Eccentrics, dreamers and seekers flock to Crestone, Colo.
"People find love here and take it into the world," she said. "You don't need a church or temple. Everything you see is divine. Everything you see is God."

I considered this as I headed for the Nada Hermitage, a Carmelite Catholic retreat wedged between mountain and desert.

A handful of people sat inside the sparsely furnished chapel, eyes closed. I took a seat in back. As the minutes crawled by, the roiling sea in my head reluctantly calmed.

An hour later, everyone opened their eyes.

"Lord shine on those who dwell in the darkness and the shadow of death," they chanted before filing out.

I joined them in the kitchen.

"There has always been a desire to go back to more hermetic prayer — silence, solitude and wilderness — and that's what we offer people," said Father Eric Haarer.

The center rents nicely furnished cabins for those craving isolation.

"Not everyone would be at home with the stillness," said lay leader Susie Ryan. "There are no filters. You are alone with your own thoughts. That's a lot to deal with."

My next stop was the Dharma Sangha Crestone Mountain Zen Center, a sprawling compound in a shady forest with a large meditation hall, dormitories and paths into the foothills.

"I am not interested in religion or spirituality," said Christian Dillo, the preternaturally calm associate director. "I want to be outside of categories. By meditating, by stopping thinking, we can be in the world while experiencing this unique moment."

It was a lot to digest — meditating in a desert chapel, contemplating impermanence, understanding the bliss of an empty mind and being swept up in ancient Indian hymns. Crestone was beginning to get under my skin.

I drove downtown to the Laughing Buddha, Crestone's only saloon and a place teeming with warm characters.

There was Harriet Johns, an elderly painter who lives in a box car. "It was a refrigerator car so it's insulated," she said.

And Barbara Barnett, a deep trance channeler, who just got water pumped into her house. "Before that I just sort of showered around," she explained.

Mayor Ralph Abrams scanned the menu, lingering briefly on the grass-fed yak burger before settling on a salad.

"This is not a commune, it's not an intentional community, it just is," he said. "The energy in this valley is what makes the spiritual practice so powerful." |

But it's also a hardscrabble place without the comforts of similar offbeat towns such as Ojai, Boulder, Colo., or Sedona, Ariz.

Abrams, who occasionally motors up the Amazon to consort with Peruvian shamans, welcomes seekers but warns against unrealistic expectations.

"As mayor I say, 'Come,' but it may not be what you think it is," he said. "On the other hand, if you are not real, it may make you real."