Reader writer puts himself through indignities at Rancho La Puerta

José works over my aching body

Before long I start to feel like a giant tamale wrapped in these steaming layers. I can't smell the herbs at all, just my own juices.
  • Before long I start to feel like a giant tamale wrapped in these steaming layers. I can't smell the herbs at all, just my own juices.
  • Image by Jim Coit

It’s a few minutes before lunch and I’m lying by the pool at Rancho La Puerta Health Spa in Tecate, Mexico, waiting for my room. A group of middle-aged women sit at the table next to me. They’re dressed in flamingo pink bath gowns, high-heeled Guccis, black see-through lace, wide-brimmed hats, and turbans. They talk quite loudly and I can hear most of what they’re saying, though I don’t really want to.

“What do you suppose the Mexicans think of Americans paying money to come to a place where they can work and sweat?”

“What do you suppose the Mexicans think of Americans paying money to come to a place where they can work and sweat?”

The conversation bounces around between cellulite, trust funds, and their children’s orthodontics. A copy of Cosmopolitan flutters in the breeze on the table top. There are almost no men here — the ratio of women to men must be at least ten-to-one — and most of the women are, quite frankly, fat. But they don’t seem to be self-conscious about it. They shamelessly expose their dimpled layers as they waddle around the pool, their greased thighs sliding against each other like great hunks of bread dough being kneaded into loaves.

“Okay, take off your clothes and come in here.”

“Okay, take off your clothes and come in here.”

This place confuses me. Most people, myself included, could go through life without having the resources or the inclination to spend a vacation at a swank spa where the idle rich go to sweat off a few pounds in the Jacuzzi, and it’s easy to be cynical about those who do. But I ’ve been told that Rancho La Puerta is different from other spas, that it only costs about $500 per week while other spas cost as much as $1500 per week, and that they take as many as 120 guests while others take maybe thirty or forty.

The forty or so people in the class are encouraged to lie on the mats and move through several basic exercises while Kathleen explains what’s happening.

The forty or so people in the class are encouraged to lie on the mats and move through several basic exercises while Kathleen explains what’s happening.

I can see that the grounds are kept like a garden, with yellow roses, brick-lined walkways, palm trees, cacti, red and white carnations, and eccentric bunches of pampas grass. The modest buildings are all of red brick with tile roofs and wrought-iron scrolls — very simple, very earthy. In fact, there’s nothing lavish or gaudy in sight (except maybe a few of the guests).

Edmond Szekely, c. 1940. One day the professor climbed Mt. Cuchima north of Tecate. While he was on the mountain, a manuscript he had found in a Benedictine monastery came to his mind.

Edmond Szekely, c. 1940. One day the professor climbed Mt. Cuchima north of Tecate. While he was on the mountain, a manuscript he had found in a Benedictine monastery came to his mind.

Beyond the buildings are neatly pruned grape vineyards with delicate green leaves just now budding, and outside the Ranch are the rocky hills and gnarled oaks of the Tecate Valley. As I sit here, a gentle breeze blows up the Tecate River, bringing with it the cool freshness of the ocean only thirty-five miles away. Everything smells of honeysuckle blossoms, sage, and fresh laundry. I think that my confusion is this: In spite of my preconceptions, I like this place; I can’t help liking it.

Deborah Szekely was married to the professor for thirty years, until he fell in love with a young instructor at the ranch. When they were divorced, Deborah got the ranch.

Deborah Szekely was married to the professor for thirty years, until he fell in love with a young instructor at the ranch. When they were divorced, Deborah got the ranch.

The labor at the Ranch is performed by an army of Mexicans, about a hundred of them. They move about with the silent indifference of deaf mutes, cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry, and gardening. But they are only the custodians here in paradise. The rest of the staff is made up of about twenty Americans who hustle about in sweat suits, pumping energy into the guests and giving instruction in body awareness, yoga, weightlifting, dance, jogging, and hiking.

The pace here is very slow, at first annoyingly slow, as if the people didn’t understand that the rest of the world is frantic. There’s a different time standard in effect; it’s called “Ranch time.” Ranch time is the pace at which people would live if they had nothing to worry about, ever.

My room at the Ranch is a brick and tile “casita” hidden behind an orchard of olive trees. Sliding glass doors open onto a garden terrace. There’s a tile mosaic floor, fireplace, tapestries hanging from the walls, and simple Mexican furniture. Every window has a different view of open lawns, flowers, and countryside. The total effect is intoxicating — serene, understated luxury. Although I may not be prepared yet to join the idle rich, I decide that I have no reservations about mingling with them for a few days. But what exactly is expected of me in return? The expenses for all this are being absorbed by the Ranch, and as I thumb through the press packet given me, I see that it’s full of photos out of Vogue, with impossibly long-legged models scowling and posing around the grounds, and that most of the articles seem to be benign gushings about how glorious and divine everything at the Ranch is. I can’t help wondering if I’m being bribed, if I'm being coaxed to do a little PR.

For most of the guests, the first class session of their visit is something called body awareness. It’s taught under a giant palapa, or palm-thatched structure, with mats spread out on the floor. The class is taught by Kathleen, an enthusiastic young woman with a soft voice, lovely brownish-green eyes, and a clear, gentle way of telling people about their bodies. The forty or so people in the class are encouraged to lie on the mats and move through several basic exercises while Kathleen explains what’s happening. ‘ ‘We Americans walk around with our chins sticking way out. Some people say that’s because we're go-getters [she does an imitation of a horse charging for the finish line], but try to keep those chins down. Watch how the Mexicans walk, with their chins tucked in.” The women scattered about on the mats look like overripe pears. Their entire bodies — eyes, chins, breasts, bellies — sag downward, melting toward their center of balance, the buttocks. As Kathleen talks, the women sigh with relief, or laugh, their eyes lighting up with understanding. The class is actually a subtle education in posture, breathing, and muscle control. For nearly everyone, it’s like being introduced to your own body for the first time.

After the class, Kathleen, her husband Rod, and I stand in the sunshine and talk. “Isn’t it odd,” I wonder, “that our bodies are so foreign to us that we have to be told how they work?”

“Yes,” Kathleen nods. “And it’s sad that it’s that way in our culture. If you look around at the Mexicans, you'll see that they’re much more spontaneous and free about their bodies — in music, in dancing, even in touching one another. It's a simplicity we’ve lost in our culture. The children are taught to play instruments when the instruments are bigger than they are, and to dance whenever the mood strikes them. They’re much more physical than we are.”

“What do you suppose they think of Americans paying money to come to a place where they can work and sweat?”

“I’m sure they think we’re crazy. I know they think we're crazy!”

Kathleen and Rod have worked at the Ranch for about two years. Rod is an inquisitive, thoughtful person, fascinated by ideas, given to long periods alone reading. He also has a subtle sense of humor about him. In addition, he’s fond of playing with his food. At lunch he takes thirty minutes to arrange his fruit salad in a dazzling geometric configuration on his plate, and he eats it in five minutes. “I have the most eccentric eating habits of anyone at the Ranch,” he admits. Kathleen is one of those fortunate people who smiles effortlessly. When all other expressions leave her face, what is left is a smile. She complains that the food at the Ranch has made her fat. (She isn’t.) “You can’t eat the diet menu forever. I started eating all the extras with the men, and I put on ten pounds real fast. The Mexicans laugh at me. They shake their heads and tell me their eyes don’t lie. ”

I ask if the staff quarters are as nice as the guest quarters, and Kathleen laughs. "No way. Most of them are old shacks that should have been tom down long ago. I remember one rainy night getting up to move the bed around so we wouldn’t get wet.” They live in a pink mobile home on the outskirts of the Ranch, and work in exchange for their room and board. They feel it’s a pretty good trade-off. One of Rod’s jobs at the Ranch is to care for the library, where he spends hours and hours reading whatever it pleases him to read. It was Rod who first showed me Professor Szekely’s book, The Great Experiment: The Early Days of Rancho La Puerto. We spent a good deal of time pondering the mysteries of that book, laughing at the bizarre pictures, and trying to imagine exactly what it was those people were thinking about in those days.

Professor Edmond Bordeaux Szekely was the founder of Rancho La Puerta. That much is certain. The rest of his life story, as told by him in the book, has to it the sound of a myth. At any rate, it goes like this: Professor Szekely (everybody refers to him as simply the Professor) left Europe prior to World War II to escape the turmoil there. A Hungarian, who claims France as his homeland, he came from a wealthy family and had a scholarly background. His credentials as a scholar range from anthropologist, archaeologist, philosopher, biochemist, physicist, astronomer, and physician; an impressive list, that, which admittedly makes one just a little bit suspicious. But those who know him say he is a genuine, certified genius.

In 1940 the professor had been in central Mexico doing research on a type of ball game favored by the ancient Toltecs. According to his account, he suffered financial problems due to the war at home and found himself wandering around Mexico in search of a place to settle down and sit out the war. He straggled into the Tecate Valley and was immediately taken by the beauty and strange serenity of the place. He came across a well up against the hills, which was guarded by an old oak tree with a natural arch. This arch, the story goes, formed the doorway, la puerta, to the well. Nearby was a stable, which he decided to rent from a farmer at ten pesos a month as a place to live. This he called his palacio. The brother of the farmer had a distillery on the land, as well as a goat; he preferred the alcohol to goat’s milk and agreed to sell the milk to the professor. Along with grapes from the nearby vineyards, this was the professor's diet.

Besides studies of a purely academic nature, the professor pursued matters of the spirit as well, and took particular interest in the Essene movement. The Essenes were an ascetic Jewish sect that existed in ancient Palestine from the second century B.C. to the third century A.D. Their modem followers claim that among the Essene’s students were Mohammed and Jesus Christ. They also claim it was the Essenes who authored the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essene movement was enjoying a revival in Europe during World War II, and the Professor wrote several books and articles which established him as a kind of guru in the movement.

One day the professor left his palacio and climbed Mt. Cuchima to the north of Tecate, where he beheld a panorama overlooking the entire valley. While he was on the mountain, a manuscript he had found in a Benedictine monastery came to his mind and as he says in his book, “The pages of it began to unfold before my inner eyes, and I read the words as if for the first time. It was the transcription ... describing the daily lives of the ancient Essenes, and as the pages turned, one after another, I little by little conceived what I gave the name of The Great Experiment." The professor claimed to have a photographic memory, but this was clearly an extraordinary revelation. “I decided to establish the Essene School of Life, which, besides writing and publishing books .... would have students from all over the world, incorporating them into a cooperative way of living in a self-subsistent, creative atmosphere.”

A few years before coming to Tecate, the professor had met a woman (described to me as a “health nut from Brooklyn”) and her family. He hired the woman’s daughter, Deborah Shainman, as his secretary. Deborah’s mother adored the professor, as apparently everyone did, and when the professor decided he wanted to marry young Deborah, she agreed. The professor was forty, Deborah was seventeen.

Soon people began to arrive at the Ranch, mostly from England, where the professor’s books were published. They lived in tents and worked in the gardens for their food. From this the Ranch evolved into a kind of communal haven for intellectuals, artists, musicians, and writers. Aldous Huxley hung out there. Christopher Isherwood appeared, as well as Gloria Swanson and many less recognizable names. They lived on the food they grew, and on milk and cheese from goats, baked their own bread, attended lectures in the evenings, and performed for one another.

It's unclear just what the professor’s intentions were in all this. Unfortunately, his account of it is disguised in the kind of pseudoscientific language popular at the time. Among articles he wrote are those entitled, “Man in the Cosmic Ocean,” “Scientific Vegetarianism,” and “Toward the Inner Cosmos. ” Most of them are nearly unreadable. But if you look at the photos taken of him at that time you can see that the man absolutely vibrated with humor and good will. There is one photo of him standing with his arm around two friends; he's wearing a toga and sandals — all he lacked was a crown of laurel on his bald head to complete the image of a mythological god; the expression on his face is of a bird singing to the world. It’s the face of a man who dreams his world, and the dream comes true. It’s hard not to wonder, though, if he didn’t gather people around him to serve as the supporting cast in his dream, if he wasn’t actually something of a rascal.

The professor was asked once at one of his lectures why it was that if he taught health so passionately, he was overweight himself. His answer was said to have been, “My fat is healthy, yours is not.” According to his book, a sportscaster nicknamed him “The Bear” back in his soccer-playing days because he moved quickly and effortlessly like a bear (the fact that he was built like a bear, with a bald head, a flat, sloping forehead, and pointed ears, may have had something to do with it, too). He says the Mexicans took to this nickname and sang serenades to him in the evenings:

“Oso Maravilloso

Oso Poderoso

Oso Esplenderoso. ”

The professor is more than eighty years old now, and they say he’s still going strong, although he no longer owns the Ranch. Exactly where he can be found is a bit of a mystery, since they say he owns homes in Puerto Rico, British Columbia, San Diego, and Lake Chapala, Mexico.

They have a class at the Ranch called “The Golden Doors,” which consists of forty-five minutes of vigorous exercise to music, something like jazzercise. It’s very popular with the women, but the few men who have taken it look on it with horror. The class is taught by a girl named Linda, who has short dark hair, a dancer's body, and is like a little elf with a Chicago accent. There is only one other man in this class besides me, and we’re both lousy dancers. The music is Latin, disco, jazz. Linda moves with unbelievable fluidity and grace, not to mention speed. I stumble and flounder about just trying to keep up with her. It’s immediately apparent that most of the women, regardless of their ages, have more flexibility in their legs than I’ve ever had. I make a fool of myself trying to do everything Linda does, but it doesn’t matter; it’s fun, and nobody cares anyway. I laugh most of the way through the forty-five minutes, and before I know it, it's over. It isn't until later that I feel as if I've been kicked down an alley by a gang of thugs.

Besides various facials and massages, there's a treatment at the Ranch called the herbal wrap. A staff member told me that the employees are given coupons for any treatment they want, and like a junkie she always chooses the herbal wrap. At her urging, I decided to chance addiction myself.

José, the masseuse, smiles when I walk in the door. “You have a massage?” He’s a short man with a thin mustache. He looks at my coupons. “Herbal wrap and massage,” he says. “Okay, take off your clothes and come in here.” He leads me into a separate room and orders me to lie down. There are two beds; one is a heap of blankets and towels, so I lie on the other. José reaches into a vat against the wall and pulls out a large steaming towel. I get up as he places it on the plastic-covered bed. then lie down again while he wraps me up in the hot towel. He then covers me with plastic and finally with a blanket, leaving only a narrow gap for me to peek and breathe through. Then José leaves the room.

At first, being wrapped in total warmth is a wonderfully relaxing sensation, a kind of fetal security. I begin sweating. They say sweating is very good because it draws out the lactic acids which are making me sore. But before long I start to feel like a giant tamale wrapped in these steaming layers. I can't smell the herbs at all, just my own juices in which I’m cooking. After a while longer I begin to remember what it feels like to lie in bed with a temperature of 103 degrees, sweating in the sheets but too weak to do anything about it. For one claustrophobic moment I wonder if the ancient Essenes mummified their dead. Just as I’m about to holler,“¡José! ¡No me olvida! Don’t forget me!” he comes back into the room. José doesn’t come to my bed, though; he goes to the other bed. From the comer of my eye I can see him pulling the blankets and towels from that bed, and to my amazement a naked man steps out of the bundle and sighs. “Ahhh.” After a few more minutes of wrestling with my claustrophobia, José unbundles me, too. “Now the massage,” he says and leads me into the other room.

While José works over my aching body, we talk casually in Spanish and English. Filling in for each other's lack of vocabulary. In the background, brassy Mexican music plays softly from a radio. José tells me he lives in town and rides to the Ranch on the bus every day. He has seven children. For the last thirteen years he’s worked at the Ranch — outdoor maintenance for six years and seven years as a masseuse. “It's a good job,” he says, but not emphatically, perhaps confused that I would ask, since almost any job is a good job in Mexico. (Later I’m told that he makes about eight dollars per day.) Outside José’s window is a beautiful apricot tree. Already it has little green apricots on it. He tells me they will be ripe in about two months. If José gives six massages a day, six days a week, he will have given 288 massages by the time those apricots are ripe.

A former employee of Rancho La Puerta, whom we shall call Janice for the sake of anonymity, had earlier told me about the Ranch and how it differs from other spas, specifically the Golden Door in Escondido, which, like Rancho La Puerta, is owned by the professor’s ex-wife Deborah Szekely.

“At the Golden Door it was very important to be properly dressed in color-coordinated leotards for the designated color of the day. I’d go around to each guest’s room in the morning and say (she nearly sings this), ‘Good morning. The moderate hike will be leaving from the blue room in forty-five minutes!’ And there was always a guest who would say, ‘Oh, it’s so cold this morning. Would you be a lamb and go to the laundry room and get me a pair of gloves?’ And they would lean over to me and spread their collar, and I would wrap a towel around their neck lest they sweat on their freshly laundered sweat suit.... But the Ranch was always more raucous. At the Ranch, if they weren’t there for the hike we’d leave without them. ’’

Janice has worked for several different spas around the West, and describes herself as a ‘ ‘spa-hopper.' ’ She said that at the Ranch she worked for room and board plus sixty dollars a month paid in cash under the table. (It’s against the law for an American to work in Mexico without the proper permits.) “Basically, we were wetbacks,’’ said Janice, who did not have a permit to work in Mexico.

Employees were tested at the Ranch, and if they did well they were promoted to the Golden Door, where they might make about $900 without room and board. She described the attitude of the staff as “pure.” “They sincerely want to help people get in touch with their bodies. Let’s face it, most people are idiots about their bodies; they won’t listen to their bodies, but they will listen to what people tell them about their bodies.... Rancho La Puerta was the exception to other spas. People would save all year to go to the Ranch; all kinds of people. It was the exception, and that’s why we worked there.

“It was a very sensual life, with all the great food and the herbal wraps and lying around the pool talking about bodies. Sometimes, wrapped in a herbal wrap or coming down off the mountain from a hike, I would want a man so badly.... There were no restrictions on having affairs with guests, as long as we were discreet. If an attractive guest showed up, we almost all wanted him. But we respected each other, so we would sometimes share. I remember discovering by accident that one of the male staff members had slept with three different women in one night. It’s a bad place for a woman to have an affair, but a terrific place for a man.”

Deborah Szekely was married to the professor for thirty years, and those who knew them say that they had a good marriage until the professor fell in love with a young instructor at the Ranch. When they were divorced, Deborah got both the Ranch and the Golden Door. Today she is active in civic affairs and currently is co-chairman of the Old Globe Theatre’s fundraising committee.

When I met her at her home in San Diego, we talked a little about the old days. “We were nuts,’’ she said, “and the rest of the world is just now coming around.“ She’s a round-faced woman with olive skin, and she has about her the pleasant, easy-going pace of the Ranch. A picture of her taken at the Ranch when she was seventeen could have been a portrait of a pretty Mexican peasant girl. “We lived in a hut with rocks on the roof so it wouldn’t blow away. We had to put a barbed wire fence around the house so the cows wouldn’t scratch themselves on the sides. We were growing sprouts and organic tomatoes in 1940. There were ninety goats to be milked, and we all helped make cheese.... We were very poor for a long time. ”

Of the professor she said, “He’s a genius, but not much for detail. He had the creative mind and I had the picky, detail mind. It takes two.“ And of their marriage she said, “When you’re seventeen and God wants to marry you, it’s very nice.”

xekel

She told me about how the Ranch had evolved over the years. “There was a gradual evolution from the Essene School, which was talking about a simple living, to actually working at a simple living. This was the American influence. Americans want to do things; Europeans are more cerebral; they are content to talk about philosophies. The professor hadn’t planned on it being so practical, because he really doesn’t like working.”

I asked if she thought the Great Experiment was a success. “Of course, look how many people we’ve made healthy,” she replied.

But why did it evolve from a commune into a spa? “Everything is evolving. We have to say things in the language of the times, and the language of the Forties is no longer appropriate.... Body awareness is now the next step in the evolution.”

In simpler cultures, like Mexico’s, aren't people already more in touch with their bodies? “No. A man who has plowed forty acres isn’t worried about his body. All of his time is required to provide food and shelter. We now have time to be concerned about our bodies.”

Is it accidental that there are more women than men at the Ranch? “Women are a more fertile field. Looks are part of a woman's ego; they’ve been taught since childhood that looks are important. They have more time to read and think between making beds in the morning and preparing dinner. They have time for the yoga classes on television and Jack LaLanne's. But this is changing. Men are catching up. They're getting into it.”

There was one more question I wanted to ask, and I thought it over while Szekely took a phone call. Adjacent to Rancho La Puerta is a piece of land owned by José Manuel Jasso, who is the Secretary of Tourism in Baja — a very important job and a very influential man. In the old days this land belonged to the Ranch, but it has since been sold to Manuel Jasso. He is now building condominiums on the property, to be sold to Americans, with a contract agreement that they have access to the facilities at the Ranch. This appears to be a very sweet deal for Sr. Jasso, but it’s difficult to understand how it could possibly benefit the Ranch — it can only compromise the conditions there.

There are those who say that this deal is the arrangement by which the Ranch protects its interests in Mexico. The American employees on the staff, for example, are never hassled at the border, even though they don't have multiple-entry permits. And likewise, every time the Migracion comes to the Ranch to check for illegal workers, a call, like a siren, goes out beforehand, and all the American staff members leave their classes. So when Deborah Szekely was finished talking on the phone, I asked her if she had any unusual problems as an American operating a business in Mexico. “We’ve been very fortunate in our relationship with the Mexicans. They've been very good to us, and we abide by the rules religiously.”

I hadn't really expected an answer anyway.

On Sunday morning I wake up with the “third-day blahs.” I had been warned this might happen if I didn't take it easy, but I didn't listen. I'd been running the parcour, swimming laps, doing the Golden Doors, playing volleyball, and everything else. The first day, they say, is like letting an animal out of its cage. The second day you run yourself ragged. And the third day you get the blahs.

I look at my watch, see that I ’ve already missed breakfast, and decide to drive into Tecate. Most Ranch guests go into town for one reason — to engorge themselves on all things forbidden. At the Ranch these things are called “no-nos,” and you can find them all in Tecate: lobster with butter, margaritas, steak, pumpkin empanadas, tortas, and milk. There’s a restaurant called El Passeto and a bakery called Mejor Pan, which owe their success to Rancho La Puerta because they cater almost exclusively to the guests’ frustrated gluttonies.

Neither of these places is open on Sunday morning, so I go to the first bakery I can find, buy a bag of oozing pastries and a pint of milk, and sit in my car eating while I watch the town go by. Tecate is a clean town. The cerveceria squats in the very center of things, belching steam from its stacks and gurgling strange noises from its innards. It's the only business in town that employs more people than the Ranch. Still, the unemployment level is high, judging from the ragged look of some of the characters on the street. The difference between the town and the Ranch is so dramatic it’s disturbing. I brush the sugar from my fingers and drive back to the Ranch, the pastries in my stomach congealing into a greasy lump and my eyes glazing over like someone in a sugar coma.

One of the Ranch’s habitués is a big, beefy, silver-haired banker named Les, who travels to Tecate from his home in Boulder, Colorado. Les likes to sit around the jacuzzi every afternoon at about a quarter to four and indulge in his favorite pastime — conversation. “If you sit here and wait, sooner or later everybody comes to you. We have our own little symposium here every day. Once we had another banker, a lawyer, a writer . . . “ he counts each one with a snap of his gum. Les is a truly likeable fellow: If he weren’t so affluent, you could call him a good ol’ boy. “There was this woman here,” he says, turning his leg so it catches the full jet of the jacuzzi, “had her own talk show in San Diego. I forget her name. Anyway, she asked me how old she looked. I knew she was forty-two but wanted to be thirty, so I said, ‘You want me to be polite, or tell the truth?’ She said, ‘Tell the truth. ’ I said, ‘You look forty. ’ You shoulda seen her hit the ceiling. ’’ The story, he says, is indicative of the type of women who come to the Ranch.

“How'd you like the fish last night?” he asks.

“I thought it was fine,” I say.

“It was blah. I had to squeeze four limes on mine just to get through it. Sometimes I wish I had a big juicy steak. I tell you, I can't look another leaf of lettuce in the eye . . .. There was this fella here,” Les says, “from Kansas or someplace, always wore a bow tie. His wife read about it in some magazine and dragged him out here. They didn’t know it was vegetarian till they got here. He couldn't take it. He used to go into town to eat every night, and he’d pick up a whole box of pastries at the bakery on his way back. He’d leave the box on the table in the dining hall just to tease all the fat women. You never saw anything disappear so fast. ”

Pretty soon others start to show up at the Jacuzzi. Among them is a whiny lady who complains about the food. “Don’t they ever cook anything like I cook at home? I can’t believe these people get any nutrition out of that food. No wonder I feel so exhausted. ”

A man with a thick German accent says, “My sister comes out here to put on weight. She’s very nervous, very thin. She eats the bread and cheese to put on weight.”

“Does it work?”

“Not very well.”

“In my next life I’m coming back nervous and thin,” the whiny lady says.

“Fat and old is beautiful,” Les says in his deep, calm voice.

“Well,” the German adds, “it would be if it weren’t for all the emphasis on youth in the media. But I think maybe old is coming back.”

“I think young people are pretty sharp these days,” Les says; he’s just stirring things up for the fun of it.

“I think young people will line us up against the wall and shoot us some day just for being old,” the whiny lady says.

Everybody thinks that over for a moment. Then the dinner bell rings.

“I’m getting to where I salivate every time that damn bell rings,” Les says.

At dinner I'm fortunate to be seated with a professor of music named Bob, his wife, who is a professor of psychology, and a music teacher named Anita. Anita is one of those people whose age is impossible to determine. She’s probably in her seventies, although she has a figure many women in their twenties would envy. In the yoga class I saw her lie on her back with one leg on the ground and lift the other leg over head and touch the mat with her toes. Her complexion is clear and nearly without wrinkles. She tells us she comes here every weekend.

“Have you been coming for—” I start to ask.

“Years,” she says, apparently offended that I asked.

The dinner consists of spinach salad with cheese, zucchini soup, a vegetable casserole with rice, and a quince custard with cheese slices. While we eat, Anita and Bob discuss music — he's giving a piano concert for everyone later. Anita tells us that at home she eats nothing but fruits and nuts. “I hate to cook.”

Bob says, “That must explain why you look so young. ”

Without hesitation Anita replies, “No, I prefer to think it’s the music.”

After dinner I run into Kathleen while walking around on the grounds. “The afternoon parcour was so slow today,” she says. “I couldn’t get them moving. Sometimes I feel like I'm herding a bunch of overfed cattle.” I ask if a cattle prod would help.

We look up at Mt. Cuchima and I tell her I wish I had run up there in the cool of the morning. “Now’s not a bad time, either,” she says. Within minutes we're in shorts and charging up the trail. Kathleen swings her arms dramatically when she walks. She looks like some kind of cartoon character, and I have to laugh. “Try it,” she insists. “It keeps your momentum going.” I try it and it works. At my age I’m still learning how to walk.

The countryside we pass through is covered with an unusual mélange of plants. At nearly 2000 feet in elevation, there are a few pine trees here and there, but there are also cacti, ice plant, sage, elderberry, and oaks. It’s as if all of California came together in one place.

Before long we have a view of the Tecate River and of a small valley to the west. It's a very green and pastoral scene in the approaching dusk. We hurry on, and in a few minutes we’re at the saddle below Mt. Cuchima. The air is turning misty and the sky to the west is a dark, cloudy mystery. To the east we can see Tecate and the golden, glittering sign of the brewery. All around us are large granite boulders that have been eroded into strange twisting shapes like Toltec statues. Some of them have been painted with bright colors like Indian Kachina dolls. Kathleen tells me the professor had these rocks painted by some of his followers, and that for the Cuchumi Indians this was a sacred place, full of spirits, and a place for young men to fast and be alone.

It’s nearly dark now, and we rush on, over the saddle and down the canyon on the other side. We talk about rattlesnakes, wondering what we would do if we were bitten.

Back on the flat land, we pass a pond where hundreds of frogs are rioting under the half moon. The reflections of giant black oaks line the banks. In a bare sycamore tree sits a large dark shape, silhouetted against the sky — it has to be an owl. We hurry ahead, and just as we approach the edge of the Ranch, the owl swoops over our heads, then flutters into an oak tree beside the trail. Under the first streetlight of the Ranch, we see a tiny, year-old rattlesnake crossing the road, lifting its diamond head to sec who we might be before it slithers under a stack of lumber alongside the road.

Parked on one of the dusty back roads of the Ranch is a 1947 three-quarter-ton Chevrolet flatbed truck. Across its doors is painted RANCHO LA PUERTA — Servicio Particular, but it was painted long ago and is barely readable now. The truck is obviously a relic of the old days. Perhaps it was used to bring goods from Tecate back to the Ranch. It's battered and dented. The headlights are smashed so that only the empty sockets stare out at you. The truck doesn’t run, or at least not very often, for it has to be pushed to get it started. José Luis, one of the Mexican workers at the Ranch, uses it as his private office. He climbs up into the truck, slams the door, and just sits there. It then becomes his unassailable domain, his meditation room, his ashram. Ask him what he’s doing there, and he says, “I’m thinking.”

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