjoying the start to a new day, smiling as we pass , each at our own pace, on the trail. As the sun comes up, the garden begins to appear as if by magic and as we draw closer in the chilly dawn the glass hot houses and La cocina que canta appears as if by magic. The last time I was here, they were just beginning construction, and it’s now up and running. I hope to take a class this week, just to check it out. But this morning we are here for the breakfast, which is served in the dining area of the cooking school.
The food at the ranch is excellent and healthy at every meal, but the breakfasts at the garden are exceptional, and are definitely a part of what you “take home” from the ranch to savor year round. There are cats wandering around, farm pets, and a dog named Lucky that may have been here the last time. Most of them are friendly and have learned to pose for the camera, and know how to get attention from the guests. This time we enter from a farm gate and walk down the main path of the garden. It’s beautiful, every lettuce, every vegetable, exotic herbs, amaranth (my first glimpse of it in this lifetime) – and then it’s time to eat.
It’s nice and toasty inside; although I loved the little kitchen building before the Cocina was built. It had benches along the wall, and long tables, the new space has lofty ceilings, better for teaching classes I agree, but not quite as cozy. Everyone takes off jackets, gloves, scarves that kept the pre-dawn chill from the bones, and forms a chattering queue in the direction of the frittata, potatoes, the zucchini bread, beans, tortillas, juice, coffee, chocolate, tea, Not a lot of small talk this time of the morning, and we are all transported to a heavenly place with each mouthful, regardless of our chosen faith or lack thereof.
My first time at the ranch I took a class called “Tools for the Garden” taught by Farmer Bill. I’m a crazy gardener at home, but this is the first time in my entire gardening life that someone actually showed me- and about 15 others how to properly use a shovel, a hoe to maximize its impact without hurting yourself, We prepared an entire garden bed, approximately 5 ft wide by maybe 36 ft long and to get the technique down, and all this at approximately 7:30 in the morning on chilly misty winters day. It may sound unlikely but it was fun!
So after softening into the comfort of a toasty room, when the call comes, we all get up grudgingly and head outside into the cold, and the garden manager takes us on a tour, pulling winter vegetables and herbs right out of the ground, talking about what they grow at different seasons of the year, and what happens to the excess harvest, some of it sent to a hospital in Tijuana. . I always take the tour, I enjoy the time in the field.
Then it’s back to the trail, back to the rambling outbuildings of the ranch. The first classes start at 9:00 so it’s an easy walk, and plenty of time to grab another cup of tea or coffee or that fake coffee stuff from the lodge before it starts. Just past the labyrinth, we stop at the wood log rails to do some stretching. It’s still cool, wintertime, once you stand still for a moment, and there’s lots of moisture in the air. My body temperature cools down and is replaced by the frozen nose, and I head for my casita for a quick look in the mirror and a toothbrush, and to change into my workout shoes. I am wide awake and ready to go, or am I? I glance at the book I’d brought with me and keep moving. Too much to explore.