Reporting from Crestone, Colo.—For thousands of years, the high, arid San Luis Valley has spawned tales of the strange and the fantastic.
Native Americans called it the Bloodless Valley, setting aside their weapons as they made vision quests up sacred Blanca Peak, the great sentinel of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains whose bony spine winds dramatically from southern Colorado to Santa Fe, N.M.
People such as Cindy Santi — masseuse, tantric-yoga practitioner and bartender at the Laughing Buddha Lounge in remote Crestone.
Shortly after I wandered in, she offered me a shot of Ormus, a milky drink not unlike seawater.
"It'll balance the left and right hemispheres of your brain," she said.
As I pondered the white glop, Santi broke into an unprompted riff on the divine.
"I'm not into God, I'm into helpful not harmful, useful not useless," she said. "So I don't have any morals. I'm just living in the moment."
I started to chime in, but she had moved on.
"When you hear the guitar, it's all sex; that's where the energy is coming from," she continued. "Anyone who plays the guitar knows that."
That drink was looking better, so I slugged it back — oddly refreshing with hints of low tide.
"You know what they say about Crestone, don't you?" Santi asked. "We're here because we're not all there."
With barely 1,500 inhabitants, this ruggedly handsome town four hours south of Denver, near the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, has emerged as one of the major spiritual centers of North America.
Home to some 23 religious retreats, Crestone allows you to spend weeks working on an ashram, studying Buddhism, ruminating on Taoism or soaking up the quiet of a desert hermitage. It's a vast spiritual buffet where dilettante and serious practitioner easily rub chakras. And if things go horribly wrong, it's one of the few places outside India where you can get cremated on a funeral pyre.
I drove into the Baca Grande, the huge chunk of mountain and forest where most residents and retreats are found, on a warm November afternoon. Deer lazily walked in front of my car. A group of teenagers gently shooed a reluctant herd from a basketball court.
Barely a mile in, I spotted the Stupa of Enlightenment with gray, spiraling peaks rising behind.
Anthony Reis circled the towering Buddhist monument.
"So much of the Southwest is like this —a gate or vortex or whatever you want to call it," said the self-described healer from Santa Fe. "I think all of that energy is concentrated in Crestone. You can experience a rock, a bush, a tree more intensely. This place talks to you."
Reis, 65, was headed for a retreat at the Vajra Vidya Tibetan Buddhist center, and I went along. The retreat sat amid a canopy of juniper and pine, light filtering through fluttering prayer flags. A grand doorway led to a temple adorned with golden Buddhas and images of fierce deities.