Eccentrics, dreamers and seekers flock to Crestone, Colo.
Ani Seltong Dronma, a Buddhist nun by way of Kansas, greeted me in the kitchen.

"To really ripen and deepen in your practice, you pretty much have to be in a situation like this removed from ordinary life," she said. "That is the hallmark of all religious traditions."

I wandered into the temple to hear a class taught by scholar David Fuqua.

"Everything is beginning and ending at every moment," he said gently. "Everything is impermanent so we have to reconstruct our world over and over again all the time."

While I tried to comprehend the details, Gabrielle Herbertson, from Questa, N.M., grasped the big picture.

"When you come here, you realize you are in the presence of something that is a blessing," she told me. "You are in the presence of compassion."

Crestone began as a mining community in 1880. In 1978, Canadian millionaire and former undersecretary general of the United Nations Maurice Strong and his wife, Hanne, bought the 200,000-acre Baca Ranch next to town.

"They wanted to do a different kind of development," said Mark Elliot, a British documentary filmmaker who moved in 22 years ago. "So they started giving land to religious groups."

The lure of free land and the haunting, Himalayan-like beauty attracted spiritual leaders from as far away as Tibet and Bhutan. Others fleeing urban or suburban America flowed in looking to start anew.

"It was the best thing that ever happened to me," Elliot said. "It was a wonderful place to raise my son. And if you are a practicing Buddhist, there is no better place to be than Crestone."

He urged me to visit the 41-foot-high Tashi Gomang Stupa, containing relics of the Buddha himself. I drove up a badly rutted road, briefly stopping by a cascading brook with prayer flags strung across the water.

Andrea Joy Cohen, a doctor from Denver, sat there reveling in mountain and sun.

"I had heard about Crestone so I wanted to come and see it," she said. "I met a man in the forest who said this spot was sacred. I get the feeling people like that aren't uncommon here."

After more hairpin turns, I reached the magnificent stupa and marveled at the view — miles of desert stretching to snow-capped peaks beyond. Dirt paths led to hidden meditation retreats, and signs urged quiet.

By then it was nearly dusk, the Sangre de Cristo, or Blood of Christ, mountains were turning crimson, and I had a date at the Haidakhandi Universal Ashram to witness Diwali, the festival of lights.

The steps of the ashram were lined with candles burning in milk jugs. Inside, dozens of people sang traditional Hindu hymns accompanied by drum and harmonium, a keyboard with hand-pumped bellows.

"Hail, hail O king of sages, remover of the pain of thy devotees!" they sang, swaying ecstatically in the candlelight. A sweeping sense of joy filled the room, fueled by passionate tributes to Hindu gods sung almost entirely by non-Hindus.

I tracked down one of the singers, Alycia Chambers, in the kitchen. Her story, as I would discover, was typical Crestone.

"We lived in a tepee for nine years, moved into a yurt, and now we are up to a straw bale," said the midwife and organic farmer. "It's not easy living here. Everyone has two or three jobs, but you just simplify. It feels saner than the rest of the world."

I spent the night at the ashram and woke the next morning to find Ramloti, 61, the president, doing yoga in the dark. She was born Debra Wood in the San Fernando Valley and moved to an ashram in India, where she was dubbed Ramloti, or "caring vessel of God."