Santa Monica to the Integratron

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The Integraton

The Integraton was designed to generate 50 megavolts of electrostatic energy that might have extended human life an additional 50 years -- but the builder died before completing his project. Jennifer Sharpe hide caption

itoggle caption Jennifer Sharpe
The Giant Rock, a seven-story boulder where George Van Tassel first made contact with aliens.

The Giant Rock, a seven-story boulder where George Van Tassel claims he first made contact with Solganda. Jennifer Sharpe hide caption

itoggle caption Jennifer Sharpe

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?

The Idea Behind 'A Hundred Bucks of Gas'

A couple of months ago I was having lunch with Alex Chadwick and a contributor to our program, Scott Carrier. We were discussing some story ideas for Scott to pursue from his base in Salt Lake City. Suddenly Alex's eyebrows went up. I recognized this facial expression as one that Alex gets just before he's about ready to enunciate a big idea.

So, with his brows skyward, out it comes. "A hundred bucks of gas. That's it!"

That's it? Scott and I simultaneously put on our puzzled faces.

"Yeah," says Alex. "We send you out to do a story, but you can only use up $100 worth of gasoline while doing it."

OK. So it was not a fully formed idea, but like many of Alex's brainstorms, it contained a germ of genius. "Wait," I said. "It's a travel piece. It's a travel series. It's brilliant."

Well, maybe. Or not. But after chewing it over, and trying it out on the Day to Day brain trust, we decided it was a pretty good radio idea for a summer where sticker shock had moved from the dealer showroom to the automated gas pump. And we figured our listeners were always looking for ideas on places they could go on a spare couple days off, or on a summer weekend.

So we set about finding the best writers and reporters we knew, and giving them this simple assignment. Pick a place you've always wanted to go that you can get to — and back from — on a C-note worth of fossil fuel. Write a travel essay about your trip, and illustrate it with lots of sound that you gather along the way. And so, A Hundred Bucks of Gas was born.

Throughout this summer we'll hear from these folks, and take some radio road trips with them. Our friend, Scott Carrier, who was present for the birth of the idea, will take us climbing up a peak called Angel's Landing in Utah.

From Miami, Eric Weiner motors east, through the Everglades to Sanibel Island. He has some interesting encounters with alligators on the way.

Producer Jennifer Sharpe drives from Los Angeles to the desert town of Landers, where she visits The Integratron, a domed-structure that, according to its creator is "based on the design of Moses' Tabernacle, the writings of Nikola Tesla and telepathic directions from extraterrestrials."

Other writers and reporters based in spots from Nashville to Anchorage, and points between, will carefully monitor their fuel consumption, and present their travel tales all summer long. We're betting it will make for a nice season of happy motoring on Day to Day. If not, we'll just blame Alex.

Steven Proffitt is senior producer of Day to Day.



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