Spiritualists in the Desert
or, How to Bury Your Head in the Sand
Heaven on Earth is located just three miles north of the city of Prescott, Arizona, nestled among the weathered bedrock of the famous Granite Dells. Its centerpiece is a two-story peach-colored villa ensconced behind a line of tall trees visibly greener than anything else in a one hundred foot radius. Among its features are a large vegetable garden, a pool, an outdoor marble bath-cum-shower, and a cliff dwelling complete with Plexiglas roof to keep out the rain. The retreat is available for short and long term home-stays, and occasionally is opened up for various public events: raw vegan potlucks, screenings of inspirational films, plant foraging luncheons, and sessions of silent meditation and unstructured dancing.
I have never been inside Heaven on Earth. After a month-long exchange of emails and telephone calls, the tone of which was by turns polite, defensive, and apologetic, the owner and proprietor of the retreat, Ms. Happy Heavenly Oasis, declined to be interviewed. She did not take to certain clauses of the release form I asked her to sign, in particular the one in which she would have waived her right to charge me with libel or defamation of character. She also seemed uncomfortable with the fact that I had described myself as a skeptic.
On the day we’d originally scheduled to meet, before Ms. Oasis pulled out at the last minute, I drove down to Prescott anyway. For discretion’s sake I parked my car at a trailhead ¾ of a mile from the house, and walked down the long winding path that went from pavement to gravel and from gravel to dirt, and which was for the most part deserted. The Dells rose above the road on either side, piles of vaguely spherical precambrian stone traversed by thousands of eroded veins which marked the paths of ancient currents. The ranch style homes that occasionally peered out from behind a pile of boulders invariably had some form of NO TRESPASSING sign posted in the front yard. An owl hooted repetitively in the dry eight-five degree heat.
I don’t know what I’d been expecting to see. The past month of research on Ms. Oasis’s life and work had lead me to create an image of the retreat in my head that didn’t quite match up with what I found at the end of the long gravel road. I didn’t envision the home being set back only a few feet from the street, nor did I realize there would be other houses only twenty feet away. I didn’t imagine that there would be landscapers parked beside the driveway and speaking in Spanish in the deep shade of a pine tree just outside the front door. I didn’t think it would be so small, dwarfed by the protective line of trees in front and the Dells’ boulders in the background. Which is to say I didn’t think it would look so much like a house.
As I walked back toward my car, I scrambled up a rock formation just to the side of the road, in order to get a better look at the inside of the retreat. But the house had sunk into the rippled canyons and disappeared. I couldn’t even see the lush green of the tall trees that surrounded the property.
I first met Happy Heavenly Oasis (her legal name — I checked) at a poetry slam in Sedona, AZ. Even in a place renowned for its institutional weirdness, its forceful New Age spiritualism, Oasis stood out. She took the stage in a floor-length blue evening gown paired with a matching blue beret pulled over her snow-white hair, and read from her book of poetry, Uncivilized Ecstasies, whose cover had the excessive gleam of a self-published book, but which Oasis says sold 30,000 copies in New Zealand, where it was originally published. In a voice that fluctuated between a whisper and motivational-speaker’s roar, she declared, “The sunshine is my LSD!” The judges gave her medium-high scores.
Ms. Oasis’ biography, as she tells it, defies any attempt at summary. To an outsider it appears the product of several separate biographies that have been combined, biographies of people both real and fantastical: adventurers, philosophers, businesswomen, nutritionists, teachers, orators, activists. A rough count indicates forty-six self-identified professions, among them “adventure anthropologist,” “blissologist,” philanthropist, environmental legal advocate, “professional tree planter,” choreographer of Princess Cruises’ Adventure in Alaska shows, elephant and rafting guide, founder and CVO of the world’s largest “raw vegan eco- music- peace” festival, and most curious of all, “vegetarian fisherwoman.” So whenever someone asks me, “But what does she do?” I find myself at a loss, and my hunch is that this is just how Ms. Oasis likes it. The question seems to miss the point entirely.
Perhaps the best way to synthesize my impression of Ms. Oasis is to say that she seems both thoroughly engaged with the world and somehow detached from it. She’s spent more than two decades traveling between continents, spending time variously in Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Tunisia, India, Guatemala, British Columbia, Mexico, California, Alaska, Michigan, and Arizona, and has probably seen more in her adventures than I will in my entire life. She is a spirited volunteer and decries the inconveniences of modern Western life as petty compared to the sufferings of Third World peoples. The main thrust of her books and her talks is at its core a powerful message of compassion, empathy, gratitude, and conscientiousness. She believes that consuming genetically modified foods (GMOs) has an extremely adverse effect on the quality of a person’s life.
At the same time, Oasis also insists that her Raw Spirit Festival, which promoted an anti-GMO diet and lifestyle, was infiltrated and ultimately shut down by a group of ambiguous “surveillance agents,” apparently working on behalf of GMO interests. She claims that a raw vegan diet cured a whole series of maladies, including diabetes, arthritis, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and chronic fatigue syndrome. She claims to have formed deep spiritual relationships with wild lizards by giving them deep-tissue massages, and to have shared a cliff dwelling with a lion. She alleges to have volunteered with Mother Theresa in New Delhi, to have studied Tai Kwon Do from a former Olympic coach. She characterizes herself as the persecuted leader in the vein of Mahatma Gandhi, MLK Jr., and Jesus Christ (“Jesus was not treated any better than I,” she writes). And it’s seemingly incredible details like this that — paired with her frequent use of the word ‘succulent’ as an adverb — that make her message harder to swallow.
Very little of this is possible to fact-check, by the way. Oasis has lived the kind of life that is very hard to trace back to any concrete evidence. Online, she exists primarily in a world of oddly formatted webpages and long URLs (e.g. www.ashlandresourcecenter.com/profile/WildVegetarianAdventures), and most other pieces of press coverage are interviews between Ms. Oasis and someone like Dr. Elizabeth Lambaer (author of Skinny Dipping in the Fountain of Youth), who seem so overwhelmed by Happy’s answers to her questions that the words “amazing” and “incredible” only express a fraction of her true wonder. The typos that riddle Oasis’ own written material evoke the insularity and the raw conviction of a teenager’s diary.
Of course, it’s possible that many of the claims that Ms. Oasis makes are true. The attempt to contact any of Oasis’ Raw Spirit Festival colleagues leads inevitably to a certain number of broken links and out-of-use domains. None of the alleged “surveillance agents” would answer my messages. Nielsen only began collection information on bestsellers in New Zealand in 2008, although I was told that a bestselling poetry book in N.Z. only sells 500 copies total, and that a print run of over 1500 is rare.
So I have no choice but to proceed under the assumption that her claims are true, at least until I can prove otherwise.
The Sunday before Ms. Oasis and I were originally scheduled to meet, there was an accident about 60 miles northeast of Prescott. While driving eastward along a curved stretch of highway 89A called Cook’s Hill, Ross Willoughby, a 48 year-old Verde Valley native, shot himself in the head. His white Jeep SUV then crossed into the opposite lane traveling 95 MPH, and slammed into a Toyota Prius carrying three people. Two of the three were killed instantly, a mother and a son from India who were up from Phoenix on a day trip. The third, the driver’s wife, was airlifted to a hospital in Flagstaff, where she died a few days later.
The day after the accident, I drove up Cook’s Hill and found a white and grey stain that extended across both westbound lanes: a massive splotch which marked the exact site of the collision, and a long and narrowing tributary that mapped the slow trickle of oil downhill. As I drove over the spot, I glanced over at the opposite lane. An eighteen-wheeler roared by. I reached the top of the hill and drove into town, where my brother and I had lunch.
During the outpouring of sympathy and reflection following the crash, much was made of the fact that the accident occurred during a time when a Sagittarius Moon was in a phase of Mercury Retrograde, a notoriously dangerous astrological juncture—the Murphy’s Law of astrological junctures, actually. Everything than can happen, will happen. Cars break down. Microwaves and blenders go on the fritz. Tempers flare. Flights are cancelled. Relationships end. In short, things fall apart. The horoscopes all suggest that any large decisions or choices should wait until the following week, when the period of retrograde ends and the moon relaxes into its final quarter phase, when the universe puts itself back together.
While Oasis is clearly a singular figure, she is certainly not alone. Central Arizona is a veritable hotbed of positive philosophy, which manifests itself (on the lower end) in the form of drum circles, crystal shops, free-form movement groups, past-life regression sessions, and (on the higher end) in homeopathic and astrological evangelists, who claim to be able to cure all sorts of ailments with 60-minute “Energy Healing Sessions.” A quick perusal of a local supermarket’s bulletin board reveals advertisements for something called a Soul Healing Concert, a screening of the film Ascension Guidance: Living in Your Sacred Heart, for two Energy healers, one Shamanic healer, and one medium/clairvoyant.
Sometimes I’m tempted to call these people hippies and leave it at that, and perhaps to some extent they are. It’s certainly possible to see these raw vegan visionaries as the heirs to the Dead Heads and the draft-card burners of the 1960s: atavists, harsh critics of modern civilization, radical idealists, perfectly at home in a rhetoric of “changing the world for the better.” Like hippies, they often mistake exuberance for real activism.
But although both groups do share an affinity for expansive hand gestures and abstract language, the truth is that in many ways, Happy Oasis and those like her are more like the anti-hippies of the 21st century. They advocate, not the special freedom enjoyed by the acidhead cavorting through Central Park, but hyperawareness of self and of the world around them. They believe that freedom comes, not from rejection of social norms and obligations, but from gratitude, from a state of permanent thankfulness. Rather than railing against broad abstract entities — the corporations and the government and the capital-M Machine — the New-Agers are happy to make small-scale change (for example, organizing a moonlight vigil for the victims of a tragic car crash) while maintaining faith in what Oasis calls P.D.O.: Perfect Diving Order. Once in an interview, Oasis declared, “We can turn every experience around into something positive.”
And this is really the core of Oasis’s work, and the core of what might be called Southwestern Charm. No other place I’ve ever been seems as well equipped as this one to cope with the reality of post-9/11 life. Though statistically speaking we’ve never been safer, the national impression is that danger lurks behind every streetcorner, behind the empty expression of every stranger we meet. Every tragic event is another nail in the coffin of a civilization that, for some reason, stubbornly refuses to be buried.
The real genius of Oasis and those like her lies in the way they’ve found to cope with this sense of impending doom. To the outsider it may seem a simple process of burying one’s head in the sand, but in truth it’s much more clever than this. It is a way of looking at the world that is both engaged and detached, both conscious and blind, and that allows the real and the ideal to exist simultaneously — that allows Heaven to exist on Earth.
In an interview, Ms. Oasis once told a story of how, while on a backpacking trip in Alaska, she repeatedly woke up to find that a bear had taken a number-2 right outside of her tent. This continued for a number of days, and eventually she realized that “they [the grizzly bears] were actually saying ‘hi.’”
To the naked eye this may appear like simple optimism, maybe an unusually aggressive form of it, but this does not capture the power and versatility of this approach to life. For the southwestern spiritualist, the inherent difficulties that most human beings encounter in life are not only petty, but actually non-existent. There is no boredom, no negativity, no smallness, no stasis, no meaninglessness. Tedium is really just a lack of imagination. Damage is a matter of perspective. Sadness is actually a semantic failure. Time, place, and self are all just political ideas, and real experience transcends all three. Senselessness is an illusion: P.D.O. reigns supreme.
And perhaps my true obsession with Ms. Oasis lies in just this kind of attitude, in her ability to find meaning so easily in a world that I can’t help but see as bizarre and chaotic and disjointed, where occasional boredom is a requirement of adult life, where sometimes a car swerves at 95 MPH into a lane of oncoming traffic. It would be nice to celebrate that which seems darkest or most meaningless and therefore least worthy of our celebration. It would be nice, I think, to see a friendly greeting in a pile of bear shit.
Just a few miles south of Heaven on Earth, a freshwater reservoir called Watson Lake lies like a great mirror embedded in the fissures of the bedrock. It was a Monday, the day after the accident on 89A. I’d driven down to see the Dells in preparation for my interview. Of course, this was before I knew that I would never get a chance to meet Happy Oasis face to face.
I found a stretch of rock that extended out into the lake and went as far as I could and sat by the water. It was a warm June day and the bugs were congregating in the air above the surface of the water. There were gnats and mosquitos and flies, but hovering just above the lake were a kind of insect I’d never seen before: dragonflies, no larger than a sewing needle, colored bright blue. They fluttered on invisible wings above the water and nibbled on stalks of grass. It was a simple act but one that seemed at the time to be somehow extraordinary, and I watched them for a long while, and watching them I felt a sense of overwhelming peace. The landscape seemed to grow larger around me, to expand like arms opening to receive another.
But of course this hadn’t stopped the gnats and the mosquitos and the flies. As I drove home I scratched the bumps on my head and legs until they bled.
© 2015, Peter Alexander Bresnan — All rights reserved