Earlier this week I did something fun.
I drove three-and-a-half hours from San Diego to a remote spot northwest of LA but inland from Ventura—a small valley nestled against the mountains and named Ojai, from an old Indian word meaning “Moon.” Residents of the quaint small town that bears the same name have long insisted that the surrounding mountains were used in the original cut of the 1937 movie “Shangri-La” to represent the mythical sanctuary in James Hilton’s novel “Lost Horizon.”
Laid out along Highway 33 that runs through town, downtown Ojai displays a picturesque collection of stately landmarks and historic buildings in the Spanish Revival architecture, reminiscent of Santa Barbara though on a much more modest scale. Among those lovely relics of the past stands the former El Roblar Hotel, which now houses the Oaks Spa, my destination for the day.
And no. I didn’t drive all that way to enjoy world-class pampering at the spa retreat as a reward to myself for all the hard work with the publication and promotion of my book. In fact, I went there to continue the work, as I had been invited to come and give a one-hour book talk on Once Upon a Mulberry Field as part of the week’s after-dinner programs. It was a chance to get out of San Diego and to meet potential new readers in a tranquil, idyllic setting, so I gladly accepted.
Every year, the Oaks at Ojai promotes a week of His & Hers Special starting on Friday before Father’s Day. The men can accompany their wives on a fun retreat to the Spa at a discount rate, and many men take advantage of this offer. Since my book is deemed to appeal to both men and women, it was specifically slotted for this past week.
I arrived in the middle of the afternoon, all tensed and blurry-eyed after navigating through congested traffic around LA and a long, winding detour from Highway 33 due to road work. In the cozy diner at 6:30 pm, the manager on duty introduced me as the guest speaker for the evening. As I stood, holding my book, to say a few enticing words about my upcoming presentation, it suddenly dawned on me, my challenge for the night: How would I keep this mixed audience from dozing off after dinner, especially after a long day of healthy activities that had started at 6:00 that same morning—without having beautiful slides or pictures to show and tell?
The presentation started on time at 7:15 pm. To my surprise, a decent-sized group showed up, with many couples among it. To my bigger surprise, the participants seemed wide-eyed alert and reasonably interested as I launched into my talk, sharing insights about Once Upon a Mulberry Field and how it came to be. Even after living and breathing this labor of love for the past six years, it rattled me a bit how I still choked up speaking about it or just reading excerpts from it.
The hour went by faster than I had anticipated. During the book signing that followed, many couples came up and told me how much they had enjoyed the talk. Some shared their favorite memories of recent travels to Vietnam. Others asked questions about my growing up during the war. But I was most deeply touched when one lady told me how she wished that her late husband could have been there with her to listen to my presentation: he had served in Chu-Lai and Da-Nang in 1967-1968 and had never opened up about his experience after coming home.
It was her heartfelt words that I replayed in my mind the next morning as I headed out on Highway 33, leaving Shangri-La behind in the sun-filled valley.