Sam McManis

Discoveries: Expect a warm, if weird, welcome at the Perception site in the high desert

The pyramid constructed at the Institute of Perception in Jacumba Hot Springs is one of the centerpieces of the site, which also hosts music festivals.
The pyramid constructed at the Institute of Perception in Jacumba Hot Springs is one of the centerpieces of the site, which also hosts music festivals. smcmanis@sacbee.com

Sunlight glints off an object deep in the desert, brilliant in the stone-washed-denim hue of the afternoon sky. You are compelled to follow, lured by curiosity and some inchoate force moving you ever forward.

When you reach the terminus of Railroad Street, literally the end of the road and the resumption of the vast and unforgiving high desert terrain, the object comes into clearer view. It is a pyramid, maybe 20 feet tall and looks to be constructed of metal, maybe aluminum.

You can’t get closer because a locked gate, adorned with wrought-iron sculptures, blocks the way. To your right is the abandoned husk of Jacumba’s former train station, railroad cars in disrepair lined up with nowhere left to go. To your left is a caboose with a hand-painted sign hammered onto to the wooden door. It reads: “Private Property. Institute of Perception.”

This only heightens your curiosity. Poke your head around the caboose, and you see a sprawling, nicely appointed ranch house ringed by a few corrugated tin buildings and more railroad cars, painted with care by graffiti artists, petrogylphs for the 21st century.

Just then a tall, cranelike figure intrudes upon your blatant snooping. His long silver mane is harnessed in a brown bandana, which whips in the 15 mph wind. He is dressed in colors that hew to the landscape, pale green coat, black shirt, faded jeans. He is not smiling, but his facial hair – two ends of a mustache hanging like parentheses around his mouth, a soul patch segueing into a goatee with long gray tail – makes it seem as if he is.

“May I help you?”

A deep, rich voice. Welcoming, not intimidating.

You explain your attraction to the glint that is the pyramid and openly express interest behind the anointed “Institute of Perception,” and here it comes now, a smile and a proffered hand.

“I’m Kirk,” he said. “It’s OK. We like visitors.”

He is Kirk Roberts (a.k.a. Q), a musician, artist, philosopher (but then, some might argue, aren’t we all?) and land owner. He and his partner, Noor, settled in Jacumba Hot Springs, the high desert oasis along the Mexican border in far eastern San Diego County, in the early 1990s, where the two along with like-minded artistic colleagues set about creating a “sacred” space for artists and seekers to ply their craft, commune with the ancient gods and goddesses whose spirits live in the very soil that Roberts says harbors a “power vortex” and mystical energy “ley lines” dating from neolithic times.

Think of the Institute of Perception as a permanent Burning Man installation, with a dash of Coachella grooving added. Kirk and Noor (they insist on first-name status) stage music and performance art festivals several times a year, the biggest being TeleMagica (30 bands, scores of artists) each spring.

You ask, again, about the pyramid and Kirk assures that will come, in time. He wants to show you the grounds. You walk three steps behind him up the prickly hillside.

“This goes all the way back to the Toltec days,” he says, referring to the archaeological Mesoamerican culture, said to be a precursor to the Aztecs in Mexico. “We know of artifacts in the Carrizo Gorge (area around Jacumba) that are stone carvings, and the tribes that came here later did zero stone work. So they are Toltec. We protect these artifacts. I don’t give out GPS coordinates.

“So, it’s a sacred place. You know a guy named Wilhelm Reich? He was the originator of orgon energy and did studies of the mysteries of the orgasm. His last stop was in Jacumba. He came here because he believed the energy here was attracting flying saucers. We started the Perception center and people can walk around the grounds, a power vortex spot, and run into things like the pyramid and these hot springs tubs.”

Jacumba is known for its geothermal activity, which leads to burbling mineral water hot springs, and Kirk and Noor designed a geometric alignment of hot tubs facing each direction.

“We call them dreaming tubs,” Kirk says.

When he leads you to the pyramid, even shinier close up, Kirk pats his pocket. No key. He can’t let you in to see the interior.

“People ask, did you do the pyramid at the exact angles and stuff? No, no, no, no. We actually put it in a place that was not a sacred node. … We put it in as a (psychic) weigh station, where there wasn’t anything natural. It’s a perceptual sculpture, first and foremost.”

Near the pyramid stands a 6-foot block of concrete with a snake carved along its shaft. The Toltecs, Kirk says, believed snakes were sacred as the “guardians of the desert,” and he says more than a few visiting artists here integrate shedded snake skins into works.

“One day there was (a rattler) in the pyramid and I was wondering why it was coiled right in the center in our concrete meditation area,” he says. “I walked around it. It didn’t care if I was there. The next day, all that was left was a perfect skin, which I then used for a piece of art.”

Art pops up all over the desert hillside, ranging from works as simple as a stone circle of paint brushes aligned like cacti with the corroded remains of a water tank that Kirk says has “amazing reverb and acoustics.”

In events such as Burning Man,” he continues, “nothing endures. Here, they stay, and they make an impact.”

Kirk and Noor’s impact in their community of like-minded artists and mystical thinkers is huge. In addition to TeleMagica, which has drawn thousands, the couple is featured in Anthony Vega’s book “Sex Dreaming: Esoteric Sexuality Revealed,” based on the teachings of philosopher Carlos Castenada.

Monetary gains and widespread notoriety are of little concern to Kirk and Noor. They live simply on the land, consider the desert as “the place where all great spiritual seekers of the world” gravitate.

“This really is the last wild space in California,” Kirk says. “When I came here, I thought, ‘This is like a David Lynch town, the last place in the world to have a Starbucks.’”

Disregard, too, those “No Trespassing” signs. The locked gates, Kirk says, “are only to deal with the “traffic, smugglers, dumpers and shooters preventing a peaceful area for the animals.” He invites anyone to visit.

“It’s a mystical experience,” he says, leading you back to your car, back to prosaic civilization.

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.

INSTITUTE OF PERCEPTION

Where: 1268 Railroad St., Jacumba Hot Springs, off of Interstate 80, 70 miles east of San Diego

Information: www.instituteofperception.com, or email info@instituteofperception.com. For more information on the TeleMagica festival, go to the festival’s Facebook page.

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