Lourdes of the Rings

For Kay Torrez and her fellow New Age wanderers, meandering through sprawling desert labyrinths is anything but a lost cause

Surveying the New Age happening unfolding on the grounds of her Hyder Valley ranch one recent Sunday afternoon, Kay Torrez makes the understatement of the millennium.

"If you don't know what's happening out here, I guess all this does look kinda far-out," concedes the 73-year-old grandmother.

To say the least. Watching the mostly geriatric participants roaming around the desert floor in a dazelike state, an uninitiated viewer might conclude that a Laughlin-bound bus had broken down in the middle of nowhere.

What's really happening is labyrinths, a "new" New Age movement that literally has devotees going around in circles. Mazelike designs that reportedly pull power from the Earth, the serpentine layouts are believed to provide a wide range of physical and mental health benefits to all who wander their paths--as well as to all those who fly over them in UFOs.

In the center of what appears to be a circular go-cart track outlined in hundreds of colored pegs sits a craggy-faced man in a baseball cap. Seemingly transfixed, he stares at the L-shaped divining rods wobbling in his hands.

Inside a second labyrinth, a visitor wearing a rhinestoned visor and mirrored sunglasses meditates on a massage table while soothing music oozes from a boom box.

Faded pink-plastic flags border another of the mazelike circles. In the center, a couple of older women in warm-up suits bag rays while lying on two of the eight beds fanning out from the middle.

And in another labyrinth, a serene, olive-skinned woman with spiky, bleached hair expertly navigates the serpentine path--even though her eyes are completely closed.

Shifting her own gaze, Torrez points to an isolated fifth labyrinth to the north, this one a somewhat sinister-looking affair featuring a large, backward 6 outlined in volcanic stone and chalk. At the moment, the "reverse 6" labyrinth is unoccupied--and probably with good reason.

"We're still keeping our eye on that one," reveals Torrez, explaining that the labyrinth is a work in progress whose configuration is still being "doused"--a process in which divining rods and other implements are used to discover power points. "No one has figured out exactly what this labyrinth does yet. But when we do, you can bet it's going to be very interesting."

Waving a strand of salt-and-pepper hair away from her face, the unofficial den mother of the local labyrinth movement adds, "We haven't begun to understand everything there is to know about these things. We've still got a lot to learn."

Arriving at the remote spirituality spa 120 miles southwest of Phoenix, one of the first things that new visitors learn is that a labyrinth is not a maze. The difference? Unlike a maze, with its dead ends and blind alleys, a labyrinth has but one path, a circuit that eventually doubles back on itself in geometric symmetry.

Although the dictionary makes no such distinction between the two words, one devotee puts it this way: "You get lost in a maze. In a labyrinth, you find yourself."

An amply upholstered woman who'd look more at home wielding a bingo dauber than the aura meter she frequently carries around the ranch, Torrez first found herself in a labyrinth while attending a dousing conference in Arkansas in 1993.

Returning to Phoenix, where she and her family operate the largest bridal complex in the state, the matriarch of Azteca Plaza was soon drafting plans to turn the family retreat outside Gila Bend into a labyrinth testing ground. She also penned a self-published book that's considered standard labyrinth literature, as well as opening a research office called Labyrinths Unlimited.

Although her family's reaction to the project is unrecorded, it's probably pretty much the same response Torrez received back in 1987, when she tried to convince the city council that a colony on Mars should be named a sister city to Phoenix. Torrez shudders comically. "The family almost disowned me on that one."

Undaunted, Torrez forged ahead, hiring caretakers who live on the property year-round to build the five labyrinths that dot the ten-acre spread.

Ranging from 32 to 88 feet in diameter, the various mazes carry names like the Gentle Labyrinth and the Power Labyrinth. Love Labyrinth, the largest, is wheelchair-accessible. For the totally sedentary, there's even a Thought Labyrinth, where visitors can sit and simply contemplate walking the maze.

Although people who've walked the labyrinths have reportedly experienced everything from jolts of energy and euphoria to disorientation and nausea, Torrez says she's personally never felt a thing--at least not consciously.

"Don't ask me what it is, but something told me I had to do this," says Torrez. "I was in my office one day and I thought to myself, 'Did the Lord really put me on Earth just to count money in a bridal shop?'" Smiling, she looks around her desert dominion. "Well, here's your answer."

Popular in Britain's metaphysical community for at least ten years, labyrinths were virtually unknown in this country as recently as three years ago. Today, the burgeoning maze craze now threatens to run rings around crystals and pyramids.

When not actually walking the circuitous walk, the lab-fab cognoscenti can "finger-walk" grooved wooden tabletop models or use crayons to color preprinted paper labyrinths. They can wend their way through a maze of workshops, seminars, lectures and conferences--including a three-day labyrinthon to be held in Phoenix the last weekend in August. In addition to the obligatory books, videotapes, jewelry, clothing and greeting cards, there's the Scottsdale-based Labyrinth Letter, the first publication in the country devoted to focusing on the movement. And a Lake Havasu City mail-order company now offers the AMazing Labyrinth Kit, portable mazes in a variety of earth-tone colors with prices starting at $795.

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