MENDON, Vt. — Jimmy LeSage, 65, has been telling people to take a hike for more than 37 years. The former-hippie-turned-wellness-guru slides into the cool, clear waters of a Green Mountain waterfall and exhales deeply.
“This is the first time all season that I’ve been able to do this,” says LeSage.
Business is booming at the New Life Hiking Spa, which LeSage founded in 1978. Back then, he had just 12 guests the entire summer season. This summer, he’s had to turn people away.
“I’m in the wellness business,” says LeSage, director of the longest-operating hiking spa in the country. “People come here to de-stress. We give them the basics: good food, good hiking, and they feel better for coming. Plus, we also have the best hiking here.”
Nationwide, there are more than 38 million hikers or backpackers, according to Statistica, a data analyst company. That’s a 28 percent increase in the last six years.
But hiking spas are as rare as Tom Brady fans in Indianapolis.
New Life boasts 21 hikes of varying skill levels within 20 minutes of the Cortina Lodge, a ski resort in the shadow of Killington that New Life occupies for its 19-week season (mid May to October). The hikes range from hilly nature walks to stairway-to-heaven climbs that rise to 4,000-foot vistas.
LeSage is a hero in these woods. He hires ski resort locals looking for seasonal work and gets bargain offseason rates for lodging. The guides on the trails are also waiters and waitresses in the dining room. The all-inclusive rate is around $250 a night, and the vibe is friendly and fun.
Mel Zuckerman, founder of the famous Canyon Ranch wellness resort, used to come here for vacations.
“It’s unique,” says Paul Kurnit, a Pace University professor and guest who says LeSage was ahead of his time on health, fitness, and cost issues. “Want to go to Mexico and spend four times as much?’’
The intense LeSage first came to Vermont via Florida to cook, grilling wiener schnitzel at a local ski lodge. He became a chef, studied yoga and Hindu philosophy, developed a modified Pritikin Diet, and toured the major spas of the country.
He also got his Master’s degree in counseling from the University of Bridgeport. His experience is a combination mental and physical approach to wellness, with a dash of cheerleader.
“If I can do it, well, hell, why can’t you do it in your life?” he tells one guest.
The guests at New Life are mostly fit baby-boomer-aged women, in various shapes and sizes. The return guest rate is 40 percent.
Andrea Haas, an art teacher from Connecticut, has been coming here every summer for 14 years.
“It’s not a white-robe-and-slippers spa where people have an expectation of being cared for in a traditional spa way,’’ she says. “It’s more like adult camp, and the food is great.”
LeSage serves guests restricted-calorie meals made with fresh ingredients. He becomes both animated and agitated when talking about processed foods.
“The food in America is killing more people than ISIS,” he says.
LeSage says dieting is not the answer. He advocates a lifestyle change.
“It’s a long slog, a very dimensional way to make change,” he says. “Most people don’t want to do it; they’d rather just take the drugs for high blood pressure.”
He believes feeling better doesn’t have to be an uphill battle.
“Any sports team, they have stretching, strengthening, and cardiovascular,” he says. “That’s what you get here.”
The day begins promptly at 7 a.m. with stretching. There will be three meals, a daily three-hour hike (all levels), fitness and yoga classes, and nightly lectures.
Among the current guests are folks from Italy and England, a former Naval commanding officer from Delaware, and a former collegiate sprinter who once raced against O.J. Simpson.
Dalton LeBlanc, 71, of Houma, La., may have lost the sprint against the Juice’s USC team, but he’s still in tiptop shape.
“This is just like heaven,” he says. “The hiking pushes you harder than anything you could normally do at home. The limited diet helps you trim the weight. The two combined is what makes it so successful.”
After breakfast, veterans give rookies hiking tips, such as applying moleskin on potential sore spots or using trekking poles that save the knees. The poles also are great weapons if you meet a (gulp) bear on the trail.
Water bottles, backpacks, sunscreen, apples, and poles are provided. High-top hiking boots are mandatory. Ibuprofen, massages, and a hot tub await hikers on their midday return. The afternoon features activities such as water aerobic classes, body sculpting, Pilates, kayaking, and Vinyasa Flow yoga.
One step at a time
Out on the trails, everyone is equal. Nobody wears headphones. Some hikers walk alone and others walk as a team. Deep in the woods, there is the sound of silence, the organic smell of the warm earth mixing with a sweet breeze sweeping through the trees.
The hikes are not competitive and the group mantra is “one step at a time.”
Everyone walks at their own pace. A 6-to-1 guest-to-guide ratio is maintained on the hikes to make sure nobody gets lost or injured. On some trails, when other hikers ask the group where they are from and they reply, “New Life,” the hikers think they are meeting a church group.
During breaks, the guides (mostly young ski instructors) distribute trail mix, fruit, and encouragement. Sometimes hikers stop to pick fresh blackberries and raspberries.
One nature walk starts near the grave of Calvin Coolidge, the Vermont-born 30th president. It meanders up and around a nearly 5-mile loop that ends with a visit to Plymouth Artisan cheese factory, where a few hikers joyfully put back on the weight they lost climbing the hills.
The advanced group climbs 4,235-foot Mount Killington, which has rock scrambles that when wet can easily cause a face plant. But everybody agrees the risk is worth the reward.
Mary Ann Kurtz of London is working on a novel. This is her ninth visit to New Life. She loves the hikes and says the other guests become family.
“We can go to the gyms and work out and all of that, but you can’t get this,” says Kurtz. “It’s gorgeous.”
Michelle Werle, a hiking manager, loves her job.
“It’s paradise,” she says. “When we’re not working, were off hiking. ‘’
Werle says the clientele is mixed.
“You get everything,” she says. “People recovering from serious illness, people starting to get over some serious emotional problem. It’s more for people to regain their health.”
Ben Pitre, 60, a former boxer from Houston, booked a 47-day stay to “jump start” his life.
“The first hike, I thought I was going to die,” he says.
After completing a recent hike, he talked giddily about his endorphin rush and the can-do attitude of the baby boomer generation.
“When I was a kid, if you were 60 years old, you were a grandfather sitting in the living room with the TV on waiting for your next procedure,’’ he says.
Jessica Ballister, one of the evening lecturers and yoga instructors, says there are scientific reasons why hikers are happier.
“Hiking gives you more oxygen to the brain,” says the Gettysburg College graduate. “There’s also the thrill of getting to the top, of overcoming something.”
Or, as Jimmy LeSage says before hustling back into the kitchen, “I give them hope.”Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.