Enlightenment Town: Finding Spiritual Awakening in a Most Improbable Place

Enlightenment Town: Finding Spiritual Awakening in a Most Improbable Place

by Jeffery Paine

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Overview

Why has a tiny old mining town straight out of Gunsmoke or Deadwood — Crestone, Colorado — become home to twenty-five spiritual centers representing nearly all the brand-name faiths of the world? With the keen eye of a storyteller, the insights of a scholar, and the heart of a seeker, Jeffery Paine narrates a truly unique adventure. He explores Crestone’s wintry, oxygen-thin mountain geography and introduces a cast of spiritual mavericks and unlikely visionaries. Paine finds in Crestone a remarkable dedication to coexistence. Paradoxically, the town’s amazing spiritual diversity highlights fundamental commonalities in a way that will strike and even inspire believers, agnostics, and searchers of every stripe.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608685745
Publisher: New World Library
Publication date: 05/20/2018
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Jeffery Paine’s writing has appeared in such publications as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and the New Republic. The author of Re-enchantment and Father India, he lives in Washington, DC.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

A Dream Awakens

The drowsy, dreaming town was about to wake up, whether it wanted to or not.

Circa half a century ago only a few score old codgers remained in Crestone whose reason for living here was that they were living here. The gold had long run out of this gold-mining town, and boom times had turned into bust times. Should you wonder how the descendants of those old miners supported themselves, the answer is: they didn't. They were living so meagerly that a magnifying glass would scarcely locate their carbon footprint. They inhabited tiny makeshift cabins that they had thrown up themselves from logs they had cut themselves. Their water came from wells they had dug themselves. For food, they went out and shot a deer. If they tired of venison, they shot a bear. Bread was baked in old coffee cans on wood-burning stoves. Their life was rough and hard, and that was just fine with them.

Crestone then half — but only half — resembled other towns in the San Luis Valley of south central Colorado, towns lying on the valley floor as though having fainted of sunstroke. In them forlorn houses lined forlorn streets, often in townscapes so flat they seemed to take place in two dimensions. In such western byways America's Manifest Destiny ran out of gas. Films (The Last Picture Show; Paris, Texas; Bagdad Café) used such desolate towns to evoke American minimalism, the sad barrenness of too little, too lost, too far away.

But located high up — more than eight thousand feet — in the valley's Sangre de Cristo Mountains (which rise to fourteen thousand feet), Crestone was suffused with a kind of nobility that gave it the aura of somewhere. Unlike superficially similar small towns, Crestone's terrain has always been a place of Big Dreams — from the Hopi on their vision quests to gold miners on their get-rich quests, from land speculators dreaming of $ signs to today's pilgrims dreaming of a better world. At times their Dream seemed to loom larger than the puny mortals dreaming it, whom it merely used to get itself dreamed.

The Dream has mutated through many incarnations. It is, however, its latest incarnation and the wildest, strangest dream of all that attracts our interest here. This is a story of how that hamlet mutated into something improbable and unclassifiable and without exact parallel elsewhere. Crestone today, with its multiple faiths, is often likened to a miniature, oxymoronic Wild West Jerusalem. But Jerusalem, with its Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, never came close to hosting as many varieties of spirituality, from A to Z (American Native religions to Zen), as Crestone does. Here, as Eastern spirituality makes its home side by side with traditional Western faiths, it has shaken things up and produced unexpected results — including turning religious differences into a source of social cohesion instead of hostility.

Today the town's twenty-five spiritual centers make it practically a living encyclopedia of the world religions. When you see them all together, what do you see that you didn't when you saw them separate and apart? In the overture, I borrowed an analogy from language: know only one tongue, and you'll mistake it for language itself; know a half dozen, and you may begin to discern their underlying structure and how each one renders reality differently. Likewise with religion. If intimately familiar with several faiths, you may better understand what a religious sense of life is, regardless of its cultural expressions, and what difference, for good or bad, in daily life it can make.

Crestone, with its more than two dozen versions of religion — and in that small dusty Wild West setting — doesn't quite resemble any other place in history. But before we go and inspect it, first a little background: How did such a geographical-cultural-spiritual one-of-a-kind come about in the first place?

History Lessons

Some people, like the Hopi, looked at a landscape and saw something spiritual or in addition. One such group of visionaries were the speculators of the 1970s, who looked at Crestone and beheld the summum bonum — filthy lucre, profits, fortune. A land speculation company, the Arizona-Colorado Land & Cattle Co. (AZC), began investing tens of millions of dollars, laying down water pipes and setting up electric lines just outside the town proper, to entice — so their investors hoped — urbanites looking for a better, freer life. The days of the tough old coots who could withstand every hardship, except prosperity, were numbered: capitalism was coming to Crestone.

AZC succeeded in selling a number of lots (when there was no one around to buy them) by setting up tiny sales offices outside army bases, to which was tacked a sign: OWN A PIECE OF COLORADO. $30 DOWN. $30 A MONTH FOR 30 YEARS. A drunken soldier stumbling back to the base might think, "Ah, what the hell" and stumble out of the sales office with three fewer tens in his billfold and a deed to somewhere in New Mexico, no, Colorado. But to sell enough plots of land to make it profitable, AZC faced a small problem — or actually several large ones. Winter in Crestone was most seasons of the year. When winter was eventually over, in blew relentless dust storms that practically kept people prisoners inside. When the dust storms ceased, then came plagues of mosquitoes. In Crestone there were no doctors, no hospitals, no shops, no movies, no entertainment, and (name almost anything else). AZC had a solution to that conundrum, too: they built a golf course. But man cannot live by golf alone. After a few years, the idea of a retirement community in Crestone itself went into retirement, as AZC went bankrupt. And with that ending our story begins.

* * *

Three mismatched characters, as though plucked out of three unrelated narratives, now come together to change the face of Crestone forever. Character number one: a billionaire entrepreneur turned environmentalist. Character number two: a self-appointed local shaman. Character number three: a Danish interior decorator living in New York City. She, number three, would put Crestone on the map and realize there one of the oddest and loveliest dreams in human history. For something new under the sun was taking shape. The Baca Grande News — not welcoming this unprecedented development — refused to print her name or report that news. Belatedly, a generation later, here's that news story.

Shamans and interior decorators are not hard to come by; more unusual is a billionaire environmentalist. When Maurice Strong purchased AZC's property assets, including the land around Crestone, his vision for the use of that land ... well, he had no vision for it. How could he? He had never seen it or thought about it. The two hundred thousand acres he now owned around Crestone came with the larger two-million-acre Monopoly empire spread throughout the Southwest that he had acquired when AZC went bankrupt. If other entrepreneurs had purchased those two hundred thousand acres, they might have erected a ski resort, or tapped the vast aquifer and piped the water to Denver or Los Angeles, or sold the minerals rights to Halliburton, or leased the land to the military for maneuvers and bomb testing. The mountains are too rugged for commercial skiing, but all those other money-making schemes have been proposed for Crestone. Maurice Strong was at least open to other possibilities.

Unlike Howard Hughes and Donald Trump, who inherited fortunes to fast-start their careers, Strong grew up dirt-poor on the Canadian prairie. Working in the Arctic when barely out of his teens, he learned enough about minerals to make his first million in mining stock. Subsequently, Strong alternated between employment in the private sector, amassing a megafortune — primarily in oil and natural gas — and serving in the public sector. For the Canadian government he oversaw the country's national energy policy, while for the United Nations he supervised the largest famine relief effort in history (in Africa in 1984), and later he master-minded the Rio Environmental Summit of 1992. Already a quarter century ago the New York Times was calling Maurice Strong "the Custodian of the Planet." Folks in Crestone were less sure what to call him. The ex-military types living in the Baca land development just outside the town proper were suspicious of Mr. Moneybags barging into their midst. He was a damned foreigner, hence likely to be immoral and depraved. And, sure enough, he arrived in Crestone with a beautiful, unmarried female companion on his arm. Strong had planned to headquarter his newly acquired empire in Arizona, but his female companion refused to reside in a city she found as soulless as Phoenix. The couple weighed their options and began exploring their other AZC properties for possibilities. This female companion had, it turns out, a rather unorthodox sense of the possible.

In fact, nothing was more surprising about this billionaire businessman than her. Maurice Strong and Hanne Marstrand certainly made the odd couple; their twelve-year difference in age (he was born in 1929, she in 1941) only began the differences between them. Maurice came from the cultureless Canadian prairie; she, from the European high bourgeoisie. He was physically homely and she was beautiful. He was practical-minded, and she spiritually inclined. The Los Angeles Times in 1989 titled an article about them "'Mystical' and 'Manifester' Team Up." If Maurice had the financial resources to allow something new to take root in Crestone, it would likely be Hanne who came up with what that something would be.

She had grown up in Copenhagen, believing, the way some believe they are born in the wrong sex, that she had been born in the wrong country. When she read James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans she thought, "Those are my people." Hanne invented for herself a secret history. "This is my first time around as a white woman," she would say to herself. "For countless generations I was a Native American Indian. Then for countless other generations I was a Tibetan." For a Native American maiden or a pious daughter of Tibet — or even for a proper Danish girl of that era — she certainly behaved inappropriately, becoming (I've been told) one of that new mutant species: the wild teenager, young, daring, beautiful, and saucy.

Hanne relocated to New York in her early twenties, encountering no Mohicans taking scalps but rather Manhattanites drinking manhattans (or martinis). One night Hanne met Maurice at a dinner party, and the rest is — tongues wagging. "It's classic," went the whispers. "Beautiful blonde babe takes rich fool for a ride." Hanne would come home from work to find her apartment filled wall to wall with roses, but Maurice Strong was too shrewd to be duped by a gold digger. For all their differences, theirs was a courtship, a partnership, and later a marriage of mutual appreciation and support. It was thus two seasoned, intimate allies who in 1978 arrived to inspect the old Crestone ranch, in order to do with the surrounding land ... they had no idea what.

What do you do with two hundred thousand acres of semidesert far from anywhere? To a businessman the answer would be obvious: hire consultants, have a feasibility study made, conduct market research, and organize a development oversight committee chaired by accountants. Or, if you are Hanne, you suspect that this is actually a spiritual question. To decide the future of the Crestone land, Hanne could imagine only one sensible approach: like an Indian medicine man she would go on a vision quest. After spending four days and nights alone in the Sangre de Cristos above Crestone, as Hanne gazed out at the meadows and nooks and crannies below, she fantasized a different religion nestled in each of them. What a cockamamy idea, even she realized.

As Hanne was making her way down the mountain, some miles away her teenage daughter from an earlier marriage, Suzanne, was trying unsuccessfully to hitchhike to Crestone. Finally, some geezer as old as Methuselah slowed his jalopy and yelled, "Get aboard!" and then plied her with questions about what a young thing like her was doing in these parts. When Suzanne told him about her mother, the old fellow could scarcely contain his excitement. As he dropped Suzanne off at the ranch house, he quickly scooted out of the car himself. When Hanne answered his banging on the door, he burst out, "Where you been? I've been waiting for you!"

This man, it seems, had been having his own visions. He had foreseen a foreign woman coming to Crestone. And that woman — You! he said to Hanne — has a mission to fulfill here. For a terrible time is coming, war and devastation will ravage the Earth, and somewhere safe is needed to preserve the age-old wisdom of humankind. He practically shouted at Hanne: the reason, and the only reason, for your coming here is to establish a refuge for the world's religions. Hanne remembered her vision on the mountain and wondered: Who is this man?

By the time he knocked on Hanne's door, Glenn Anderson must have been over eighty years old. What was he? A self-anointed prophet? A shaman? A medium or channeler? He did have one trait in common with all holy persons: he did not work for his own gain. Glenn Anderson lived simply, often sleeping out of doors or in a makeshift cabin so rickety it was like the outdoors indoors. Late in his life he gained some following, principally among hippies, who found his nonmaterialistic idealism and homespun mythology to their liking. Anderson regaled them with stories of how in an earlier incarnation he and the Indian war chief Crazy Horse had been first cousins. Creating a spiritual sanctuary here, he told Hanne that day, was Crazy Horse's vision for the valley. In fact, Anderson went on, Crazy Horse himself was merely the voice for a message far older, one ancient and coterminous with the cosmos. In establishing a habitat for all the world's religions, Hanne would be the medium fulfilling a dream of ancient and universal significance.

Hearing an unkempt old fogy splutter such nonsense, most people would have slammed the door in his face. But Hanne heeded his call, and in the coming years she would devote considerable acreage around Crestone, and seek out representatives of the world's religions to occupy them, to realizing the vision prophesized by Glenn Anderson, or by Crazy Horse, or by the dreaming universe eons ago.

* * *

Now that all the principal characters are onstage: the plot — a highly implausible plot, one that would change a half-ghost mining backwater into a setting for the world's religions to come together — is set to unfold.

First there is Maurice. His official residence was now Crestone but his real home was an unending succession of plane flights, from here to there to everywhere. He returned to Crestone bearing unusual souvenirs — the VIPs collected on his travels. Maurice sat on the board of the prestigious Aspen Institute of business, university, and political leaders, and, with his enormous influence, he established the institute's secondary headquarters in Crestone. In those days, the early eighties, you never knew whom you might bump into here. The downtown has about four streets, but walking them you might blink and wonder, Could that really be Henry Kissinger? And that guy, isn't that, you know, the prime minister of Canada, Trudeau? And what about him — Robert McNamara? Yes, it was they.

Then there is Hanne. She was poised to turn a hamlet on the outskirts of nowhere into a center of world religions. In 1980 a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal reported that Maurice and Hanne Strong were offering free land in Colorado to traditional religious groups. If spiritual cranks and homemade messiahs don't read the Wall Street Journal, somebody must have read it to them. From under rocks and behind trees across the United States sprang yet another bearded oracle or tie-dyed savior heading to Crestone, chanting the mantra, "Gimme, gimme land!"

And then there is the POA. The Property Owners Association was composed largely of exmilitary families who, when they moved here, had radically altered Crestone's character. But they now wanted no further change, certainly not the kind Maurice and Hanne were bringing. To the rightwing POA, the little foreigner Strong was barging in with what seemed to them a bunch of damned Reds in tow. If Maurice was bad, they considered Hanne unspeakably worse. She would lure to Crestone weird cults, practicing voodoo and black magic. In the early '80s Hanne received anonymous death threats regularly. Far from appreciating what she was doing, the POA blamed her for everything, short of the weather, and probably that, too.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Enlightenment Town"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Jeffery Paine.
Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Table of Contents

PART I: TOWN
1. A Dream Awakens
2. Where the Hell Am I? A Tour

PART II: RELIGION
3. “Gimme that Ol’-Time Religion!” Or Is the New-Time Better?
4. More Religions Than One
5. Less Than One

PART III: POST-RELIGIOUS VARIETIES OF EXPERIENCE IN CRESTONE
6. An Ordinary Thursday in Crestone
7. A Spiritual Relationship to the Natural World?
8. Religion’s Finest Benefit (Minus the Religion)
9. Singing the Mind Electric
10. When There Is Here and Bitter Is Sweet

FINALE: NEAR-ENLIGHTENTMENT EXPERIENCES IN EVERYDAY LIFE
11. The Look of It, the Feel of It
12. Nine Rungs Up to the Ladder to Enlightenment

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