There is a Mars-like quality to the Mojave desert of Southern California, where an endless sea of copper earth is broken up by the crooked branches and green, spiky sprouts of blossoming Joshua trees. It’s a setting that’s proven alluring for countless wayward travelers and artists over the years, from Gram Parsons and Keith Richards in the late ‘60s to U2 in the ‘80s and Victoria Williams, Mark Olson, Queens of the Stone Age, and the Foo Fighters today.
It’s also the place where, back in 1953, the ufologist George Van Tassel was contacted by aliens, invited onto one of their spaceships, and telepathically given the instructions for how to build a dome called the Integratron.
Yes, you read that right: The Integratron, which is an architectural and scientific marvel, was designed by aliens and built by Van Tassel in order to commune with extraterrestrial life and heal humans here on Earth. Since its construction it has not only become a tourist fascination but also a highly revered destination for the aurally inclined, thanks to the “sound baths” offered by the sisters Joanne, Nancy, and Patty Karl, who bought the building in the late ’90s. Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age swears by it, and brought Anthony Bourdain there when he was filming an episode of No Reservations in Joshua Tree. Jason Mraz loves it. The Arctic Monkeys have recorded in it. And Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes says visiting the Integratron for a sound bath is better than any drug.
“The notes sound like they’re coming from inside your mind,” Pecknold told Rolling Stone after bringing his band there for a treatment. “It’s really loud, but it has no space to it. You get super, super relaxed after 10 minutes. Then I started seeing different colors, and I saw a pair of wings riding a horse as if they were a man. It was the closest thing to a psychedelic experience I’ve ever had.”
Naturally, I had to go see it for myself.
Visiting the Integratron requires an appointment, and I bought my $35 ticket six weeks in advance and arrived 45 minutes early, just to be safe. I did not want to muck this up. Driving on the dirt roads that led away from Joshua Tree and toward this gleaming white dome in the desert, it suddenly felt like there was a lot at stake. What was going to happen to me in there? What if this strange little place in the middle of nowhere held all the answers I’d been looking for? Or even worse, what if it didn’t?
I quickly learned that you can bring your worries to the Integratron’s parking lot, but it’s pretty difficult to get them in the front door. As soon as I set foot in the Integratron’s outdoor courtyard, a kind man with a long grey beard guided me toward a carafe full of lemon water and a smattering of hammocks. “Hang out,” he said serenely, “and we’ll come get you when it’s time.” A sticker above the water carafe promised that, “You are exactly where you need to be.”
I spent about a half-hour lounging and sipping and staring up at the big blue sky, and then the man returned and pointed toward the dome, gently guiding us inside. By this point, a couple dozen other wanderers had assembled, some dressed in yoga clothes and others wielding cameras and curious smiles, and we took turns taking our shoes off and climbing up a ladder into the Integratron’s lofted dome. One of the sisters, Joanne, crouched behind a set of large crystal bowls and instructed us to step into the center of the room and speak out loud; one by one we stepped into the middle and said “hello” with eyes wide, marveling at how loud our voices boomed when we stood in that spot even though it was indiscernible to everyone else in the room. Yoga mats covered with woven blankets were spread throughout the room, and eventually everyone took their place on a mat and looked up at the ceiling to see what might happen next in this beautiful, mysterious, and resonant space.
“This building was constructed without any screws or nails or metal of any kind,” Joanne explained, “So you’ll feel like you’re inside a giant cello as it’s being played.”
After asking us to please refrain from snoring and to poke our neighbors if they started to snore, Joanne started guiding us through some light meditation and circling her mallets around the edges of one of the crystal bowls: our sound bath was underway. The steady moan of the crystal bowls started radiating throughout the room, first in higher pitches and then progressively down lower into a booming, body-tingling roar. Within minutes, someone across from me started to snore, but it didn’t really matter. I wasn’t there anymore, at least not in spirit; I was floating up and away toward something else and somewhere else, toward a blank, white space where there wasn’t anything to see or anything to worry about. Was it nirvana? Or was it simply my first chance in a long, long time to completely let go and feel free?
I spent the bulk of the sound bath bouncing between these two realities; the one where I was floating in a happy free place and the one where I was laying on a blanket on the ground in a room full of sleepy strangers. At one point, I imagined that I was a pick that had accidentally been dropped through the strings and into the belly of someone’s acoustic guitar; at another, I spent a solid five minutes contemplating the meaning of the word “clarity.” I thought about how a friend of mine once said that he loved the clarity that came after a good cry, and how this sound bath was a way to find that clarity without shedding a tear or really doing much of anything. I thought about how much I loved the desert, and what it meant to be happy. I thought about all the suffering in the world, and about my search for inner peace. And I thought about how much I loved music and sound and words and these tools we have to connect with each other back downstairs in our messy and chaotic day-to-day lives.
At one point the sound bath became so intense that I could feel it vibrating my teeth and skittering over my skin, and I realized that it felt exactly like standing next to the subwoofer at First Avenue and letting the music shake me to my core. It made me think of the Beach Boys—”Good, good, good, good vibrations”—and also of George Castanza screaming, “Serenity now! Serenity now!” By the end, I felt like I had solved all my problems and had also accomplished nothing. It was perfect.
After a while—30 minutes? A couple of years?—the sound bath ended and Joanne put on a chanting CD. Eventually, people started stretching and the snoring stopped and it was time to stand back up and climb back downstairs. Everything felt unsettlingly calm and a little stumbly, and I wandered out into the sunshine in that same woozy way people do after a yoga class or an intense therapy session or a mushroom trip.
Sound bath good. Integratron good. Everything groovy.