COVID-19 and the Ranch

by Aaron Wright, Acting Executive Director

Six months ago as COVID-19 began to interrupt life as we knew it, the Ranch got very quiet. As the impact of this novel coronavirus was beginning to appear worldwide, we preemptively closed to guests the week before the official Shelter-In-Place order came on March 17th–which happened to be the exact same day I stepped into the Acting Executive Director role. At that point our staff went home and there was almost no activity at the Ranch for two weeks.

I think like most people we thought it might be more temporary than it has turned out to be. We began working remotely and made a commitment to pay our staff through the initial closure while we planned for reopening–hoping that would happen in May. As the possibility of reopening moved further and further away, we received enough funds from the Paycheck Protection Program to extend our staff commitment for an additional 8 weeks. That helped sustain our staff and allowed us to perform some critical maintenance and fire fuels reduction projects while planning for and implementing new protocols to keep our staff and guests healthy and safe. As we approached the end of our PPP time period it was clear that we would not be reopening or returning to “normal” in time to keep moving forward with our full staff. We did the painful work of reducing our staff by 50%. All of those laid off had faithfully served the mission of the Ranch–some for multiple decades.

Outdoor dining
Guests enjoy safe, outside dining.

By mid-summer it became clearer how the Ranch might be of service during this time. As guidelines became clearer, we were able to open in August for individuals and household units to get away for the weekend. Our first weekend was magical. There’s a great line in our vision statement (crafted over 30 years ago) about the Ranch fulfilling a vital mission of being a place with a spiritual atmosphere at its core, where people can “wash the dust off their souls.” One guest upon arriving stood in the Ranch house courtyard with arms open wide, near tears, saying, “thank you for letting us come”– I felt like I was witnessing not just dust washing away but boulders of pent up loss, grief and isolation falling off her shoulders. Other guests expressed similar sentiments: “We haven’t been anywhere in five months,” and “It’s been a long time since I’ve just been at the Ranch and not been working and got to soak it all in just for me.” We lost power due to the lightning storm on the final morning of that weekend, yet our amazing kitchen crew still cranked out a hot and on-time breakfast and lunch. The guests went home refreshed, and our staff, though tired, was energized by finally getting to do what we love.

That lightning started the Walbridge fire. Two days later the Ranch was evacuated and sadly we had to cancel the next two weekends of retreats (both of which were sold out!).
After thirteen days we returned to the Ranch and began preparing for our Labor Day weekend guests. We had a similarly wonderful long weekend. The guest went home refreshed, and our staff breathed a sigh of relief. That evening the Ranch was evacuated again due to a flare up behind the dairy. Thankfully that was short lived.

As I write this we’re preparing for another weekend retreat. The sky is orange as so much of the West is burning.

Pain, loss and transition are inevitable in life. Though 2020 does seem to be offering more opportunity to face this fact than any previous year in my life experience. I know that physiologically we experience all change as loss. And we must grieve our losses. Where does it all go?

Throughout this time of COVID-19 I’ve reminded our team the importance of naming loss and grieving it. I often find myself thinking of and singing this song that has its roots in a Rilke poem that I learned in a Music the Makes Community training in Ohio years ago:
“Fear not the pain, let its weight fall back into the earth. For heavy are the mountains, heavy are the seas.”

I feel like that’s what was happening for the guest in the Ranch House courtyard, and on the lawn and in the pool and so many moments over these weekends. People have found the healing potential of letting the grief fall off into the sacred ground that is the Ranch. This is why the Ranch is here. This place is our “heavy mountains” and “heavy seas.” We can let go here knowing the Ranch can hold our pain and our grief.

Witnessing those moments has made all the work and pivoting of the last six months worth it. It has renewed my commitment to work for a more resilient Ranch so that we don’t just survive this challenging season of the pandemic and wildfires, but so that we can find new ways forward and steward this sacred ground that has been entrusted to our care, so that generations to come can experience healing here as well.