Shambala of the Rockies
by by Allison Rae
Word is spreading about a magical, mystical place in the southern Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
It is hidden, remote, like the lost city of "Shangri-La."
Or, as town mayor Kizzen Laki puts it, visiting Crestone is like an episode of Star Trek where the crew lands on a planet that's supposed to be home to a highly advanced technological society, and all they see are a few sheep herders wandering around. "Then they press a button, and a whole city appears out of nowhere."
After all, Shambala, the legendary spiritual center of the world, only manifests in the physical realm from time to time. Welcome to Crestone, Shambala of the Rockies.
Spiritual seekers in North America eventually hear about Crestone. They make their pilgrimage to this sacred land reminiscent of the Himalayas and home to dozens of spiritual organizations and retreat centers.
After driving through both blocks of Crestone with its single gas pump, general store and post office, many leave, scratching their heads and wondering what the fuss is about.
For some people, it takes two, three or more visits to break through the illusion that there's nothing here.
When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
The approach to Crestone is a humbling experience. You drive through the 5,000-square-mile, pancake-flat, high-desert San Luis Valley, an ancestral trade route for Native Americans flanked by the San Juan Mountains to the west and the Sangre de Cristo range to the east. A single human is dwarfed by the expanse of the valley landscape. An octagonal building with an enormous gyroscope out front marks the turnoff to Crestone from Colorado Highway 17. This is Light Reflection. Outside, tables piled high with shimmering crystals invite mainstream tourists as well as spiritual devotees. Inside, Donna Koon welcomes travelers, answers questions and guides the uninitiated. A frequent visitor to India and vehicle for the healing energies of the ascended realms, she is the unofficial gatekeeper of Crestone.
" If someone is needing any assistance, we're here," Koon said. "They just seem to get drawn in. Sometimes people drive by and turn around and come back because they're supposed to be here. The crystals are kind of a front."
Beyond Light Reflection, you're on your own. For the next 12 miles heading east on Saguache County Road "T," the 14,000-foot snow-capped peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains command your attention as they rise from the 8,000-foot high desert floor. Lenticular clouds often graze the mountain tops. Both sides of the road are lined with cow pastures. There are duck ponds with a few geese milling about. To the left, you pass a small settlement - Casita Park - followed by the White Eagle Hotel, a small school, a couple of playgrounds, the local library, and a 9-hole golf course. Straight ahead, the mountains loom larger and larger, magnifying your innermost thoughts and feelings as you approach the town.
Crossing over a small bridge, the road is lined with towering old-growth trees, and you encounter the first spiritual center - the Crestone Baptist Church. The road winds past something called "Baca Grande - Chalets Grants." Next, a burnished wood sign announces that Crestone was founded in 1880. The road curves again, and you are here. There are maybe 10 buildings - the Northern Valley Realty office, U.S. Post Office, Alder Terrace Inn, 21st Amendment Liquors, Crestone Mart and the Crestone General Store, known locally as "Curt's." You might notice the Earth Star Plaza tucked behind Curt's. It's home to Crestone Creative Trading Co. and the Crestone Eagle office. There used to be a coffee shop here - the Divine Café. Then there was a restaurant. Both have closed. Except for the general stores, the newspaper and the liquor store, businesses come and go in Crestone.
The new local hangout is an old frame house converted into the Shambala Heaven on Earth Center - a unique mixture of coffeehouse, tea room, Internet café, herb shop and healing center. On any given day, you might encounter locals huddled at the kitchen table over coffee, talking about their experimental free-energy devices, the newest neighbors in the Baca, or the question of when the Mayan calendar actually ends.
As far as the town goes, that's about it.
The rest of the story is in the Baca.
The "Baca" is the shortened name for the Baca Grande subdivision to the south of town. Crestone is an incorporated town. The Baca is a 200,000-acre tract of land where most of the spiritual centers, shrines, ashrams, monasteries, retreats, and people are located. At the entrance to the Baca is the town's sole restaurant - the Desert Sage - located in a complex with townhomes and a couple of businesses adjacent to the Colorado College at Baca.
Much of the Baca land was acquired in a business deal more than two decades ago by multimillionaire businessman and United Nations Undersecretary Maurice Strong and his wife, Hanne Marstrand Strong. Through their Manitou Foundation and Manitou Institute, the Strongs have shaped the development of the Baca, holding to a vision of Crestone as a unique spiritual community and haven for those choosing a contemplative lifestyle. The Strongs have invited and assisted many of the spiritual organizations that are now located here, including the Crestone Mountain Zen Center, the Haidakhandi Universal Ashram, the Sri Aurobindo Learning Center, and the Karma Thegsum Tashi Gomang Stupa and Retreat Center.
Eastern spiritual traditions - especially Hinduism and Buddhism - dominate the landscape. However, all paths are honored. The Sanctuary House in the far southern corner of the Baca features a sacred labyrinth that is a replica of the Chartres Cathedral dromenon in France, with shrines in the four cardinal directions honoring the four major spiritual traditions on Earth - Judaism/Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. There are spiritual healing centers, Native American organizations, non-denominational centers and spiritually oriented Bed & Breakfasts in the Baca. There's even a "town witch" - Debra Floyd - who reads tarot, casts spells and dances with snakes.
The Baca is also known as a center for alternative building, permaculture and sustainable living. Environmental organizations, eco villages and community gardens are located here. The Atalanta Association focuses on land use, agriculture and building design based on the principles of permaculture. The Baca Center for High-Altitude Sustainable Agriculture is a demonstration and teaching project focused on organic gardening, permaculture methods, and sustainable building and power technologies. The Haidakhandi Universal Ashram grows its own food, and natural agriculture is one of three primary focuses of the Shumei Crestone Center. Because of the way the community, through the Property Owners Association, supports sustainable development, Crestone is gaining a reputation as the alternative building capital of the country.
According to Hanne Strong, Crestone is a "demonstration project."
"We want to prove that alternative lifestyles are not inferior, but superior," she said. "We focus on the human spirit, consciousness and sustainability."
The Manitou Foundation brings organizations of diverse spiritual paths together in one place to create a safe and mutually respectful environment for co-existence and sharing.
This is the Crestone people read about in magazines, but when they come in person, they often miss it. In part, this is because of the physical terrain. The foothills of the Sangres are covered with cedar and pinon trees - an alpine desert landscape that hides what's really here. According to the mayor, the mystery of Crestone runs deeper than that.
If Shambala represents the mystical meeting place of heaven and Earth, Laki (known universally as "Kizzen") helps connect the realms. She is spiritually conscious yet fully grounded, the duly elected mayor of the quarter-square-mile town of Crestone. She's also the publisher of the local newspaper, the monthly Crestone Eagle. In a town with only 76 registered voters, you get to be both.
"This community functions on the fifth dimension," Kizzen said. "That's why the newspaper is a success. The paper is in the physical world. Without it, you wouldn't have a clue what's going on in this community. It's a physical manifestation of the community." So is the publisher. She lives in a 100-year-old one-room, split-log, solar-powered, wood-heated cabin on the edge of town. She has a home phone, but other than that, she lives "off the grid."
This unique combination of individualism, spiritual consciousness, environmental responsibility and pioneer self-sufficiency forms the ethos of Crestone.
What's so special about Crestone?
For Donna Koon, coming to Crestone the first time was "coming home."
"It's a certain vibratory frequency, and to me it was home," she said. "So much comes from those mountains." Koon came to Crestone after hearing about it from Sedona-based crop circle researcher Chet Snow. They met at a UFO conference nine or 10 years ago, and Snow said he had heard that Crestone was "the place to be." Donna Koon and her late husband, Al, were living in the Bay Area at the time. Within a few years, the Crestone area had become their home.
Kizzen says the community is unique because of its spiritual nature, its commitment to environmentalism, and its social and political activism.
" Crestone took the lead on protecting water rights, forming a citizen action group when a large corporation wanted to export San Luis Valley water on a huge scale," she said. Also, the local Open Space Alliance successfully lobbied to reduce military flyovers by the Air National Guard, which were causing undue disturbance to this otherwise peaceful area.
The most salient feature is the absolute quiet. Except for the occasional car, there is no traffic noise because Crestone is at the end of the road. There's only one road in and out, and it ends in Crestone.
" It's a deliberate act to come here," Kizzen said. "It's not like you land here on your way to somewhere else." The quiet can be unnerving at first, especially for those who are used to the city. Then it grows on you, and the retreat pace of life becomes second nature. The quiet is the basis for the area's popularity for retreats.
" It's not just spiritual retreats," Kizzen said. "Many people come for the quiet, the mountains and the wilderness, just to get away from it all." The deer milling through town, eagles flying overhead and antelope grazing in the fields have a way of calming the mind.
According to sacred sites expert John Milton, there's also an ancient spiritual-scientific reason that the land is so sacred, so powerful in Crestone. Crestone sits at the convergence of ley lines, part of the Earth's electromagnetic energy system. Like in Sedona and Mt. Shasta, this creates vortexes of powerful energies available for healing and higher states of consciousness.
Milton first came to Crestone in 1979 and "fell in love with the place."
"I was drawn by the special feel, the extraordinary quality of the energy here," he said.
When he acquired land north of town, he discovered that the ancients had created structures to enhance the energetic experience available at Crestone. They are "meditation seats" made of stone, and there are thousands of them located throughout the area. There are also stone alignments. He believes they are Native American in origin, "unlike anything I've seen anywhere, and I've been around."
After this discovery, Milton decided to scrap his plans for developing an intentional community on the 200 to 300 acres he was actively acquiring. Instead, his organization - the Way of Nature Fellowship - created the Sacred Land Trust "for the protection and preservation of those who have been here before and what they have left us."
The fellowship has taken a different approach than some of the other spiritual organizations. Rather than building temples and shrines, Milton believes it's "the natural land that's inherently sacred." So he keeps the structures to a minimum.
" Nature is the temple," he said. "The Earth itself is sacred." Crestone past, present, future
Crestone is situated about halfway between Santa Fe and Denver, 13 miles east of the tiny town of Moffat. The closest cities of any size are Alamosa an hour to the south and Salida an hour to the north.
Crestone was originally home to Ute and Comanche Indians. According to Milton, members of nearly all indigenous tribes around the world, and especially those in North America, used to venture to Crestone for the healing and meditative qualities of the area. The southernmost point of the mountain range - Blanca Peak - is considered one of the four sacred mountains to the Navajo and Hopi. The entire range, extending from Blanca to an area north of Crestone, is considered to be the eastern gateway for these people.
" This was a zone of peace and harmony," Milton said. "Tribes had to drop their disagreements and warlike behavior when they entered the area and come in a spirit of peace."
Milton has met Native elders from as far away as the Yucatan to the south and the Cherokee and Iroquois Federation to the east whose ancestors frequented this sacred land for meditation, to commune with Great Mystery.
All of that changed when the Europeans arrived in 1540 and began forcing out the Native Americans. They came to settle the land, to mine the mountains and to soak in the nearby mineral hot springs. The town was officially settled in 1880 with mining as its primary purpose.
Kizzen said there used to be a clearer distinction than there is today between the town of Crestone and the Baca subdivision. It used to be that most town residents were descendents of the original mining settlers. Land was passed from generation to generation, and the same names occupied the residences down through the years. About 12 years ago, some new land opened up for sale, and the town's population grew from about 50 to about 75. Newcomers came to Crestone and were also populating the Baca. Today, the population between the two areas is blending.
With no local police force, community leaders are called on to resolve issues between residents. Kizzen said the problems are minor - "things against town ordinances" like barking dogs and vandalism. Anything more troublesome is handled by the county sheriff or the state police.
They resolve their disputes the old-fashioned way. They talk about them. If that doesn't work, they write a formal letter. And the system seems to work.
The mayor also points out that in a small town, self-governance is natural.
"Living in a small town, you develop a reputation," she said. "If you go into a restaurant and you're rude or don't tip well, everyone knows about it. How you act sticks with you. If you offend someone, you run into them again and again, in the post office, in the grocery. That's the self-governing factor. If you're in Denver, you just go to another restaurant, or move to another neighborhood."
While the community has its share of internal conflict, there is a cohesiveness and loyalty among those who choose to live in Crestone. Visioning for the future doesn't take top priority, but the leaders have given some thought to having a town "peace officer." The population has doubled in the past five years and tripled in the past 12. There are now about 900 residents combined in the town and the Baca. Kizzen acknowledges that the growth will continue, estimating that the population may double again in the next 10 years.
" The biggest part of the growth is because of the Internet and virtual employment," she said. Some people who live in Crestone year-round work jobs somewhere else. For instance, a massage therapist may have a practice in Denver, about three-and-a-half hours away. The person goes to Denver for 10 days or a week at a time, then comes back to Crestone. Others are teachers who go "on tour" with workshops and lectures scheduled in other locations. They could be gone a month or more at a time. Some people have sold property elsewhere and bought property at much lower prices here, providing a nest egg. Others derive income from inheritances, trust funds and other investments. "They're not making a living from the local economy. The local economy only survives through continued growth."
Many who live here would prefer to keep Crestone secret. Some fear the town will become overrun with tourists, and they've successfully blocked development by actress Shirley MacLaine, who had planned a large alternative healing center on her 180 acres in the Baca, and New Age author Norma Milanovich, who proposed a giant stone pyramid. While spiritual and eco-tourism are the leading "industry" in Crestone, the town is decidedly not another Disneyworld, and the local population likes it that way.
Crestone may be special, but it's not paradise.
According to Kizzen, people shouldn't think they need to come to Crestone and stay.
" It's like a university," she said. "You come in and learn and take what you learn back out into the world. It's not an easy place to live. It's hot, it's dry, it's dirty and buggy and dusty. It's cold in the winter. There's no economy. This is not paradise."
She cautions that aside from adaptability, staying in Crestone requires being grounded. People walk into her newspaper office "all starry-eyed" and she knows they won't make it here long. There is a certain artistry to being in Crestone.
"The time lag between cause and effect is very short," Kizzen said. "Some of the difficulties we have in our community are because people are really focused on the next life and not fully present in this one."
That's not to say that Crestone isn't ideal for those who choose to adapt and put down roots.
" I love this place and I love the people," said the mayor. "We are indeed a conscious community." And, for a moment, clearly visible.
Allison Rae is a metaphysical writer and spiritual counselor living in Crestone, Colorado. Her web site, www.TheStarCenter.org, features a variety of articles on star alignments, metaphysics, personal and planetary transformation, spiritual prophecy and more. She can be reached at allison@TheStarCenter.org or (719) 256-4860