On June 22, 2014 Harp visits the Ranch in Oregon.
News reports were of forest fires all across the western states. It was wildfire season. The air smelled slightly acrid and the far horizon was hazy.
Blast from the past
Driving down that old county road, the Big Muddy, crossing cattle guards I’d long forgotten, I felt oddly neutral about the etched familiarity of the curves and dramatic reveals that were unfolding. Oh yeah, I remember that mountain monolith and those craggy rock faces, and now the cattle guards are ringing a bell, but where are the security outposts? Top of the Ranch. Buddha Grove. Wow, there’s the road to… oh shit, I forgot the name – where Zeno and others were quarantined, and where Lazarus’s samadhi happened. Whoa, here’s the lake – Krishnamurti I remember, but there’s no sign… and it’s a bit low. The dam has held, but there’s only a faint ghost of the landscaped birds symbol, and even that I may be projecting.
Around a bend – Twinkie headquarters is gone! But just a bit further there’s RBG and the airstrip and… hmmm, is that the Multiversity? Can’t tell, there’s now fenced corrals in between and more foliage. Something looks different but lots looks the same. On the left, there’s the Peace Force Temple. And looking back to the right, there’s Socrates, where many a plot was hatched. Wow. Lots of cars.
I thought I should be feeling “something” but so far it was really just a somewhat detached fascination, tempered by some reticence about what might happen next. Over the years, I’d heard vaguely about a foreclosure, then about a state-run reform school, and later about a Christian camp. I did not know what to expect and how we might be received. I had not yet decided whether to just drive through on the county road like so many other rubberneckers during our era, or if there was a reception area, if we should stop and feel the vibe, and if I should be candid – that I had lived there as a Rajneeshee, and risk being pointed toward the exit. Possibilities were swirling.
Earlier, when we had pulled into Antelope, it looked exactly the same – buildings boarded up with only a few houses showing signs of occupancy. We slowed as we drove past the cafe which looked rundown and derelict but with a new sign that read Antelope Cafe.There was a pick-up truck backed up to the open front door and a woman was moving stuff inside. We turned around, pulled up to a stop across the street, and got out. There was a dilapidated notice board with a worn article about the take-over of the town by the red people. A few steps away was a brochure holder for the Washington Family Ranch Young Life Camp. The only person we’d seen in the whole town was the woman who was now in the cafe. It felt a bit creepy. We skimmed the article, took a brochure and decided to get out of Dodge.
Then we were there, driving under a large log cross beam with the ‘Washington Family Ranch Young Life Camp’ sign, entering the ranch center, and entering the proverbial unknown.
We came upon another sign indicating a reception center, which was behind the well-tended original ranch house. We parked and entered and were greeted warmly by a young woman seated behind a desk. With antennae fully extended, we returned her hello and expressed general curiosity.
She replied, “Have you heard of our organization before?”
“Would you like a tour?”
“Sure, that would be great.”
In the background I could hear a crackly walkie-talkie, just like our old motorola system. She picked up a transmitter, announced our arrival and asked the listener to send someone for a tour. A voice replied that someone was on their way. It was strange to be on the other side. After a few more pleasantries about the weather and concerns about the fires which had been burning on adjacent properties, she suggested we step outside and wait. Amy and I quickly huddled to discuss my next move. Pretense was not at all appealing, but neither was being turned away after having come all this distance. Having less of an investment in the outcome, Amy nudged me towards full disclosure and I did not disagree. It would have been just too weird otherwise.
A van pulled up with two middle-aged women.
A window opened and the driver said “Hello, we understand you’d like a tour.”
I leaned in and said “Yes, but first I want you to know I’ve been here before. I lived here when it was Rajneeshpuram.”
Both their faces lit up in genuine surprise. “Please hop in, you’re welcome, we’d love to hear from someone who lived here before.”
She went on to express appreciation and gratitude for all we had done, saying it had made their work so much easier having so much infrastructure built with so much care and quality. Her graciousness was completely disarming. We settled in for a short talk with lots of back and forth. They asked if I was still a “member” and I replied no, that there was really nothing to be a member of but that my time with Bhagwan had been precious and hugely significant in my life. They were curious how I had come to be at the ranch and I told them an abbreviated version of my seeker past. I added that my parents, Methodists, had come to visit Rancho Rajneesh and afterwards my mother had told me that she had often wondered if she would have “recognized” Jesus if she had lived during his time, essentially offering her blessing for my life path at that time. Our tour guides were touched. I felt we were in good hands.
The tour began on Nirvana Road. A week before I had searched for the ranch on iPad Maps and seen that the map showed some of our road names, like Nirvana Road, Yoga Road and Hasid Drive. I told them this and they laughed. As we drove by Jesus Grove, I told them about the tunnel from Sheela’s house and they said they had seen the entrance to it. I told them about Nirvana Road construction and corrected their impression that it was the route where disciples lined up as he drove by.
Passing a new housing development behind Jesus Grove, they pulled over across from the hotel and what I saw was jaw-dropping. There was an enormous swimming pool filled with people. We got out. The grass was blazing green. Abruptly, our lead guide pointed overhead and a squealing body flew past on a zipline that angled over us from the hill above and dropped into a Rajneesh Mandir sized lake right across from what else? – Rajneesh Mandir. I was now in total Wow mode. She said the lake was spring fed; after much searching by geologists for a water source, it was “miraculously” discovered right in that location. I couldn’t argue with their divine interpretation.
Our guides took turns describing the intentions of the Camp mission for young people. They took several opportunities to proselytize Christianity – much as we might have Rajneeshism with our visitors, but it was neither aggressive nor obnoxious. They were clearly proud of the efforts of their organization.
A bit of back story: the foreclosed ranch property had been purchased years before by Dennis Washington, a wealthy businessman who, with his wife Phyllis, fund and administer a philanthropic foundation. According to their mission statement, “the Foundation strives to better the human condition by supporting programs and services that give people the tools to enhance the quality of their lives and to benefit society as a whole.” At some point in their ownership, they sought an expanded use of the neglected ranch property and donated it to Young Life, a non-denominational Christian organization that operates various youth camps. Our guide said they “don’t know what the Washingtons’ relationship is with Jesus”, but that they have been a blessing for their organization.
Driving on, past the road up into our clusters of a-frames, still used as volunteer staff housing, we stopped at a three-story rope jungle gym facility where campers were tethered and climbing or dangling or maneuvering across rope lines. It looked like total adventure and was perfectly sited in this rocky canyon.
B-site – Townhouses – the Mandir
Next we stopped at the turn up to Lao Tzu House. They said “the Bhagwan’s” house had burned down years before, likely from a lightning strike. I thought I detected a bit of cosmic justice interpretation of this event but since it was not specifically described that way, I let it slide, instead taking the opportunity to inform that he was Bhagwan to us, not “the Bhagwan.” Extensive new housing had since been built up that valley. Straight ahead were all the townhouses built during one our 24/7 construction crunches, still in use. We then turned right and crossed the creek. At the T, the road to the right was paved and to the left toward Magdalena it was gravel. They said that part of the ranch was not used and asked if the big building that way had been our dining hall, which I confirmed. (Later I again looked at iPad Maps and saw that our Heraclitus townhouses are no longer there.)
We turned right towards the ranch center and the entrance to Rajneesh Mandir. Up in the hills to the left was a dirt bike track which was teeming with activity. Every facility was crowded with kids. They said every kid got to participate every day in one activity or another on a rotating basis. The aim was for them to have the best, most fun, most challenging, and most adventurous week of their lives. It was already impressive, and becoming even more so.
We turned in at Rajneesh Mandir, where we pulled up right next to a go-cart track. How surreal. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. Go-karts to the left and our meditation hall to the right. Rajneesh Mandir is now encased with scalloped white stone. They asked if it was true that we had claimed it was a greenhouse to obtain the building permit. Recalling that saga, I laughed and said yes. Obviously, they had since gotten a permit since the massive space we entered was air conditioned and had a real floor. They joked about all the linoleum we had laid on dirt.
On the right, there were pool tables and ping-pong; on the left rock climbing walls; down the middle, the rest of the length, one basketball or volley ball court after another, after another, after another… the building still felt enormous! I told them we had 10,000 meditators there. They asked where Bhagwan sat. I was astounded to be having this conversation and experience.
We then walked out into a green expanse that passed the lake and led to a beautiful swimming pool where teens were packed and mingling openly. There were girls in bikinis and boys being boys. Healthy. Normal. Happy. Since we had arrived unannounced we knew they couldn’t be staging all this just for us. We’d seen enough — we both wanted to sign up for camp right then and there. In the name of Jesus, something mighty good was happening there, and the fully acknowledged seeds of it were from Bhagwan and his sannyasins.
Tablecloths and Cutlery
Between the road and the pool, between the hotel and Rajneesh Mandir, sits an enormous dining hall and lounge. All meals are sit-down and served by volunteers on tablecloths with cutlery and linen. Our guides told us that sitting at such family-oriented tables for meals was a first for some of the more disadvantaged campers, and being served meals was a totally new experience.
We walked over to the hotel, now camper housing – boys in one wing, girls in another. This was my first close up look at our residential buildings. They showed some wear but have held up well. I told our guides about the heart shaped beds. They laughed. The lobby is now a meeting room and Deva Padma’s mural is no longer there. In the corner where the hotel snack bar had once been, a counter and a stool were still there. I sat on the stool for a moment and sweetly recollected a favorite treat of bacon cheese croissants and cappuccinos, right there on that very spot almost 30 years ago. This very place the lotus paradise. This very body the buddha. Amen and pass the butter.
What! There’s more?
Time to move on. The part of the ranch we had just toured was for high school age teens. Now on to the middle school area. What! There’s more? We drove past the disco over the main crossing, past what was our Zorba the Buddha pizzeria and the bookstore – all storage buildings now, and turned left into so much new development that I struggled to place the previous incarnations of what had once been there. Now numerous buildings housing the younger age versions of many of the same older age activities fill the landscape – gyms, dining halls, lovely well-designed housing – and as we went further, built into the mountainside, an eye popping massive waterpark – giant slides tumbling kids into yet another large swimming pool. This complex was all entirely new. On the opposite side of the valley, I saw our old tool shop and a bit further away Zarathustra, both showing their age and now being used as storage.
We had been touring for almost three hours and it was coming to an end. As we drove back to the reception center we passed the mall. It was the only view that underwhelmed me. The promenade and entrances had been removed, and our once bustling county road showplace looked ordinary and somewhat drab.
We didn’t take Hasid Drive to Socrates, which our guides said is their administration building, and RBG, which serves them similarly to how it served us. We instead passed the old barn and returned to the reception center. They asked for any online links I might know that would show the ranch as it was, and I told them to search online for ‘The Way of the Heart’ video and to check The New Yorker Magazine archive for Frances FitzGerald’s two-part ‘Cities on a Hill’ article. I told them how unusual and unique and wonderful it had been for me to be on the receiving end of their tour. I told them our ranch tour hostesses were called Twinkies and thanked them for being our Twinkies for the day. They giggled and we shared warm goodbyes.
Driving out of the ranch center, the back side of the large overhead cross beam sign reads “Miles Beyond Ordinary”.
Yep, I’d say so.
Lest it be thought I drank the kool-aid, I am well aware of the world of appearances, that the curtains of maya billow around us, and that Christian doctrines are at the center of the Young Life mission. Yet, as a teen, I went to Methodist Church Camp. I prayed. I attended vesper services. I sang ‘Kumbaya My Lord’. And at a certain point in my life, no worse for the wear, I moved on to encounter a multitude of other experiences, including meditating, attending satsang, and singing ‘There’s No I, Only You’ to Bhagwan. I now look back with immense gratitude for values instilled, lessons learned, and wisdom gleaned from a rainbow constellation of spiritual teaching.
What I saw with my own eyes at the Washington Family Ranch Young Life Camp was a different type of buddhafield, but a buddhafield none the less. I saw no force-fed indoctrination. I saw no extreme fundamentalism. I saw no “Jesus Camps” or Madrasa Schools. Instead, I saw love and peace and fun and grace. I saw expressions of excellence being embodied. And I felt very pleased about this apparent “happy ending” in the cosmic play. 800 kids, week after week, all summer long, having the best week of their lives.
We drove back into Antelope and pulled up in front of the cafe. The pick-up was still there backed up to the front door. The lady came out, now with 2 young girls. Coming over to us, she smiled and apologized for not being open for business. She said she just bought the building.
“Do you live here?”, I asked.
“No, we live in Madras”, she replied.
“I hope you can come back next week.”
“Sorry, we don’t live in these parts, but good luck with your new business!”
Finally, on to Bend, where we would spend the next two nights at McMenamin’s Old St. Francis School Hotel. In 1974, two brothers named McMenamin opened a pub in Portland that became a popular gathering place. Over time they expanded, purchasing old institutional buildings and converting them into hotels with in-house brew pubs, movie theaters, concert venues and public baths. In Oregon, they now own and operate numerous locations. In Bend, they have transformed an old catholic schoolhouse built in 1936 into a comfortable, fun, art-filled destination. Their locations are considered to be amongst the most innovative accommodations in North America. If you’re ever in Oregon, check it out.
So. From a Rajneesh commune to a Christian camp. From Zorba The Buddha Cafe to the Antelope Cafe. From a Catholic school to a pub and hotel. Here we are. You. Me. Inevitably, constantly, forms change.
Story by Harp
We add here a video we had published in 2012, to which Harp comments: “This video is a perfect fit in that it totally reflects my experience.”