ONE WOMAN'S SACRED GROUND
On a Colorado mountainside, Hanne Strong is creating a unique spiritual community
The sunrise was just beginning to explode over the Colorado range that the Spanish conquistadors named Sangre de Cristo, the Blood of Christ, riddling the sky with rivulets of luminous crimson. But in tiny Crestone, a defunct gold-mining town nestled on its slopes 125 km southwest of Colorado Springs,
life was already unfolding at its usual pace. Deer ambled across the main thoroughfare, Alder Street, which winds past the hamlet’s four stores and smack into the Rio Grande National Forest. And at the Road Kill Cafe, where hikers were exchanging news of the latest bear and cougar sightings, Jack, the cook, was proudly announcing: “This place is the end of the road and the middle of nowhere.”
Or at least it was. Now, two cheeky signs over the counter poke fun at the spiritual thrill-seekers who have taken to descending on Crestone: “Auras buffed” and “So many false gods, so little time.” Across the street at Twenty-First Amendment Liquors, proprietor Katie Snider grumbled: “It’s getting so we’re overwhelmed with people. All they want to know is what street the monastery is on and where’s Shirley MacLaine.” MacLaine has not been seen in these parts since 1990, when the local populace of 60 made it clear that they would not exactly welcome the 3,000 New Agers she hoped to draw to a prospective centre on her 180-
acre plot. As for the monastery, sometimes Snider gives directions, but more often she remains protective about the reason pilgrims are flocking to this remote village. Here, the gilded domes and spires of a unique spiritual community, aimed at gathering the world’s major religions in one place, are rising above the awesome landscape.
That quixotic—and some say
quirky—experiment is the singular vision of Hanne Strong, the striking Danish-born wife of Ontario Hydro’s controversial chairman, the man who played godfather to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. For the past two decades, while Maurice Strong has jetted around the globe, warning of an environmental apocalypse and presiding over United Nations conferences, his wife has been working with equal fervor to hedge against spiritual oblivion. To that end, on a 200,000-acre tract of ranch land known as the Baca, she has assembled a disparate flock. At the end of one tortuously rutted mountain road, the spare precision of an airy pine zendo, or meditation hall, has tatami mat-space for as many as 49 Buddhists who come to train at the feet of U.S. Zen master Richard Baker-Roshi. Once abbot of the continent’s largest Buddhist community in San Francisco, he became a 1970s media star for his influence over former California governor Jerry Brown. But six years ago, Baker-Roshi moved to the Baca to establish his Crestone Mountain Zen Center. “There’s no place in the world where there are so many different religions represented,” he says. “Really, it’s Hanne’s vision. None of us would be here without her.”
Below, in a desert hollow, a mystical breakaway order of Carmelites called the Spiritual Life Institute has built an elegantly stark monastery, offering retreats for silent contemplation in hermitages scattered among the tumbleweed. Inside, where photos show the order’s woodsy sister community near Kemptville, N.S., a sign over the library door cautions: “All who enter here—no fuss.” These days, the retreat’s waiting lists are full, as are its Sunday masses where the sermon is delivered by prioress Sister Sharon Doyle. A Cape Breton native, she ran a restaurant before donning the Carmelites’ brown habit 16 years ago. “We say action without contemplation is blind,” Doyle explains. “You have to explore the deeps.”
Miles above, on a 50-acre plateau below Kit Carson peak, young American disciples of the late Indian guru known as Babaji throw open the doors of their gold-and-adobe-domed temple every dawn and dusk for aarati, the Hindu ritual of swooping candles and Sanskrit chants that salutes the passing of the light. In saris and shaved heads, they garland the white alabaster statue of Murti, the Divine Mother, with fresh flowers, under the watchful gaze of Paramananda, a 56-year-old blond with a mantra on her car’s rear window. Born in Lethbridge, Alta., she spent much of her earlier life as Lucy Hill, the wife of a top IBM executive, doing the cocktail circuit in Ottawa and New York City. But after discovering yoga, she found her way through countless gurus to Babaji’s ashram in Haidakhan on the Indian slopes of the Himalayas. When he died in 1984, fellow disciples invited her to Colorado for a commemorative service and she never left. Now, she tends Strong’s seed banks, where she collects and catalogues rare plant strains. “This place is the great teacher,” she says, recounting the harsh winters and relentless mosquitoes that have tested lesser resolves. “There’s nothing here that isn’t intense.”
In the beginning, there was only the land—a vast stretch of San Luis Valley scrub that Maurice Strong had acquired in 1978, sight unseen, in a typically convoluted takeover deal. When Strong stepped into the hemorrhaging Arizona-Colorado Land and Cattle Co. (AZL), promptly buying out Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, he planned to set up his headquarters in Phoenix, Ariz. But Hanne took one look at the city and said she could not live there. “No spirit,” she says. The fact that Maurice Strong bowed to her verdict may help describe a 23-year relationship
that has confounded all but their closest friends and families. Both mavericks with a stubborn will and a determined sense of mission, no matter how contentious, they met in New York in 1971 shortly after she narrowly escaped injury from a rock rolling off a Manhattan balcony. “I went right upstairs and dedicated my life to God,” she says. Introduced to Strong at a dinner party, she opened the repartee by noting that she had heard he was either a genius or a fake. Two decades later, their running joke is that she is still trying to figure out the answer.
At the time, Hanne was already divorced, the mother of two girls and a successful interior designer; his marriage was unravelling. On a press pass, she had followed him to the first UN environmental conference in Stockholm, then to its program headquarters in Kenya, where she had won a UN design contract. Ever since her childhood in Copenhagen, where her parents were hunted by the Nazis for spiriting Jews out of the country during the war, Hanne Marstrand had dreamed of living with North American natives. “I read The Last of the Mohicans,” she says, “and I just knew they were my people.” In 1976, when Strong moved to Calgary to set up Petro-Canada for Pierre Trudeau, she stepped off the plane and went straight to the nearest reserve. Within months, she had become one of the main supporters of Chief Robert Smallboy, who had led a band of Cree from the Hobbema Reserve, south of Edmonton, back to the wilderness to relearn their ancient spiritual practices. She credits his medicine ceremonies with curing her youngest daughter, Suzanne, of cancer.
But Hanne Strong is not above plying her own brand of miracle. Before Trudeau patriated the Constitution from Britain in 1982, she introduced Smallboy to London religious leaders and the press in a drive to win the inclusion of native rights. When Maurice Strong refused to arrange a meeting for Smallboy with Pope John Paul II, she wangled one herself. They flew off to Rome, leaving her husband in London to field an irate call from the prime minister, demanding what they were up to. She hoots at the memory: “Maurice said, Well, we’re just hosting our Indian friends.’ ”
Smallboy was not the only metaphysical messenger in Alberta. Soon after her arrival, a dozen Tibetan Lamas landed at the Strongs’ ranch. By the end of their week-long stay, Hanne’s youngest sister, Marianne, then 17, and most of her family had converted to Buddhism. Right there, in the living-room in Millarville, Alta., with the Tibetan drum songs wafting over the foothills, they had held the initiation rites known as taking refuge. Now, she and her husband meditate every morning upon waking, although, she notes, “Maurice meditates out of a Christian tradition.” And what did his Alberta oil associates think of all the exotic goingson? “Odd!” she erupts in her raucous Earth Mother laugh. ‘They thought I was very odd. They were probably saying, ‘Poor Maurice.’ ”
Having vetoed Phoenix, Hanne Strong found herself on a jet tour of AZL’s other real estate. As soon as she glimpsed the stark beauty beyond the company’s failed Crestone retirement village, she announced that she was home. “I just felt that I’d been here before,” she says. On the next flight in, a Ute Indian spiritual leader told her that his ancestors had called the place the Bloodless Valley, because no wars had ever been fought there. The Hopi had used it only for sacred ceremonies. Three months after her arrival in 1978, as she tells it, a wild-haired 80-year-old
named Glenn Anderson, dubbed “the Prophet”’ by the locals, knocked on her ranch house door with the words: “So you’ve finally come.” He proceeded to spell out a vision he had received, she says, that a woman like her would preserve all the world’s faiths in the valley against some imminent doomsday.
Maurice Strong gave the news short shrift. He had already persuaded his multimillionaire friends from the energy business to set up a branch of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies in the Baca. But with Henry Kissinger and former U.S. secretary of defence Robert McNamara jetting into the valley not far from NORAD’s underground bunkers in Colorado Springs, rumors mushroomed that Strong and his pals were plotting to take over the world from their secret mountain stronghold. Finally, the Baca proved too controversial and remote for the institute’s glitterati, who packed up for Maryland. But by then, Strong had experienced his own epiphany. When TV commentator Bill Moyers came to speak to the Aspen board, they had gone hiking in the Sangre de Cristos. Suddenly, in front of them, a bush had mysteriously burst into flame. “Bill Moyers still talks about it,” Hanne notes. “He says it’s the only mystical experience he’s ever had.”
By the early 1980s, Strong had discovered that the Baca sat on the continent’s largest underground freshwater reserves, and, through derground reserves, and, through
the American Water Development Co., he and his partners prepared to cash in. Hanne never cheered them on. “I said, ‘No way they’re ever going to get a drop of water out of here,’ ” she recalls. “There is a curse on this place: no one can ever make a penny out of it.” That notion might have helped her husband avoid a bitter faceoff, first with local environmentalists, then, when he switched sides, with his own partners, that ended with Strong selling his shares but somehow retaining royalty rights to the water.
Last spring, his wife added her own weight to the valley’s curse: in an attempt to stop Challenger Gold, a subsidiary of Toronto’s Goldcorp Inc., from drilling in a nearby mountainside, she staged a one-woman sit-in on the site. And she reports astounding Toronto gold-mining tycoon Peter Munk at a dinner party with the warning that native prophecy decreed no man could take anything out of the earth without putting something back. On such occasions, Maurice Strong tends to ask someone to pass the salt. “Now that,” she chuckles, “is where we have our divergences.”
From her airy solar-powered adobe house, where assorted grandchildren, her own and others, whoop past the wooden statue of St. Francis of Assisi on the front porch and the stone Buddha out back, Hanne Strong still works at turning Glenn Anderson’s vision into bricks and mortar. The Strongs’ Manitou Foundation, set up she years ago and financed chiefly by
This isn’t enlightenment in a weekend for $495’
the $1.2 million from the water company settlement and annual $100,000 donations from philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller, gives the land away to any group that can articulate a serious spiritual mission. On 200 acres high among the junipers and ponderosa pine, her sister Marianne’s Buddhist group, disciples of the XVIth Gyalwa Karmapa, one of the four lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, have spent the past five years building a 41-foot concrete Stupa, a ceremonial prayer tower. A Tibetan High Lama came to Crestone and walked the mountains in his flowing scarlet robes to select the precise location. “All the Lamas love it here,” says Marstrand, who was once married to the Karmapa’s translator, “because it reminds them of Tibet”
Boulder’s Buddhist college, the Naropa Institute, plans to build a satellite campus on another Baca grant. And emissaries of the exiled Dalai Lama have inquired about acreage. In August Prince Charles picked up
the tab for a summer school on sacred design in the Baca run by Keith Critchlow, director of the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture in London. If his patron proves willing, Critchlow plans to found a permanent school for sacred architecture in the valley. Strong still hopes mystical Jews, Muslims and Sufis will materialize on the plots she has pencilled in for them on her master plan, which was once entitled The Refuge for World Truths. But that name conjured up notions of survivalists such as Elizabeth Clare Prophet and her gun-toting army currently digging into the Montana mountains, so Strong changed it to A Place of the Heart. Still, intimations of a coming armageddon hover over her scheme. She confides that both native shamans and Glenn Anderson have predicted a conflagration that the valley would survive. “If you look at it, we have an economy based on destroying everything—the earth, the water, the sun,” she says. ‘We’re going to have to pay up.”
Not that her vision has unrolled this far without incident. A Sioux writer hijacked one $91,000 grant for a native medicine centre to start her own newspaper. And currently, the Manitou Foundation is low on funds: last year, a substantial part of its $1.2-million budget
came from award money Maurice Strong had won after the Rio conference from the likes of Greece’s Aristotle Onassis Foundation.
Now, newcomers are flocking to Crestone on the wave of the new spiritual tide washing over mainstream America. But having helped persuade her pal Shirley MacLaine that her planned New Age centre would overtax both Crestone’s serenity and its sewer system—prompting MacLaine to transfer her vision to 7,000 acres near Abiquiu, north of Santé Fe, N.M.—Strong still has nightmares of the Baca metamorphosing into another New Age mecca. “We’re not New Age,” she says. ‘We’re old age: we’re talking about preserving 2,000-year-old traditions. This isn’t enlightenment in a weekend for $495.”
Four years ago, when a group moved into Crestone with plans to raise a 46-storey pyramid of pink granite, Strong drew the line. So did most of the community. Even here, where people routinely talk of past lives and prophetic visions, jaws dropped in the town hall when the pyramid representative confided she was merely following orders from her intergalactic leader, Commander Kuthumi, who was channelling directly from the planet Arturus into her home computer. Quietly, Crestone officials passed a height-restriction bylaw that precluded Commander Kuthumi’s designs. ‘We’re a pretty tolerant community,” says Margot Williams, a botanist who runs the florist-gift shop. “But even we have our limits.”