Good Vibrations

One eccentric’s desert landmark allows visitors to bathe in sound

Illustration by Matt Rota
Illustration by Matt Rota

In the Mojave Desert of southeastern California, along a narrow two-lane road that runs through the small town of Landers, a white dome glimmers amid the desolate landscape. From a distance, it seems like a trick of the eye. Up close, it resembles a small observatory or even one of those new glamping tents that have popped up recently around nearby Joshua Tree. In fact, the Integratron is something far more unconventional: a monument to one man’s otherworldly ambition.

His name was George W. Van Tassel, and starting in the late 1920s, he made his name in the California aviation industry, working for the Lockheed Corporation and the Douglas Aircraft Company, and as a test flight inspector for Howard Hughes. He was drawn to Landers by the allure of Giant Rock, a seven-story-tall boulder reputed to have mystical powers (Native Americans deemed it sacred), and he moved to the area in 1947. California’s UFO culture was then in its infancy, and when he wasn’t operating a private airstrip with his wife, he began hosting Interplanetary Spacecraft Conventions, drawing thousands of attendees—some of the first large-scale gatherings of UFO true believers.

Van Tassel claimed to have had numerous telepathic communications with extraterrestrials—and he even reported having a physical encounter. At two a.m. on August 24, 1953, as he recalled, Van Tassel was awakened by a being from Venus named Solgonda. The alien wore a one-piece gray bodysuit, spoke impeccable English, and otherwise resembled your average human man—if your average man is 700, looks no more than 28, and sports a killer tan. According to Van Tassel, Solgonda beamed him aboard a spacecraft and declared that the greatest problem restricting mankind was the propensity for early death: just as we acquire the wisdom to do something meaningful, it’s all over, finito. He bequeathed to Van Tassel a formula—F = 1/T, or frequency equals one over time—to enable the construction of an antigravity time machine that would liberate our species from its earthly constraints. For the next quarter century, reportedly with financial backing from Hughes, Van Tassel worked on constructing the Integratron, so called because of his belief that it could integrate the healing power of electrostatic energy into our cells, thus inhibiting aging. When he died in 1978, the contraption was still unfinished. As Solgonda might have said, I told you so.

What to make of this wildest of yarns, and the domed curiosity to which it gave rise? The Integratron has, much like Van Tassel himself, enjoyed an unexpected second act, thanks to the three sisters who purchased the site at the turn of the millennium. They got it listed in the National Register of Historic Places and transformed it into a tourist attraction, offering sound baths inside the dome—40-minute-long meditative sessions in which visitors are immersed in the vibrations produced by singing bowls. Trendy Hollywood types converged, in search of  “sonic healing.” The English indie rock band Arctic Monkeys recorded part of the album Humbug here. And when the pandemic brought packs of fleeing Angelenos to the desert, the Integratron became a must-see. The eccentric fringe had gone mainstream.

Which is how I find myself driving through the main gates on a recent winter afternoon, Giant Rock rising in the distance. The sisters—Nancy, Patty, and Joanne Karl—have engineered a welcoming vibe, hanging hammocks and planting trees (eucalyptus, almond, apricot, and more) around a series of low-slung support buildings that house an office and other essentials. The Integratron itself, standing 33 feet tall, is corralled behind a log fence and framed by a pair of palm trees. A series of 64 red Dirod electrostatic generators—vital to Van Tassel’s negative-ion anti-aging scheme—rings the structure just below its midriff like a belt of rubies. The site exudes an unexpected, sacred power, like a roadside chapel for the supernaturally curious.

Sound bath check-in (tickets $55) takes place in the visitors center, which consists of two conjoined metal domes where you can buy T-shirts, mugs, magnets— all manner of Integratron merch. This afternoon, a gentleman with a shaved head and a gray goatee mans the front desk like a carnival barker, touting the Integratron’s acoustics. Van Tassel used not a single nail, screw, or piece of flashing in its construction, relying instead on glue, caulk, and paint to secure and weatherproof the structure. One likely source of inspiration was Hughes’s failed D-2 project, which involved a secret World War II fighter plane that was constructed using a glue-laminated technology called Duramold. But an encyclopedic array of 19th- and 20th-century pioneers also served as influences: the English engineer James Wimshurst and his eponymous high-voltage apparatus; the French engineer Georges Lakhovsky and his Multiple Wave Oscillator; the Hungarian-born astrophysicists Jeno and Madeleine Barnothy Farro and their study of biomagnetic healing; Nikola Tesla and his high-voltage electrotherapy experiments; and George Crile, the doctor who was responsible for the first direct blood transfusion and who believed that “electricity is the energy that drives the organism.”

The way Van Tassel envisioned it, people would enter the Integratron’s ground floor (which would serve as a negative electrostatic ion chamber), circle the interior in counterclockwise fashion, and then exit, their cells newly revitalized. The ritualized ceremony (the visitors all clad in white) was but a touchstone in a larger movement. Van Tassel founded the quasi-religious College of Universal Wisdom, published a newsletter, and gave wide-ranging lectures about God’s creation of the space people and the threat of atomic annihilation. Was he a communist? This was no idle question. He had originally learned of Giant Rock from a German prospector named Frank Critzer, who lived in a cave below the boulder and was killed when authorities, concerned that he might be a wartime spy, tossed in a tear-gas canister to flush him out but instead ignited some dynamite that was meant for mining. The FBI opened a file on Van Tassel—monitoring lectures, reviewing his newsletter, interviewing the man himself—but concluded that he posed no imminent threat: he was just another desert eccentric.

The outlandish history, as well as the dome’s acoustic possibilities, attracted the Karl sisters, who settled on the idea of sound baths. Inspired in part by Aboriginal Australians, who use the didgeridoo as a healing instrument, and Tibetan monks, who play metal singing bowls during spiritual ceremonies, sound baths are said to have stress-reducing and antidepressant properties and to help promote spiritual well-being. Supposedly, first-timers and those between 40 and 59 years old (coincidentally my demographic) have the most intense experiences—this according to a nonrandomized study with no control group published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine. Never mind the fledgling science. I take my cues from a blissed-out woman in yoga gear who emerges from a sound bath session as I wait my turn: “It was peaceful, and then something else. I can’t even describe it. It was something.”

Part of the appeal, of course, is that the Integratron itself is a handsome thing, that Van Tassel’s flights of cosmic fancy produced such an alluring “resonant tabernacle,” as the sisters call it. Will the vibe be diminished by a new glamping project—at least six geodesic domes, each 24 feet in diameter—proposed for an undeveloped parcel between the structure and Giant Rock? The sisters and many locals believe so: a petition opposed to the development gathered 9,400 signatures on

The sounds—eerie, evocative, haunting—envelop you in a mind-bending embrace, as if you were positioned inside the world’s largest cello, an endless succession of notes reverberating through every corner of your being.

At long last, my appointed time arrives. About 25 of us are ushered into the ground floor of the Integratron, which has the feel of a rustic cabin. Two guides instruct us to remove our shoes, turn off our cell phones, and ready ourselves for Drayton, the “Led Zeppelin of the bowls”: “He’s going to rock your world.” One by one, we ascend a rudimentary wood stairway to the second floor, as the the dome’s Douglas-fir ribs come into view. Above, a concrete oculus; all around, the vast expanse of the desert visible through a series of rectangular windows. I assume my position on one of the supplied mats. Before I close my eyes, I see Drayton holding a mallet, surrounded by 22 crystal singing bowls of various sizes, like an array of exquisite planters at a luxury florist. He pronounces a hippie-ish homage to Mother Earth and to mothers in general. It’s those hard-charging, ego-driven men in the world, he says, who are “messing everything up. Let’s get the mothers in charge.”

And then he starts playing. The sounds—eerie, evocative, haunting—envelop you in a mind-bending embrace, as if you were positioned inside the world’s largest cello, an endless succession of notes reverberating through every corner of your being. Different notes reportedly target different chakras, or energy centers, but the particulars interest me little in my meditative repose. Pardon my own hippie-ish turn, but I find myself transported to some mystical free-flowing state, to some deeper communion with my unconscious.

A couple of things may happen during a sound bath. You may unlock repressed emotions and start bawling. Or you may doze off (we’re instructed to nudge snoring neighbors). Neither happens to me. The hour evaporates. I come to. Most everyone else starts chatting, swapping impressions, but I’d like the feeling to linger, and so I descend the stairs and make my way into the sun-streaked afternoon, feeling buoyant, like an untethered balloon. Solgonda makes no appearances, Van Tassel is no more, but oh what a bizarre, bewitching legacy he has left us here. I make plans to return.

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Eric Wills has written about history, sports, and design for Smithsonian, The Washington Post, GQ, the Scholar, and other publications. He was formerly a senior editor at Architect magazine.


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