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California soul: Sound bathing at the Integratron

By: Maxine Sheppard

March 11, 2019

Integratron, Landers, California © Maxine Sheppard

Integratron, Landers, California © Maxine Sheppard

Welcome to Landers, California, a remote outpost in the Mojave Desert where a white-domed time machine conceived by aliens lives on...

outer worlds

In the Mojave Desert a couple of hours east of Los Angeles, a blinding white cupola rises from the arid landscape, glimmering like an opal against an empty blue sky. This is the Integratron, and I’m about to be sonically healed.

Down a dusty road littered with tumbleweed, this spaceship-like dome was erected in the late 1950s and perfected over the next two decades into an acoustically perfect space – though the original aim of its creator George Van Tassel was to build a time-travel machine that could defy gravity and boost human longevity.

Former aviation engineer Van Tassel was a UFOlogist and ‘contactee’ who claimed to have been visited by beings from Venus in 1953. As the improbable story goes, an alien called Solgonda landed a spacecraft nearby at Giant Rock – a seven-storey boulder in the high desert – and invited George onboard. While inside, the telepathic Venusian divulged the secrets of how to build a structure capable of rejuvenating human cell tissue, and the seeds of the Integratron were sown.

George would work on the project until his sudden death from a heart attack in 1978, and though it was never completely finished, its meticulous construction has withstood the test of time. Containing no nails, screws or any other kind of metal, the 55-foot-diameter dome is made entirely from Douglas fir, save for a central concrete ring that holds together the 16 curved wooden spines that give the building its shape.

After George’s death, work on the Integratron ground to a halt before new owners acquired it in 1986 and occasionally opened it to the public. It was re-sold to its present custodians, Joanne, Nancy and Patty Karl, in the year 2000. Over the past two decades, the sisters have transformed the dome into a thriving desert attraction, taking advantage of its flawless acoustics to run supremely relaxing communal sound baths designed to soothe over-stimulated minds.

Inside the Integratron © Maxine Sheppard

good vibrations

I walk into the circular ground level room, take off my shoes and congregate with my fellow bathers before ascending a ladder to the cathedral-like upper chamber. Sunlight floods through the windows and bounces off the amber-hued wood, imbuing the space with an immediate sense of calm.

“When you get to the top, stand in the middle of the room and loudly shout your name out into the universe,” says Drayton, today’s spiritual guide and sound bath shepherd. “The louder the better. You’ll feel the vibrations rising up through the soles of your feet. It’s the geomagnetic forces at work.” Mildly alarmed by this unexpected moment of audience participation, I muster the strength to cast my Britishness aside and bellow my name like a Cockney market stall holder. He’s not wrong. A wave of reverb rises up through my legs, as though I’m standing on a giant Marshall amp.

Around the perimeter, 30 or so mattresses are fanned out like a spiral, draped in tribal blankets and raised at one end to face the windows. I lie down and wait for everyone to get comfortable while Drayton takes a spot next to the 18 quartz crystal bowls that form the basis of this sound bath experience. Before he begins to play them, he explains how each one is tuned to the seven chakras of the body, with each note stimulating the nervous system to create a heightened sense of self. His voice has the soft, reassuring timbre of a master hypnotist and as he picks up his pestle-like wand and runs it along the edge of the first bowl, my eyes begin to droop.

An intensely harmonic resonance fills the room. Over the next half hour or so, I drift back and forth between opposing states of profound relaxation and an acute awareness of other people sniffing, never quite losing my sense of being in a room with 25 strangers yet feeling simultaneously spaced out. My feet go numb, which apparently happens, though it could be because it’s 2 degrees below zero outside. Either way, it’s an all-encompassing experience, and when the singing bowls are replaced by some deeply euphoric ambient music at the end of the session, I feel like I’m suspended in a trippy celestial womb.

An hour goes by in the blink of an alien’s eye and soon people are rising to their feet and tip-toeing back down the ladder. I could get into this cosmic stuff, I think, as I stagger back out into the sunshine in a half-dreamlike state. I can certainly think of a good few people who’d benefit from coming to the desert and being thoroughly washed in sound. Perhaps this was Solgonda’s game plan all along.

The Integratron is a 2.5 hour drive from Los Angeles or 45 minutes from Palm Springs. Sound baths cost $35 per person and must be booked in advance (up to ten weeks in advance during the busiest seasons). It’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Check the schedule and book your experience online.

other highlights

In a region dotted with weird and wonderful places to stay, the Pioneertown Motel is a stand-out choice. Lying low in a rocky landscape under dark starry skies, the rustic motel is a 20-mile drive from the Integratron and offers 19 desert-inspired rooms complete with cowhide rugs, Navajo blankets and industrial-chic furnishings. Pioneertown itself was founded as an Old West film set in 1946 by a group of Hollywood investors including the actor Roy Rodgers. Mock gunfights still take place outside the 1880s-inspired storefronts, and there’s a happening honky tonk called Pappy & Harriet’s where big name stars often make an appearance, including Paul McCartney who played a surprise show here in 2016.

Take time to explore some of the High Desert’s far out communities. Flamingo Heights, Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms are home to an eclectic mix of vintage stores, art emporiums, boho desert boutiques, grungy coffeehouses and dive bars. In Flamingo Heights head to the Moon Wind Trading Company for fringed suede cowboy jackets, locally made toiletries, handmade jewellery and home decor, then pop next door to the Giant Rock Meeting Room for excellent coffee and snacks. Joshua Tree is your best bet for vintage art and all round quirkiness. Don’t miss the tiny and fabulous Crochet Museum, tucked away behind the Art Queen gallery, or pick up trendy t-shirts, painted ceramics and photo books at The Station boutique, set in a former gas station fronted by a giant bearded cowboy muffler man.

Joshua Tree National Park lies south of the Twentynine Palms Highway, one of the main arteries through this central desert region. The park straddles both the Mojave and Colorado deserts, and offers some of the most otherworldly landscapes in the West.

Alongside the spiky-limbed ‘trees’ themselves – not actually trees, but a type of fast-growing yucca palm – the highlights include far-reaching views towards the Coachella Valley at Keys View, and the Cholla Cactus Garden Nature Trail, a boardwalk through stands of furry-looking but lethal teddybear cholla and an array of other flowering cacti.

Start at the west or north entrance – both have excellent visitor centres – and drive a loop through the park along Park Boulevard. Alternatively, turn off onto Pinto Basin Road to exit the park at its southern edge, where you’ll meet up with Interstate 10 for the two-and-a-half hour drive back to Los Angeles.

Front desk at the Pioneertown Motel © Maxine Sheppard

Welcome to Joshua Tree © Maxine Sheppard

The Crochet Museum, Joshua Tree © Maxine Sheppard

Inside the Crochet Museum, Joshua Tree © Maxine Sheppard

Joshua Tree vintage stores © Maxine Sheppard

Joshua Tree National Park © Maxine Sheppard

Stay tuned for upcoming features on the city of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley.

For more information on visiting the California desert region, head to www.visitcaliforniadeserts.com

Virgin Atlantic operates daily flights to Los Angeles from London Heathrow.

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Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the co-editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.

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