By Jen Mulson
Updated: August 6, 2017 at 8:06 am • Published: August 6, 2017
CRESTONE - With only one way into the tiny hamlet and one way out, the mise en scene smacks of a Stephen King thriller.
The internet doesn't disagree. When people talk about Crestone, the language is decidedly otherworldly. Folks on YouTube detail their sightings of UFOS that streak, halt and make U-turns across the endless skies and spread of stars that umbrella the southwest part of the state.
Interested parties trek to the infamous and well-publicized UFO watchtower, which rises up out of the flat landscape 12 to 15 miles south of Crestone on Colorado 17. It seems as if anyone who's anyone has seen something unexplainable, including journalist Bill Moyers, who, with two others, watched a sagebrush spontaneously combust as they walked one night through the Baca Grande development, a subdivision next to Crestone.
"This is a documented story," said James McCalpin, director of the Crestone Historical Museum. "Moyers said, 'This is the only strange and unexplainable thing that has ever happened to me in my life,' and it happened down here in Crestone. He's a fact-based guy. I'm just waiting for my sagebrush."
Then there's the flip side of the coin: Crestone as spiritual mecca. With almost two dozen spiritual centers, including ashrams and other religious organizations, stupas and a ziggurat (a temple), seekers flock to the peaceful community for enlightenment.
"My heart and soul reside in Crestone," wrote Mayor Kairina Danforth in an email. "We live at the end of a road that goes nowhere (as you will see). Or is it perhaps... everywhere?"
What might be true is Option C, at least according to the seemingly grounded townies who have spent decades, if not their lives, living in the bucolic setting. They acknowledge the town's reputation but don't pay it much mind. They stay here for the sense of community, the family connections and the glorious scenery, with its national forests, bountiful hiking trails and the magnificent Crestone Range in the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
"A lot of people say you have to be pretty comfortable with who you are to be here," said fourth-generation resident Elaine Johnson, who owns the Crestone Mercantile with her husband and son. "Because there's not a lot of other distraction. You just kind of have you, and I think there's some truth to that. Even when I was a tiny girl, people would sit on their porch and look at that mountain. Everyone loved that mountain. I don't know that I necessarily believe all the spiritual stuff people believe about the mountain, but there is something about it."
As you speed along Road T toward town, shaggy creatures dot the landscape - alpacas and yaks, the latter of which wind up on the menu at Crestone Brewing Co. There's also word of a camel population somewhere toward Moffat, which you'll pass through if you drive south from Colorado Springs.
Eagle-eyed drivers might spot the small, handmade sign branded with the word "Pyre" on the roadside. Crestone is the only spot in the country that conducts open-air cremations for people, regardless of religion. The volunteer group Crestone End of Life Project conducts about seven or eight ceremonies every year.
"It's different," said McCalpin. "This is what that person wanted. They didn't want to leave town. They wanted friends to be there. It's relaxed and an it-takes-a-village type experience. I found it very comfortable myself, more so than going to a funeral home."
Eventually you arrive at a fork in the road. A turn left takes you to Crestone proper, a quarter square mile with 147 souls, give or take. Turn right, and you'll wind up in the 10,000-acre Baca Grande, where 1,200 to 1,800 people live, depending on the time of year, and where most of the spiritual centers are.
But before you choose, chances are good you'll want to make a pit stop in a dirt lot where locals set up kiosks and sell fruit, baked goods and other gastric delights to make a little extra money in a town where jobs are hard to come by.
On Thursdays, a retired married couple, Wilson and Edie Propst, sell softball-sized Palisade peaches they retrieve from Grand Junction. The pair spends summers in Crestone, visiting their grandson.
"It's not for me," said Wilson Propst. "I like living in an area with more services."
He's right about that. The closest big towns are about an hour away - Salida to the north and Alamosa to the south. There are two markets, a volunteer fire department and a town hall, but resources are scarce, including health care. That remains in flux, McCalpin said, though one constant clinic is in Moffat. The number of non-traditional health-care services, however, is thriving. A glance through The Crestone Eagle, the monthly newspaper, reveals a smorgasbord of choices, including core chi transformation, matrix interdimensional light chamber and psychic warriorism.
"We're either the healthiest or sickest community in the world," said Johnson. "Some people commute to Salida or Alamosa, 100 miles a day round-trip. There's working for the town, liquor store, basic stuff like that. We're trying hard to find some products we can create here and export out and get more money. That's the challenge of any small rural town."
The whole of Saguache County struggles economically. It's hard to keep young families in the area and to keep good workers, Johnson said. And taking care of permanent residents is an ongoing challenge.
"It's a vicious cycle," she said. "You need more money and more people and more jobs to have the services to take care of all those things. But we don't have a lot of crime. We have problems with addiction. This is a very tolerant community, so people with mental health issues or addiction issues are treated very nicely and welcomed. But they're problematic. We don't have any way to take care of them."
Abe Metzenthin is considering becoming resident No. 148. The 36-year-old from St. Louis, Mo., popped into Crestone two days ago. He's whiling away a Thurday afternoon sitting outside the brewery, shooting the breeze with one of the cooks, 22-year-old Caleb Rapoza.
Metzenthin does happy water healing, a combination of healing modalities.
"I've been practicing symbology," he said about landing in Crestone, "following signs. I had breakfast here yesterday and have had wonderful conversations ever since."
Rapoza is a bit less blown away by life in the middle of nowhere. Six years ago, his father left, and he stayed. His list of likes and dislikes reads like an online dating ad. Likes: the quiet, good hikes, ample fishing. Dislikes: exorbitant prices, lack of steady work. Neutral on the spiritual stuff.
"I'm just a hippie, man," he said.
Asked why he sticks around, Metzenthin said, "The vortex."
"Some people get stuck here," he said, "and a lot of people get spit out."
Crestone was founded on the sparkle of gold in the mid-1870s. Prospectors staked out claims all over the hills of the Sangre de Cristo range, and they created two mining districts: Crestone Mining District to the north and El Dorado (translation: the big jackpot) to the south. Gold mining kept things busy for the town's first four decades, along with a giant Spanish cattle ranch that started in 1860 and since has been transformed into the Baca National Wildlife Refuge. When the gold veins were exhausted by 1920, the miners left, and Crestone was reduced to a service town for the cattle ranch until the 1960s.
Come the '70s, Colorado was the place to be, thanks to promoters such as singer John Denver, whose "Rocky Mountain High" served as an anthem for homesteaders on the move. The Arizona-Colorado Land & Cattle Co. bought up ranch land, subdivided it and sold the lots to people outside the state. The promised infrastructure of about 75 percent of those developments never came to fruition, however, and a scandal ensued when buyers realized they had bought a slab of land in the middle of nowhere.
Enter Maurice and Hanne Strong, a Canadian couple who reinvented the troubled Baca. Strong took control of the company that owned the 146,000-acre Baca Grant Ranch and 14,000-acre Baca Grande development, and he decided to deed the unbuildable foothills areas to endangered spiritual groups. The Zen and Tibetan Buddhists arrived first, followed by Hindus and Carmelites. By 1990, Crestone's reputation had turned around, earning notoriety as a spot for enlightenment seekers.
"It's what kept Crestone from dying," said Johnson. "It's what keeps our town going. Those spiritual centers bring people on spiritual quests and on retreats. They're kind to the environment, and they're nice people, so it's not problematic."