Clouds streaked across the sky, leaving stripes of blue and white. Out toward the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a sheet of slate gray suggested distant rain. For perhaps the fourth time in a day, I said to my mother, "Look up now!" With its constantly changing colors and moods, the sky was an artist's tableau, with clouds and air as the media. I had decided to abduct my mom from her usual frenetic work schedule to spend a few days with me at a northern New Mexico spa. In her trademark style, she accepted the invitation with enthusiasm but asked no questions about it (no time for details) and packed hastily the night before. Only when we were en route to the airport did she ask, "Now where are we going, again?"
Where we were going ― where we now were ― was Vista Clara Ranch Resort & Spa, a quiet place that spreads over 80 acres of the Galisteo Basin, just southeast of Santa Fe. I chose it for an unusual reason: neither my mother nor I are typical spa people. We both keep frenzied schedules. We both like the idea of relaxing but can't always bring ourselves to do it. And so, out of the hundreds of retreats I read about, I selected Vista Clara because it seemed to be an anti-spa. Though it offers the requisite pampering, exercise classes, and wholesome foods, it isn't the kind of place where all you do is lounge around. Instead, the program is based largely on immersing yourself in northern New Mexico's art scene, rich cultural history, and luminous landscape.
One of our fellow visitors, Pat Cain, a 50-year-old woman from Chicago, said, "Vista Clara is much simpler than other spas I've been to. You get a sense of history and nature, which I find very uplifting."
Expanded horizons beneath the stars
I suspect that the uplifted feeling has a lot to do with the vastness of the landscape. A seemingly endless swath of open space surrounds the 10 adobe casitas, the tepees used for spa therapies, and the naturally lit kiva ― all of which seem to have been rooted in New Mexico for ages, even though the resort has only been open since 1998.
Understanding that landscape is a major focus of the program. On our first afternoon, we joined a short hike led by Chip Conway, who has lived in New Mexico for five years and worked at Vista Clara for four as a master guide and cultural and historical authority. As he led us up the trail, tapping a stick against stones to ward off any unwelcome critters, Chip talked to us about the unique riparian landscape. "Semi-arid, yes, but it's not a desert," he said, pointing to a cottonwood tree as evidence of an underground water source. He had us feel the cottonwood's soft bark and told us that native people used it to make babies' diapers. He explained the difference between the mesas and buttes in the distance and challenged 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 than a spa. You can tailor your schedule to include up to five activities―all are optional―focusing on education as well as exercise and rejuvenation. During an afternoon cooking class, we learned how to use New Mexico chilies―an excellent way to make wholesome, slimming food taste flavorful. That night we took part in a "star party," viewing distant constellations and cloudy-looking, barely visible nebulae through a computer-programmed telescope. We spent one morning exploring artists' studios in Galisteo, a tiny hamlet settled in the 16th century. Later, we made our own art out of dried wild gourds; I decorated mine with burned images of the petroglyphs I had seen in the surrounding canyons.
None of these activities involved more than six people; as a result, it was easy to form friendships. One lovely couple from Kingston, Jamaica ― Barclay and Deirdre Ewart ― became our regular companions for just about every meal and activity, including the sweat lodge, a purifying ceremony that many Native Americans hold sacred. Halfway through the ceremony, which involved lying down in a tepeelike enclosure while heat worked its detoxifying, healing powers on us, Barclay sat up suddenly and declared that on this day ― his 67th birthday ― he had never felt so young. After the ceremony, the radiant birthday boy and the rest of us feasted on a Native American-inspired meal of smoked 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 extends far beyond the sweat lodge ceremony. The tepees, the yoga kiva, the pre-massage ritual of burning sage to ward off evil spirits ― are all nods to an ancient way of life. The staff even includes two women who teach a class on Native American ways. And although there is a certain irony to the idea of middle- to upper-class people like Vista Clara's guests embracing these ideas with wide eyes and open arms, somehow, in this environment, none of it felt forced. Finding perspective.