Playing with sound at the Integratron

California’s Mojave Desert and Coachella Valley have long been popular sites for a pilgrimage. There’s Joshua Tree National Park, the majestic desert forest littered with the eponymous trees; Desert Hot Springs, with its therapeutic mineral waters and thus affordable spas; Palm Springs, the architectural haven. And then, there is Landers. This town, which sits on a tiny stretch of desert, was mostly popular with UFO enthusiasts until about 1970. It’s still not on the mainstream tourist trail, but now, everyone from musicians to astronomers — even Anthony Bourdain — comes to Landers. Why? To experience the Integratron.

Located 70 kilometres north of Palm Springs, the Integratron doesn’t mean much to the uninformed: It’s a whitewashed, dome-tipped, circular building, 10 metres tall, and 17 metres in diameter, standing alone in the middle of the desert. But it is the site of a powerful geomagnetic vortex. The futuristic-sounding structure, built in 1954, is purported to recharge and rejuvenate one’s cells — even facilitate time travel. Its creator, George Van Tassel, an aeronautical engineer, inventor and UFO advocate, claimed to have received the blueprint through an encounter with Solganda, a then 700-year-old alien from Venus. For nearly 30 years now, the Integratron has been privately owned by three sisters committed to the restoration and preservation of Van Tassel’s vision.

Despite it being off the beaten path, the Integratron is booked months in advance. Spiritual types come to meditate and enjoy sonic sessions — or sound baths — during which one is bathed in what is thought to be healing crescendoing sounds and vibrations created by quartz crystal singing bowls and prayer gongs. Reservations are made by the hour to ensure guests have the space to themselves for as long as they need (a two-hour minimum is required starting at US$250 per hour).

Retreating within the magical confines of the Integratron had long been on my “must-experience” list. My friend Jenny felt the same, and decided it would be the official site of her unofficial 40th birthday party. Naturally, for a milestone birthday, rejuvenation was in order. Our group totalled 17 and came from various points across the U.S., open to all things spiritual and quirky with a built-in appreciation for the randomness of travelling hundreds of kilometres to an edifice that was inspired by Moses’s Tabernacle, the works of Nikola Tesla and aliens. We are ready for whatever the desert has in store for us — aliens and time travel included.

We are ready for whatever the desert has in store for us — aliens and time travel included

As we approach the Integratron’s site we see, well, the dome and not much else. There is no big “Welcome!” sign — only a simple little placard and chalkboard indicate we’ve arrived. After being shown around the compound, which includes a “hammock village” and small forest of trees decorated with dozens of monarch butterflies, we are led inside the Integratron itself.

The ground floor is home to an archival collection of press clippings and relics detailing the Integratron’s history. Upstairs is the inner sanctum, the dome where the sound baths are held. It’s an airy space with an interior made entirely of wood — old-growth Douglas fir from Washington state that’s rumoured to have been gifted by Van Tassel’s friend Howard Hughes. Sixteen windows offer a 360-degree view of the desert. On the floor in one part of the dome sit a dozen quartz singing bowls and a sign requesting that no one touch the delicate and pricey instruments. We do anyway, but gently. We’re kids in a time machine built under the direction of a Venusian alien, after all.

We start our visit with yoga led by one of Jenny’s friends, who is an instructor. Yoga in the Integratron isn’t uncommon: mats, blankets and pillows are available to all guests. She guides us through the practice and into a meditative state. Moments later, one of the owners, who had quietly slipped upstairs, slides a suede stick around the interior circumference of the bowls. The sound bath begins.

The first sounds resonate so deeply they pierce our ears, sharply vibrating in a way that is jolting. I visualize the sound moving to my heart, and it relieves my ears. Focusing on my heart, I allow the crescendoing sounds to envelope me. We are on an auditory journey of highs and lows, bigs and smalls, crashes and silence. After the orchestra of sound and vibration conclude, we gradually rise from our meditative states.

After a few moments of silence, we do what any curious group of people might do after their first sound bath in the Integratron — we laugh. Our laughter is massive and beautiful, dancing both near and far, billowing and punctuating with power. We then move to the dome’s centre where there is a perfect tennis ball-sized hole that conducts the force of sound. Back to back, butt to butt, we form a tight circle, and then … ommm. We om away, feeling the sounds and vibrations of our gut-rooted chants, which eventually turn again to belly laughter. And then we sing Happy Birthday, a hearty full version just for Jenny.

We linger in the space a bit longer, playing with our voices and testing acoustics in various parts of the room. We do not see Solganda. And we’re pretty sure there isn’t any time travelling. But who knows? Who cares? We’re open to anything either way.

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