Colorado Site Called ‘a Place of Power’ : Spiritualists, Environmentalists Find Haven in the Baca
Hanne Strong unrolls her blueprint of a “global village” for spiritual leaders and environmentalists and pins its corners down on her kitchen table with an expensive tea set.
It shows a band of temples and churches, gardens and small, self-sufficient communities laid out along the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains here.
Some of what is in the plan already has been realized, some is in the works, and some exists just in “prophecy,” Strong says.
Like Strong, who travels the area’s back roads in skirts and silk blouses as comfortably as in jeans, the plan is at once earthy and elegant, serious and a little spacey, embracing the disadvantaged one minute and industrial magnates and movie stars the next.
Seeks ‘Major Shift’
“Unenlightened, confused minds are ruling the world and destroying the environment,” Strong says. “There needs to be a major shift in the way people think.”
Strong and her husband, Canadian oil developer and United Nations diplomat Maurice Strong, hope to turn several thousand acres of desert and mountains in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley into a repository of spiritual truth and environmentally sound living--a place where political and business leaders can come to be taught how to care for themselves and the Earth.
They don’t want a lot of people, who would tax the area’s fragile natural balance.
The place, originally part of the 160,000-acre Baca Spanish land-grant ranch, is called just “the Baca.” Area Indians believed it to be sacred “neutral” ground where tribes could come together. Hanne Strong believes it has kept that power intact.
Land Given Away
The Strongs already have given away hundreds of acres to Carmelite Catholics, Tibetan Buddhist monks, Zen monks, American Indian tribes and the yoga-based Sri Aurobindo Learning Center. They have put up chapels, hermitages, temples, sweat lodges, community buildings and gardens.
On the blueprint, Strong has set aside 2,000 more choice acres for other religious groups she believes will come to the Baca someday as earlier groups did--on their own. She does not recruit.
A native of Denmark who personally feels closest to the American Indian spiritual tradition, Strong says she respects all spirituality but intends the Baca to be for religions with “an unbroken lineage,” not the so-called “New Age” groups.
“This is ‘Old Age,’ ” she says with a laugh. “Very old.”
The Strongs have sold land at the Baca to less-established spiritual groups, although not yet to actress Shirley MacLaine, a friend of Strong who visits the Baca often and wants to set up a spiritual community here.
One such group that bought land at the Baca is the Haidakhandi Ashram, which is building a Vedic temple and small community on 46 acres to follow the teachings of Haidakhan Babaji, a Hindu mystic.
Other projects under way include an Experimental Garden and Seed Bank for high-altitude crops, an educational center for American Indian youth, a world nutritional center and various healing centers.
Scattered among the spiritual groups and projects are about 100 homes, the beginnings of the Baca Grande retirement community that was cut short when the Strongs came to the area in 1979.
Most of the Baca development remains a virtual wilderness, where a visitor sees more deer than people, and signs of mountain lion and bear.
“It’s a complete ecosystem,” Strong says. “It’s still in a pure state.”
The Baca, elevation 7,800 feet, can be reached only from the west. To the east is the Sangre de Cristos, a wall of craggy, snow-covered peaks that rise to more than 14,000 feet.
Compared to the arid valley a traveler crosses to get here, much of the Baca is lush, traversed by creeks and shaded by tall trees.
Some of the spiritual groups that have moved here actually were directed to the Baca by Hopi Indian elders. Cree, Blackfoot, Ute and Sioux tribes have built ceremonial lodges at the Baca, and Navajos and Hopis make pilgrimages here.
“This is a sacred place, for hundreds, thousands of years,” says Mike Sierra, a Lakota Sioux from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, who travels to the Baca occasionally as an apprentice to a Sioux medicine man. “It’s a place of power.”
The area’s beauty inspires all the spiritual groups that have settled here.
“The desert and the mountains are deep religious symbols for every spiritual community, and right at the heart of the Carmelite philosophy,” says Sister Sharon Doyle at the Carmelite cloister, where the buildings blend into the landscape and are invisible from a distance. “Aesthetics are very important to us for creating a contemplative climate. . . . Beauty uplifts the soul. It’s part of the whole consciousness of this area--respect or reverence for the Earth.”
The Carmelites, who moved to the Baca from Sedona, Ariz., in 1983 because of encroaching development, have 104 acres, including a mountain hermitage. Nine full-time hermits--both men and women--live at the Baca, and their numbers are growing. The order is negotiating to buy more property and has a waiting list of retreatants.
The Baca is bordered on the north by Crestone, a tiny gold-mining town gone bust, and on the south by the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. To the west is the Baca Grant Ranch, with more than 4,500 head of cattle. Maurice Strong is the ranch’s board chairman.
Crestone is an hour from the nearest supermarket, in Alamosa, and half a day’s drive from Denver, northeast over a couple of mountain ranges.
Crestone’s post office was about to close in the early 1970s when the subdivision came along, followed several years later by the Strongs. Now about 200 people live in the town and adjoining development year-round, 300 in the summer.
Residents include ranch hands and a handful of old-timers as well as retirees and those attracted either by the spiritual groups or by the chance to live in a small town with an international flavor.
The tiny Crestone phone book is riddled with such entries as “Crystal Sojourns” and “Ahimsa Life-style.”
It also includes some of the rich and famous the Strongs have brought to the area, including Robert O. Anderson, former chairman of Atlantic Richfield, and Najeeb E. Halaby, former head of Pan American Airways and father of the queen of Jordan.
Halaby has built a home and ziggurat--an ancient type of Assyrian temple--on land he bought from the Strongs near the sand dunes.
It is one tract in an area the Strongs divided into several tracts and allowed the nondenominational Lindisfarne Assn. to sell to wealthy friends and acquaintances. One of them, Aziz Al Hamdan of Kuwait, is inviting hundreds of family members to set up a Bedouin camp on his land, Strong says.
Attempt at Harmony
Maurice Strong, the first chief of the United Nations Environment Program--among other environmental credentials--sees the Baca as an attempt “to harmonize the people who affect the environment, who are the economic practitioners.”
The Strongs first came to the Baca in 1978 when Maurice took control of AZL Resources Inc., which owned the 146,000-acre Baca Grant Ranch and the 14,000-acre Baca Grande Development, on which AZL had tried unsuccessfully since 1971 to develop a retirement resort.
They were struck by the area’s beauty and halted the retirement development.
Under Strong, AZL began consolidating tracts of land, giving some to spiritual groups and selling some. The company merged with Los Angeles-based Tosco in 1983, and Tosco sold the Baca in 1986 to a group of investors led by Strong.
Other investors include former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief William Ruckelshaus; Canadian financier Sam Belzberg; Anderson and his son Robert B. Anderson, and others.
That group still owns the ranch, but sold the development in 1987 to local developers.
The Strongs own 20% of the ranch, and Hanne Strong has her 2,000 “key acres” along the mountains in a foundation called Manitou.
In 1981, the Aspen Institute set up a conference center, complete with restaurant, townhouses and jogging trail, on 320 acres donated by the Strongs and AZL.
The remoteness of the area prompted the institute to discontinue its programs there in 1984, but now Colorado College, located 130 miles away in Colorado Springs, leases some of the townhouses as a field school and dormitories.
The Strongs, who are building a new solar-energy home, own one of the townhouses in which Hanne Strong lives most of the year.
The prophecy Hanne Strong follows is chiefly that of Glen Anderson, a local mountain man and “prophet” who came down into the valley and visited the Strongs two months after they arrived at the Baca.
She says he told them they were on sacred ground where all the world’s religions would gather to work for greater spiritual understanding.
“He said, ‘That’s what you’re here for--to do this,’ ” she says. Anderson has since died.
Strong asked elders from nine American Indian tribes to come to the Baca and hold a council on the prophecy. After four days, she said: “They said the prophecy’s correct.”
Of all the projects under way at the Baca, Strong herself is most excited about the fledgling RedSun Institute, an International Educational Center for Indigenous Peoples, and the 200-acre Tibetan Center, along with the agricultural research.
“Many Indian elders have been coming to this area for a long time,” says RedSun director Pat Caverly, 38, who is seeking grants to get the institute going.
Called Gathering Place
She sees it as “a gathering place for the traditional teachings to be passed on to the youth.”
Initial projects include building a village where students can come to learn about Indian spirituality and community development, and creating a “Sustainable Development Youth Corps” dedicated to restoring and protecting the Earth.
Strong’s ties to the Tibetans run deep. She says her grandson, Jason Mayo, born in Alamosa in 1979, was recognized by the High Lama in 1981 as the reincarnation of an 11th-Century Tibetan saint named Rechung Dorje Drakpa.
Four Tibetan monks currently live at the Baca, planning the construction of retreat centers, a monastery, a holistic medical institute and a lay village for about 300 people.
The San Luis Valley Tibetan Project began nearly a decade ago, when followers of the Dalai Lama, refugees from the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, came to the Baca at Strong’s invitation. She says they vowed to bring their most sacred texts and artifacts to the Baca, believing the Tibetan Buddhist tradition may perish in the Himalayas under Chinese occupation.
Ground to Be Broken
Ground will be broken this summer on the first three buildings of the project, estimated to cost nearly $1 million. Money is being raised through donations and pledges, Strong says.
Altogether, only a couple of dozen people live permanently at the Baca’s spiritual communities, visited by numerous retreatants.
Strong herself is reluctant to publicize the Baca.
“It’s not ready yet,” she says. “I don’t want this to be put on the map as a kooky place.”
But many of the spiritual groups depend on donations or retreatants’ fees to pay their way. They want the world to know they are there.
Two people live full time at the 300-acre Zen Center, plus a couple of nondenominational retreatants at any given time and Roshi Richard Baker, who heads the group and spends about half the week there.
Baker took over operation of the mountain retreat center from Lindisfarne, founded by New York writer William Thompson to study religion and the humanities. With land donated by the Strongs, Thompson lived there until illness caused him to return to New York in 1983.
Says Gerald Weischede, a West German native turned Zen monk and director of the Crestone Mountain Zen Center: “It’s nice that people at the Baca are more open for some kind of spirituality. The decision to go into the desert more or less means you’ve decided to support each other.”
Once a week, the Baca’s spiritual communities have a joint silent-prayer meeting, open to the larger community as well.
“The Baca’s a place where all the great traditions can find nurture, not in isolation but in community,” says Seyril Schochen, director of the Sri Aurobindo center, dedicated to the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, a Mahayogi of India who died in 1950.
“It’s unity through diversity.”