Visionary Communities

You can visit Western Utopias, including some that still flourish, which testify to the dreams of social reformers.

visionary communities, illus. by Michael Klein

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From swamis to social reformers, dreamers have long been drawn to the West’s open spaces and live-and-let-live attitudes. Most of the visionary communities they founded have vanished. A few, however, left tantalizing traces, and others still flourish.

ANANDA VILLAGE In the Sierra Nevada foothills near Nevada City, Calif., some 250 people live and work in a commune dedicated to "peace, harmony, prosperity, and happiness" founded by Swami Kriyananda in 1968. Members practice yoga, meditation, and chanting; visitors are welcome and for a modest fee may sit down to vegetarian meals eaten in silence. (530) 478-7560, www.ananda.org.

AURORA COLONY "Every man and woman must be a brother or sister to every other man or woman," proclaimed leaders of this German Christian commune in northern Oregon. In its heyday in the 1860s, more than 600 people labored in its tin works, lumber mills, shops, and other businesses. Some 20 original structures remain. The former ox barn is now the Old Aurora Colony Museum on Highway 99E between Portland and Salem. (503) 678-5754, www.auroracolonymuseum.com.

HOLY CITY Founded in 1918 near Los Gatos, Calif., Holy City called itself "headquarters for the world’s most perfect government." Residents lived communally, spurned alcohol, and vowed celibacy. But Holy City faded after 1940, when Highway 17 bypassed the Old Santa Cruz Highway. Still there are the founder’s house and the post office, now a glass shop. (408) 353-4426.

MOY MELL Around 1930, in the sand dunes west of Santa Maria, Calif., Chester Alan Arthur III, grandson of the 21st U.S. president, created Moy Mell (Gaelic for "pasture of honey"). The resident "Dunites" dug clams and tended gardens. One went naked, donning a loincloth for trips to town. Within the 18-mile expanse of sand are ruins of some original shacks; historical displays are maintained at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center near Highway 1. (805) 343-2455, www.dunescenter.org.

Illustration by Michael Klein

This article was first published in January 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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