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Santa Monica to the Integratron

Throughout the summer, NPR reporters and Day to Day contributors are seeing just how far they can go on $100 worth of gas. Jennifer Sharpe had something of an out-of-this world experience:

Of all the places my $100 could have taken me, there was one I'd been wanting to visit for years, a place that's had such a hold on my imagination, it precluded all other possibilities: the Integratron, a mythic white dome out in the desert built by a 1950s UFO contactee named George Van Tassel.

With its rotating outer ring, the Integratron was designed to generate 50 megavolts of electrostatic energy that might have extended human life an additional 50 years -- had Van Tassel himself lived long enough to complete it.

Still reliant on the power of fossil fuel, I climb into my Toyota Matrix, and pump $33 of gas into the tank. Like me, George Van Tassel set off for his trip to the desert from Santa Monica, where he worked as an aeronautical engineer throughout the 1940s.

Leaving town, I pass the Aero Theater, a remnant of his industry's presence here, and I picture Van Tassel inside staring up at the screen, totally unaware that he'd soon be out in the desert communing with an extraterrestrial from Venus named Solganda, whose warnings of mankind's path towards self destruction were like something out of a science-fiction movie.

Heading east on the I-10, I wonder whether Solganda would have foreseen this corridor of huge shopping centers that line the first one-quarter tank of my drive. As I push towards half a tank, the malls are replaced by the high desert's jutting rock formations -- so dramatic that they dwarf the buildings beneath them into a series of objects that look like they've been laid out for a garage sale.

I turn five miles off the main highway and spot what looks like a white super-sized construction hat sitting on the ground. The closer I get to it, the smaller it looks.

These days, the Integratron is run by Joanne and Nancy Karl, earth-bound sisters with a New York edge who offer "rejuvenating sounds baths" in the acoustically resonant dome. I follow them inside, past a gleaming web of copper wires and up into a wooden room that looks like a cross between a yoga studio and the prototype of an early synthesizer.

Joanne Karl settles in behind a cockpit of quartz crystal bowls and begins to play their edges with suede mallets. As instructed, I lie down on a Navajo blanket, and try to relax.

Whatever relaxation the sound bath has eked out of me becomes amplified by an afternoon spent listening to Joanne and Nancy's stories about Giant Rock, the nearby seven-story boulder where George Van Tassel first made contact with Solganda. I head off to go see the rock, and despite Nancy's clear directions, I take a wrong turn that sends me plowing my two-wheel drive through perilously deep sand.

In a moment of panic, I try to reverse back down the narrow road -- but as any Toyota Matrix owner can tell you, the car's limited visibility out the back window is its biggest flaw. Luckily, I make it to a lone house up ahead, whose slurring, toothless occupant yells clear enough directions to get me to the rock.

As I pull up to it, a suped-up desert buggy speeds past, leaving me in a cloud of dust and silence. In an act of seeming outrage, the massive boulder, which has been brutally defaced by graffiti and campfire soot, has recently split into two pieces. But as I stand there looking at it, I am suddenly overtaken by a powerful calm that seems to reach out from the earth's magnetic field and pull me in.

Whatever forces George Van Tassel experienced here suddenly feel palpable to me. The heavy stillness stays with me well into the evening, and as I sit at my hotel restaurant, listening to the band, I watch a white owl swoop out of a palm tree into the night sky. Solganda, do you read me?

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Sharpe