When alternative thinkers and restless souls go looking for utopia, where do they go?
According to Carol Ann Wilson, author of the nonfiction work Still Point of the Turning World: The Life of Gia-fu Feng, one group of bliss-seekers in the early '70s chose Manitou Springs. It might seem like an obvious destination now, but when Gia-fu Feng moved his utopian community — called Stillpoint — into a rambling, Victorian house near the top of Ruxton Avenue, they had to work to fit in.
"It was a time when people who were part of the counterculture were regarded suspiciously, and stereotypes, rumors and false assumptions flourished," says the Boulder-based first-time author. "So they thought they would be proactive and go meet the chief of police, and let him know he didn't have anything to worry about."
And as it turned out, that was true. Though the community expanded to as many as 50 people at times, filling the house, outbuildings and grounds, Wilson says she hasn't learned of any confrontations.
"I'm sure there were those who would avoid the Stillpoint people," she says, "but Gia-fu encouraged them to be friendly with the community."
Feng came to Manitou from San Francisco, where he'd befriended notable thinkers like Alan Watts, who popularized Eastern philosophy for Western audiences; Gestalt therapy pioneer Fritz Perls; Esalen co-founder Dick Price; and "Dharma bum" Claude Dalenberg. Inspired by their thoughts and his own Chinese heritage, Feng gathered ideas for the community that would eventually blend elements of the Human Potential Movement with Taoist philosophies.
"Gia-fu's dream was always to live simply and honestly," Wilson says. "Part of that was coming to know yourself, and then to live that in your daily interactions. And he thought that being in nature was the best way to do that. The house was right by the Barr Trail, and he spent many hours there in sort of a walking meditation."
A 'Taoist rogue'
Feng's time in California, however, inspired more than his vision of utopia. It was there that Watts recruited Feng to help him translate bits of Chinese text for Watts' work at the Academy of Asian Studies. And Feng soon moved on to bigger projects. His first was a book about Tai Chi that included a translation of the classic Chinese philosophical text I Ching.
"It's quite interesting to look at because it's very much a reflection of the early to mid-'60s," says Wilson, who adds with a laugh, "He used 'groovy' a lot."
Feng's next book, using more conventional language, would become far more widely read. His translation of the Tao Te Ching, a text believed to be written 2½ millennia ago by philosopher Lao Tzu, in time has become the most popular of more than 300 versions.
As his publishing career thrived, Feng branched out to teach seminars throughout the '70s and '80s on Taoist philosophy as well as workshops in Tai Chi across America, Europe and Australia. Locally, some came to regard him as a spiritual leader or "guru" of sorts. But Feng rejected that label. He often referred to himself as a "Taoist rogue," Wilson says, but to shake up those who took him too seriously, he would call himself a "charlatan."
"The way Gia-fu thought about a utopian community was that utopia comes from inside," explains Wilson. "But some people who are drawn to that kind of thing, want to get it externally. They want someone else to set that up, so they don't have to do the hard work. But he wouldn't have that."
Still pointing the way
Though it may not have been perfection, for some the town of Manitou Springs became a place worth staying even after the group itself moved to a 166-acre parcel of land near Wetmore in the late '70s and later sold the Ruxton house. Wilson says she connected with straggling "Stillpointers" here while researching her book, a project she fell into unexpectedly.
Following the death of her sister, who had been Gia-fu's close friend, Wilson inherited Feng's estate. That included pages upon pages of stream-of-consciousness autobiographical writing penned by the man she had never met.
"My sister was editing those 300 pages when she died, and my mother encouraged me to finish it," says the longtime public school educator. "So I plunged in having no idea I would spend 13 years on it, take three trips to China, criss-cross the country and meet fabulous people I never would have met otherwise."
Nor did she expect to become caretaker of Stillpoint. But she keeps it open today as a retreat center for schools and others.
"The little huts that the community built are still there," marvels Wilson. "And people come back. People drop by every now and then, and sometimes, Stillpointers who had been part of the community will stay for a while. So I'm glad it's become a place where people still feel welcome to be."
That the same is true for those with alternative lifestyles in Manitou has a lot to do with Feng, Wilson believes.
"I read about how Manitou Springs welcomes all sorts of alternative ways of thinking, and I thought, 'Well, Stillpoint was one of the first, if not the first there.'"
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