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Sherrie Dawkins in the apothecary (the copper still is to her left). (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

Scent-sual Escapism in Ojai

It’s always a relief to make it through Los Angeles when you’re en route from San Diego. But just a few miles farther, I had even more reason to exhale deeply: I was winding down a two-lane country road with eucalyptus trees towering overhead and striated mountains on the horizon, in a little town called Ojai.

Not only that, I was about to pull up to my first destination along the Road to Wellness, the Ojai Valley Inn. And when I finally arrived, it was as if I’d been deposited in a rustic-chic hacienda village in an era when Spanish missionaries still ruled the land.

The inn, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, has long been a hideaway for Hollywood celebs from Bing Crosby to Kristen Stewart. But something else drew me in: Artist Cottage and Apothecary.

Sherrie Dawkins greeted me with a cheerful smile as I ducked inside the apothecary out of the blustery winds that periodically swept the grounds. The first thing the aromatherapy expert made clear was that I’d be playing the “perfumer” today; she would just be my guide.

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The Ojai Valley Inn and Spa. (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

When I asked Sherrie how she decided to pursue such a curious career path, she told me that she became interested in essential oils after having her son and witnessing their power firsthand. “I’ve used them to help with everything from colic, to headaches, to burns and rashes,” she said. “That’s why in biblical times frankincense and myrrh were as valuable as gold — they were the medicine of the day.”

The scents shoot straight to the hippocampus, causing an immediate visceral reaction, which, according to Sherrie, is a good way to check in with your body and awaken its intuition. “When you smell the oils, your body responds to what it needs in that moment,” she said.

Essentially, if I came in feeling tired, I’d be likely to choose energizing scents; whereas, if I came in tense and anxious, I’d be drawn to more relaxing oils. Because of this, Sherrie explained, I’d never make the same exact blend twice.

She presented the 37 bottles of essential oils to me with their labels turned away so I wouldn’t have any biases to overcome, then passed each one under my nose, making sure to spend equal time with each nostril, as they take in different information.

I was to rate each oil based on my gut reaction, and was surprised when some of the scents — peppermint, tangerine, gardenia — prompted a flood of memories from my past. Like at a wine tasting, I was encouraged to “cleanse my palate” by sniffing roasted coffee beans between each pass.

After meticulously rating each scent from 1 (“Hate It”) to 5 (“Love It”), only the 3s, 4s, and 5s made it to the next round. Sherrie explained that a second pass could often shift a “love” to a “hate,” and she was right; the only one I’d granted a 5 on the first pass failed to make the final cut.

Next, I blended my top choices drop by drop in a small blue vial and warmed the custom scent — or potion, as I’d started thinking of it — in my hands to aid the mixing process.

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My special blend: “Genesis.” (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

Sherrie explained that the oils are extracted from plants using a still, pointing to a copper one on the counter next to us as an example. “It takes one acre of lavender to make two pounds of lavender oil,” she said. “It’s a true art form, similar to wine making, and more people are beginning to rediscover it.”

At the start of our session, I’d told Sherrie I liked fresh and citrusy aromas, but I ended up with a “fresh but romantic and intoxicating blend” with several aphrodisiacs in the mix. Grapefruit and lemon provided the uplifting top note (the one you smell first, but then dissipates quickly); jasmine and coriander filled out the spicy, intoxicating body; and frankincense, sandalwood, and oak moss lent an earthy, smoky base note to the blend.

Naming the potion is essential, as the inn keeps it on record so it can be recalled at a moments notice. I named my potion “Genesis,” because Sherrie explained that several of its components, including frankincense, represented new beginnings. This seemed perfectly appropriate since my life will be changing dramatically this summer — I’ll be getting married, beginning graduate school, and moving across country for starters.

Scent in hand, I walked over to the elegant, Mission Revival Style Ojai Spa to meet Gloria Ah Sam for my full-body “Essence in Balance” massage.

She added jojoba oil to my “Genesis” blend for the occasion. “It’s what your body needs right now,” Gloria said by way of explaining the concept behind her methods. “You hand selected these scents that appealed to your chakras in the moment, and now your senses will be flooded with them.”

Diane, my calming practitioner took over from there. As she began working the oil into my muscles, I realized that she was essentially applying medicine to an organ of my body — indeed the largest one as she noted — my skin. With this in mind I surrendered to the soothing yet energizing potion, which was not remotely overpowering, even though I was covered with it from head to toe.

As Diane went to town on my right shoulder, which was extra tight and knotty, she said: “Now, I’m just waking this guy up, I would encourage you to get several more massages to continue working the stress out of it.”

Diane, you don’t have to tell me twice!

The Curious Traveler is driving a Ford C-MAX Hybrid on her Road to Wellness tour.