Ojai, Calif.: The Anti-L.A.

Bart's Books, a smart spot in Ojai, Calif.
Bart's Books, a smart spot in Ojai, Calif. (By Laura Randall)
By Laura Randall
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 16, 2005

The stress starts to disappear somewhere between the turnoff for the Fillmore Fish Hatchery and the third produce stand selling grapefruits the size of duckpin bowling balls. By the time the car has passed the oak-lined path that leads to the former home of Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, it is a distant memory that won't return until long after the sun fades to pink over the Topa Topa Mountains.

Ojai, Calif., sits on the edge of the Los Padres National Forest, 70 miles north of Los Angeles, in a valley full of orange groves and horse ranches. It makes an ideal side trip for visitors to L.A. looking for a break from freeway traffic and Hollywood Boulevard crowds. Though a couple of upscale resorts draw a fair number of golfers and celebrity types, the town never seems overrun with day-trippers from L.A. or Santa Barbara, perhaps because of its distance from major freeways.

Best of all, little planning is required, unless you count making sure the trunk is empty so you can fill it with cheap citrus.

With its quaint, chain-store-free main street, stunning mountain backdrop and New Age vibe, this town of 8,200 attracts an interesting mix of artists, retirees and spirituality seekers. Beatrice Wood -- the avant-garde potter on whom James Cameron based the character of Rose in his film "Titanic" -- lived here from 1948 until her death at age 105 in 1998. Writer Aldous Huxley, along with his pal Krishnamurti, helped found Happy Valley, a boarding school on the outskirts of town. Malcolm McDowell, Larry Hagman and June Allyson are longtime residents.

"June has always called it her home town, but she hasn't lived here that long," said David Mason, the 66-year-old owner of the Village Florist, who was born and raised here. When asked how long Allyson has been an Ojai resident, he paused for a moment: "About 27 years."

Perhaps most famously, director Frank Capra picked Ojai (pronounced OH-high) as a stand-in for Shangri-La, the mystical utopia that captivated Ronald Colman in the 1937 film "Lost Horizon." The town, not undeservedly, has milked its entitlement to the Shangri-La moniker ever since.

Neither my husband, John, nor I qualify as artistic, retired or spiritual, but we have come to admire the town just the same. We love that we can ease into a parking space just off the main street without having to stuff a meter with quarters or monitor our watches to beat the two-hour time limit.

We love that our lunch options in a five-block radius range from a $2.40 burger at the O-Hi Frostie stand to a salad of roasted beets on sun-dried tomato toast at the sleek Mediterranean bistro Azu. Most of all, we take comfort in the town's sameness: We roll into town confident that Bart's Books, a rambling open-air used-book shop, will still let patrons pay by the honor system during off hours; that sweet, locally grown Pixie tangerines will be spilling off the tables at the Sunday morning farmers market during spring and summer; and that there will be no new high-rises obstructing views of the mountains or the Castilian bell tower on Ojai Avenue, the town's main drag.

This year, though, we had reason to be apprehensive about our trip. In January and February, the valley was pummeled by the record-breaking rains that swept across Southern California. The three main roads out of town were flooded and closed for days, then reduced to a single lane while crews worked to repair the damage from flooding and mudslides. The area's excellent hiking and biking trails were inaccessible, and many were closed until the end of the rainy season so rangers could assess the damage and begin the cleanup process.

To make matters worse, the longtime owner of Bart's Books had sold the place since our last trip here. Fans of the old store, which was modeled on the outdoor book stalls along the Seine in Paris, worried online and in letters to the Ojai Valley News that the new owner might shutter the shop or, even worse, spiff it up and try to make a buck.

So it was with some trepidation that John and I approached Ojai on a recent Saturday morning. Construction crews were still working on Highway 150, the winding road that leads into town, but the delays were minimal. (The valley can also be approached via Highway 33, but that would mean missing out on the same exquisite Shangri-La view Ronald Colman got -- now marked by a turnout with a plaque.) We were also relieved to find the town's main thoroughfare essentially unchanged: The local meeting hall next to the skateboard park was holding its regular heavy-on-the-crystals weekend craft fair. Libbey Park, center of the 105-year-old Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament, was alive with kids, dogs and laid-back patrons of a rock-and-roll cover band festival (featured band: Led Zeppelin). Ruben's, our favorite burrito joint off Ojai Avenue, was doing a brisk takeout business.

And then there was Bart's. First-edition Mark Twains commingled with Danielle Steel paperbacks and thick occult bibles near the shade of an old oak tree. Old-fashioned stick candy cost a dime apiece along the garage wall. The after-hours honor system still applied to the faded copies of "Ivanhoe," "The Grapes of Wrath" and hundreds of other books that fill the shelves mounted on the store's outside walls. All was okay with the world.

The setting sun signals
The setting sun signals "the pink moment" at the Topa Topa bluffs near Ojai, Calif.(Carole Topalian)
Mindful that we had busy lives to resume back in L.A., we left Ojai before the "pink moment" -- that is, when the dropping sun (weather permitting) turns the chiseled Topa Topa bluffs into a salmon-streaked Georgia O'Keeffe painting. The town likes to trumpet this event almost as much as the Shangri-La title, though not in a Key West-Mallory Square sort of way. One of the best ways to savor the pink moment is to drive to Meditation Mount, a hilltop retreat on the east end of town whose grounds are open to the public.

"If I had nowhere to go in the world, I would come to Ojai," Krishnamurti once said about his adopted home town. "I would sit under an orange tree; it would shade me from the sun, and I could live on the fruit."

For us, at least, a trunk full of Pixie tangerines will have to do.

Laura Randall last wrote for Travel on hiking trails in Southern California.

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