We choose most of our vacation destinations because they attract us aesthetically. Or materially. (Aspen has the ski slopes. Paris has the shops.)
But we choose some destinations because they attract us at a deeper level: spiritually, intuitively, energetically. Most of the millions who visit Vatican City and Bodh Gaya every year aren't drawn by how those places look. The lure is immaterial, yet irresistible.
Now we face a holy henhouse full of chickens and eggs, wondering which came first. Do certain places become beacons because sacred structures were erected on them? And have countless pilgrims larded these locations with the accrued intensity of their faith and yearning which stays on the spot like some numinous, sticky, heavy, invisible tar?
Or were sacred structures built upon these places, and pilgrims attracted to them, because the places themselves were already innately spiritual?
Can certain geographical locations really possess some kind of supernatural power which they would wield even without the presence of a single temple, torii or cathedral? If so, what is this power? What produces it? Can it be measured? How is it conveyed, to whom, and why?
Last week in Ojai -- a tiny Southern California town whose residents have included dozens of celebrities ranging from Aldous Huxley to Anne Heche to the late Harold Ramis and which by some calculations sports more spiritual retreats per capita than any other in the USA -- I was led along a sculpture-studded path past Tibetan-style structures to the panoramic pinnacle of Meditation Mount. Elsewhere above this sun-gilt, orchard-braided, east-west valley whose chaparral slopes bask like folded brocade looms Meher Mount, where self-proclaimed avatar Meher Baba had an alleged epiphany in 1956.
Is Ojai "blessed"? With beauty, yes -- including an effulgent alpenglow that locals like to call "the pink moment." And with fairytalesque fertility: Clear to the horizon nearly all you see for mile on mile are glossy trees studded with bright, candy-sweet citrus beaming like millions of tiny vivid suns. With weather. With wealth. With a 67-year-old world-class music festival which, depending on your theories regarding cause and effect, thrives thanks to an ever-growing constellation of superstars who have performed here or because this valley possesses magical powers that bring out the uber-best in artists. (Ravi Shankar, I'm looking at you.)
Ojai has been a spiritual magnet for centuries among the native Chumash, whose word for "moon" gave the town its name (and whose elders are still called upon to bless new buildings and projects), and among visitors from far and wide since Mission San Buenaventura was built nearby in 1782 and especially since 1922, when celebrity mystic Jiddu Krishnamurti experienced -- surprise! -- an alleged epiphany here which left him, as he later described it, "God-intoxicated." Top hat- and monastic sandal-appropriate, squirting with spas, Ojai was already a proto-hippie hub long before World War II.
I'm no avatar. I felt absolutely nothing during two days at Lourdes, and my dizziness at Delphi was almost certainly down to hunger and wishful thinking. But I felt a warmly buzzing wave of welcome on those silent, boulder-bordered lanes along which California pepper trees stand swishy, lacy, ruby-studded sentry. Was this serenity merely the altered state we call "being on vacation"? A form of projection, in which we make destinations into what we want them to be?
Having struggled with nearly lifelong low self-esteem and its dire side effects, but believing as I do in the paranormal, I'm ripe for the vortex, labyrinth and holy grove. Hey, take me to your ley line. Not a sucker but a seeker, I am keenly sensitive to physical environments, albeit having spent most of my life dismissing this intrusive, inconvenient talent. Plus a certain chemistry maintains, just as it does when we meet strangers: not all sites -- including so-called sacred sites -- will give all visitors the same sensations, if any at all. The city in which I have lived for many years is wildly popular, yet sucks the laughter out of me like some vast geophysical remora. Inconvenient!
This was not my first visit to Ojai. On a family trip, many decades ago, we spent one night there: only one, among hundreds of childhood nights on many family trips around the world. It struck me instantly and inexplicably back then, as magical. And somehow, although I never returned until last week, a hazy-hot sense-memory of Ojai lingered in my mind, so fierce and secret that in all those years I made a point of not thinking of Ojai, not speaking its name, seeking no pictures of it lest it manifest as sheer imagination (e.g. I'm crazy) or not magical at all, albeit real (e.g. it's ruined or I'm crazy in a different way). Last week that old feeling rushed back.
Should we examine so-called power vortices? Attempt to analyze them, verify them, study them -- or simply seek them, if we believe in such things, then just shut up and (ostensibly) heal?
Accompanying photograph by Kristan Lawson.