Integratron

Carlos Coyan of Rancho Cucamonga meditates as more than a dozen people gather at the Integratron in Landers for a "sound bath." "I would describe it as the fusion of art, science and magic," said co-owner Joanne Karl. Video (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

If you set off one morning and drive into the desert, past swirling dust devils and Wile E. Coyote rock formations, and then you drive some more, all the way until the paved road ends, you might find yourself at the Karl sisters' place, where time travel might, or might not, be possible.

Here's Joanne Karl now, at 53, the oldest of the trio, striding across the compound. Today, she's all desert flower -- billowing dresses and sun-bleached tresses. Like the others, she's strayed from her roots.

The sisters grew up in the New York suburbs. Their father worked in plastics; Saturday meant the country club and Sundays meant church. They also had a whimsical mother who, at 79, has yet to acknowledge that questions have been raised about the existence of Santa Claus.

"Be bold," Jackie Karl told them time and again, "and mighty forces will come to your aid."

That, topped off with a collective case of wanderlust, helps explain how Joanne, Nancy and Patty Karl came to own 11 acres of unforgiving Mojave Desert moonscape -- and one 38-foot-tall, blindingly white dome called the Integratron.

Modeled after the Tabernacle that some believe was built by Moses and built atop an unexplained spike in the magnetic field, the place might, or might not, have been imbued with healing powers -- and that's not all. The dome's architect also believed that he could harness energy, creating what he called a "proprietary frequency" and distorting the space-time continuum.

The sisters want to give it a shot. If only they could figure out how to turn the thing on.

More than 1,000 devotees visit each year. About a third are musicians who record here, taking advantage of the wooden dome's unusual acoustics. Most, however, come to kind of be, and to undergo therapeutic "sound baths," which Joanne describes as "kindergarten nap time of the third kind."

"OK," Joanne says, climbing a steep ladder into the rotunda. "Here we go."

As you lie on the floor, Joanne begins to circle the rim of quartz bowls with a wooden pestle -- the same principle, she'll explain later, as when you used to wet your finger and "play" the rims of grandma's crystal glasses. "Take the deepest breath you've taken today," she says, tenderly.

The quartz begins to sing. Here's where the similarities to grandma's crystal end.

It's 105 degrees outside, and sunlight is streaming in through 15 windows ringing the rotunda. Somehow, it is not hot, not in here. The notes clash over your head, some in breathtaking harmony, some in startling dissonance. Just when you're starting to see patterns in the grain of the wood in the soaring ceiling, it's over.

There is silence, and no one moves. The acoustics are so good you can hear a man swallow from across the room. It has been either the shortest or the longest half-hour of your life.

"It's a cleansing," said David Williams, 48, reverently.

He's a recording engineer who recently underwent a sound bath; he's here to record an album for a Los Angeles band called Finn MacCool. "It's like you've had a massage -- but no one has touched you."

Southern California, of course, has no shortage of New Age gurus pleased to pump you full of herbs and plunk you in baths of minerals and shoot lasers into a variety of orifices, often with dubious results. And yet, somehow -- even way the heck out here in the wind-swept town of Landers, between Joshua Tree and Big Bear -- the Integratron draws a crowd.

A couple weekends ago, it was 60 emergency responders training in nonconfrontational mediation. Shortly before that, it was acupuncturists from Boston, who took a sound bath with needles sticking out of them.

The crowds are drawn in part by the perceived healing, but largely by the site's zany history, which starts with its architect, an iconoclast named George Van Tassel.

In the midst of a career in aerospace, Van Tassel effectively dropped out. In 1947, he leased four square miles of desert from the federal government and built an "Interplanetary Airport" and a tiny restaurant, famous for his wife's apple pie, near fabled Giant Rock, a seven-story-high boulder that has since split in two.