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Eccentrics, dreamers and seekers flock to Crestone, Colo.

The rugged, tiny town south of Denver gives visitors a taste of different spiritual beliefs.

June 19, 2011|By David Kelly | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • The Tashi Gomang Stupa is 41 feet high and provides a spectacular view. The sacred building contains relics of the Buddha; nearby paths lead to hidden meditation areas.
The Tashi Gomang Stupa is 41 feet high and provides a spectacular view. The… (David Kelly )

Reporting from Crestone, Colo. — For thousands of years, the high, arid San Luis Valley has spawned tales of the strange and the fantastic.

Native Americans called it the Bloodless Valley, setting aside their weapons as they made vision quests up sacred Blanca Peak, the great sentinel of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains whose bony spine winds dramatically from southern Colorado to Santa Fe, N.M.

Later inhabitants noted a peculiar energy attributed to a combination of wind, 8,000-foot altitude and an enormous aquifer beneath the highest high desert outside of Tibet. Some went further, claiming hidden UFO bases and mysterious portals where aliens enter and exit our world. All the while, the largest alpine valley on Earth became a magnet for eccentrics, dreamers and seekers.

People such as Cindy Santi — masseuse, tantric-yoga practitioner and bartender at the Laughing Buddha Lounge in remote Crestone.

Shortly after I wandered in, she offered me a shot of Ormus, a milky drink not unlike seawater.

"It'll balance the left and right hemispheres of your brain," she said.

As I pondered the white glop, Santi broke into an unprompted riff on the divine.

"I'm not into God, I'm into helpful not harmful, useful not useless," she said. "So I don't have any morals. I'm just living in the moment."

I started to chime in, but she had moved on.

"When you hear the guitar, it's all sex; that's where the energy is coming from," she continued. "Anyone who plays the guitar knows that."

That drink was looking better, so I slugged it back — oddly refreshing with hints of low tide.

"You know what they say about Crestone, don't you?" Santi asked. "We're here because we're not all there."

With barely 1,500 inhabitants, this ruggedly handsome town four hours south of Denver, near the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, has emerged as one of the major spiritual centers of North America.

Home to some 23 religious retreats, Crestone allows you to spend weeks working on an ashram, studying Buddhism, ruminating on Taoism or soaking up the quiet of a desert hermitage. It's a vast spiritual buffet where dilettante and serious practitioner easily rub chakras. And if things go horribly wrong, it's one of the few places outside India where you can get cremated on a funeral pyre.

I drove into the Baca Grande, the huge chunk of mountain and forest where most residents and retreats are found, on a warm November afternoon. Deer lazily walked in front of my car. A group of teenagers gently shooed a reluctant herd from a basketball court.

Barely a mile in, I spotted the Stupa of Enlightenment with gray, spiraling peaks rising behind.

Anthony Reis circled the towering Buddhist monument.

"So much of the Southwest is like this —a gate or vortex or whatever you want to call it," said the self-described healer from Santa Fe. "I think all of that energy is concentrated in Crestone. You can experience a rock, a bush, a tree more intensely. This place talks to you."

Reis, 65, was headed for a retreat at the Vajra Vidya Tibetan Buddhist center, and I went along. The retreat sat amid a canopy of juniper and pine, light filtering through fluttering prayer flags. A grand doorway led to a temple adorned with golden Buddhas and images of fierce deities.

Ani Seltong Dronma, a Buddhist nun by way of Kansas, greeted me in the kitchen.

"To really ripen and deepen in your practice, you pretty much have to be in a situation like this removed from ordinary life," she said. "That is the hallmark of all religious traditions."

I wandered into the temple to hear a class taught by scholar David Fuqua.

"Everything is beginning and ending at every moment," he said gently. "Everything is impermanent so we have to reconstruct our world over and over again all the time."

While I tried to comprehend the details, Gabrielle Herbertson, from Questa, N.M., grasped the big picture.

"When you come here, you realize you are in the presence of something that is a blessing," she told me. "You are in the presence of compassion."

Crestone began as a mining community in 1880. In 1978, Canadian millionaire and former undersecretary general of the United Nations Maurice Strong and his wife, Hanne, bought the 200,000-acre Baca Ranch next to town.

"They wanted to do a different kind of development," said Mark Elliot, a British documentary filmmaker who moved in 22 years ago. "So they started giving land to religious groups."

The lure of free land and the haunting, Himalayan-like beauty attracted spiritual leaders from as far away as Tibet and Bhutan. Others fleeing urban or suburban America flowed in looking to start anew.

"It was the best thing that ever happened to me," Elliot said. "It was a wonderful place to raise my son. And if you are a practicing Buddhist, there is no better place to be than Crestone."

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