Now & Zen
2 Women on a New Age Road Trip
we stayed at a Zen sangha in Crestone, Colorado, Molly and I were
best friends. Dont get me wrong. It wasnt the trip that
made us non-friends, but an assortment of misadventures the
internal, interpersonal kind that lead us down different
glorious Friday in June, when Spring was just about to surrender
her last inhibition to voluptuous Summer, we packed a few things
(no, you dont take your leg waxing kit to a Buddhist commune)
and hurled ourselves down Route 115, a curvaceous, one-lane road
leading through southern Colorado for one unforgettable night at
a Zen monastery.
this New Age mecca is in the middle of potato farmers, real
cowboys and other good 'ole boys that put on the oldest rodeo
in the state of Colorado. Its an unnatural place to
spot a bald Buddhist nun at the Tasty Freeze.
I drove, Molly read from a numerology book, trying to pin a personality
type on her homme du jour yes, like the soup of
the day, but apt to chill faster. Molly was a little older than me,
but much prettier, capable of flirting and still in the game for romance.
I listened politely and tried to encourage her hopefulness that this
man unlike any other before or after would cherish her
as all men should based on arcane mathematics, astrology and any other
supernatural force we could muster. In fact, the man would tire of
Molly long before I would become weary of trying to bolster her confidence.
Can I get an amen, sisters? Im sure youve
been there before.
stopped outside of Salida for a picnic that I prepared. Salida used
to be an outpost of northern Mexico. Its a haunt for old-hippy-artists,
RV retirees and tourism capitalists serving the affluent young on
their way to Colorado ski resorts. Theres an aura of the perniciously
strange in and around Salida. I once interviewed the owner of a
local restaurant ETs Landing about
the daytime sighting of a UFO that brought nationwide coverage.
Theres serious mojo in Salida, you betcha.
perched just by the rambunctious waters of the Arkansas river that
runs along the road going into Salida to enjoy pita sandwiches and
fresh fruit. I think I brought a book of exquisite verse I tried
to read aloud above the water. A huge fly landed on my hand. I dont
mean that it was just big. It was HUGE in a weird, science fiction
way. It nearly covered my fist, and Im not a daintily appointed
person. I waved it away but it came back and set on my book, watching
me very closely with its little octagonal eyes, as if it were reading
late afternoon, Molly and I had traveled south to the gravel road
that leads to Crestone. If Salida is Ripleys Believe it or
Not, Crestone is the honest-to-god Twilight Zone.
Oddly, this New Age mecca is in the middle of potato farmers, real
cowboys and other good 'ole boys that put on the oldest rodeo in
the state of Colorado. Its an unnatural place to spot a bald
Buddhist nun at the Tasty Freeze.
gravel road to the Sangha turned into a dirt path, then one studded
with rocks, and finally a grassy driveway. We had to get out at
that point and walk the rest of the way. It wasnt the Potala,
but you were certainly reminded to be mindful of your breath
as you mounted the stair to wide polished doors.
was hard not to laugh out loud at the way we looked, devoutly
slapping our bare feet on the dusty boards in earnest laps to
nowhere. So Zen.
was silence and incense and shadow but also laughing voices
from the kitchen. We called out as we moved toward the merriment,
but no one seemed particularly welcoming. We were told to pick up
a paper plate and help ourselves: wed arrived just in time
for dinner. It was wholesome and low-frills by anyones standards:
a tossed green salad, couscous, cheese and fruit salad.
you know being bald makes it impossible for anyone else to guess
your age? The American and European nuns and monks all seemed rather
ageless, nervous and evasive. Dinner at the sangha is the only meal
during which you are permitted to talk, and they seemed little interested
in talking to Molly or me. The idea of Buddhist snobbery was a perplexing
koan in itself.
the garden where we sat during dinner was gorgeous. We identified
its vigorous vines and robust roots; I spotted an eagle flying over
a nearby mountain. Windchimes tittered in the twilight breeze as
the cantaloupe Western sun set. A polite, young man introduced himself
and explained our itinerary: after dinner we could freshen up in
our rooms, join them for meditation in the temple at 7:30 p.m. and
then lights out at 9:00 p.m. Good thing, because wed be awakened
at 5 a.m. for more meditation, followed by a silent meal in the
kitchen. Would we like to see our rooms?
think Frank Lloyd Wright would have been envious of our accommodations.
It was Asian chic cherry and teakwood everywhere, cool rattan
mats instead of carpet, sexy roll-out futons on the floor with cloud-like
white comforters (gets cold in the Colorado mountains even in August),
and tall, shadeless windows. In the hallway, a little sand-filled
red bowl held sand and slender twigs of incense to burn as one entered.
Going to bed would seem like a religious ritual. Siddhartha, Im
darkness fell we heard a scraping noise outside that Molly surmised
was some kind of call to meditation. It was soon followed by a somber
gong. We gathered at the temple, a perfect rectangular Japanese
building with paper walls and blonde wooden floors.
altar within was not as ostentatious as the humblest Catholic altar,
and instead of pews, we sat on shelves that ran around
the perimeter of the room. Each butt had a red pillow on which to
painfully perch, like a hen on its nest. We were instructed to turn
around our faces to the wall as we meditated in silence.
silence. Occasionally, a belly would gurgle. There would be a sigh
or deep swallow you could actually hear someone swallow across
the room, it was that quiet. The crickets had begun their din outside
and once in a great while a jet snored overhead. You,
yourself, could not sleep, even if your eyes were closed. First,
your butt and legs ached too much to relax. I dreaded standing up,
knowing the entire lower half of my body had gone numb. Second,
Uncle Fester with a Big Stick was wandering the room, ready to rap
the head of the first slumbering acolyte.
every 30 minutes, the same man would have us stand up, make a line,
and follow him as he ran yes, literally ran outside
and around the porch of the temple. We did this several times, I
think, to ensure that no one would die of a blood clot. It was hard
not to laugh out loud at the way we looked, devoutly slapping our
bare feet on the dusty boards in earnest laps to nowhere. So Zen.
to bed. I suppose meditation might affect people differently. For
me, it did seem to stir some ancient sadness for which I cannot
begin to account. I am lying awake in the darkness, mulling over
this, when I hear the padding feet of a man running through the
outside halls while he claps two wooden boards. I fall asleep to
hear it once more about a half hour later: the Buddhist equivalent
of a snooze button.
next thing I know, Molly has dressed and wants to know if I am coming
to breakfast with her. Weve both missed morning meditation.
Whats wrong with your eye? she gasps.
her backseat loaded with 100 cigars of wild sage, bundled with
red string and cooking in the summer heat, a patrol car pulls
Molly over for speeding. Hes making eyes at her (of course)
until he notices the queer but familiar aroma emanating from
her Honda. Is that marijuana I smell?
a sight, all right. My right eye is swollen three times its normal
size and is red and rather hideous. I know that I will drive those
Buddhists crazy, having to sit wordlessly over their groats or quinoa
or whatever esoteric grain they eat, stifling their disgust and
curiosity at the woman-transformed-into-Igor at their table.
try to jest. Maybe Ill go after all. Ill just
tell them that after meditation we had a fist fight and you gave
me this shiner. Ultimately, I choose the down comforter over
granola or enlightenment.
Mary wakes me again its midmorning. Some guy whos also
staying as a guest tried to pick her up, which perks up her simple
spirits. Im still self-conscious about this bizarre eye that
seems to be trying to make a break from my face. I wonder if that
surreal fly in Salida had anything to do with this literal eyesore.
never see our hosts before we leave, but I do leave a money offering
plus a box of Cherry Blossom Tea in the kitchen. Just below the
temple, Molly and I find the most unusual place of worship I think
I have ever seen. Its a round stone building with no place
to sit inside. In the center is a Tara Stone
an enormous round stone with a natural hole at its center. I cant
imagine what type of ritual would be performed in such a place,
but it is very peaceful, even if it is devoid of seats, walls, windows,
altars, pictures and all the other furnishings. It seems a place
where a wild bear would be as much at home as Tara, the Buddhist
goddess of compassion.
say our respects and get back on the road. On the way we find an
enormous field saturated with sagebrush and begin cutting branches
to make our own smudge sticks. Failed but infinitely hopeful entrepreneurs
that we are, we want to make and sell our own sage bundles to the
New Age stores in Colorado Springs. What really happens is much
her backseat loaded with 100 cigars of wild sage, bundled with red
string and cooking in the summer heat, a patrol car pulls Molly
over for speeding. Hes making eyes at her (of course) until
he notices the queer but familiar aroma emanating from her Honda.
Is that marijuana I smell?
luckily resourceful Molly flirted her way out of danger, my eye
returned to its normal size, we never made a fortune from crystal-gazers
but got home with nothing worse than a meditation hang-over and
a few surreal stories to tell eye-rolling grandchildren one day.
I miss Molly. Getting a numb butt together tends to be a bonding
experience. I wonder if she ever thinks of me when she takes a road
trip down hairpin highways south, through the bewildering, still-wild
West. . . Vaya con Dios (or Tara), muchacha.
Shardy is a freelance writer and director of a nonprofit creative
writing program for women in prison and addiction recovery. She
is seeking a publisher for her syllabus and guide to providing writing
therapy to low-income women through grassroots organization.