In tiny Crestone, the world's religions coincide with a landscape that inspires believers of all stripes.
In many faiths, there are places where it is believed that the physical and spiritual worlds overlap.
As I bumped along a dirt road toward a Tibetan temple just south of Crestone, Colo., that seemed like a reasonable proposition.
In the west, late afternoon sun stretched the shadows of the San Juan range across the broad, flat valley floor. To the east, the towering wall of stone known as the Sangre de Cristo mountains filled the car windows and a good deal of the sky above.
The golden light, the blue mountains, the 50-mile views -- where could a soul find a better place to wrestle with the big questions of existence?
All along the road was evidence that many people see Crestone as an ideal venue for such grappling. I passed a Carmelite monastery, a Tibetan stupa, a Bhutanese Buddhist temple, a Hindu Ashram, a Japanese zen-do and an outpost of the little-known Shumei sect.
I had come to Crestone because I'd heard it described as a "New Sedona," a spot on the map where more and more people were looking for spiritual answers in a mind-blowing landscape.
I have mixed feelings about the idea that travel to a specific spot can deliver divine sustenance, and I'm always dubious when one place is described as the "new" someplace else. Still, I was curious.
A place for all
My first indication that the Sedona comparison was grossly inappropriate came at the Vajra Vidya Center, where I met director Ani Seltong Drongma.
Vajra Vidya consists of a smallish, two-story stucco building that wouldn't look out of place on the outskirts of Lhasa, Tibet. Seltong Drongma, a white woman in her 50s with sterling eyes, a gray crew cut and maroon robes, took me on a brief tour of the center's spartan accommodations. She grimaced when I brought up Sedona.
"I think there was more of a New Age element here a few years ago," she said, "but it's not easy to live here -- there aren't many jobs and it's not close to anything else, so it didn't last."
Vajra Vidya got its land from the Manitou Foundation, the project of a wealthy couple by the name of Hanne and Maurice Strong. Maurice Strong and a partner bought more than 200,000 acres of land in the valley in the late 1970s. Hanne Strong later conceived the idea of a "refuge for world truths," and began granting land parcels to spiritual groups and organizations.
Seltong Drongma (her name means "lamp of clarity") said that Crestone was practically a ghost town when the Manitou Foundation began. "Hanne's vision was that Crestone could be a center for all spiritual traditions." The foundation granted Vajra Vidya 65 acres, hard against the mountains, with a spectacular view of the pool-table flat San Luis Valley.
Seltong Drongma began studying Tibetan Buddhism and meditating in the early '70s, she said. Meditation is a way to train the mind to see the world for what it is, breaking down the illusions that our egos construct about who we are.
"All of this around us is not solidly real in the way we normally think of it," she said. "And that is such a relief, because we can get so claustrophobic in our heads. ... When you realize that, you can be kind to yourself, and kind to the world."
The nature of reality
Those words rang in my ears over the next few days in Crestone. The town is an excellent place to question the nature of reality.
I had a suite with kitchen at the Baca Lodge, one of several bed-and-breakfasts in the area, and I had time to visit retreat centers, talk to Crestonians and contemplate things sublime from a number of perspectives.
The tiny town of Crestone supports a coffeehouse, a bar, a health-food grocery, a bank, a crystal-and-jewelry stocked New Age gift store, a gallery selling the work of local artists, a new ceramics center and a few houses. To the south, Baca Grande is a growing residential development where most of the retreat centers are located. About 1,500 people live in Crestone, Baca Grande and the retreat centers.
I alternated visits to monastics with excellent Tibetan-influenced meals at the Desert Sage restaurant, hikes in Great Sand Dunes National Park (18 miles south of town) and a memorable hour stewing myself at the Joyful Journey Hot Springs, where open-air pools offer unobstructed views of the Sangre de Cristos.
A beam of prayer
The spiritual landscape is every bit as tumultuous and dramatic as the physical one. There are few other places where most of the world's great religions -- and some of its most obscure ones -- are within walking distance of one another.
At the Haidakhandi Universal Ashram, I joined a gracious Indian family from Denver in the temple for a puja -- or prayer ceremony -- honoring the Divine Mother. The chanting was in Sanskrit and Hindu, and besides the fact that the woman playing the harmonium was a regal blonde from California, we could have easily been in Varanasi.
Not all the centers were open that March weekend. The Crestone Mountain Zen Center was in the middle of the winter silent retreat. The Carmelite Monastery was busy hosting a group of Sufis (who practice a form of mystical Islam). But in another odd confluence, the Japanese Shumei Center was the site of a concert of Senegalese folk music, and a crowd of about 50 gathered to hear songs in Wolof and French accompanied by the kora (a deeply resonant string instrument).
After the show, two very young and giggly Japanese Shumei followers took a small group on a tour of the immaculate compound. There were extensive gardens to grow food for residents, indoor and outdoor performance spaces, and a sun-filled, modern temple.
Their English was rudimentary, but I gathered (and confirmed later) that the Shumei sect reveres art, organic agriculture and a form of projected prayer called Johrei. I experienced Johrei firsthand in the temple.
My guides led me through a Shumei chant, and then they held their outstretched hands toward my bowed head and focused their prayer energy there. I did feel a kind of warm glow on the top of my head as they prayed, but where it was coming from, I can't say. (In any case, I also revere art and organic agriculture, so the Shumeis are OK in my book.)
The morning that I left Crestone, I had breakfast with Ralph Abrams, the mayor. In keeping with Crestone's eclectic mix, he's a Jew from New York who helps runs one of the Tibetan Buddhist retreat centers.
I asked him about the idea of an intersection of spiritual and physical worlds -- was such a crossroads to be found in Crestone?
"Some people will say that this area was sacred to the Indian tribes who lived here," he said. "And there is an amazing combination of elements at play. You have earth, water, sun, air in this very intense atmosphere of natural beauty. That's an immense support, no matter what your practice is."
But Abrams said that in his experience, soulful truths aren't to be found in a physical place, and those who come looking for instant spiritual gratification probably will find something else.
"Maybe someone comes here looking for an easy fix, and what they need is to have their ego destroyed," he said. "Lose their identity. Be crushed in the dust until they're nothing but a phantom by the side of the road. Maybe that's what they need to figure out who they really are. That can happen here, too."
Freelance writer and photographer Chris Welsch is based in St. Paul (www.chriswelsch.com).