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by Rebekah Shardy

Now & Zen
2 Women on a New Age Road Trip

Before we stayed at a Zen sangha in Crestone, Colorado, Molly and I were best friends. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t the trip that made us non-friends, but an assortment of misadventures – the internal, interpersonal kind – that lead us down different paths.

One glorious Friday in June, when Spring was just about to surrender her last inhibition to voluptuous Summer, we packed a few things (no, you don’t 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.

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. It’s an unnatural place to spot a bald Buddhist nun at the Tasty Freeze.

While 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? I’m sure you’ve been there before.

We stopped outside of Salida for a picnic that I prepared. Salida used to be an outpost of northern Mexico. It’s a haunt for old-hippy-artists, RV retirees and tourism capitalists serving the affluent young on their way to Colorado ski resorts. There’s an aura of the perniciously strange in and around Salida. I once interviewed the owner of a local restaurant – “ET’s Landing” – about the daytime sighting of a UFO that brought nationwide coverage. There’s serious mojo in Salida, you betcha.

We 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 don’t mean that it was just big. It was HUGE in a weird, science fiction way. It nearly covered my fist, and I’m 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 my lips.

By late afternoon, Molly and I had traveled south to the gravel road that leads to Crestone. If Salida is Ripley’s 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. It’s an unnatural place to spot a bald Buddhist nun at the Tasty Freeze.

The 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 wasn’t the Potala, but you were certainly reminded to ‘be mindful of your breath’ as you mounted the stair to wide polished doors.

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.

Inside 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: we’d arrived just in time for dinner. It was wholesome and low-frills by anyone’s standards: a tossed green salad, couscous, cheese and fruit salad.

Did 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.

Still, 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 we’d be awakened at 5 a.m. for more meditation, followed by a silent meal in the kitchen. Would we like to see our rooms?

I 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, I’m home!

As 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.

The 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.

Almost 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.

Mercifully, 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.

Now 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.

The next thing I know, Molly has dressed and wants to know if I am coming to breakfast with her. We’ve both missed morning meditation. “What’s wrong with your eye?” she gasps.

With 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. He’s making eyes at her (of course) until he notices the queer but familiar aroma emanating from her Honda. “Is that marijuana I smell?”

It’s 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.

I try to jest. “Maybe I’ll go after all. I’ll 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.

When Mary wakes me again it’s midmorning. Some guy who’s also staying as a guest tried to pick her up, which perks up her simple spirits. I’m 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’.

I 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. It’s 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 can’t 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.

We 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 different.

With 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. He’s making eyes at her (of course) until he notices the queer but familiar aroma emanating from her Honda. “Is that marijuana I smell?”

Well, 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.

Still, 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.

--Rebekah 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. You can reach her at shardys@qwest.net

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