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.

While baffling to outsiders, there's no denying the very real fascination that this ancient life force holds for Torrez's guests, many of whom return several times a month to douse auras, balance chakras and commune with Mother Earth.

What exactly do labyrinth followers believe? Easier to ask what they don't believe.

Channeling. Faith healing. Time travel. Space aliens. In the metaphysical stew pot that is labyrinth land, not even the sky's the limit. Were someone to figure out a way to tie red kryptonite into the labyrinth movement, it's doubtful anyone would blink an eye.

Over a potluck lunch in the rustic chow hall, the faithful regale newcomers with stories of Torrez's mecca of miracles. There was the Alzheimer's patient who "felt better" after being wheeled through a labyrinth. The young visitor who saw Geronimo's spirit right up to the center of one maze where he magically repaired the holes in an old man's auras. And the crippled girl who was carried through the maze--and later complained that her feet hurt.

"Something happens to every person who comes out here," says Torrez, who's holding court over a fresh-baked tortilla. "They may not consciously know it or feel it, but something happens as they walk the labyrinth. This is an ancient, ancient process."

As camp followers are so quick to point out, classic "seven path" labyrinths (the number of times that the single circuit doubles back on itself on either side of the center) are actually nothing new atall.

The mysterious mazelike patterns and structures appear in cultures dating back thousands of years. The structures figure prominently in Greek mythology; earth labyrinths can still be found all over Europe. Labyrinthlike imagery frequently turns up in Native American Indian symbology. The floor of Chartres Cathedral in France boasts a famous double labyrinth. In this country, the design appears in San Francisco's Grace Cathedral. There's even speculation that Stonehenge and crop circles are somehow connected to labyrinths.

Noting the spirally structure of some seashells, the twisting surface of the brain and other mazelike features that occur in nature, some are firmly convinced that all the world's a labyrinth. Kay Torrez even thinks she spotted a labyrinthlike design in a DNA x-ray while leafing through the book The Double Helix, by Nobel Prize-winning scientist James Watson.

What's happening here--and why no one realized it until now--is something not even labyrinth mavens have a handle on.

Conversations are circular. While there's general agreement that labyrinth paths somehow correlate to chakras (a yoga concept involving energy centers within the human body), everyone's pretty much on his or her own after that. Quizzed about the specifics of such frequently mentioned topics as "phi," "sacred geometry" and "the golden proportion," Torrez's guests tend to toss the ball back to their hostess, perhaps confirming the sneaking suspicion that everyone's reading the same five books.

Or at least trying to.
"I don't understand all this myself," says Torrez, who confesses that after listening to her sacred-geometry audio tapes for the sixth time, she still doesn't get it. "Some of this stuff gets pretty heavy."

In the three years since she dedicated her first labyrinth, Torrez estimates that "hundreds" have made the two-hour trek from Phoenix to wander the desert paths. Thanks to the New Age grapevine, the meditation mecca is now a power pit stop for inner voyagers who find themselves within rental-car distance of the place. On a recent Sunday, out-of-state visitors included a couple of Florida women in town for a Reiki massage conference, a retired principal from Lubbock, Texas, and a British UFO contactee.

Although the grounds are open to the public at no cost every Sunday (except during summer months), most regulars prefer to schedule their pilgrimages around Torrez's periodic appearances at the ranch. Business and personal obligations prevent Torrez from visiting the ranch more than a couple of weekends a month, something she did last month.

January's get-together was a typical gathering, drawing 30-some participants, most of them on the far side of middle age. While the event was planned as a weekendlong sleepover, most guests opted to arrive Sunday morning and left shortly before sunset.

In between, they had no choice but to eat, drink and (in the case of overnight guests) sleep labyrinths. The noon meal is preceded by a communal grace held in the center of the Power Labyrinth, a ceremony in which everyone sings "Amazing Grace"--with particular emphasis on the second syllable. Come bedtime, overnight guests can bunk down in one of the beds in the Love Labyrinth, reportedly the best place on the property to watch the flying saucers that regularly buzz the grounds.

Because "ruptured aura" and "imbalanced chakras" are phrases that never turn up in coroners' reports, it's easy to write off Torrez's labyrinths as matters of less than life-and-death importance. But when human misery trods those winding paths, the labyrinths can't be as easily dismissed.

Worried that her testimonial will peg her as a labyrinth poster girl, a multiple-sclerosis sufferer who's found relief in the maze wants to make a few things clear.

"I haven't had any miraculous curing, and I wouldn't claim to that," says Virginia Brant, a Phoenix woman who was diagnosed with the disease five years ago. "I'm still taking my medication."

Physically unable to walk a labyrinth, Brant instead traces her finger tips through a series of paper mazes, an activity that she finds relaxing. "The Lord allowed this to come into my life," she says of the book of mazes she holds in her lap.

"If I'm having a real bad day, I can put on some meditative music, walk the labyrinth with my fingers and it allows me to escape what I'm going through," explains Brant. "You know the old adage 'Got a headache? Hit your toe'? This is the same idea--the labyrinth allows you to take your mind off what's troubling you and focus it someplace else."

If Brant's experiences with the labyrinth suggest metaphysical chicken soup ("Couldn't hurt"), another wanderer's encounter might fall under the heading ofNew Age Clearasil.

Plagued by lethargy related to Parkinson's disease, Ralph Lutz made an appointment to see Kay Torrez last spring. Within hours of working with a paper labyrinth in Torrez's office, the Sun City retiree's face had erupted in such large sores that his left eye was swollen shut.

The sores broke open later that night, releasing a yellow, gluey substance that drained from his face and ears for nearly a week. Told by Torrez that the drainage was probably the result of radiation treatment he'd received for prostate cancer, Lutz sought no medical attention except for the castor-oil packs his wife and daughter administered.

When his face cleared up six days later, Lutz felt like a new man. "At first I was not into this at all," confesses Lutz. Then, flashing Polaroids taken during what he calls his "Elephant Man" period, he adds, "But now that I've seen results, I'm not a bit skeptical."

Perhaps fearing that others might not be as broad-minded, Lutz hasn't mentioned labyrinths to his doctor.

And neither has Virginia Brant. "They hardly know about multiple sclerosis," she says with a laugh. "And you want me to bomb 'em with this one?"

A retired engineer who spent 30 years working on underground nuclear tests in Nevada, Wally Sitko doesn't particularly care what the medical community thinks of his involvement with labyrinths.

In August, Sitko's doctors told him he had colon cancer.
"They wanted to go in immediately and cut it out, but I wouldn't have it," says Sitko. Instead, he turned to alternative therapies--including the labyrinth.

"My body was so saturated with cancer I was barely moving," he explains. "Three and a half months later, my body is clear."

Sitko has no idea what his doctors would think of his amazing recovery. That's because he hasn't been back to see them since the diagnosis.

"I've never really cared for doctors," he explains. "I've been told psychically that I'm cured."

Although its cheerleaders suggest that there's nothing the labyrinth can't do, even some of the movement's biggest boosters have qualms about touting the maze as a medical miracle.

"I have a lot of problems with this," confesses Labyrinth Letter editor Jean Lutz (no relation to Ralph Lutz). Reasoning that improved health is one of the few aspects of the labyrinth that can be verified by recognized science, she wonders why so few people ever document their success stories with hard evidence. "If the cancer or whatever really did go away--go back, see the doctor, prove it. But, unfortunately, no one ever does."

Workshop organizer Taffy Lancer is also leery of promoting the labyrinth as a Mayo Clinic in a maze. "The word 'cure' is troublesome; let's put it on the back burner," she says. "The labyrinth is about improving the quality of life. And if it can do that, let's use it."

In that light, some more-credentialed observers are willing to concede that alternative therapies like the labyrinth may benefit some people.

"Many healing traditions don't cure you of disease," explains Michael Winkelman, an ASU professor specializing in medical anthropology. "But they heal you in the sense of making you a whole person, accepting your life, ordering your social relations and coming to grips with your God as you know Him."

Still, "any belief in the wrong context can be dangerous," warns Winkelman. "People may, in fact, fail to take adequate measures because they utilize these other resources."

But for some terminally ill patients approaching the end of the road, a labyrinth path may prove to be a highly therapeutic detour.

"Some of these people may have already gone to biomedicine and been told, 'Prepare your will and get ready to die,'" says Winkelman. "So they're actually taking a last-ditch chance. In that case, I would argue that they've got very little to lose--and maybe a lot to gain."

As long shadows creep across her field of rings, Kay Torrez hugs her guCR>ests goodbye, then takes a breather on a bench facing the mazes. Staring into the distance, she watches an arthritic old dog that lives on the ranch hobble through the Power Labyrinth on gnarled legs.

Asked why an animal that is constantly exposed to the labyrinth's power is in such poor health, Torrez shakes her head thoughtfully and replies that she just doesn't know.

In reality, no one in her family has demonstrably benefited from the phenomenon to which she's devoted the last three years. Her own legs give her such trouble that Torrez rarely walks the labyrinths herself. And in spite of her best efforts, her teenage grandson, blind since birth, has absolutely no interest in the healing powers of grandma's pet project.

"I had a labyrinth painted on the ground behind the bridal shop in Phoenix," she says. "Now the kids rollerblade around on it."

Kay Torrez smiles wistfully. "What's the old phrase? 'The cobbler's family has no shoes.' Well, that's me. No shoes, just labyrinths.

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