When does exploration become exploitation? A trip to Cassadaga, Florida.
Someone else’s lifestyle is not a tourist destination.
Cassadaga, Florida, the notorious “Psychic Capital of the World,” has always been on my list of places to visit. I always grouped it together with other roadside Florida oddities, like Swampy the Giant Alligator in Christmas, Florida and the mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs. Cassadaga definitely does not belong in that category.
George P. Colby founded Cassadaga after his spirit guide — a Native American named Seneca — prophesied he would be instrumental in founding a Southern Spiritualist Camp. He traveled down to the thickly forested swamp land near the East coast of Florida. According to legend, he was ill with Tuberculosis when he arrived, but a nearby spring healed him.
Today, Cassadaga is an idyllic community almost untouched by the outside world. There is one hotel—aptly named the Cassadaga Hotel—with the lone restaurant attached, a post-office, and a handful of shops that sell everything from healing crystals to refrigerator magnets.
It was a Sunday so most people were attending the church service. We walked down the empty side streets filled with modest Victorian-era homes and meditation gardens on every corner. Aside from the main street where the hotel is, there were no other people walking around. The only other people we saw were relaxing on their porch. I felt like I was intruding on people’s lives. I was an outsider there to gawk at the bizarre psychics.
Cassadaga is not the caricature I wanted it to be. There were no gypsies hovering over crystal balls, no Ouija boards surrounded by dusty candelabras, no ghost stories. It’s not a zoo where us hoi polloi come to ogle at the psychic freaks. And I feel guilty for being disappointed when it turned out to just be a commune of Spiritualists that live by their faith and practice what they believe.
My disappointment says way more about me than Cassadaga.
I stepped into a church to a religion I had no intention in practicing. The 55 people that live here to service visitors from all over the world that are looking for answers or peace. I wasn’t looking for anything but my own entertainment. This is a place for spirituality and healing and I was walking around looking for a good Instagram shot. That’s no better than wearing a Native American headdress to a music festival or wearing a Bindi because it matches my outfit.
Such a unique place like this of course is going to attract the attention of curious on-lookers. The gypsy wanderlust sound of it is enchanting, but how does one walk the fine line of appreciation, appropriation, and downright intrusion?
In 2013, VICE published an article going “Inside Cassadaga.” Christopher Balogh’s shallow profile failed to even pretend to be interested in the history, people, and practice of Spirituality. He wasn’t approved to be there because he “couldn’t wait any longer” to be approved by the board to visit. He quite literally intruded on the unsuspecting townspeople then wrote a vapid clickbait piece that will generate more views for the website. That isn’t appreciation, that’s exploitation.
“I wanted to escape the constant preaching of non-stop readings, psychics, spirit guides, astrology, the handwriting analysis, as I drove away from the village. I just wanted to sit down in my own home and realize there are other places besides Cassadaga.”—Christopher Balogh, VICE
An article like that is the antithesis of what travel is about. It’s immersing yourself in a culture to understand where different people come from. I think the reason I felt like such an intruder was because I didn’t come with that mindset. Cassadaga is not an amusement park or a photo booth. It’s how people choose to live their life and how they find peace and stability.
I went to Cassadaga expecting kitschy shops and a cast of cartoonish characters. I came back with new perspective on my own prejudices. Maybe those psychics are up to something after all.