The Rajneesh ranch reborn

The Young Life ministry rolls in providence where the Bhagwan once rode in Rolls

The Oregonian, September 5, 1999
By Steve Duin

Under the light of a full moon and the lip of the Big Dipper, 200 junior-high kids are dancing on the grave of Rajneeshpuram.

In the past hour, more than half of these teen-agers -- from Bend and Spokane, Springfield and Mukilteo -- stood up to affirm new faith or an edgy curiosity in Christ.

Now, the kids are cutting loose. As "Disco Inferno" rolls through the canyon, they are soaring off the high-dive and cannonballing into the sprawling camp pool. They are jitterbugging on the new grass like a troupe in a Gap commercial. And they are cooling down or drying out on wooden decks, sharing pints of Ben & Jerry's.

Watching them on this warm August night, you strain to remember what used to be at the Big Muddy Ranch. Not because the Bhagwan and his band fled the John Day River bed before most of these 13- and 14-year-olds were born, but because the Rajneeshees left so little that endures.

Their ghost town is gone. In the small breaks between the dance tunes and the pool party, you don't see the parade of red robes and Rolls Royces.

You hear, instead, on land now claimed by Young Life, a nondenominational Christian ministry, the sigh of answered prayer.

The melody of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

The silence of a property staff overwhelmed and unnerved by the approach of providence.

In the harsh light of your Sunday morning and that lukewarm joe, your skepticism is understandable. If you haven't been paying attention, who can blame you for glancing over at this quixotic corner of Wasco County and deciding that one batch of deluded spiritual interlopers have simply been replaced by another?

You might even echo one of the locals last week as he watched two clowns in fallout gear comically inspect an inbound bus with Geiger counters and mirrors in an edgy parody of the ranch's old welcoming crew. Unaware that he'd been suckered into the studio audience of a Young Life skit, the rancher said, "This place has a whole 'nother set of loons."

A slightly longer visit convinces you the ranch now sports a different cast and a different philosophy. When the history of this canyon is written on the warning track of the next millennium, I expect we'll be told that if the Bhagwan put this place on the map with sound and fury, Young Life will forever secure its distinction with laughter and faith.

This place -- a 64,000-acre ranch 15 graveled miles southwest of Antelope -- was no place that mattered to anyone but a few cowboy hats and a lot of cattle until Ma Anand Sheela stumbled upon the retreat in the summer of 1981. Sheela was a herald for the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a cult figure from India who delighted in young women, nitrous oxide and expensive, new cars.

The Bhagwan and thousands of his disciples soon followed. Their arrival was a chapter break, a true mood swing, in Oregon history. In Tom McCall's worst nightmare, visitors from another planet arrived, separatists who cared nothing for the land-use laws, immigration statutes, the boundary between church and state or the fine line between private worship and public menace.

At Rancho Rajneesh, paranoia struck deep and spared no one. Sentries with assault rifles patrolled the streets. Sheela and her inner circle bugged most of the ranch, plotted to kill U.S. Attorney Charles Turner and arranged for salmonella germs to be spread on four restaurant salad bars in The Dalles.

The red tide swept over Antelope and its school, so scarring the small town that a plaque at the base of the post-office flagpole still marks its passage:

Dedicated to those of this community who through the Rajneesh invasion and occupation of 1981-85 remained, resisted and remembered.

The Rajneeshees stayed four years. They've been gone 14, leaving long before the Bhagwan died in India in 1990. And the bloody footprint they left on the Big Muddy long ago began to fade.

The crematorium is long gone.

Sheela's secret underground tunnel is flush with fresh dirt.

The Bhagwan's digs disappeared in a 1996 range fire that skirted everything else of any value in the valley.

The giant 88,000-square-foot meeting hall, Rajneesh Mandir, where the Bhagwan arrived every day to meditate with the masses? When Young Life tore down the stage where the Bhagwan used to pose, they discovered beneath it a den of rattlesnakes, whatever you make of that.

But the foundation of the great hall remains. It provided the cornerstones for a massive sports complex, a virtual Sports Nation, with basketball courts, a climbing wall, a skateboard park and an indoor-soccer arena.

Like so much of the ranch, the building has been transformed, converted into another prop on a stage for high school kids.

Young Life has been staging summer getaways for teen-agers for almost 60 years. The ministry's 17 national properties are so popular that the Colorado-based group desperately needed a second camp in the Northwest.

Given the scale of its ambitions, the organization couldn't afford to start from scratch. Young Life needed, quite frankly, for someone utterly driven by irrational impulse to pump millions of dollars into the ground, then shrug his shoulders, wash his hands and walk away.

It has happened before: Tom Hamilton, who made a fortune selling airplane parts to the Nazis in the mid-1930s, built the Malibu Club at the mouth of the Princess Louisa Inlet in British Columbia in the '40s, then abandoned the Canadian retreat, eventually dealing it to Young Life at a fire-sale price.

And now it has happened again at the old Big Muddy, the old Rancho Rajneesh, the old cattle ranch . . .

The new Wildhorse Canyon.

The irony is fairly compelling.

Young Life and the Rajneeshees couldn't have more different views of paradise. But if it hadn't been for the Bhagwan and his aggressive, agrarian cult, Young Life couldn't have spent this summer bringing more than 2,000 Northwest teen-agers to the foot of the cross.

That's just the strangest turn. There's a mother lode of curious twists of fate. That wildfire. Those rattlesnakes. Malcolm Marsh popping up 10 days ago in the Wildhorse Canyon wood shop.

That's right: Malcolm Marsh, the federal judge who presided over the 1995 trial of the two Rajneeshees convicted of conspiracy in the plot to kill Turner.

Whatever. Maybe it's just coincidence.

But how many coincidences have to pile up before you get a little nervous?

The folks from Young Life are nervous. As Jay McAlonen, the property manager, said, "We have to be careful what we pray for."

Why? Because the answers sometimes arrive before the sound of "Amen."

This is the first summer Young Life has operated Wildhorse Canyon since receiving the property -- and $2 million in cash -- as gifts from Dennis Washington, a Montana billionaire.

Just when the ministry began to doubt it could ever puzzle out the camp's water and sewer system, who should call but Jack Lampl, who designed and built the system for the Rajneeshees. He just happened to be in Portland for a water-resources seminar. He spent four days at Wildhorse deciphering the system, then left without charging Young Life a dime.

Just after Young Life realized it needed 50 gallons a minute to keep its swimming hole recharged, engineers digging out the adjacent swimming pool uncovered an underground spring that pumped out . . .

Fifty gallons a minute.

The property staff isn't naive about what it takes to keep Wildhorse up to speed each week for 430 teen-agers -- next year's expanded camp size -- and the supporting work crew. But whenever a problem seems insurmountable, the phone rings. Then it rings again.

The day after Kelly Moore donated 5,000 gallons of interior and exterior enamel paint, a contractor called, offering to donate the services of his eight-man crew. "I can provide everything," he said, "except the paint."

"Working out here is like Murphy's Law in reverse," said Rex Baird, the project manager. "Anything that can go right will."

Baird has a background in large-scale real estate projects. He once worked for Howard Hughes in Nevada, so he has seen strange things before. Although his view is colored by faith, he doesn't pretend to know why there seems to be a key for every locked door. Maybe there's an incredible grapevine or some strange intuition.

What Baird does know is that 40 percent of the work at Wildhorse has been done by volunteers, all of whom have a story to tell about what brought them to the canyon.

They feel drawn to the place as surely as the fictional cast of "Close Encounters" was drawn to Devil's Tower. They all believe they've felt the hand of providence at their back.

To be sure, a lot of folks obsessed with the color red felt the same way. They just decided to outfit an armed police force and usurp the local government, lest providence change its mind.

"If we're different from the Rajneeshees, people will see it," said Pat Welch, a youth minister and football coach in Bend. "They'll know us by our fruits."

Antelope residents are still inspecting the fruit. They carefully monitored the land-use hearings that allowed Young Life to set up camp on the ranch. Owing to some exhaustive relational fence-building by Ben Herr, the Young Life camp's first property manager, the locals decided not to contest Wasco County's decision to give the ministry an exception and the recreational use of 800 of the Big Muddy's 64,000 acres.

"I think it was a mistake to zone the property that way," said John Silvertooth-Stewart, a lawyer who has lived in Antelope most of his life. "The connection between ATVs and Jesus Christ hasn't quite sunk in on me yet. But (Young Life) is there now, they have their zoning, and quite frankly, I hope they succeed. I'd hate to see anyone else down there with that zoning. It could be a lot worse."

The connection between ATVs -- not to mention zip lines, river floats and the Blob, the marriage of an air mattress and an ejector seat -- and Jesus Christ is at the heart of the Young Life philosophy. Each raucous adventure, the theory goes, opens a teen-ager to trying something new, perhaps even that grand old story about sacrifice and forgiveness.

That message isn't new, just new to what was once the most infamous ranch in Oregon.

People who lived in the shadow of that ranch haven't forgotten what made it famous. "It's like anyone who's been in a car wreck or a plane crash," Silvertooth-Stewart said. "It's not in the headlines, but it has stayed in people's minds."

And the canyon's new incarnation? Many of the nearby ranchers are neither hostile nor hospitable. Over a lot of cups of coffee, Herr said he came to understand why some Antelope residents think "everything should be plowed into the ground and returned to its natural state."

One recent night when the usual stars were out, 200 teen-agers looked as if dancing, swimming in the moonlight and leaping at faith were the most natural things in the world.

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