Something about New Mexico’s vast empty spaces inspires utopian thinking, as if the landscape were a blank slate, a way to start over from scratch and do things right.
Spanish settlers felt it in the 16th century. Would-be gold miners banked on it in the 1800s. And in the 1960s, hippies, freethinkers, free-lovers, and back-to-the-landers fled crowded cities and boring suburbs to start life fresh in communities such as the Hog Farm and the New Buffalo Commune, both near Taos .
For a while, New Mexico was the place to be: Dennis Hopper immortalized New Buffalo in his film Janis Joplin chilled out in Truchas , and Ken Kesey drove his bus, through the state.
Today these experimental communities and their ideals seem to have been just a brief moment of zaniness — their only legacy appears to be Hog Farm leader Wavy Gravy’s consecration on a Ben & Jerry’s label. But some of the ideals set down by naked organic gardeners and tripping visionaries have taken root and sprouted in unexpected ways.
For instance, Yogi Bhajan, an Indian Sikh who taught mass kundalini yoga sessions in New Mexico in 1969, eventually became a major contributor to the state economy through all the businesses he established. Buddhist stupas dot the Rio Grande Valley, the product of Anglo spiritual seekers working with Tibetan refugees brought to New Mexico by Project Tibet, a nonprofit organization cofounded by John Allen, who also ran the commune Synergia Ranch.
Synergia, which still exists as a retreat center, just off Highway 14 on the plateau south of Santa Fe , began as an avant-garde theater group but evolved into a hard-working cult with properties around the globe, its members dedicated to, among other things, building sustainable mini-ecosystems, or biospheres.
One of the ranch’s more devoted adherents was Edward Bass, renegade son of a Texas oil family. He invested some $100 million in Biosphere 2, a glass dome in the Arizona desert filled with 3,800 living species; in 1991, it was sealed up with eight people inside to test its environmental sustainability as a possible model for a Mars colony.
After two two-year runs, Bio2 wasn’t as inspirational as Allen and Bass had hoped, but it hasn’t been a complete failure. With Bass’s prodding (and funding), the place has been used as a research facility by Columbia University and now by the University of Arizona.
Even as it’s used as a lab to study climate change, it remains a relic of perhaps the most utopian vision yet to have sprouted in New Mexico.