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  • Lisa7367

A Ranch Retreat & Other Places I Found Calm Amidst The Clamor



Whether the clamor is in my heart, my head or going on in the world in general, I have found refuge in some places. Be it a horse ranch, a big ornate basilica in Europe, or a hike in The Great Outdoors, I have found solace, relaxation and inspiration or some spiritual emotional lift I needed at that time.

For the past three years, I've been going to spiritual retreats over the week during New Year's as a way to bring in the new year with reflection of the past year and positive intention for the new year. Recently, I did it again and took a road-trip to a horse ranch in Pennsylvania. Although like all of of my limited road-trip only travel in 2020 due to the pandemic, this was another not-so-far drive that felt within my comfort level for travel right now. I have postponed plans to return to longer U.S./European trips until more COVID travel restrictions are lifted and it feels safer to do so.

For my annual New Year's respite, this year I chose Wildfire Ranch Spiritual Retreat in Springmills, Pennslvania, a four-hour drive from my hometown of Buffalo New, York. And with everything going on in the world, I felt like I needed this annual retreat now more than ever.

During these road trips and really, all of my solo and other travels over the past 14 years, I have found, either intentionally or unintentially, places that allowed me the quiet, stillness and soul nourishment I felt that I needed at any given time whether it be healing from a heart break or processing the grief of the loss of my father.

One of my unplanned experiences was during a business trip several years ago in New York City. While walking to lunch in the Theatre District during my beat-the-clock schedule, I decided to walk into a church because the church doors were propped open, as if calling me in to slow down and take a mid-day rest from the super charged pace I was on. Here's where a 15-minute pause in a small candlelit church was exactly the calm I needed.

In my most recent trip a couple weeks ago, I primarily sought out the Wildfire Ranch for its spiritual approach to its service; the horses - to ride and return to an activity I enjoyed as a child; the equine therapy (their motto: "Horses Healing Humans"), the opportunity to be outdoors and to visit during the time of year when there would less visitors.

So, whether its planned or unplanned, here's my top 11 (in no specific ranking) of my experiences. NOTE: For COVID restrictions and updated schedules or any temporary closings, please check the individual websites prior to planning a visit. With the restricted travel now especially U.S. - Europe, you can check out the virtual tours (links provided) where offered or put these places on your "Travel To Do List," for the future.

1) WILDFIRE RANCH SPIRITUAL RETREAT in Spring Mills, Pennsyvania (about 25 minutes east of Penn State University)

Stay for a few days or even longer in the 6,000 square-foot Ponderosa with the week-long "Heartland Package" which I did, including trail rides, equine therapy and riding lessons as well as caring for horses. With the owners of the ranch - a mother and daughter team Cynthia and Ariel Sweeley, this is a special place. They told me that spring is their busiest time so book well in advance.

I had done a lot of riding and caring for horses as a kid from the ages of nine through 14 years old every year at summer camp, and felt an urge to return to an activity (especially after I just finished watching 11 seasons of Heartland on Netflix!) that I enjoyed so much in my youth.

I also was drawn to and curious about the equine therapy. You may be asking, what is equine therapy? I asked the same thing. At the ranch, they have a motto "Horses Healing Humans." The owner posts a full disclosure on her website that she is not a professional therapist but that clients/ranch guests are given activities, directed by herself, which empower guests in their weak areas. Through activities and bonding with horses, benefits range from emotional healing from inner trauma and depression, to help with processing grief and clearing things of the past, to calming anxiety and gaining more trust for yourself. Simply grooming, saddling and feeding a horse prior to and after riding are things that create a bond and mutual trust between horse and human and are part of the experience. Cynthia's 20-plus years with working with horses and her own personal life experience also lends to the positive impact of this. There are also many client testimonials on their website and books/research including "Horses Don't Lie - What Horses Teach Us About Our Natural Capacity for Awareness, Confidence, Courage and Trust" by Chris Irwin.


Accommodations are cozy in the Ponderosa and equipped with conveniences in the rooms: refrigerator, microwave, coffee maker, etc., and breakfast is included. The view from my room was amazing! My stay was in the "Whispering Winds" room, and friends stayed in the Amish Apartment on the same floor. Both spaces have large windows where you look directly out to the pasture where you can see the 18 horses first thing in the mornings unless there are freezing temperatures when they are kept inside the barn. And oh, the stable where the horses are kept even looks like that on Heartland!

For more information, visit www.wildfireranch.org.




2) OUR LADY VICTORY NATIONAL SHRINE & BASILICA - Lackawanna, NY (shown with me in photo above). I recently visited the 95-year-old basilica. Constructed through the plans of Father Nelson Baker, it has attracted thousands of people annually across the world. Open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., you can stop in for a visit or schedule a tour in advance. Live streaming of masses and more information at www.olvbasilica.org

Lily Dale, NY

3) LILY DALE, - Chautauqua County, NY Last October was my first time in Lilydale, a hamlet connected with the Spiritualist Movement founded in 1879 as a Spiritualist summer retreat, even attended by Susan B. Anthony. About a 75-minute drive from Buffalo, NY, it's a small-knit community of closely lined homes, most with signs of names of the mediums who reside there (some written in a New York Times article a couple years ago). Called "Western New York's home for mediumship and spiritual healing," I was motivated to see what this place had to offer, primarily because I was having constant thoughts of my father who passed away nine years ago and feeling some lingering negative energy from my divorce that I was hoping to clear away.

I'm a bit of a skeptic of mediums but I did have a reading that day which gave me some insight about loved ones that have passed (I was hoping to hear about my Dad but instead, I heard more about my grandmothers, which actually was so right on, I shuttered with chills at one point during the half-hour reading. The medium also tapped into some things that I simply needed to release, forgive and let go of.

A friend and I stayed at the Southern Comfort Inn, a charming old home with a porch and a front garden with various angel statues, that is just steps away from a lake with a beautiful foilage view in the fall.

Walking the Labryinth Meditation Bush and standing on Inspiration Stump in the woods that morning, was - I have to admit, beneficial in a new age kind of way. I know it may sound silly, but after a few hours that morning, I felt lighter than when I had arrived the day before. www.lilydaleassembly.com or google Lilydale, NY, for more information.


4) ST. MALACHY'S CHURCH - THE ACTORS' CHAPEL, W. 49th St., NYC

Mentioned at the beginning of this article, this is where I stopped in during my lunch hour when I was on a business trip several years ago in the Theatre District. See the "Artists Shrine" at the back of the church. With Covid restrictions, Saturday and Sunday evening and the daily Noon masses are suspended. For the current mass/visitation schedule and virtual opportunities, visit www.actorschapel.org.

5) ST. ANTHONY BASILICA - Padua, Italy

NOTE: unlike the nationwide lockdown in the spring, churches in Italy are open for masses and prayer with more restrictions in the red-zone regions, and some are offering live streaming.

Just a half-hour train ride from Venice with a lot less tourists, I made a stop in Padua in 2016 on my way from Venice south to Positano. I was raised Roman Catholic in a traditional Italian family, and I can't tell you how many times my mother told me to pray to St. Anthony because I had lost something and needed the patron Saint to help me find it. But, in all seriousness, I really wanted to come here. As I approached, I could hear the sounds coming from the large bell tower. Inside the Basilica is the Scrovegni Chapel and the largest bronze works of the Renaissance sculptor Donatello. The tomb of Saint Anthony is on an elevated level of the church where I saw a line of people wrapped around it. As I got closer, I could see many momentos, photos, and flowers, etc. left by the visitors, some who make a pilgrimage here annually. Photography was not allowed inside, and like all the churches in Italy, the dress code is enforced. More information including live streaming and a multimedia exhibition at www.santantonio.org

I found budget accommodations within walking distance of the Basilica at the quaint B&B Torresino for about $54, including breakfast, wi-fi & a/c. www.bbtorresino.it.

6) THE BASILICA OF ST. FRANCISCO D'ASSISI, Assisi, Italy

I could see the massive structure from a distance as soon as I stepped off the public bus into the main area of this medieval town on my first trip to Italy in 2007. As I walked up the stone road towards the Basilica, lined with shops of everything St. Francis, I was surrounded by swarms of tourists, typical of the pre-Covid high travel season in Italy in the middle of the summer. At first, a brief thought occurred to me that all these shops seemed, well, sort of out of place and a bit removed from the virtues of St. Francis. Then, I thought, well, I shouldn't leave here without getting something for my mother and support a local merchant so would stop at one on my way back.

I had not imagined the basilica would be so enormous, and as I stepped into the massive place with its frescos of the life of St. Francis, I have to admit, I was in awe. The tomb of St. Francis and ornate ancient artistry (between the 1300a - 1500s) portraying his life and and other saints is in the Crypt in the Lower Basilica, below the main structure. Walking down to the Crypt, a darker area lined with candles, it felt eery and mysterious, like I was going back in time to the middles ages. I didn't see one person trying to sneak a photograph either. I sat down, appreciating the rest from being on the road all morning and the relief of the coolness here away from the stifling hot day. www.sanfrancescoassisi.org

Some accommodations are within walking distance from the Basilica. I was in Assisi for just a full day before I had to catch a bus to Siena. When I arrived that morning before heading to the Basilica, I saw a small Inn: Hotel Da Rina when I got off the bus and thought I would try to negotiate a room to have for just the day, both to store my small suitcase so I didn't have to wheel it up the mile bumpy stone road to the Basilica and to take a nap later before leaving that evening.

The owner, a hospitable old lady Mrs. Rina who didn't speak English, greeted me in the lobby and after struggling a bit to communicate my request in my not-so-perfect Italian, she understood. She didn't have any rooms available for the day but did allow me to store my suitcase in a locked room. Normally over cautious, I would have been reluctant to leave it, but here, I instinctively trusted that my luggage would be there when I returned. After my all day visit at the Basilica, I returned to the hotel and Mrs. Rina retrieved my luggage which I put next to me so I could prop my feet up on it while I sat in the big leather chair in the lobby, the ancient fan blowing on my face. Lethargic from the vigors of road travel and walking through Italy in the heat over the past few days, I fell asleep instantly and almost missed my bus to Siena.

I awoke to Mrs. Rina speaking loudly on the phone; checked my watch, then hurled my backpack and grabbed my suitcase, thanking her for the hospitality "Grazie Senora, Buon Giorno!" as she sat behind the lobby counter and waved me on.

Google Hotel Da Rina in Assisi since the hotel does not have its own website.


Vallelunga, Sicily

7) THE MOTHER CHURCH - Vallelunga, Sicily (the birthplace of my great-grandmother and where many of my extended family still reside). Built in 1634 with its Neo-Gothic facade, it is considered the most important monument in this village (located about 37 miles from Palermo). Although there are many churches in this small town of only about 4000 residents, this is the main church in the Town Square Piazza Umberto and is dedicated to the Madonna di Loreto, Vallelunga's patron. I have been in this small church several times during the five times I visited Sicily as a way to connect with my heritage and celebrate family events including a 50th wedding anniversary and renewal of vows.

The Roman Catholic church contains valuable works of art including the main Holy Trinity Altar with a marble sculpture of the Madonna di Loreto. You won't find a lot of tourists here but you will find a church at the center of a small community rooted in family tradition.

8) THE SISTINE CHAPEL, The Vatican, Italy. Due to the pandemic, The Vatican Museums are closed until January 31. For a VIRTUAL TOUR of The Sistine Chapel and more information including specific reopening restrictions, visit www.museivaticani.va.

When I entered the Sistine Chapel from the other areas in the Vatican Museums during my visit in 2012, everything got much quieter. This is a smaller space than I envisioned but it definitely lived up to my expectations on the artistic majesty. On the day I visited, the Chapel was at maximum capacity of visitors but you could hear a pin drop as I and those around me gazed in silence at the frescoed ceilings. I mean wow! Michaelangelo! This only magnified my appreciation for Renaissance art. The artist completed this in 1512 after four years, and there has been restoration in the 1980s-1990s.

There is extremely tight security here and are close by at every angle. Photographs/video are not permitted. Distracted as I walked inside, I vaguely remember having to turn in my cell phone in a sealed plastic pouch upon entrance and received it back at exit. Tickets must be purchased in advance online which includes your reservation date and entrance time. You cannot get an admission ticket only for the Sistine Chapel and must be combined with visiting other areas. I obtained an individual ticket to see the Basilica, Vatican Museums/Gardens & Sistine Chapel and also hired an outside tour guide who was well versed in the Vatican history, artistry and Italian culture and was able to move us through some areas without having to wait in lines. However, I later felt I could have saved on the guide expense and could have obtained just as much from the mobile audio guide.

9) THE MOUNTAINS

There's just something about The Great Outdoors! Right? In the summer of 2018, I visited The Rocky Mountains in Denver, Colorado and many years ago, as another one of my New Year's adventures, I hiked one of the Vortexes in Sedona, Arizona.

Since the pandemic, like many people, I have found myself outdoors much more, walking and hiking, which is my simple solution for quieting the mind from the chatter that runs through sometimes like a slow train.

The Rockies are pretty amazing. I was on a group bus trip at the time and did not do a lot hiking but enough to experience the beauty here. There is also a chapel in the middle of the Rockies - the St. Catherine Chapel at Camp St. Malo (shown in the photo below left) that is open to the public. A small stone structure built within this mountainous terrain, who would have thought? I was a bit surprised to see it there as we pulled into the small parking lot.

The Rockies







There are four best known Vortexes in Sedona: large mountain-like rock formations which are thought to be uplifting meditation sites and to produce inspirational energy. On that New Year's Day in the late 1990's, I climbed one of them, the Bell Rock. Weather was warm enough to just wear a sweatshirt and the way up provided a beautiful view of the other rock formations nearby. You don't have to be a novice rock climber for this but you do have to be prepared, in good physical shape with the stamina for a rough uphill hike while manuvering your steps both on the way up and down. It took me about two hours to get to the top and once arrived, I sat for over an hour, appreciating the view and feeling a sense of accomplishment.


Sagrada Familia

Two more I have experienced: La Sagrada Familia and Mount Saviour Monastery, which are unfortunately now CLOSED to visitors due to COVID:

10) LA SAGRADA FAMILIA - Barcelona, Spain (take a VIRTUAL TOUR at www.sagradafamilia.org).

I literally gasped when I walked into this amazing spectacular structure, constructed in a way to allow varying amounts of light to shine through, illuminating certain areas including the multi-colored stained glass windows. I had never seen anything like this before. It is so architecturally unique - the masterpiece of the genius Antoni Gaudi. Even virtually, you can still experience the steller beauty and appreciation for this artistry.


11) MOUNT SAVIOR MONASTERY - in Pine City, New York (about a two and a half hour drive from Buffalo). After a friend's recommendation, I decided to go here a few years ago as a start to the new year. It was a difficult time in my personal life and I needed the solitude, spiritual restoration and stillness. By the time I left three days later, I had more clarity regarding that situation in my life.

The monastery is a community of Christian monks who sustain themselves through their own work on the grounds and strive to live a simple, genuine and monastic life, including prayer in the form of chanting of psalms and song many times throughout the day, starting at 5 a.m. When open to visitors, guests can participate which I did during an evening candlelight service on New Year's Eve. At times, they can also join the monks in their daily work. Accommodations are simple, modest, and inexpensive with meals included.

Mount Saviour is closed now to visitors, but you can check the website for any reopening information at www.msaviour.org.


For more photos of the Wildfire Ranch and other places, visit www.onlisasjourney.com

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