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Encountering the Integratron in the Mojave Desert

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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.

Van Tassel claimed to have been visited by aliens in 1952, and thousands began making pilgrimages to his "Spacecraft Conventions" in the desert. He said the aliens had imparted information regarding time travel and rejuvenation.

Van Tassel began building the Integratron. He never quite finished, however, and died in 1978. Everyone who had worked with him left immediately, Joanne said, and his diagrams and documents vanished. Someone even ripped out the copper coiling that was the heart of the purported time-traveling aspect of the dome.

The dome sat unused and forgotten until 1987, when two investors bought it and opened it to the public for the first time, though only on occasion.

The sisters, meanwhile, were spending an increasing amount of time in California, particularly Nancy and Joanne. Nancy had worked in dot-com marketing and Joanne in heart monitoring systems. But they were burned out and started running adventure retreats for professionals -- mountain treks, dolphin swims and desert outings.

The first time they visited the Integratron, they broke in. Knowing none of its history, they began visiting regularly. Often it seemed they were the only ones who ever came; sometimes they would arrive and a coffee cup they'd left on a fence post was in the same place they'd left it months earlier.

"When we were here, no one knew where we were or what we were doing," Joanne said. "It was like being on another planet."

They began to spruce up the place, planting pomegranates and plums, and Joanne and Nancy bought it with two other investors in 2000. (They won't reveal the price but say it was less than a typical house in Los Angeles.) Three years ago, they bought out their partners, and Patty, who still lives back East, became the third owner.

Since then, the sisters have learned more about the Integratron, though there is still plenty of mystery. They found an underground bunker, for instance, and old-timers in the area have suggested that there is more below ground on the property than is visible on the surface of the sand and gravel.

The big remaining hurdle is figuring out if they can do what Van Tassel never did: turn on the Integratron, spinning a system of spokes circling the dome, generating electricity, capturing it in wiring and -- probably not, but just maybe -- tinkering with time. If they can retrace his steps and rebuild the destroyed copper coil, they'll give it a shot, Joanne said.

Van Tassel claimed that the aliens had told him that humans were "remedial" -- and that the Integratron could extend life, allowing us to become better educated.

"I think we can all embrace that. People are starving. We are at war. We're morons," Joanne said, laughing. "Do I want to live to be 800 years old? Not really. But it would be fun to see what happens if we try."

scott.gold@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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