I was being driven up some steep gravel roads in a pickup truck, above Paradise Valley, in Montana. This was back in 2007. Below, the Yellowstone River snaked back and forth, Highway 89 running parallel. The driver of the truck was a man I'd just met, a friend of a friend; somewhat taciturn, he didn't seem to know what to make of me. He seemed suspicious of my interest in where he'd agreed to take me.
Seventeen years before, this man and several thousand other people were members of the Church Universal and Triumphant, a sect led by the Messenger Elizabeth Clare Prophet. With the help of the Ascended Masters, a group of deities who spoke through her, the Messenger had proclaimed the late '80s a particularly dangerous time. Preparations would have to be made, for it seemed quite possible that the world might end.
The landscape around us showed those preparations. Here and there, the ground had caved in on what had been shelters for families or groups of families. Steel doorways were cut into the sides of cliffs. The ground rose up in rounded, paranoid humps, and pipes jutted through it. For ventilation, to bring air underground.
"I've been doing these interviews," I said. "I've talked to some people; I guess you know that."
He drove, shrugging his shoulders. The wind was blowing so hard outside; it whistled all around the truck.
"What's amazing to me is how different everyone's recollections are," I said. "It's going to be hard to figure out what actually happened, whose story to tell."
"You know," he said, taking one hand off the wheel and pointing down to the valley, now far below. "If there was an accident down on the highway, there'd be plenty of witnesses. And every witness would have a different story." He paused. "Of course, if an accident happened up here, there'd just be the two of us."
I nodded, not sure how to take that. I was already nervous.
Silently we drove past shabby houses, many of them painted blue (the color of the Ray of the Master El Morya) or violet (the Ray with the highest vibration, most able to transform bad karma to good; this was the Ray of St. Germain). I looked away, back down across the valley, at the mountains.
I knew this landscape pretty well because 17 years before I'd lived here, too. Fresh out of college, I'd worked on a cattle ranch only a couple miles from the Church's headquarters. I'd seen the members in their violet clothing, shopping in Livingston, and I saw the Messenger on television; I knew what they were up to, in a vague way, but I had other concerns. I was worried about our frozen well, and about getting a stretch of barbed wire mended before the elk came through again. About whether my college girlfriend would come to visit me. And whether all the writing I was doing would ever amount to anything.
Yet even after I moved away, I still wondered about the Church and what had happened. I knew they'd gone underground, and that they'd surfaced. I wondered how it would be, to believe the world might end and then to have it persist, to have to continue to live in it.
I'd written around this situation a few times in the years since I'd left Montana, but it was only shortly before I found myself driving with this stranger that I decided to try to write a novel about it all.
Around that time, I met a young woman, a student at Reed College, where I teach writing. She had grown up in the Church, had lived there when I lived there. She'd been a girl, and her father had built an underground shelter for 70 people. She generously talked to me, helped me find others to talk to. Was it a coincidence that we found each other so close together, many years later? My study of the Church's teachings has made me distrust the idea of coincidences.
One thing she told me was about how wonderful it had been to grow up in that amazing landscape, and to be surrounded by Elementals, the invisible nature spirits who were always eager to protect and lend assistance. And as I drove on those gravel roads, I saw what looked a little like rabbit hutches set against trailers and houses, tiny structures that were meant to be shelter, I knew, for the Elementals themselves.
"It's kind of startling," I told my driver, "how good everyone's reasons seem to me, the more I learn about it, how idealistic it was."
"Here we are," he said.
He jerked the truck off the edge of the road and across a slope, pulling to a stop in front of a humped-up stretch of earth. There was a kind of tunnel dug into one side, a thick door barely visible. I stepped into the tunnel, out of the wind, where I could stand up straight again.
The door didn't open easily, and some of the lights overhead were broken. A corrugated metal tunnel slanted away from us, and I followed him down it, to a stairway. We paused at another thick door, and he got out the keys and opened that one, too.
Forty feet underground, that shelter was beautiful. It was shaped like a huge, hollow donut, with bent redwood siding following its curves inside. We walked around the circular hallway, through a large kitchen and eating area. Stacks of chairs, hanging pots and pans, framed portraits of Saint Germain. I closed my eyes and the only sound was our breathing.
Dust settled on counters, on shelves; rat and mouse poison was strewn across the floor. My guide followed me, silently, switching on lights as we went. Deeper in, doors with numbers on them marked the hallway, like some strange kind of motel. These were the living quarters for families. I opened one and saw a row of encyclopedias and other books, a pile of shoes. The believers were meant to prepare for seven years underground.
We passed generators and food storage areas. Downstairs was a classroom, its walls painted bright colors. An exercise bike. Twisted coils of rope and wires.
I circled and circled, not sure what to say. I kept shivering, but I wasn't really cold. It felt uncanny; this project was already turning me inside out. I was inside the convolutions of my imagination, deep down inside a story that was still going on, while also inside a slightly different story, one that I was beginning to tell.
"Seen enough?" my guide asked.
"Not yet," I said.