It started with a honeymoon in 1979: Michele Gran and Bud Philbrook, two young baby boomers soaked in the idealism of their age, decided to forgo a romantic Caribbean cruise and spend their time instead writing grant proposals for community-development projects in a poor mountain village in Guatemala. (They also stopped off in Orlando, Fla., to tour the theme parks there, but that's not part of this story.) A few years later, living in St. Paul, Minn., they jointly founded Global Volunteers, which has been filling the needs of affluent Americans for spiritually fulfilling, intellectually stimulating and incidentally tax-deductible vacations for more than two decades. Just this year, Janet Prince, a college administrator from New Castle, N.H., spent six days—along with her husband, Peter Bergh, and their 16-year-old daughter, Hadley—volunteering at a child-care cooperative outside Quito, Ecuador. Prince and her daughter took care of the young children whose mothers were tending stalls at the local mercado, and Bergh helped gather and prepare food. How cool is that—compared, say, with skiing in Aspen? Volunteer vacations are "all about multitasking," explains Doug Cutchins, author of a guidebook for would-be do-gooders. "Everybody is busy. Everybody wants to create meaning in their lives. They want to do good in the world, to teach their kids values, to use their skills—and they want to go on vacation."
Prince's Ecuador trip was a model of vacation productivity. In 13 days, including travel time, she improved the lives of the villagers and exposed her daughter to a different culture and a society on the other side of the worldwide gap in wealth. Bergh got a cardiovascular workout walking to the fields to harvest corn, they all saw a new part of the world—including the Galápagos Islands, where they spent five days at a luxury eco-resort—and Hadley fulfilled her high-school community-service requirement in a way that will look great on her college applications. "I enjoy an occasional day at the beach, but this is so much more rewarding," Prince says. "I just turned 50. People ask, 'What do you want for your birthday?' I don't want more stuff. I want experiences. I travel, I eat, I explore, I read."
Now again, as in their 20s, aging baby boomers have taken up the quest for meaning, as their three-decade infatuation with accumulating "stuff" wanes in the face of mortality, or just the realization that there's not that much more left to buy. If they no longer seek to transform the world by revolution, they strive at least to improve a small part of it, or perhaps themselves, through adventure, experience and self-actualization.
This week, NEWSWEEK continues its portrait of the leading edge of the boomer generation, now in the shadow of 60, with a look at some of the ways in which they pursue transcendence through leisure. Some are taking volunteer-service trips to aid the impoverished inhabitants of the more colorful and exotic parts of the world. Others are exploring organic, gourmet, locally sourced cuisine that minimizes the carbon footprint of their dinners. They are settling in "spa lifestyle" developments combining the twin obsessions of aging boomers: real-estate and aerobic conditioning. And they are boarding flights for "heritage tours" that connect them to the ancestors whose foresight in migrating to America was richly vindicated by the eventual birth of baby boomers themselves.
"A good zucchini has sweetness and a little bit of a vegetal quality," says Adam Kaye, squeezing a handful of shredded produce until liquid streams from between his fingers, and a dozen heads bob in appreciation of this gem of wisdom from the chef and kitchen director of the three-star Blue Hill at Stone Barns. They have made the trip to the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York's Hudson Valley, a temple of the burgeoning "farm to table" movement. Boomers, the first generation raised on the dreary monoculture of suburban lawns, whose earliest awareness of horticulture may have involved a comparison of strains of pot, have improbably developed a swoony passion for the soil that would embarrass a Provençal peasant. At Kaye's Saturday-morning classes, lawyers and social workers tramp deliriously through the sun-dappled fields, yanking carrots and turnips from the earth, carrying their bounty back to be turned into lunch under Kaye's tutelage. "I look forward to this all week," exclaims Susan Ledley, 60, a retired teacher and caterer from Chappaqua, N.Y., "to sit at that table, so close to Adam, with such beautiful ingredients."
On the West Coast, people pay upwards of $100 a head to eat a dinner in the very field in which the ingredients were grown, at chef Jim Denevan's Outstanding in the Field program in Santa Cruz, Calif., or the Plate and Pitchfork dinners run by Erika Polmar and Emily Berreth in Portland, Ore. "It was a harvest-moon setting—" gushes Melissa Coe Grewenow, 55, a Portland interior designer, "—and the breezes picked up, and you could smell the thyme and marjoram and the things you stepped on when you got in from the field." The magic of the evening was only enhanced, presumably, by short lectures between each course from the various purveyors on the provenance of every cheese and the lineage and life history of every vegetable served. The audience consists of "people who threw themselves into the workplace and didn't have time [for anything else]," says Susan Sokol Blossom, a certified-organic Oregon wine maker who has served her products at many Plate and Pitchfork dinners. "Now their lives are slowing down just a little, and they're able to re-immerse themselves in the finer things in life." "Finer" in this context is not just a euphemism for "expensive" but conveys the essential boomer quality of reverence for one's own digestive system and metabolism. The generation that laughed at the right-wing general in "Dr. Strangelove" for his obsession with "precious bodily fluids" have pretty much come around to his point of view, although they're more concerned about trans fats now than fluoridated drinking water. "This isn't about going out and driving a BMW," Sokol Blossom maintains. "It's about celebrating what you put in your body."
When the Cliffs Communities began developing 3,500 acres of Southeastern forest for vacation and retirement homes in 1991, it was assumed that golf would be the main attraction at each of the seven locations. But it soon became apparent that aging boomers needed help to stay in shape so they could play as much golf as they liked. Starting in 1995, the company began adding gyms—or, in real-estate speak, "wellness facilities"—that include water-therapy pools, exercise rooms, Pilates rooms, spinning rooms, steam rooms, spa rooms, weight rooms and hiking trails. Debe Schwedler, 52, and her husband, Dick, both avid golfers, spend half the year in a 3,000-square-foot house in the Cliffs Valley development in Travelers Rest, S.C. She golfs in the mornings, then takes a class or lifts weights at the wellness center, and once a week gets a massage, alternating between "deep tissue" and Swedish. She shops for organic vegetables from the development's own organic farm. The 10-acre garden, less than a tenth of the area of the golf course's heavily fertilized turf, represents not only an equivocal victory for the environment but also a triumph of marketing what sales chief Scott Beville calls "our commitment to wellness and all the things that fall under that." As boomers age, he says, they realize they're unlikely to find the fountain of youth on a golf course, so "they're looking for something that can really make a meaningful difference in their lives." In fact, Cliffs Communities are attracting aging boomers who don't even play golf, like Larry and Rickie Reinhardt, both 55, who describe themselves as "avid exercisers and outdoors kind of people." The Reinhardts bought a 5,400-square-foot four-bedroom home for just the two of them (their children are grown) at the Walnut Cove development in Asheville, N.C.; Rickie visits the wellness center five or six days a week, while Larry goes for a run.
For that matter, the idea of living in a 365-day-a-year spa has even extended to real-estate developments miles from the nearest golf course, like Canyon Ranch Living—Chicago, a brand extension of the famous Canyon Ranch spa outside Tucson, Ariz. When this 67-story elliptical glass condominium opens on the Miracle Mile in 2010, it will have 257 apartments and a "wellness spa" that will occupy some 75,000 square feet, larger than most supermarkets.
Another Arizona spa, Miraval, is bringing this concept to Manhattan's Upper East Side in the form of a 365-unit high-rise whose amenities will include more than 100 programs of exercise, meditation, education and creative arts, plus an array of grooming and wellness services ranging from reflexology to the newest must-have treatment for aging boomers: nose-hair trimming. Miraval Living's Web site gives so much more prominence to spiritual values than floor plans and appliances that you can almost forget it's advertising what is actually an apartment house. Turning the whole notion of "home" on its head, it presents life at 515 East 72nd Street as a "journey," overseen by a personal adviser who helps tenants develop a "customized program to achieve a life in balance." In jargon that seamlessly blends New Age babble with real-estate boosterism, CEO John Vanderslice enthusiastically, if incomprehensibly, promotes Miraval Living's concept of "not only changing people's lives but changing how they live." It's also changing the notoriously skeptical and hard-headed reputation of New York City apartment buyers, who once would have been appalled at the idea of letting a landlord anywhere near their nose hairs, but are flocking to buy apartments that come with something called an "environmental protective facial."
As they confront their own mortality, aging boomers are also looking back at their antecedents. Tony Vetrano, a 53-year-old lawyer in Philadelphia, recently returned from his second visit to Italy. On his first trip he went to Bisacquino, the Sicilian town from which his parents emigrated after World War II. "When we were growing up, my parents would talk about this small town in Sicily, and because we didn't travel much, it was almost mythical, it seemed so far away and alien," he says. Vetrano travels the world like any successful boomer, but the trip back showed him something different, an alternative universe he might have inhabited if his parents' lives had been a little different. On his first trip, driving through the town of Corleone (yes, that Corleone) on a Sunday afternoon, he stopped at a café and saw a typical Sicilian scene: a crowd of men in their Sunday best pulled up in a circle around a man entertaining them with jokes and stories. Vetrano, fluent in the Sicilian dialect, sidled up to listen, and was struck by the sudden realization that had his father not gone to America, he might have been in that very group, listening to familiar stories, his life bounded by comfortable village routines. "It was a trip back in time to when my parents lived there," he says, "because these small towns in Sicily are very much the way they were then."
Julie Sakellariadis, 51, has never been back to her family's ancestral home, although she'd like to someday—but it's been about 160 years since her great-great-grandfather came over from Carrick-on-Suir in County Tipperary, so most of her encounters with kin would most likely take place in graveyards. It's very different for her when she goes with her husband to his family's hometown of Isari, "smack in the middle of the Peloponnesus." Nick Sakellariadis, a first-generation Greek-American, has numerous relatives and friends to visit in Greece, and even though Isari itself is gradually emptying out as young people move to Athens for jobs, there's still a priest to show them the church where Nick's father was baptized.
American Jews typically have a different kind of experience; most of their ancestors came to America several generations ago from places where almost every trace of Jewish life was wiped out by the Holocaust. "Going to the country where your parents or grandparents were murdered isn't exactly a vacation," observes Michael Schudrich, the American-born chief rabbi of Poland. Nevertheless, many are doing it, and some are even having success in tracing their long-forgotten roots. Eric Greenberg, 50, director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, went back to the town in Poland from which his grandfather had emigrated in 1921—a project that required him first to discover exactly what town it was.
With only his grandfather's entry visa to work with, this took hours of research by Greenberg in the archives of Ellis Island, the great clearinghouse for immigration through New York City. Dusty records in local courthouses turned up the information that his grandfather had traveled to this country—luckily, before there was a Department of Homeland Security—on a visa in the name of a relative. On a trip to Poland, Greenberg drove to the little village where his family had lived, expecting a warm welcome from the local officials. Instead, the woman guarding the municipal records told him they were closed except by special permission, relenting only after he managed to produce a photograph of himself with Pope John Paul II. On a return trip, Greenberg was able to identify his great-grandfather's house, still standing, and to piece together the sorrowful history of the Holocaust in that little corner of Europe; his great-grandparents, he found, had probably been killed on the spot by German soldiers. "I learned that my family lived in this town back to the early 18th century at least," he says. "It gives you a sense of your history, to be able to see and touch and feel the place where your great-grandparents were from."
Others have had similar epiphanies, sometimes after elaborate preparations—Richard Gelfond, 52, the CEO of Imax, hired researchers to track down his ancestors in Ukraine—but others, like Debbie Findling, 43, a Los Angeles foundation executive, made her discoveries just by walking around, taking pictures and talking to people. "When I was there [Frysztak, Poland, the town where her father, a Holocaust survivor, was born], I started knocking on doors, and whoever answered, I would ask if anyone remembered the Jews of Frysztak. I connected with this man who was 82, whose best friend had been Jewish. He told me the fate of my grandfather and showed me the mass grave where all the Jews were buried. I stood and said the mourner's prayer for my grandfather."
So the journey of transformation the boomers began decades ago continues. It has sent them around the world in search of projects where they can help—to Kyrgyzstan, where Americans taught farmers the best way to dry prunes; to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, where volunteers built picnic tables and painted a day-care center; to a children's clinic in Romania, where Sue Surma, a 58-year-old nurse from Minneapolis, was so aghast at the smell that she raised $800 on her own to buy diapers and rubber pants for the infants. It has taken them back to ancestral homes in countries as diverse as Greece and China, and sent them on quests for the perfect baby zucchini to wrap in prosciutto, dunk in sesame seeds and flash-fry to make an amuse-bouche that you won't find at Applebee's. Sometimes it even finds them in the same place for 45 minutes, pedaling like mad, seeking to transcend the boomers' lifelong enemy, age itself.