the golden state’s spiritual sanctuary
STORY BY Seth Putnam
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Jessie Webster and Jesse Lenz
Ojai is, quite simply, a complicated town. On the surface, it’s an idyllic hamlet splattered with sunshine, with a quaint main drag hemmed in by mountains. The sunset burnishes the valley walls in the evenings, famous to locals and visitors as the “Pink Moment.”
The name is a derivative of ´awha´y, the Chumash Indian word for “moon.” A significant spot for the tribe, some say that’s where its roots as a spiritual destination began. But the place was quickly taken over by cattle ranchers and oil prospectors. In 1874 it became a settlement called Nordhoff, but growth fizzled, thanks to anti-German xenophobia surrounding the war (perhaps a preview of the palpable anti-Los Angeles attitude that now tinges the town). So, in 1917, it was rechristened to its original Chumash name.
Ojai seems to trigger a sense of ownership—in those who were born here, of course, but also in the transplants and the weekend visitors who, upon laying eyes on such a special place, feel as if it exists just for them. The result is a complex stew flavored by originals who sometimes resent the newcomers and newcomers who resent the newer-comers.
Historically, many celebrities have escaped to Ojai—Johnny Cash, Anthony Hopkins, and Reese Witherspoon among them. But many locals would firmly tell you that Ojai is not an escape but a destination, particularly for those hoping to find some peace and existential enlightenment.
A center for art and spirituality, Ojai is home to numerous faiths (and a few cults). Jiddu Krishnamurti, a guru and philosopher who was groomed at a young age to become the next World Teacher by a group called the Order of the Star to the East, first visited the little town in the 1920s. He went on to make it his home until his death in 1986. Krishnamurti and streams of theosophists have flocked here to study the reason for human existence. More casual students of the spiritual world have joined them, content smoke a joint and sit in a hot spring.
Hearkening back to its days of suspicion against outsiders, there still exists a powerful battle versus outsiders—namely Los Angelinos. There are those who come to Ojai for the peace, but to really find it, they must be from the right place. And that place is not Los Angeles. Maybe that’s why some would rather say they’re from Pasadena. Then, chances are, they’ll turn around and apply the same selfishness. For all the free-flowing chill vibes to be found in the spiritual center that is Ojai, there’s an equal reaction (distrust?) against uninitiated outsiders
The bottom line: There’s peace and enlightenment to be found here. But vibes can be powerful on both sides of the spectrum. Take care to remain the master of your own experience rather than allowing the place to move you depending on which version of Ojai you happen to encounter. It is a town caught in between change, desperate to maintain its identity, but reliant on an injection of new blood to keep going.
Just 85 miles northeast of L.A., Ojai manages to maintain a dreamy small-town feel (possibly thanks to the rumored electromagnetic fields). But not to fret; there’s plenty to get into, whether it be for a weekend or for the rest of your life. —Sheyda Mehrara
Ojai rancho inn
For a place to stay, you’ll find a 1950s-esque getaway that’s nothing short of magical at the Ojai Rancho Inn. Once a roadside motel, it’s been restored to its original architecture, but tweaked with designs from local artists to add to the bohemian flare. You have access to bikes to explore the Southern Californian surroundings, and even your furry travel companion is allowed for a small fee. 615 Ojai Valley Trail, Ojai, CA 93023 | ojairanchoinn.com
Glen Muse Estate: Part California mansion, part 1980s Italian manor home, the estate has everything: a music room, library, hot tub, salt-water pool, sand volleyball courts, and plenty of space across three levels for a motley crew of families or storytellers. Be sure to seek out the geodesic dome hidden in the woods. Rates available upon request at glenmuse.com.
Known as a watering hole for the pedal-powered variety, the Deer Lodge has served as a refuge for an after-hours drink when the rest of Ojai has shut its eyes since 1932. This roadhouse log cabin has a bar stocked full of the best wines and brews the region has to offer. 2261 Maricopa Hwy, Ojai, CA 93023 | deerlodgeojai.com
It’s the perfect watering hole at the center of El Rancho, with a curated selection of local beers. The size of a cracker box, there’s space for a handful at the bar, with overflow facing the pool out back. Be sure to tell ’em we sent you. | ojairanchoinn.com
The finest wine to be found in the Ojai valley, full-bodied reds and invigorating whites are available for tasting at Azu restaurant. 457 E Ojai Ave, Ojai, CA 93023 | ojaialisal.com
The Farmer and the Cook
The Farmer and the Cook is the eatery to go to for a full-on Ojai cultural immersion. It doesn’t matter if you are a Hollywood celebrity or a yogi adhering to a 1970s lifestyle—you’re welcome here with open arms & fresh, seasonal fare. We could all use a renewed sense of well-being and health, which owners Steve and Olivia provide with a laid-back atmosphere and two all-vegetarian café menus: the Farm and the Mexican. Find yourself a spot at their picnic-style tables, and experience what Zen feels like with their grilled veggie and goat cheese taco cradled in a thick, handmade corn tortilla. 339 W El Roblar Dr, Ojai, CA 93023 farmerandcook.com
The brainchild of wonder-chef Ariane Aumont, this pop-up dinner series brings together the purest expression of ethical food and unflagging creativity. Aumont’s well-curated offerings change each dinner, but are likely to include anything from a whole roasted hog to a series of seven kimchi variations over rice. Inquire about reservations at hellolepicnic.com.
Clearly, Ojai has a habit of turning forgotten buildings into beloved stops. Summer Camp follows suit as it inhabits a former auto service station and touts itself as a shop for “custom framing, vintage, home and lifestyle goods.” Venture inside to find carefully curated products with the intention of solely selling American-made goods like Ojai pennants, canoe incense holders and goat milk and beer soaps. This is the stuff Wes Anderson dreams are made of. 1020 W Ojai Ave, Ojai, CA 93023| shopsummercamp.com
With the ever-growing popularity of succulents as indoor house pets of sorts, Desert Images is the go-to spot if you’re looking to grow your collection. Walk through the wooden buildings housing selections ranging from 1 to 500 dollars, while owner Richard Bogart is the succulent expert who can answer your questions before you hit the Google button. 505 Prospect St, Oak View, CA 93022 | desertimagescacti.com
A gorgeous garden atop a mountain is reason enough to visit, but don’t miss the guided morning meditation for a focused start to your day. 1020 W Ojai Ave, Ojai, CA 93023 | meditationmount.org