Culture

In Search of an Enemy at a Fat Camp for Debutantes

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Some workouts at The Ranch at Live Oak take place at the 120-acre property’s sublime pool at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains. The Ranch

How come she gets more almonds than me? 

I didn’t say it. But I was thinking it, a little more than halfway through my first full day at The Ranch at Live Oak, a “no-options” fitness retreat in Malibu where people pay real American dollars to have everything good taken away from them and then to trudge along dusty desert trails for four hours a day fueled only by plant-based foods and chipper program guides on walkie-talkies squawking “water water water!” every few seconds. 

Almonds was our first snack near the end of a grueling hike to Buzzards Roost in the Santa Monica Mountains, a hike we were all (supposedly) stupid enough to embark upon without so much as a medicine dropper of coffee, which is to say that none of the five men and nine women who signed up for this week of luxurious torture had any real energy to make it up the steep ascent. And in case you’d forgotten already: People pay for this. 

They pay significant sums of money, in fact, for this “wellness tourism” at a 120-acre ranch that takes a perfectly good week of free time—that should by all rights involve nothing more than sipping piña coladas and watching reruns of “Scandal” on an iPad by the pool—and turns it into a veritable fat camp for debutantes. There’s no alcohol, no simple carbohydrates, no sugar, no Wi-Fi, no soy, no fun, no meat, no fish, no fun, no cell service and no caffeine. 

As a person who loves all of these things, especially fun and alcohol and sugar and carbs and caffeine and meat and fish and the Internet, you can understand why I and any other sane human being would hate The Ranch, in all its vegan smugness. The Ranch? That’s a fucking salad dressing, not a place people should spend nearly $7,000 in exchange for having every beautiful thing now available to humans on the planet taken away from you for a week. What’s next, a spa called “The Thousand Islands,” where you’re deprived of oxygen and sunlight and waterboarded after breakfast?   

I wanted the staff to be perky and smug and annoying and passive-aggressive and casting sideways glances at my love handles as they inadvertently (but really deliberately) flexed their toned abs beneath their shrinkwrap T-shirts. I wanted my fellow guests to be impossible, entitled rich assholes, wiping bits of tobacco from their fat lips from all the cigars they smoke in their board rooms as they dream up new ways to exploit poor brown people across the globe. I wanted to watch this privileged group break down as they gave up 18-year-old scotch and foie gras and caviar and Starbucks for a week, to dissolve into the weak, whimpering crybabies I knew they really are, beneath the stacks of money they usually spend the day flinging into the air. I wanted the owners to be creepy cult leaders who cast a zombielike trance on the staff who cast a zombielike trance on the participants who would get so caught up in this vegan spell that we’d keep coming back, again and again. I especially wanted to hate Nina Fox, who has been to the Ranch 16 times since it opened, five years ago. 

Sixteen fucking times. 

Nina had to be the most putridly rich, brainwashed Ranch zealot of them all. She sauntered into dinner late on the very first night she arrived to join us, fresh from The Ranch’s shorter fitness program, “4.0.” Nina sat herself at the head of the table, surely to lord herself over all of us new inductees into this strange Malibu compound and establish herself as Queen. 

But then Nina turned out to be pretty cool. She only goes on the hikes now, then spends the rest of the day at the pool, skipping the fitness and yoga classes that make up the remainder of our afternoons. (She doesn’t skip the daily massage.) Nina is from Sun Valley, Idaho, and she makes photographs and beautiful scarves for a living, and she showed a bunch of them to us. She gave me a ride back to Santa Monica on Saturday morning, because I felt like ducking out a little early for a preflight macchiato. She had the juiciest gossip about previous Ranch guests who actually did melt down—one guest gained seven pounds in a week, because she’d smuggled in pot brownies and god knows what else—and she gleefully shared it. Nina made for a shitty Cruella De Ville. 

01_08_ranch_02 Participants in The Ranch at Live Oak’s seven-day wellness retreat endure four-hour hikes daily, in idyllic scenery. This hike skirts the Malibu coastline. The Ranch Well. There must be a villain here somewhere, I thought.

Maybe the stay-at-home-mom sisters from St. Louis, one of whom lives “right across the street from Central Park!” in Manhattan, the other marooned in North Carolina, both of whom babbled at each other and anyone within a few feet of them from the 6 a.m. stretch class until our last, 375-calorie meal of the day. Surely, they’d provide a steady stream of inane upperclassisms for me to feast upon. And they did offer up a couple decent gems, like when one of our guides mentioned that she grew up in Sweden, the younger sister said, “Oh, my friend is married to your princess!” But they made terrible villains. More than any other guests at the Ranch they made it a point, again and again, to reach out to me and try to engage me in conversation, even when I was at my grumpiest and most withdrawn—most “standoffish,” as the Ranch’s director of operations had described me as. STANDOFFISH?!?! I wanted to scream in retort. YOU TOOK AWAY EVERYTHING I LOVE AND SURROUNDED ME WITH PEOPLE WHO HAVE MORE MONEY THAN I DO!!! But I bit my tongue and smiled an uncaffeinated smile instead.

The St. Louis girls were out. Too nice. Would it be Addison, the handsome New Jersey guy who clocked in at 7 percent more body fat than me in the weird “Bod Pod” measurement session but who also went zipping off down the trails every day—running, in case that wasn’t clear—while the rest of us wheezed and coughed our way behind him? I regularly goaded the father of three about his jogging, hoping to invoke some smug braggadocio. All I got was a self-deprecating smile in return, a downplaying of his beating the shit out of me every day. And then calling his children every night to tell them he loved them. Barf. 

OK, fine, so the guests were tolerable. But how about the staff? Surely they’d be preachy, obnoxious, perfect perfectionists, wagging fingers and snatching contraband chocolate bars out of our grubby little fingers, drill-sergeant-ing us up the trails and spitting in our faces when we were too tired to keep moving, Full Metal Jacket-style. Surely I’d find a staff member to hate. 

Alas: If you wanted to fuck up and take an extra snack on a given day, nobody busted your balls. If you needed a blister wrapped before a hike, they’d get on one knee as if to propose marriage and instead spend five minutes fashioning the world’s best bandage. They passed out fucking rags soaked in lavender-scented cold water at the end of every hike, for Chrissake. And at the beginning of each morning, they fanned out into the desert, planting flags that they would then rearrange to reroute hikers moving at different paces, so that 14 people of all fitness levels somehow managed to finish each four-hour day within 15 minutes of each other. When they saw Addison booking it up the trail, they sprinted ahead of him, so he wouldn’t get lost. Mitch, my favorite program guide, even tied my goddamn shoelaces for me. Who knew I didn’t know how to tie shoelaces? Then he told me all about his partner, who does therapy on PTSD-inflicted veterans with LSD and mushrooms and MDMA. 

By now you could accuse me of drinking The Ranch’s Kool-aid, except they don’t have any Kool-aid at The Ranch; only lime-infused coconut water and four different kinds of non-caffeinated tea and lemon wedges and mint to dunk in your purified water. But I had to find someone to hate here. I was certainly in a hateful mood, thanks largely to caffeine withdrawal but also because of the general malaise involved in relinquishing anything fun. 

It was just really hard to find a target for my misanthropism. I knew I wouldn’t hate the masseuses, who daily manhandled my aching muscles back to life again, robbing me of any worthy excuse to wimp out on the following day’s odyssey. I knew I wouldn’t hate the chef, either, because even if she fed me doo doo-encrusted cardboard I’d have kissed her feet. But I didn’t expect her to be a fucking Oracle, either. At each meal, another Nina (Curtis, The Ranch’s executive chef) not only whipped up uncannily tasty fistfuls of food without using anything greasy or sugary, but she allowed herself to be subjected to a hundred obnoxious questions from the guests, each of which she could have answered with: “I did that by spending years studying nutrition at two of the nation’s top cooking schools, is how I did it. Can I go on my fucking break now?” But no, when I asked her if food choices could cure my hypothyroidism and/or chronic sinusitis, she spent a day doing some research and then delivered to me a sealed envelope, with three handwritten pages inside outlining dozens of foods I should either ingest or avoid as often as possible. 

My search for conflict—the heart of any good story—was running thin. Then The Ranch’s owners, Alex and Sue Glasscock, made the mistake of accompanying us on one of the most demanding hikes, along the Chumash Trail, to the La Jolla Valley’s stunning Sycamore Canyon. After our snack for the day—two meager tangerines and a tablespoon of black Hawaiian sea salt—I pounced on these overlords, ready to extract some creepy cultish quotes from them and lay bare their hypocrisy for the entire world. 

But I liked those fuckers too. Everything about them; even the cutesy, cheesy-ass way they met—not one but two of their friends set them up on a blind date 27 years ago, because everyone around these two perfect people just knew they would be perfect together. But Alex, because he’s just too gosh-darned nice a guy, couldn’t work up the nerve to bust a move on Sue, so they were just buddies for six months, because that’s how all beautiful relationships start, until finally he realized his soulmate was right in front of him all along and OH MY FUCKING GOD GIVE IT A BREAK ALREADY. 

So I gave up. My coffee headache went away and I reluctantly shed my judgment and standoffishness for at least the final 36 hours of the week. Mitch confided in me when I met him that he’d taken one look at me and said, “What the fuck is this guy doing here?” Because I’m already so sculpted and perfect, probably. And it’s true: This is not a place I would ever go, if I weren’t in search of a good story. But I’ll tell you what, I’m glad I did. I lost 6.8 pounds in seven days, two inches from my abs and two inches from my waist. And then next time I’ve got $6,800 lying around, I might even go back and do it all over again. Next time, maybe I’ll find a rich asshole to mock relentlessly.