Sunday, February 19, 2006

Less is more at a Carmel Valley retreat


Sunday February 19, 2006

Western Travel
Less is more at a Carmel Valley retreat
* Getting back to basics at Tassajara Zen center is made easier by gourmet vegetarian fare and dips in natural pools.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Tassajara Hot Springs, Calif. -- THE plan was simple enough: Pick up my girlfriend, Katie, rent a vehicle that could withstand an infamously bumpy dirt road, and leave the busy, gritty, noisy cityscape behind. Growing up near Berkeley, I had long heard of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a retreat in Carmel Valley's Ventana Wilderness as famous for its vegetarian cuisine as for its salve-for-all-ills hot springs.

Tassajara is one of the oldest Soto Zen training monasteries outside of Asia, but anyone, including non-Buddhists like Katie and me, is welcome to visit from April 28 to Sept. 10 -- if they can get a reservation. Rooms, cabins, yurts and dorms are doled out on a first-come-first-served basis; the most eager will mail in their requests this week, when the center begins accepting them. I sent ours at the first opportunity, and even then we didn't get our first-choice cabin.

But what ends in tranquillity always seems to begin with mayhem. I misplaced my car keys, then my driver's license, then my cellphone. It was already dusk by the time we began inching our rented SUV up Interstate 5 -- and we were both grumpy. The goal was to push through half the 300-mile trek that evening, stopping to dine at some charming roadside cafe. Instead, we grabbed burgers at In-N-Out, then slept in a smoky motel room decorated with a painting of a neon pink flamingo. Morning brought more greasy fare (Denny's) and more driving.

We stopped at a fruit stand and pressed on, spitting cherry pits out the windows. Finally we left the freeway and wound through brown-green hills, past cattle and horse pastures, rusty mailboxes and patches of yellow and purple wildflowers.

Katie is a city-loving sophisticate who appreciates nature -- from a distance. (This long weekend trip in May required more than a little cajoling.) She used the last reaches of cellular service to commiserate with her mother about the indignities to come: no shower or hot water in the cabin and oil lamps instead of electricity. Bring wine, her mother advised, and lots of it.

At a dusty convenience store somewhere on the outskirts of the Ventana Wilderness, we surveyed jugs and boxes and a bottle or two of wine. We chose a few and threw in a bottle of Thunderbird simply because the idea of taking it to Tassajara made us laugh.

The last leg of the drive, on an ill-maintained dirt road, lived up to its reputation as a harrowing experience; a precipice loomed to our right, we knew, but our tires kicked up billows of dust across the windshield, and I found it difficult to discern where land ended and freefall began.


Simple and quiet

I was glad we didn't die, if only for the food -- all cooked by Zen students and priests. But before eating anything we had to cart our luggage from car to cabin in an oversize wheelbarrow. The path led through a wooden gate welcoming us to Tassajara and past several priests dressed in simple black robes.

The property spans about 160 acres, and hiking trails traverse the shaded hills; trek far enough and you'll find waterfalls. Guests are welcome to join residents for chanting and meditation each morning and evening, but many choose instead to lounge on the soft grass outside the meditation hall or stroll through nearby gardens.

Our redwood cabin was an airy room with abundant light, a hardwood floor, twin beds that we pushed together, lanterns on elegant wooden tables and -- to Katie's irritation -- a bathroom shared with an adjoining cabin. (Our friendly but absent-minded neighbors faithfully locked the two bathroom doors but rarely remembered to unlatch the door to our side afterward.)

We crossed a wooden bridge to the dining hall, which overlooks the stream along which the cabins lie. Here we began eating and didn't stop for the next three days. The dining hall was empty except for us, but a passing priest assured us that the flan and fruit and tea were snacks for the taking. We downed three big pieces of flan between us, grabbed some fruit and headed down a dirt path to explore. The only sound was the tinkling of the stream, the mellow chatter of passersby and the click-clack of Katie's high heels.

The nearby swimming pool smelled of sulfur, but we took a dip anyhow in its warm, viscous, salty spring water, then dozed on chaise longues poolside, half watching black-yellow butterflies against the backdrop of green mountains. The butterflies were joined by horseflies whose bites proved surprisingly painful, so we dressed, borrowed a chess board from the communal game room and set it up on a smooth tree-stump table.

Lunch at Tassajara is a choice between a sit-down meal and a do-it-yourself buffet of gourmet salads, vegetables, fruits, beans, grains, fresh baked breads and variations on humus and tapenade. We chose the buffet both days and took our lunch on hikes. On our second day trekking downstream, we found a pool deep enough to leap into from overhanging rocks. The water was clear -- we saw several fish -- and shockingly cold. I managed to lose a sandal downstream, so I hopped the few miles back, reassured by the knowledge that, if I injured my city-soft sole, I could recuperate trailside while Katie kept us fed by spear-fishing with her high heels.


Hot springs bath

DIRTY and tired, we headed for the bathhouse, a Japanese-style enclosure with two wings divided by gender during the daytime, coed at night. On each side, natural hot springs poured into tiled plunges with window views of the stream below; outside, people struck yogic poses on a large wood deck or lounged in an outdoor tub or steam room. Brave folk alternated between hot plunges and the freezing stream.

The bathhouse is clothing-optional, but when I climbed into the steaming water wearing my bathing suit, a naked middle-aged man informed me, "The tradition is that we don't wear suits in here. It introduces a foreign element." ("Nonsense," a regular visitor told me later. "That man needs a good dunking.") In the evening, Katie and I visited the bathhouse together, and I ventured in nude, Katie in her Hawaiian-print bikini. What were the chances that a pal from college and his new girlfriend would show up, both nude? We laughed off the awkwardness but couldn't quite figure out where to put our eyes.

Many of the visitors that weekend belonged to a bird-watching group and spent their days wandering around staring through binoculars, apparently more interested in the far off than the nearby. They weren't much for conversation. But on Saturday evening, over a dinner of North African vegetarian stew, roasted carrots and couscous, and a delicious date almond torte, Katie and I befriended five delightful guys (mostly from Southern California, it turned out) with whom we've kept in touch.

The following afternoon, our new clan gathered on a porch near the stream, and out came nuts and fancy wines and ... the Thunderbird. Sure, there was laughter, but among aged Cabernets, it was exotic.

A tolling bell meant meditation time for the resident monks and nuns, and a monk-in-training invited Katie and me to try it. We followed him into a large room with rows of cushions facing walls or raised wooden panels. A gong rang out in rapid succession. We took off our shoes, Katie discarding her lime-green pumps. (A nun stopped to chide her for the shortness of her mid-thigh smock-dress.) Then we were seated, legs folded beneath us, listening to silence and to natural sounds we hadn't noticed before. Forty minutes of stillness flew by, then a peal of the gong, and we walked out into warm air and mosquitoes underneath an expansive sky.

I can't really speak for Katie, but I could swear she seemed sad to leave. For the fun of it, she hopped in the wheelbarrow alongside our luggage, and I pushed us all uphill to that dusty SUV. It was a long haul home inching along the coast, but neither of us got the least bit grumpy.



Zen and the art of rest


From Los Angeles, it's about 300 miles to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. The last stretch, a 14-mile dirt road, is bumpy; if you don't have a high-clearance vehicle, you might want to rent one. Or park your car in nearby Jamesburg and board the Stage, a rugged shuttle that ferries travelers that last leg of the journey. It's $35 per person; arrange when making Tassajara reservations.


A range of lodgings is available, including large family-size cabins and dormitories suitable for the solo traveler. Stone rooms (Friday-Sunday, $145 per person; single occupancy $265) feature wood stoves and a view of the creek. Redwood yurts (Friday-Sunday, $154 per person; single occupancy $283) include private decks and two single mattresses that double as a king. Rates are less on weekdays. There is no electricity in any of the cabins (kerosene lanterns provide light), and all bathing is done in the communal bathhouse.


All meals are included in the cost of lodgings. Tassajara serves gourmet vegetarian cuisine. The kitchen is often willing to accommodate dietary restrictions.


Tassajara Reservations, 300 Page St., San Francisco, CA 94102; (415) 865-1895 or A reservations phone line, (415) 865-1899, opens March 20. Until then reservations are accepted by mail (print out a form from the website).

-- Steven Barrie-Anthony

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