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Clouds streaked across the sky, leaving stripes of blue andwhite. Out toward the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a sheet of slategray suggested distant rain. For perhaps the fourth time in a day,I said to my mother, "Look up now!" With its constantly changingcolors and moods, the sky was an artist's tableau, with clouds andair as the media. I had decided to abduct my mom from her usualfrenetic work schedule to spend a few days with me at a northernNew Mexico spa. In her trademark style, she accepted the invitationwith enthusiasm but asked no questions about it (no time fordetails) and packed hastily the night before. Only when we were enroute to the airport did she ask, "Now where are we going,again?"
Where we were going ― where we now were ― was VistaClara Ranch Resort & Spa, a quiet place that spreads over 80acres of the Galisteo Basin, just southeast of Santa Fe. I chose itfor an unusual reason: neither my mother nor I are typical spapeople. We both keep frenzied schedules. We both like the idea ofrelaxing but can't always bring ourselves to do it. And so, out ofthe hundreds of retreats I read about, I selected Vista Clarabecause it seemed to be an anti-spa. Though it offers the requisitepampering, exercise classes, and wholesome foods, it isn't the kindof place where all you do is lounge around. Instead, the program isbased largely on immersing yourself in northern New Mexico's artscene, rich cultural history, and luminous landscape.
One of our fellow visitors, Pat Cain, a 50-year-old woman fromChicago, said, "Vista Clara is much simpler than other spas I'vebeen to. You get a sense of history and nature, which I find veryuplifting."
Expanded horizons beneath the stars
I suspect that the uplifted feeling has a lot to do with thevastness of the landscape. A seemingly endless swath of open spacesurrounds the 10 adobe casitas, the tepees used for spa therapies,and the naturally lit kiva ― all of which seem to have beenrooted in New Mexico for ages, even though the resort has only beenopen since 1998.
Understanding that landscape is a major focus of the program. Onour first afternoon, we joined a short hike led by Chip Conway, whohas lived in New Mexico for five years and worked at Vista Clarafor four as a master guide and cultural and historical authority.As he led us up the trail, tapping a stick against stones to wardoff any unwelcome critters, Chip talked to us about the uniqueriparian landscape. "Semi-arid, yes, but it's not a desert," hesaid, pointing to a cottonwood tree as evidence of an undergroundwater source. He had us feel the cottonwood's soft bark and told usthat native people used it to make babies' diapers. He explainedthe difference between the mesas and buttes in the distance andchallenged us to find images of birds, couples dancing joyfully,and snakes in the sticklike forms of petroglyphs.
In some ways, the daily program seems more like summer camp thana spa. You can tailor your schedule to include up to fiveactivities―all are optional―focusing on education aswell as exercise and rejuvenation. During an afternoon cookingclass, we learned how to use New Mexico chilies―an excellentway to make wholesome, slimming food taste flavorful. That night wetook part in a "star party," viewing distant constellations andcloudy-looking, barely visible nebulae through acomputer-programmed telescope. We spent one morning exploringartists' studios in Galisteo, a tiny hamlet settled in the 16thcentury. Later, we made our own art out of dried wild gourds; Idecorated mine with burned images of the petroglyphs I had seen inthe surrounding canyons.
None of these activities involved more than six people; as aresult, it was easy to form friendships. One lovely couple fromKingston, Jamaica ― Barclay and Deirdre Ewart ― becameour regular companions for just about every meal and activity,including the sweat lodge, a purifying ceremony that many NativeAmericans hold sacred. Halfway through the ceremony, which involvedlying down in a tepeelike enclosure while heat worked itsdetoxifying, healing powers on us, Barclay sat up suddenly anddeclared that on this day ― his 67th birthday ― he hadnever felt so young. After the ceremony, the radiant birthday boyand the rest of us feasted on a Native American-inspired meal ofsmoked wild trout, elk with huckleberry sauce, roasted zucchini,fresh-baked cornbread, and warm corn pudding for dessert.
The Native American influence on Vista Clara's program extendsfar beyond the sweat lodge ceremony. The tepees, the yoga kiva, thepre-massage ritual of burning sage to ward off evil spirits ―are all nods to an ancient way of life. The staff even includes twowomen who teach a class on Native American ways. And although thereis a certain irony to the idea of middle- to upper-class peoplelike Vista Clara's guests embracing these ideas with wide eyes andopen arms, somehow, in this environment, none of it felt forced.Finding perspective.