Roland Beanum is as buttoned-down as they come. An aerospace engineer who has designed spaceships for 30 years, he spends his free time studying signals from outer space.
But Beanum also finds himself tuned into the New Age wavelength. And for that reason, he recently toured the ancient Peruvian city of the Incas, Machu Picchu.
"I felt a surge, I don't know how to explain it," said Beanum, recalling his visit to some of the Incan sacred sites. "If I had to quantify it scientifically, it would be very hard to do."
Beanum's trip was arranged by Power Places Tours, a travel agency that specializes in taking people to places with good karma. The agency has organized charters to the pyramids of Egypt, the temples of Bali, the Himalayas of Tibet and the waterfalls of Brazil--places it says have the power "to energize, to heal, to transform the traveler."
This path to expanding the consciousness begins in Laguna Beach. Working in a glass-walled office tucked into a hill behind a grocery store, agency founder Toby Weiss and his three employees serve visitors apple juice and spice bread. A Peruvian rug hangs near the entrance, and a desktop cherry statuette from China wards off evil spirits.
Weiss said he knows a power place when it vibrates him. "Just like there are people with good vibes, there are places with good vibes too," Weiss said.
Ruth Hover, a Thousand Oaks therapist who has gone on Power Places tours to Egypt, Peru and Bali, said the feeling has to do with emotional energy. Bali, for example, is restful; Los Angeles is not, she says.
"The energy here is tremendously fast-paced, tremendously brisk," Hover said. "The energy in Bali is very peaceful."
The trips--about 14 a year--generally last 10 days. From California, the charge for air fare, hotel room and most meals ranges from $2,186 for a journey to Iguassu Falls--a series of 275 waterfalls in Brazil on the Argentine border where "The Mission" was filmed--to $4,694 for a jaunt to the mountains of Tibet.
Beanum, who is nearing retirement from TRW in Redondo Beach, took his first trip with the group last month. He said the experience helped sharpen his intuition, which is important in designing spaceships.
"The (Incas') methods of building temples, the tools they used, what they did was magnificent for that time," he said. "It made me more open to things."
Other Southern Californians want the experience as well. More than 500 people travel with Power Places each year, and most are from California, Weiss said. He said the numbers are not surprising, given the strong interest here in New Age thought--such things as channeling, crystal healing and energy balancing.
There have always been agencies that specialize in tours to places of significance to one group or another--booking passage to Turkey for Muslims, for instance, or to India for Yogis.
But Power Places is the only agency in Southern California (there are about a dozen similar agencies elsewhere) that offers tours to the average traveler who just happens to have an interest in the mystical, said Andy Alpine, publisher of the San Anselmo, Calif.-based Specialty Travel Index.
Part of the appeal of Power Places is Weiss himself.
Four photos of Weiss adorn the first inside page of the tour catalogue. Until recently, he led all of the tours personally. He is a Fulbright scholar and a 1972 graduate of UC Santa Cruz with a Ph.D. in the history of consciousness.
He was teaching weekend seminars in the California State University system when he decided to offer class trips to Egypt to study ancient healing methods. The trips, he said, were originally accredited for medical professionals.
That was 1980. Five years later, he was able to leave teaching to run Power Places full time. Today, Weiss says the agency's revenues have doubled in the last year to about $1.5 million, and he is about to hire a fourth employee. He would not disclose income.
The business took off, he said, when he began shifting from small group tours to setting up his own conferences abroad. The first was titled "The First Earth Conference" and attracted 267 people to Egypt in January.
Weiss invited leaders of the New Age movement to speak, in honor of 1990, the first year of the final decade of the millennium. Topics included ecology, alternative medicine, wisdom and ancient traditions. Most of the participants were Americans, but 50 or so came from Japan and a handful each from Australia, Europe and South America.
Weiss plans a healing conference in Egypt for December and a second Earth Conference in Bali for April. Speakers are some of the heaviest of the New Age heavies: Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, noted author on death and dying; Kevin Ryerson, trance channeler, and Barbara Marx Hubbard, the "best informed human now alive regarding futurism."
The bigger trips are more profitable, but they are also riskier. "I've been doing small tours for 10 years, and I can do them almost without thinking now," Weiss said. "Of course it's more profitable, but there is also more risk, as with everything you do that's bigger."
The popularity of the conferences is confirmation that the New Age movement is growing, said Jerry Snider, an editor of San Francisco-based Magical Blend Magazine: A Transformative Journey. He said people with metaphysical leanings can feel isolated and the gatherings are a sort of group therapy.
"These movements tend not to be centralized, unlike, say, a religion, where you gather in a church," he said.
Others are decidedly cynical. Marc Medoff, former publisher of the defunct New Age natural foods magazine Whole Life, is critical of the narcissism of the New Age movement. Medoff said groups like Weiss' are making money from gullible people.
"New Agers are a flock very willing to be fleeced," he said. "I've gone on vacation to Club Med and come back feeling reinvigorated."
In fact, Weiss seems to find air fares and tax benefits as exciting as good vibrations. He seems to hold a curious mixture of '80s yuppie values and Southern California mysticism. Maybe that's why he is planning a conference on "Intuition in Business" in Barbados next spring.
It's simple, said Weiss. "It's a nice place, and my tax adviser tells me you can deduct the trip."