On a ridge above Ojai, with an infinity of hills falling away, a thinker meditates by a canvas tent.
Miles away, on a grassy sweep in Simi Valley, Jewish couples cluster in a circle and intertwine their contemporary stories with tales from the Torah.
This time of year nature provides the perfect backdrop for those seeking spiritual renewal.
Church, synagogue and communal worship has its place. So does a weekend camping trip. For the world-weary, a religious retreat combines elements of both, yet is something much more: a guided pause, a spiritual regrouping, a chance to sift through the clutter of life and reclaim one's soul.
A world of wall-to-wall entertainment, consumer goods and almost limitless noise makes the soul rumble like an empty stomach. It's no wonder the county's spiritually oriented camps are booked full by spring each year, according to leaders of local retreats.
"We're so atomized and separated," says Rabbi Scott Meltzer, who conducts workshops for newly married Jewish couples at Camp Alonim in Simi Valley. "We see ourselves divorced, completely separated from the world of the Bible."
Not a way for humans, who are spiritual creatures, to live, Meltzer said. Retreats are one way to reunify the sacred and the secular and help participants cope with the daily grind.
No matter the nature of a person's faith, good retreats share key elements, says Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He occasionally serves as scholar in residence at Ojai's 100-acre Camp Ramah.
Foremost, the setting should be rustic--an exchange of man-made scenery for natural wonders.
Staying overnight away from home is also important, Gross-Schaefer added. A change of physical and psychological environment can free participants to let go and open themselves to new experiences.
And finally, people need time to reflect on spiritual matters.
"People have a desperate need to connect their . . . soul, their very essence, if you will, to the larger soul--or God--and to other people," Gross-Schaefer said.
Dennis Santos, who runs youth retreats for the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said he can accomplish more with a child in one weekend retreat than in a year of youth group meetings.
Teens on retreat don't feel they are under the wings of their parents, he said. They can take chances.
And Sue Liljenberg, director of Healing Hearts Ministries in Bonney Lake, Wash., said it's worth the long trip to Rancho del Rey in Oak View to train counselors to help women who have had abortions. She said there is more force in one weekend training session than anything else she has tried.
"We used to meet once a week for eight weeks--it was just too hard," she said. "Here, you've got three days of rest and uninterrupted time and the ability to focus on the subject."
No matter the theme, ceremonies, disclosure and intense communication in group retreats serve to strengthen ties among participants.
In his retreats at Camp Alonim in Simi Valley, Meltzer has newlyweds share how they became engaged, then each reads aloud a tale of a couple from the Torah. The exercise illustrates how each marriage is tied to centuries of Jewish tradition.
Some alumni of Meltzer's retreats say the experience changed their relationships.
"Oh, God, there were so many things," said Sandy Bernstein, 29, of Torrance, who spent a weekend this spring at the Simi Valley center with her husband, Gaston. "It was a remembering of what are the things we set out to do as a couple."
Meltzer suggested participants add at least one Jewish tradition to their home routine to strengthen their religious values. Bernstein chose to light candles on Friday nights.
In contrast, individual retreats use meditation and prayer for spiritual renewal.
At the Ojai Retreat, a rambling ranch house on the crest of a hill, individuals can rent one of 12 rooms for up to a month. The telecommunications-free environment is aesthetics-rich, giving participants a place to hear themselves think.
While the retreat is a separate organization from the nearby Krishnamurti Foundation, its library is crammed with books by the metaphysical thinker and tends to attract those familiar with his writings.
"It's been all along a theme of self-improvement," said Shirley Ramgren, one of a handful of employees who run the facility. "We have yoga groups and breathing seminars, but I think mostly people come here to get away from the roar of the city."
Youth retreats, in contrast, are often run like summer camp--with the requisite hiking, swimming and short-sheeting of beds--because social acceptance, not religious values, is a burning issue for teens, Santos said.
His three-day and seven-day retreats for Catholic teens are heavy on peer counseling, so kids can talk to each other about their lives and God.
Diana Finn, 17, of Oxnard attended a retreat run by Santos at Rancho del Rey. Walking through a meadow far from parents and talking with other teens made her feel she wasn't alone, she said.