Thursday, January 15, 2015

Life, Life, Love

Ojai: California's blissful hippie town

Marion Leeman and her friends have been displaying antiwar signs in downtown Ojai every Friday since 2004. (Josh Noel/Chicago Tribune)
Marion Leeman and her friends have been displaying antiwar signs in downtown Ojai every Friday since 2004. (Josh Noel/Chicago Tribune)

OJAI, Calif. - It was a fading Friday afternoon in the peaceful valley northwest of Los Angeles, and that meant Marion Leeman and friends were stationed alongside the slow-moving traffic on the downtown strip with their usual signs.

"Working together for harmony and peace," one read.

"Bring our troops home," read another.

Leeman's proclaimed, "Jobs are the way to peace."

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    "We do this every Friday from 5 to 6 p.m.," Leeman, 73, said. "We started after [President George W.] Bush was reelected."

    Ten years of waving signs on the side of the road? Times 52 weeks per year? That's a lot of standing on the side of the road.

    Leeman smiled.

    "Some people might think we're absolutely ridiculous," she said. "But there's a lot of sympathy for what we do." Just then, a passing BMW station wagon honked, and the passenger extended a peace sign out of the window.

    Peace and positive vibes never go out of style in Ojai, and that has made the town of 7,500 a longtime getaway for Los Angelenos needing relief from their city's smog and traffic, 90 miles down the road.

    Tucked into a long, green valley surrounded by the 6,000-foot peaks of the Topatopa Mountains, Ojai exists in its own slow-moving ambit. It's timeless enough that cable television and the Internet might never have arrived and wouldn't have been missed. Ojai is just about being - and being quietly. It's the kind of place where a bulletin board in a downtown grocery store features an ad from a woman who describes herself as "transitioning in to a lot of things right now: raw veganism; self-employment; Ojai; consequently following my dreams." And all she's trying to do is rent out a room in her home.

    But, provided your dreams don't require a lot of excitement, Ojai is just the place to follow them. One resident, who like many locals moved from L.A., described the town perfectly: "There's nothing to do in Ojai, and not enough time to do it."

    Ojai's commitment to good living is subtle but relentless, be it a cellphone free cafe that serves vegan pizza topped with cashew cheese (at the Farmer and the Cook; the pizza is delicious) or the Ojai Rancho Inn, which offers a stick of palo santo wood upon check-in to burn in your room to "cleanse the space."

    Just outside town sits Meditation Mount, where you can dive into spirituality as deeply as you want, with a meditation class at the moment the moon turns full, even if it's, say, 3 a.m., or with a short walk to broad views of the Ojai Valley, where a bench is inscribed with the words "Joy is a special kind of wisdom."

    Ojai is, in other words, ideal relief from the madness of Los Angeles and worth a couple of days in any Southern California itinerary.

    One Saturday morning I walked into Knead Baking Co. for an egg, arugula, and roasted tomato sandwich and found myself talking with the classic version of an Ojai resident. An intersection of work, life, and family had led the bakery's owner, Bobbi Corbin, to Southern California from Boston; it wasn't until she found Ojai that she was home.

    "It's a unique spot in that it's a tiny little place in the middle of nowhere - it's not on the way to somewhere - and yet it's a really interesting place," Corbin said. "It's beautiful and not showy, with a level of intellect that's unusual for a small town or Southern California."

    The truth is that Ojai perfectly splits the difference between what we think of as Northern California and Southern California: Its gentle Mediterranean-like climate makes it far sunnier than Northern California, while going easy on Southern California's rat race and tans. Being so close to Los Angeles, the town, which is really just a little hippie farming town at heart, also gets a regular infusion of the well-educated, the interesting, and the famous.

    "You get a horse next to a Ferrari, but everyone gets along, and it makes for a fun vibe," said Phil Asquith, who operates Ojai Olive Oil, a family business of 5,000 olive trees in the hills just outside of town.

    That reminded me of the silver Rolls-Royce with Oklahoma license plates I'd seen pull out of a strip mall that morning.

    "I keep waiting for the place to become trendy, but they keep such a tight lock on development," Asquith said.

    Instead of bustling with gleaming malls and five-star resorts, Ojai treasures more modest events, like its Sunday morning farmers market with robust, colorful piles of produce, from organic radishes to organic rosemary to organic rapini to organic . . . well, you get the idea. Plus, there's "Al the Hug Guy," who has given free farmers-market hugs for four years.

    "I don't like to count the hugs," Al said. "It cheapens the spirit of what I'm doing. But I've hugged some people a couple hundred times."

    Just then a woman walked up whom Al clearly knew. She rested her bags at her sides and shared a long, still hug with Al. As I wandered away, toward a food truck for a breakfast burrito, a group of women in black stretch pants erupted in a flash mob.

    I walked a couple of doors down to Porch art gallery. A former L.A. resident, who had worked as a touring musician with some prominent names, sat at a piano banging out jazz tunes.

    In the front yard, the gallery had a chalkboard bearing the words "Before I die . . .," with slots below for passersby to write in their dreams. Answers included the hopeful ("visit other planets"), the theoretical ("truly live"), and the eminently attainable ("learn to surf"). But the most obvious sentiment of all came from an L.A. man walking with two small dogs. He wrote "Live in Ojai."


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