The New Art of the Retreat Festival

Courtesy Restival and @kikisunshi

A few days before the Harvest Moon in September, I flew to Flagstaff, Arizona, and was greeted inside the terminal by a limo driver holding a sign for an event called Restival. We left the airport and drove northwest for about 40 minutes before turning onto a dirt road into the vast desert dotted with cinder cones. We then wound for miles toward what seemed the middle of nowhere, but then my driver pointed out Roden Crater, the cinder cone that artist James Turrell has been sculpting for decades into a celestial observatory. This is a land of grand horizons and grand ideas. We then turned into what’s called Gateway Ranch, which began inauspiciously with an abandoned old school bus, but I noticed that my driver was now excited. She had taken early retirement from a government job in San Diego, bought a condo on the golf course in Flagstaff, became a Reiki master, and drove a limo part time to get out of the house. She had been ferrying people out here for a couple of days and was no longer worried about getting lost. As we rounded a wall of steel shipping containers and the Restival scene unfolded, she was saying, “I want to be here next year!”

I took a breath. What I saw was an expanse of high desert dotted with elegant white tents and tipis—as if Christo had invited close friends for a week.

Gateway Ranch, I quickly learned, is a sculpture garden, a place where Burning Man art installations find a permanent home. Aside from the temporary tent village for Restival, there’s an enormous, geodesic dome with a stage for music and a fire pit for telling stories. Another whimsical dome-like structure once supported a mock kelp forest at Burning Man and now serves as a shade structure for dining and exhibiting paintings. There’s also a multi story steel temple that for Restival was pressed into service for sound healing and Nia dancing. For Restival, a straw-bale garage was also transformed into a pop-up spa with treatments that included Thai massage and myofascial release from extremely talented practitioners.

Yet the heart of Gateway Ranch—and the reason Restival came here—is a small, hand-built dwelling up on the ridge. This is Navajo country, just a few miles from the reservation, and the owners of the ranch, Mark and Kate Sorensen, built an authentic Navajo roundhouse called a hogan. Mark first came to the reservation about 40 years ago to work on his doctorate in education, and he fell in love with the people and the desert and was gradually adopted into the tribe. Kate, who has a master’s degree in counseling, drove from Florida in the school bus to meet Mark. Together they created a now-famous Navajo charter elementary school called the Star (Service To All Relations) School, the nation’s only completely off-the-grid school, and a place I would have been happy to have sent my own kids. Over the decades the Sorensons (who happen to be longtime S&H subscribers) have become elders of the extended Navajo family. For that reason, Restival could authentically include traditional Navajo men’s and women’s sweat lodges, music, storytelling, mural painting, and astronomy lessons.

Gateway Ranch is exactly what Restival founder Caroline Jones went looking for. Jones, who lives in London, spent 25 years in the business of planning large events and music festivals and awoke in her forties with the dream of creating a new kind of retreat/festival—the kind she wanted to go to. Her goal was to gather a relatively small group, a hundred people from around the world, and get off the grid, get back to nature, and get connected to an authentic indigenous culture. She wanted the creativity, spontaneity, and egalitarian spirit of a large music festival or Burning Man, but she also wanted to “glamp” with luxurious bedding, hot showers, and spa treatments. Her first annual Restival was in the desert in Morocco. Gateway Ranch is her second, and a third is being planned for Sweden.

Mornings at the Gateway Ranch Restival began by unzipping the tent and watching the sunrise and then going either to yoga or back to bed until it was time to find Hannah Mendoza at her magical elixir bar. A super-food aficionado and veteran festival vendor, Mendoza has years of experience refueling people who may have been dancing for 24 hours on whatever it was that kept them going perhaps far too long. She uses a Vitamix to blend restoratives with ingredients like cashew milk, chai, rooibos, cacao, and a wide variety of mushrooms. Her special coffee was “bulletproofed” with butter to modulate the caffeine, and proved remarkably good. One could have lived on her elixirs alone—and she taught us how to make them as she blended—but there were also three mostly vegan and delicious buffet meals created in a nearby food truck by another group of extremely talented festival chefs.

Between meals, Restival offered a series of workshops, typically with two choices for each hour, as well as spa treatments or a sweat lodge. The Navajo man who ran the men’s lodge proved remarkable, keeping the first “round” of heated stones fairly cool and not very dark, and only gradually increasing the heat—and thus allowing one of the participants to admit that he suffered from severe claustrophobia, especially in dark places. Yet the man stayed all four rounds—and the lodge provided him a breakthrough. This was a truly healing sweat—made especially poignant by the revelation that the lodge leader’s son had just been arrested in the Dakota pipeline protest. He needed the sweat, too.

Later in the day came a much-needed siesta followed by more yoga and dance. As the Restival week progressed toward a truly spectacular Harvest Moon, the night grew brighter and the music and stories went a bit longer into the night. There wasn’t much of a line between the staff, the presenters, and the paying guests, and the blurring added to the experience—an inside ticket to the best of the festival world for those no longer twenty-something.

Be warned that even glamping is not without creature discomforts, like getting dressed in the middle of the night to walk to the vault toilet. There were also too many gizmos attached to the generator, so morning coffee was … on its way really soon! And three weeks before Restival, the shower provider backed out and so an ingenious man in Grass Valley, California, named Anders Gustavsson went to work designing an elaborate mobile shower/art project from scratch. He started with a boat trailer and covered it with a wooden platform that drains to a single spot. Then he built six shower stalls each with its own special set of symbols, and its own secret showerhead accessory that one could search for and play with. Included in the design were billowing cloth walls, giant water tanks, a propane water heater, pressure pumps, and a gray-water-catchment bag that doubled as a waterbed for star gazing. Gustavsson and friends designed and built the entire project in three weeks and then drove it overnight from California. Did it work? Miraculously and delightfully yes—almost without exception. But, like Restival itself, the multi-symbolic shower was an ambitious art project, in progress, and if you’re the sort who becomes seriously distraught if the water kicks off in the middle of a shampoo, stay home. Please.

Jones says that next year’s Restival will be more glampy with flush toilets, an espresso bar, room service, and perhaps less artistic showers. The small kinks will get worked out, and that almost seems a shame. I’d hate to see it grow up—or fill up—too fast. Like my driver, I want to be there next year, too.

Stephen Kiesling is the editor in chief of Spirituality & Health magazine. Caroline Jones is offering an early bird discount to S&H readers. For more information, go to and use the code SPIRITHEALTH to redeem the 20 percent discount. Space is limited.

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