CRESTONE, Colo. — Religious tolerance has long been a source of pride in this former mining town at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, where 300 townsfolk worship Christ, Buddha or Hindu fire gods and then attend civic picnics together.
Fifteen years ago, a philanthropic foundation began granting land here to major spiritual movements, with the intention of creating a haven for religious practices.
But the tolerance began to show strains two years ago after the arrival of a new group that obeys a celestial master with a commandment to keep the world from wobbling off its axis. The formula: Build a 396-foot-high pink granite pyramid near Crestone with an obsidian cap.
"I just can't believe that this is anything but a big joke," scoffed Mayor Marlene Pruitt. "I thought the pyramid plans died with the Egyptians."
Wrong, all wrong, insist dozens of followers of an ethereal being they call Kuthumi, whom they believe communicates to their earthly leaders through Norma J. Milanovich, 48, of Albuquerque.
They have moved to this area or purchased land here in anticipation of their impending crossing to the fifth dimension through the proposed pyramid.
Never mind that the pyramid would cost untold millions of dollars. Nor that the San Luis Valley sits on an aquifer that Saguache County officials say could not support the structure. Nor that the pyramid would be about 45 stories tall, while the tallest building for miles around at present is a 47-foot-high Buddhist temple.
The would-be pyramid builders say Kuthumi will prevail.
Many residents hope not. They refer to the newcomers as "Pink Pyramid People," or "PPPs" and appear to worry more about becoming outnumbered by them than about the Earth whirling into the great beyond.
In a county with 4,619 people spread over 740 square miles, "it wouldn't take a whole lot to get a political majority," said resident Anne Nowell, 37.
Over the past year, property sales in the region have doubled with "about half of those sales to pyramid supporters," said Pam Bertin, a local real estate agent.
Barbara Stube, a Denver teacher, recently purchased a lot for a home near Crestone in anticipation of the pyramid. "My sense is, once the building (of the pyramid) begins, this will be like Mecca or Jerusalem," she said.
Such pronouncements have had a chilling effect here, where many say they fear that the community's cherished standing as a retreat for religious groups is at risk.
"Our reputation as a very serious ecumenical community is being ruined," said Hanne Strong, 51, director of the Manitou Foundation, which granted land to spiritual centers here.
"We've worked very hard and created a place where the most ancient of the religious teachings can settle," Strong said. "My roots are deep here; I'm not going to relocate. I'll have them relocate first."
Mark Jacobi, 39, a carpenter, was more blunt. "A lot of us are concerned about Crestone becoming a spiritual Disneyland."
Pyramid backers have claimed they were confronted by uncompromising residents during heated debates in town meetings.
"It was overwhelming to experience 100 angry people in the room," said Kathleen Novack, 50, who supports the pyramid project. "They were hostile, and they don't understand the situation on Earth."
In a letter last year to the editor of the local newspaper, none other than Kuthumi himself allegedly entered the fray.
"You have positioned yourselves as caretakers of this most powerful vortex in order that you may be the caretakers for the world," the letter said.
In April of this year, 150 people fired back a petition addressed to Kuthumi and delivered to Milanovich, requesting that the pyramid not be built.
"We addressed the petition to Kuthumi because when you ask Milanovich or her Board of Twelve a direct question, they always disavow their own responsibility and defer to Kuthumi," Jacobi said.
Milanovich, who said she has been receiving messages from "ascended masters" and extraterrestrials since suffering severe whiplash in a 1981 automobile accident, works as an employment consultant.
She said she regrets the ridicule residents have heaped on the instructions received from Kuthumi and from extraterrestrial beings on the starship Athena near the star Arcturus.
"They are trying to teach us, and that is hard down here on Earth," Milanovich said. "I know this is real, but how can you defend something like this?"
Saguache County officials wish she wouldn't try.
"It think it's a little stupid," said Richard Coffee, 77, chairman of the county planning commission.
"For the pyramid they want to build, if they used three-inch-thick pink granite, the stone would weigh about 53,000 tons," he said. "They'd almost have to set it on solid rock, but we're sitting on top of one of the world's largest aquifers!"
Why does it have to be so conquering?" asked David Nicholas, 45, who is on the board of the local property owners association.
Only Kuthumi knows.