“Go all the way down this road,” the driver said as he pulled my giant backpack from the combi, a hybrid van-taxi, before chugging off and leaving me at the gated entrance to Vilcabamba, Ecuador’s southernmost village. As I squinted toward the glowing lights in the distance, a warm wind lashed my face and spun dust around my feet in small flurries.
It was 9 o’clock on a Sunday night, and I’d broken my first rule of traveling alone in South America: I was arriving in a new town after dark.
But as I walked the wide dirt lane into town, the darkness lifted. In its place were pools of silvery light gleaming under swinging iron lamps. Down a cobbled side street, an Ecuadorian man in a cowboy hat jumped off his horse and guided it to a tie-off post. In the center of a tidy plaza up ahead was an illuminated fountain that bathed everything in an eerie glow. I laughed to myself, wondering if this was the fountain of youth the locals had talked about.
“Vilcabamba (pop. 4,000),” read the tiny entry in my Ecuadorian guidebook:
A lush forested valley where ‘eternal spring’ reigns 300 days a year. Where direct roads and modern sanitation arrived just 50 years ago. A place where most of the 1,000 townspeople still get around on horseback. Due to a series of flawed research studies in the early 1970s,Vilcabamba had gained a reputation for an unusually high number of centenarians, instantly drawing new-age groupies and conjuring fountain-of-youth fantasies.
My parents had been those people. Those New Age groupies. Not in Vilcabamba, but in 1970s Iowa, where I was born into a Transcendental Meditation (TM) community. They followed their guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, meditating two hours a day in golden domes, eating and living according to Maharishi’s interpretation of ancient Ayurvedic principles. My parents were people that needed to believe.
Though they split before I was a year old, they remained individually committed to the pursuit of enlightenment. For Mom, it was more like a free-form “church” of her own making, wherein she cut what she liked from each spiritual or religious practice she encountered and pasted it into a collage of daily practices. Some days she “decreed,” a practice promoted by the Church Universal and Triumphant to invoke the violet flame. Other days, she might repent her sins in the incense-filled confessional of her Catholic youth. My father was a spiritual monogamist, committing his entire life to TM. After they split, he moved to a TM community in Texas. He believed that his daily meditations raised the collective consciousness of the planet, thereby contributing to world peace. He talked a lot about how I needed to align myself with “the laws of nature.”
In response to my parents’ constant seeking, I’d spent my adult life actively avoiding esoterica. Spiritual healings, crystal ceremonies, even self-help books and ideologies were too close for my comfort. I’d chosen a life of the body, of the earthly. Instead of prayer, I chose to eat, dance, fuck, smash my way into being. These were things I could prove and see and feel.
I was certainly not in Vilcabamba looking for a guru or the fountain of youth. In fact, I wound up there by accident. For a year, I’d meticulously planned a trip to Ecuador with my friend Gloria, but a week after we arrived, she contracted a parasite, became violently ill, and flew home to the U.S.
My mother had died suddenly two years earlier, without a will, and left me, at 23, the oldest next of kin, to settle her hot mess of an estate and secure a legal guardian for my 16-year-old brother. Endless paperwork, legal battles, and taking over her mortgage had ground me into a nub of myself. Work, sleep, sign here, repeat left me little space to feel what I’d actually lost. If for Gloria the trip had been a soul-seeking journey gone awry, for me it was time to breathe and grieve for my mother.
With Gloria gone, our perfectly plotted itinerary made less sense, so I tossed the spreadsheet and followed my instincts, along with recommendations from locals I met along the way. The whole thing became an exercise in undoneness.
On the corner of the plaza, music spilled from the open doorway under a hanging wooden sign that read “El Punto.” As I crossed the plaza, the spectacular wind ripped laughter from the mouths of children who were playing around the fountain. No one had mentioned the wind when they’d urged me toward Vilcabamba in the previous two weeks. They’d said only: “You have to go, you’ll love it.” I hadn’t asked why.
Just inside, at a long communal table, a lanky man in a cowboy hat with an Australian accent was engaged in an intense conversation with a young dreadlocked blond. At the end of the bar a Janis Joplin concert was playing on a clunky big screen. A lithe man with an ebony braid running the length of his spine appeared behind the bar, and I ordered a glass of wine.
As I stood sipping from the glass tumbler and watching Janis writhe onstage, I overheard whispers from the men at the table — something about a place out of town called Neverland.
“Hey you!” The cowboy shouted and slapped an empty chair. “Come and join us!” I approached with caution, dragging my pack behind me. “Name’s Willy.” He stuck out his hand to shake. “Been here 25 years. Run a horse farm just outta town. Came from New Zealand for a fresh start. Never did look back.”
“Johannes,” said the blond, as he took a sip of something amber. “Here from Australia, just nannying for an expat couple living in the country outside of town.”
“I’m Nina,” I said with a polite nod.
Really, I wanted nothing more than to have a drink in quiet. But it was a small town and it was late, and I was alone. Best to make friends with the locals, even if they were the expatriate variety.
Warily, I sat.
“Seltzer water!” came a lilting voice behind me. I turned to see a blond man in a bright-purple silk shirt walking toward the bar. He and Willy nodded to each other from across the room.
“My roomie,” said Willy.
“Marcus,” said purple shirt, as he extended a hand and slipped into the chair next to me. He sipped his seltzer with a gusto I reserved for liquor. “Word of a newcomer travels fast in Vilcabamba.”
Marcus’s story tumbled out fast. Everyone seemed eager to showcase their skeletons, which put me on edge. He’d been extracting himself from the club scene and a deep heroin addiction in London, when his mom won 3 million pounds in the lottery and gave him a million to leave England and get his shit together.
“I came to Vilcabamba and haven’t looked back.” he said. “But, yawn. The burning question is why are you here?”
“Oh,” I said. “Just seeing where the wind takes me.”
“Well, it is the windy season,” drawled Willy. The men laughed and sipped their drinks.
“We’re going to have a smoke and tea at home,” Marcus said suddenly. “Come along if you’d like.”
By the time I’d dropped my bag at the hostel and found the address Marcus had scribbled on a bar napkin, Willy was in the living room, locked in boozy debate with a dark-haired, red-nosed man who spoke in a Southern drawl.
“His teachings on the reptilian race are key,” said Southern man.
“You know shit-all about Lovewisdom,” Willy interrupted. “You’ve only just got here.”
“What are they talking about?” I whispered to Marcus.
“Johnny Lovewisdom,” said Marcus.
“Sounds like a James Bond villain,” I laughed louder than I’d meant to. A hush took over the room, and Marcus shook his head. “Doctor. Johnny. Love. Wisdom?” Willy punctuated each syllable as if personally offended.
“A teacher,” said Marcus. “A true pioneer.”
“Hello!” yelled Southern man. “Hermit Saint of the Andes? Why are you even here?”
“Why are you here?” I rebutted.
“Me?” he said. “I’m just here to figure some things out.” I had a feeling he’d been saying that for a while. Everything seemed to orbit that question: Why are you here? It was both an introduction and a badge of outsiderism for the Willys and Marcuses.
For the next 20 minutes, as the men yelled over each other, pressing their pet points about Lovewisdom, a case of déjà vu came over me. I knew this brand of spiritual seeker, of outlaw and wanderer, of fuckup hunting for a fresh start halfway around the world in some tiny foreign village. I thought of my mother and how she’d done the same, running to Northern California — drawn there by a mountain she called a cosmic vortex. To me, “cosmic vortex” was shorthand for a place where New Agey white folks refracted their worldly shortcomings through the guise of enlightenment. There was a certain sadness that hovered in these places, a sense of visions unrealized.
If it’d been the fresh air, lush forest, and fountain of youth mythology that drew Dr. Lovewisdom to establish a following in Vilcabamba in the 1960s, the specter of his influence continued to draw those looking for answers for decades to come.
Lovewisdom was a spiritual health guru who authored over 100 books. Jesus, juicing, hygiene and sex were recurring topics, but his primary focus seemed to be achieving spiritual bliss through diet. He advocated a slew of what he called “Paradisiac diets” — a return to Eden with fruit and veggies leading the charge. A Washington State native born to Estonian immigrant parents, he came to Vilcabamba in the 1960s and founded the International University of Natural Living Science of Man, or the University of Life.
His school’s credo: “Build Paradise and Eat the Fruits Thereof.”
I was surprised to learn that the university had been internationally accredited and offered doctoral degrees via correspondence courses. Degrees in legit subjects like agronomy, the science of soil management and crop production, and fringe fields like vitalogical science, or the study of how to live, a term that from what I could tell, Lovewisdom had Frankensteined from the 1899 medical encyclopedia Vitalogy. In fact, his entire lexicon read like a mash-up of raw foodist lingo and pseudoscientific spiritual terminology. Just the sort of slippery New Age shit I’d been avoiding my whole life.
“I know!” said Marcus. He left the room, then returned with a baggie of weed and a stack of worn onionskin pamphlets, which he plopped on the counter in front of me. “Take these with you.”
“What are they?” I asked.
“Lovewisdom wisdom!” he said, rolling up a dainty joint. “Original Johnny Lovewisdom writings. They’re pretty special. Just take a peek — see if there’s anything there for you.”
The next morning, I woke with Lovewisdom on the brain. I grabbed the pamphlets Marcus had given me and found a lone cigarette in the top pouch of my backpack. The rope hammock in front of my room creaked as I settled in and lit the cigarette. Sparks flew in hot tiny tornadoes, and I held the cherry above my head, flipping through the worn pamphlets.
My first night in Vilcabamba was woven with strange magic. I couldn’t shake the memory of the ripping wind, the laughter of children chasing each other around the fountain, the tortured strains of Joplin over the bar chatter. But most eerie was the connection to the New Age ideas of my childhood. How had I traveled halfway around the world to stumble upon this place?
It was becoming clear that people didn’t just end up in the Valley of Eternal Spring. Had the locals who’d nudged me toward Vilcabamba viewed me like these expats? A basic white-backpacker chick running toward or away from something? Or was there more to it — something I was actually supposed to learn here?
The pages that Marcus loaned me were part of a wacky book from 1953 called Spiritualizing Dietetics. It read like something from my mom’s slumped stack of New Age books — a combination of the 1970s back-to-the-land cookbooks she never used and tales of reincarnated ascended masters.
Lovewisdom described fasting for seven months on 99 percent water and 1 percent citrus, tomato or green juice. He believed that living on raw fruits was the way for humans to reenter Paradise, whatever that meant, and wrote things like, “The Hyperborean homeland is the region of sunshine and everlasting spring, where the inhabitants lived on juicy fruits, and knew not what suffering and death were.” Spiritualizing Dietetics was obviously JLW’s hit, but on the back cover of the photocopied pamphlet, there was a list of his other titles:
Handbook on Radioactive Nuclear Fallout
Ecstatic Recreation Thru Paradisiacal Living
The Buddhist Essene Gospel of Jesus
(with a special appendix detailing the diet of Jesus and his disciples)
Poignant Memoirs Of My Virgin Birth & Consequent Vocation In Life
Nine Months In A Snake Pit
The Sacred Science Of Sexual Sublimation
A Look In A Nook Of A Vitarian’s No-Cook Book
Consumed by the weirdness of his gospel, I started to ask everyone I met about Lovewisdom. Over the next week, I’d walk to El Punto during lazy afternoons to have beer with locals and expats, soaking up the lore then digging further into Lovewisdom’s life online while sending emails from the internet café. Everyone in the valley had a connection to Lovewisdom. The expats with their hunger for some divine guidance, the locals for dealing with the onslaught of expats. But there was a sense that the time to believe had expired and those still holding on were like a high school quarterback reliving his glory days.
The town had a utopian hangover.
A need for deeper isolation grew in me, and I walked a mile out of town to an inn of wooden cabanas on stilts along the Rio Yambala. A man named Anton said he had built them by hand in the 1970s. “No power tools,” he boasted, leading me down a winding tiled path to a cabin 40 feet above the forest floor. On a tiny porch overlooking the forested valley, a hammock whipped itself in the breeze. I was the only guest, and I ate my meals with Anton, his English wife, Sarah, and two preteen kids in a thatched open-air dining area surrounded by leafy neon foliage.
“So, what brought you here?” I asked the first night, making polite conversation.
“We’ve got to do something else,” Anton muttered under his breath, Sarah’s smile tight.
I tried another tact.
“What do you know about Johnny Lovewisdom? Some guys I met in town gave me his work.” The haze cleared from Anton’s eyes.
His sudden interest surprised me. I figured the Lovewisdom hoopla was something they ran through with every tourist. That’d he’d become their Elvis — morphed into a wacky tourist attraction. Had Anton been one of the original followers? He was probably in his 50s or 60s (though he looked younger). It was possible.
“What did they tell you?” He seemed protective, almost hesitant to invest in conversation with me. Was I just another “gringo trail” trekker checking off the must-see sights of Vilcabamba?
Anton said Lovewisdom had spent years as a member of the Discalced Carmelite Order, the most demanding order within the Catholic Church, before he came to Ecuador. Anton sidestepped any questions about his personal connection to Lovewisdom, but the next day after dinner he handed me the book Be Here Now, by Ram Dass, a classic spiritual text of 1970s-era seekers.
People kept giving me relics from their own seeking. Answers to the questions that had brought them here in the first place. People had been doing this all my life, assuming that because my parents were this way, I was too. But something had always irked me about spiritual language — the way it seemed to carry meaning, to reveal some cryptic liminal knowledge, but when you pulled a string here or there most of it simply unraveled.
Growing up, I’d not only rejected but often resented my parents’ spiritual forays. I felt it created a remove between them and the temporal, leaving me, a resourceful but sensitive girl, to navigate the “real world” for myself. My father’s life was much more structured and practical, and with him I learned order and responsibility. Still, I could only get so close to someone whose spiritual ablutions dictated each morning and evening, whose life centered on the pursuit of transcendence.
Maybe it was my mother’s death, or being alone halfway around the world, but something about Johnny Lovewisdom cleaved my cynicism. I wondered in earnest what Lovewisdom’s followers drew from him. Did they want to be given a blueprint to live with guaranteed results? To be assured that life had a deeper meaning? Or was it all a salve for the anxiety of the unknown? For the first time, I really considered what my parents had been seeking from their guru.
As I thought about the Vilcabamba expats who had left families and friends behind to seek refuge or meaning, I felt a wave of compassion for my parents. Growing up, I’d stuck close to the grime and grind of the earthly. I’d wanted to be here now and judged my parents for their spiritual pursuits, thinking them weak even, in need of a leader. But what the hell was I doing in Ecuador, taking travel suggestions from random strangers, following instinct and esoteric conversations in lieu of a concrete itinerary?
Just after sunset on my last night, I folded myself into the hammock, a warm liter of Cristal in my lap, and flipped through the worn-soft pages of Be Here Now. I tried to take seriously lines like, “It is important to expect nothing, to take every experience, including the negative ones, as merely steps on the path, and to proceed.”
As swirling gusts of wind tore at treetops below, I understood something. Air is always there, but we only register it when it moves. In a sense, I had come to Ecuador on a mission, but not the kind that the expats and locals guiding me to Vilcabamba had assumed. I’d come to grieve my mother, and I naively thought I could do so neatly, then return home healed and renewed. But her death demanded that I extract meaning from her life. In order to let her go, I had to reconcile what I’d held against her and denied myself — the right to pursue spiritual truth. Through Lovewisdom, I was forced to accept that what I’d resented in her was something I wanted too.
My parents hadn’t been choosing enlightenment over me. Maybe like the expats, Ram Dass, Lovewisdom, the very act of seeking is what allowed them to navigate life on earth. Maybe their beliefs had saved them from a life of addiction, despair or worse — nothingness.
My parents had never left; they’d been chasing wind.