Why has a tiny old mining town straight out of Gunsmoke or Deadwood — Crestone, Colorado — become home to twenty-five spiritual centers representing nearly all the brand-name faiths of the world? In his new book, Enlightenment Town: Finding Spiritual Awakening in a Most Improbable Place, Jeffery Paine narrates a truly unique adventure. With the keen eye of a storyteller, the insights of a scholar, and the heart of a seeker, he explores Crestone’s wintry, oxygen-thin mountain geography and introduces a cast of spiritual mavericks and unlikely visionaries. Paine finds in Crestone a remarkable dedication to coexistence. Paradoxically, the town’s amazing spiritual diversity highlights fundamental commonalities in a way that will strike and even inspire believers, agnostics, and searchers of every stripe.
We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt, in which Paine relates how resident Mark Jacobi left his conservative religious Midwestern roots behind, hit the Big Apple, and ended up in Crestone.
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Unlike many of the best and brightest hereabouts, Mark Jacobi did not come to Crestone for its religion(s). In fact, he has never done anything for religion, except stop attending his parents’ church as early as possible, then ignore his father’s suggestion to try other denominations, and as for the rest he stayed out of harm’s, and churchdom’s, way. Yet he is not an unethical man; quite the contrary. Kizzen Laki, editor of the Crestone Eagle, observes, “When the emperor is wearing no clothes, Mark is the one who sees it. He has a grade-A bullshit detector.” And she adds, “He does for our town what a church is supposed to, helps make it a community.”
How did he become that man religions are designed to give birth to, without any assistance from them?
If Hollywood created an apple-pie all-American town, anchored by a white church with steeple, it might name that town, oh, maybe, Appleton. In 1953 Mark Jacobi was born in Appleton, Wisconsin. He veered off track early, though, by working backstage at the local theatrical company ( his older sister was dating the director). Saturday night was like a big toy box where out of nothing, from a few sticks and props, magical worlds of wonder were created. After such a Saturday night, the last thing he wanted early next morning — ugh — was church and Sunday school, a place where no wizardry at all was worked.
About the time Mark turned twenty his father died, and his mother took solace in every right-wing Republican cause. Mark, living at home, received the brunt of her unhappiness and hostility. Then his girlfriend left him. Then he fell off the house roof on which he was working. Today the sixty-year-old Mark would say to that floundering twenty-year-old unsure of himself, “Yes, your father died. And you will die, too. And the way to honor him is by living well now.”
Living well? At college a hit of acid was cheaper than going to the movies. Do the math, he thought, and having done the math, and the LSD, Mark dropped out of college. He worked variously as a cabdriver, a security guard, and a carpenter, until — doing the math again — he calculated how from Appleton the Big Apple was not even a thousand miles, hardly more than a day away. Wild times ensued. At a trendy New York cross-dressers’ bar, a band member cautioned a woman there, “Every man in this city is either gay, married, or severely neurotic.” The woman decided, sensibly, to ask the handsomest man there whether that was true. “How would I know?” Mark answered. If he is secure enough to be in a cross-dressers’ bar, she thought, he’s probably all right. Thirty years later that woman, Chris Canaly, now his wife, has not reversed that verdict.
Just as he once had found in the local theater group the anti-Appleton, so driving across country Mark chanced upon, in effect, non-America — outside Santa Fe, in a landscape full of pagodas, stupas, and temples. Back in New York, Mark described to his boss that southwestern otherworld. Oh, if you like that sort of crap, his boss said, you should check out this town Crestone in Colorado: it’s off the map. I’m due for my midlife crisis, Mark thought, so why not? Months later, his first sight in Crestone was deer eating apples off the trees. This image of natural harmony was enough for him. As Ralph Abrams would do later, he went straight to the real estate office, and then called Chris and asked, Did she have any suitcases, and did she want to pack them?
Before reaching Crestone, Mark stopped at a hot spring, where he met my old college friend Kenny Dessain. Mark: “What do you have to do in Crestone to survive?” Kenny: “What it never occurred to you to do before.” And so it turned out. Mark had done carpentry and construction before (the default job for men in Crestone), but he had never envisioned himself as a crusading civil activist. Over the coming years, however, he would oppose scheme after scheme that would have remade Crestone into a jarring nonversion of its once peaceful self. One after another he fought David-and-Goliath battles that kept a giant New Age pyramid from being built here and that stopped the Air National Guard from night-and-day military testing and that prevented large-scale drilling, which would have dumped the valley’s ecosystem into the garbage can. His compatriots in these battles were often motivated by a Christian sense of God’s creation or a Buddhist vision of holistic interdependence, but Mark’s reasoning was: the Earth was giving him great gifts of, well, everything — food, housing, clothing, beer, medicine — and it was only right to partially return the favor.
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Author of Enlightenment Town, Jeffery Paine's writing has appeared in such publications as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and the New Republic. He lives in Washington, DC.
Excerpted from the book Enlightenment Town. Copyright © 2018 by Jeffery Paine.