August 7-20, 2013
Returning to Crestone is a pilgrimage. Chris and I travel there every few years. Crestone changes over the time between visits and it remains the same. I arrive there with a storehouse of past associations. I arrive knowing I will find beauty, quirkiness and surprises. It is there that I completed two one month solo wilderness retreats in 1995 and 2001. It is there that Chris and I first met (1995) and then started our relationship (2001).
We were returning this year for specific dates in August because I was registered for a weeklong Dzogchen meditation retreat with Tibetan Buddhist teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche. Although he lives in Nepal, his organization – Pundarika – has a center in Crestone.
Crestone is remote. At the end of a lonely road, at 8,000 feet, the town sits at the base of sharply rising 14,000 foot peaks to the east. To the west, the San Luis Valley stretches 60 miles to the San Juan Mountains. It has a unique history. Originally an old mining town, in the 1970s Hanne and Maurice Strong bought a 200,000 acre tract of land with a vision of providing property to spiritual centers. This has resulted in Crestone becoming a community of spiritual communities, an interfaith refuge in the Sangre de Christo mountains.
There are approximately 23 different groups there including seven Tibetan Buddhist centers, a Carmelite monastery, three Hindu ashrams, a Zen center, a Shumei center, a Subud community and several Native American organizations. And an assortment of mainstream Christian churches. Crestone has two stupas and a ziggurat to visit. Is the only town in the country where outdoor funeral pyres are allowed. Here is a link to an article in the New York Times.
It is also home to the Way of Nature Sanctuary, the land belonging to Sacred Passage and guiding teacher John Milton. It is with Sacred Passage that Chris and I completed our solo retreats in the nearby mountains.
Crestone is a small town; the entire area having about 1000 people. Most homes are part-time residences since the winters are harsh and the jobs few. Crestone is not prosperous or chic like Sedona. The tiny “downtown” is ramshackle. Businesses seem to barely get by and accommodations are usually basic. Restaurants come and go and usually have names like the current Shambala Cafe and Bliss Café. The only bar is called “The Laughing Buddha”. Organic food is commonplace. Not only are there native bison but a herd of Asian yaks who thrive in the high-altitude, extreme weather and dry climate. Yak burgers can be ordered at several establishments. Nearby are natural hot springs and we visited them as part of the routine of our regular pilgrimages. A short ways to the south is Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Crestone attracts unusual, fascinating and sometimes bizarre people. This year we noticed a large number of what appeared to be homeless wanderers. Some looked gentle and benign, while others were a bit scary.
We camped at the National Forest Campground for two weeks. It is a lovely primitive spot along the wooded North Crestone Creek. The retreat I attended was held a few miles away in a large tent, about a ten minute hike through the sandy juniper and pinyon pine landscape from the parking area. They have no accommodations so participants dispersed each evening and rejoined each morning at the tent from various B&Bs, room rentals in homes and camping spots. Meal plans were offered at the Desert Sage Restaurant which is adjacent to the extension campus of Colorado College (the main campus is Colorado Springs). The CC website describes the impetus for adding the Crestone campus: “Two decades ago, The Colorado College began an experiment of creating a space for reflection to ‘free us all from the tyranny of the urgent” (Coriell) in order to enhance learning.”
The Desert Sage is one of the few establishments that has remained in operation since my first visit in 1995. Conveniently, the campers next to us were also attending the same retreat and I hitched rides with them each day, thus allowing Chris (who was not attending the retreat) to sleep in and maintain his own schedule for the week.
After my retreat ended, Chris and I connected with John Milton who was hosting a small group of old students. John had discovered a unique area of stone formations on the west side of the San Luis Valley and we accompanied him and other students on a field trip. John is known as a “stone shaman” and has a unusual affinity for working with stones and meditation.
Black bears have always had a notable presence in Crestone. This summer was no exception. The first night of their stay, the campers next to us had a backpack full of food that they had hung in a tree stolen by a bear. The only bears Chris and I saw this trip were two bruins marauding downtown Crestone one evening at dusk.
In 2002, a bear popped out a window of my car; I had inadvertently left one window open about 1/2 inch. Shattering the glass, the bear climbed into my car, opened two coolers of food and dragged much of it out the window. I was camping about 75 yards away when this happened in the middle of the night. The bear left behind claw marks on the upholstery, a muddy footprint on my backjack and a few long black hairs.
In 2001, while on a month-long solo retreat, I had several encounters with bears. One night a bear knocked my three bear canisters full of food down a ravine, intelligently believing – I assume – that the canisters might break open after forcefully hitting boulders and fallen logs. Fortunately, the canisters were intact when I retrieved them but they were covered in tooth and claw scratches and drying bear slobber. (By the way, this wilderness retreat happened mid-August through mid-September 2001. Yes I was there when 9-11 occurred. That is another story altogether.)
The sweeping limitless vistas, the dramatic changing play of weather and clouds, the towering rugged peaks make this place like no other. Unfortunately, for some of the most remarkable displays of nature, I did not have my camera with me and missed recording them.
In an earlier post, I said Wyoming was the last big hurrah for wildflowers. That was true. But Colorado offered a satisfying small hurrah. Flowers were becoming fewer and farther between; they were giving way to berries, hips, nuts, pods, seed heads and mushrooms.