In the late 1940s, George Van Tassel left the aircraft industry to live under a large boulder in the desert near Joshua Tree. Here he was visited by a group of benevolent Venusians who instructed him to build the Integratron, a two-story wooden dome designed to function as a multipurpose energy machine. Van Tassel's machine, and his home under Giant Rock, became the site of the first UFO conventions. Individuals like George used to be called Contactees, and their experiences centered around galactic ambassadors trying to end the arms race and usher in the New Age. In 2010 people get abducted by aliens and raped.

We arrive at the Integratron on the first afternoon of the Artmonk Retreat. Isa's not around, but her friend Lesley welcomes us and makes arrangements for us to stay the night. We drop off our stuff in the ground floor of the dome and peek upstairs, where a bunch of folks sit on blankets quietly chatting and meditating.

We drive back to Joshua Tree to meet up with my friend Garrett for dinner. He's vacationing with his family in Palm Desert, and I decide to leave with him and rendezvous with Brett in the morning.


Eileen and Garrett leave, and I go back to the Integratron. I arrive just as people are piling into cars to go out drinking. Lesley fills me in on the Artmonks, the project of a guy named Christopher Fulling. The organization has access to a former monastery in Italy, and is offering residencies to artists who agree to live according to monastic principals. This retreat is a scaled-down version, designed to give artists a chance to recharge their batteries. A lot of the attendees are San Francisco Burners. We arrive at Pioneertown, an old movie set repurposed as a real town, and get beers at the country western bar.

When we return, the Integratron is glowing on the high desert like a habitat on the moon.

I wake up in the bottom of the dome, and a man asks me how I slept. He points out some black markings on the floor – apparently my sleeping bag was in the negative energy discharge zone. I slept great, though.

I run into Joel Levey upstairs. He and his wife Michelle are the spiritual gurus for the retreat. He tells me that he is also the personal guru to Alex Grey.

Back downstairs, Christopher Fulling is giving chanting lessons to Lesley. His style of instruction is harsh, and when he tries to teach me how to hold a note he gives up after my first attempt. "No," he says, "just, no." Chris is the alpha of the group, important and proud and a little condescending. He thinks that people can become better artists through Gregorian chanting, which coincidentally is something he is very good at.

Isa finally arrives, and I help her make sandwiches in a small prefab dome. Everyone eats, the Artmonks begin their weeklong vow of silence, and I drive down the road to Giant Rock.

The boulder itself is impressive, but what's really strange is just how crowded it is out here. The middle of nowhere is full of campers, dune buggy enthusiasts, and gangs of dirt bikers. I off-road in my Oldsmobile, and ruin the suspension.

In the middle of the desert