A Soul-Soothing Tenkiller Retreat
A retreat at Blue Doors at Tenkiller provides much more than simply getting away for the weekend
Photos by Shannon Cornman
Britt Johnson with Sister the chicken
If the spiritual, artsy city of Santa Fe and the bucolic, rolling hills of Middleburg, Virginia, hooked up and had a love child, there’s no doubt it would look a lot like Blue Doors at Tenkiller. About 10 miles north of Gore, an unassuming sign that reads, appropriately,
“Blue Doors” greets visitors.
In the 1950s, it was called the Shangri La, and was a very modern motor court-style motel, the perfect place to park your Bel Air for the night as you got your kicks on Route 66.
Six decades later, the 20-acre site has been thoroughly reimagined and is once again beautiful and welcoming. It’s one of those places that just feels good, in a soul-satisfying, restorative way. Think of it as a sophisticated sleep-away camp for grownups. With Lake Tenkiller and the Illinois River nearby, fly-fishing, kayaking, hiking and golf are each just minutes away from the resort.
In late summer, hummingbird and butterfly gardens vibrate with fluttering wings. Heirloom flowers bloom, and wood-and-twig arches sport vines laden with compact green gourds. The centerpiece of the residential part of the grounds is a spacious, shade-dappled courtyard that serves as the living room, dining room and main gathering place for guests, dogs and Sister the chicken. Two stacked stone fire pits and two beautifully appointed outdoor kitchens flank the courtyard on either end. Surrounding this are a dozen little cabins, arranged in a half-circle, just as cute as can be.
This magical place was the site of the You.Are.Venus. August retreat, the first of its kind, but thankfully not the last. You.Are.Venus. 2 is on the books for April 8-10, 2016. Details and registration are available online at youarevenus.com. The brainchild of Britt Johnson and Bethany Frazier, You.Are.Venus. the retreat began in 2014 as a website, designed to be a place for the two women and their community of friends to write and share inspirational quotes and travel stories.
Their backstory reads like a contemporary fairy tale. The two met six years ago while drudging away waiting tables at Buffalo Wild Wings. Not a place synonymous with deep thinking or spirituality, but amid slinging saucy wings, scrubbing tables and serving beer, they forged a bond of friendship, and began to imagine their futures as spiritual entrepreneurs. Frazier was a student at Oklahoma Christian University, and Johnson was attending OSU-OKC.
The pair quickly became best friends, and like many longtime friends, they tend to finish each other’s sentences and speak to each other in quick glances and verbal shorthand. They are confident, earnestly talking about ancient wisdoms while assiduously adorned with stick-on metallic tattoos and wearing flowing maxi-dresses that could easily read as costume-like or contrived but somehow don’t. There’s not a drop of irony between them.
“Everything we do is about co-creation, and trying to find out who we are at the core, before all of the conditioning. It’s all about self-love and finding our power as women,” says Johnson. “We are rising, as women, from the depths of where we’ve been pushed to. It’s not feminism, it’s humanism.”
Although the willowy Johnson speaks forcefully, her diction is relaxed, and her edicts roll languidly into the air. Frazier is a bit more polished and reserved, with a serious yet lively manner. She has a quiet intensity, and a gracious spirit. They balance one another. Where one is impulsive, the other is measured and thoughtful. Where one hesitates, the other leaps boldly, led by intuition.
“We realized pretty quickly that the website was changing and becoming more than just a hub for inspiration,” Frazier says. It took on a life of its own and all but demanded to be brought from the virtual plane to the actual world, and the sooner the better.
Text messages buzzed, fingers flew on keyboards, a curriculum began to take shape and the energy began to flow. Frazier now lives in Richmond, Virginia, and the two took to Skype and Pinterest to bring their vision for You.Are.Venus. to life. They started small, and planned a one-day event in Oklahoma City in February. That first foray didn’t come together and had to be cancelled.
“It just wasn’t the right time,” Johnson says.
Their second attempt was bigger and bolder: a three-day retreat at an idyllic, away-from-it-all location. Johnson first discovered Blue Doors when her family found a lake property nearby, and she was instantly drawn to the place and its proprietors, whom she calls her second parents. This one worked beautifully and sowed in them the seeds for what has become their life’s work.
“Everything we do is about co-creation, and trying to find out who we are
at the core, before all of the conditioning.” – Britt Johnson
“This is it,” says Johnson. “This is what we want to do with our lives.” Indeed, talks are underway to produce You.Are.Venus retreats in Virginia, California and New Mexico.
The weekend arrived, and a rare August cool spell had blanketed Oklahoma. The retreat sold out. Guests began to arrive and were welcomed with white pillar candles adorned with little kraft-paper tags bearing the guest’s name and cabin number and sticks of Nag Champa incense poked into the top of each candle.
Guests drifted to their assigned cabins, where they found gift bags containing fragrant goat milk soaps, tiny vials of essential-oil sleep elixir and delicate bracelets created from small flower charms strung on waxed thread. Instructors received similar bracelets, but their charms were tiny bees, because they were going to pollinate their visiting flower-guests with knowledge.
A couple of activities each day were scheduled for the entire group: the cacao ceremony, a full-moon ceremony, a fire-dancing performance and group meals. Beyond that, customization based on personal interests was encouraged. Among the optional offerings were wildcrafting, yoga, Reiki, astrology, plant whispering, spiritual readings, grounding exercises, a drum circle, sacred sexuality, essential oil blending, ceramics and visioning. Plenty of time was left for each guest to unwind and relax between activities.
The women who came for the weekend were there for reasons ranging from just needing to get away from it all to mending a broken heart to trying to remain strong while struggling with temporary homelessness. There were two cancer survivors, a couple of journalists, a chef, a stay-at-home mom and two retired women. They ranged in age from early 20s to middle 70s.
Johnson and Frazier opened the retreat by gathering the women in a circle around one of the fire pits. A large shell filled with smoldering sage was passed around, and participants were encouraged to fan it onto themselves to cleanse their energy. Many did so with gusto, looking as though they took smoke baths every day. Others were smoke bathing for the first time, and fanned tentatively, possibly even a little suspiciously. Next, after a few announcements and the introduction of the instructors, each woman was asked to speak her intention for the weekend, to tell the others what she hoped to gain: self-acceptance, confidence, a healed heart, a quiet weekend.
If all of this sounds a little hippie-dippy, that’s because it sure was. And it was sweet and human and vulnerable and fortifying, all in the best possible ways. Souls were nourished and fortified and bonds were cemented. Women were allowed to just be, and the energy was one of acceptance, warmth, kindness, gratitude and fun.
Building Blue Doors The first thing Jane Honiker, the patchouli-scented owner and visionary behind Blue Doors, had to say as she swept into the room and smiled her beguiling smile was that she’s pretty sure people must have thought she was out of her mind when she bought what is now Blue Doors in 2010.
By all accounts, the place was in serious decline. It had a series of owners over the years, had lost some of its buildings to a highway relocation and was slowly decomposing, a decrepit gem hidden in plain sight. Well hidden. But through its shabby veil it spoke to her. She and husband Pat had spent decades at Lake Tenkiller, hauling their brood of children to their lakeside compound for idyllic summers spent swimming and enjoying a simpler routine closer to nature. Driving back to Oklahoma City one day, taking a slightly different route than usual, she found her future, half-heartedly waving its for-sale sign at passersby.
“We like to say we got it for a song, and the song never ended,” Honiker says with a laugh. She clearly and dearly loves the place. Although she’s always been interested in organic living and conservation, with the property came a renewed mission for her: “For me, the mission is bees, butterflies and heirloom seeds.”
She hopes the methods used and philosophies followed at Blue Doors will rub off on its guests, who will carry her mission into their own lives – and slowly but surely, the planet and its people will benefit.
Blue Doors took a solid three years to restore. The moment it was hers, Honiker dove full-throttle into her project, despite the fact that she hadn’t been working for a few years due in part to a serious health issue. The place seems to have healed her. “It’s been a crazy ride. Powerful and amazing. I have been led to this place, I often feel like I am holding a space for people to connect.
“We knew we would style it like a motor court, and we knew it would be stucco. We were inspired by Madrid, New Mexico, which we had just visited,” she says. The finished product is a work of art. It looks almost thrown together, but closer inspection reveals careful planning and a painterly approach to composition. It is a 20-acre canvas, a study in beauty.
She lived on-site in a trailer during the restoration, doing much of the demolition and rebuilding herself, with the help of Pat and their right-hand man Facundo Ramirez, who can be seen around the property hauling wood, building furniture or doing whatever else needs to be done. They call themselves the three amigos.
The first step was to gut the place. “We stripped everything and started loving the land again,” Honiker explains. Anything she thought might be refurbished and used was saved, everything else went on a pyre, and whoosh, the past was incinerated. And her convictions about her mission grew stronger. “I had always tried to do what I could, but being out in nature made me want to try more. I’ve always felt the need to be in nature.”
Honiker and her small team began refurbishing the rooms, one by one. Equal attention was paid to sustainability, quality of workmanship and charm. True to its name, every door at Blue Doors in blue. “When I was in New Mexico, a friend said it meant welcome.”
There is Wi-Fi throughout the grounds, but there are no televisions or phones in the rooms. Books are abundant, though, and one might find the Harry Potter series on a shelf next to the Bible and a selection by conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly – something for everyone. Low-flow commodes and showerheads and tankless water heaters add to its Earth-friendly vibe. Art on the walls may start on a canvas, and extend onto the wall surrounding it.
There is a teepee behind the guest accommodations, which is used for meditation, Reiki, massage or yoga. Even the gravel paths are beautiful; some are a fine gray gravel, others are yellow-orange, still others are beige. Flowerbeds are stacked stones. A Zen garden is provided for grounding and meditation. Roofs are corrugated metal and little art installations punctuate the grounds. A 10-tent campsite has recently been completed and has its own laundry/shower building.
An extensive vegetable garden yields produce for meals and for the infamous Blue Doors pizza nights. A chicken coop houses Sister and her ilk and there is a large, tranquil pond behind the campsites.
A loyal group of Blue Doors regulars calls themselves the Wolf Pack, and several weekends per season they caravan out to this wonderful place and help Honiker with big projects in exchange for a couple days’ lodging. She loves her Wolves and welcomes more. Together they have moved earth to fortify the pond’s retaining wall, cleared brush and helped establish and tend to the two hives that now house swarms of honeybees that were gifted to Honiker.
Perhaps the sweetest ambassador for Blue Doors, Honiker’s 93-year-old mother June, can often be found holding court on the property. She sings its praises and loves to chat up the guests. One of her favorite words is “powerful,” and that she is. She also harbors a definite fondness for Ramirez, waving to him with a girlish smile as he zips past on his tractor. “Janie is just wonderful,” she says of Honiker, beaming with motherly pride and genuine affection. “There’s something so special about her. I love my sons, but there’s just something special about a daughter.”
June is a blue-eyed charmer and spends her summers at Blue Doors with her fat, Dachshund mix Ellie. She doesn’t walk as easily as she used to, so the pair is generally parked in a cushioned chair in the courtyard, where June takes in the bustle of activity around her and fills her pockets with interesting rocks. On a recent visit, she pulled out a few that had caught her eye that day. “Can you see the shape in this one?” she asked, eyes twinkling. “Look closely, it’s got a dog’s head on it.” And it did.
This is a place two-and-a-half hours from Oklahoma City and a million miles from anyplace you’ve ever been. Add it to your list.
► Rates, a listing of events and activities, a photo gallery and more information are available at bluedoorsattenkiller.com, or give Jane a call at 918.489.2174.