They tell this joke around the Central Florida town of Cassadaga: Two locals bump into each other at the post office. One fellow looks intently at the other. "You're okay," he says. "How am I?"
Funny thing is, the story's not so far from what passes for reality at the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp, where for more than a century clairvoyants, healers and spiritual mediums have found a home amid the rolling green hills between Orlando and Daytona Beach. Now, with the rising popularity of New Age beliefs, this once-obscure outpost has become a popular destination for tourists in search of an experience more profound than Walt Disney World. "All we're doing," says Nick Sourant, 71, a parapsychologist who has lived in one of the 57-acre encampment's 50 houses since 1989, "is bringing it to people's attention that we live forever."
The camp's sundry practitioners of the 150-year-old religion known as Spiritualism call on a variety of techniques to gather messages from the dead: clairsentience (sensing psychic vibrations), clairaudience (hearing voices) and psychometry (discerning the history of an object by holding it). On a recent Friday evening, 17 students, who each made a $5-to-$10 donation for the lesson, listened intently as camp vice president Steve Adkins, 46, a utility-company electrician by day, offered tips on honing these skills. "Some people will get faces first, some will get names. It's not a contest," he told the group. "It's a life vibration we're looking for."
That quest has been attracting seekers to the camp since 1894, when George Colby—a medium from New York following the guidance of an Indian spirit named Seneca, whom he'd encountered at an Iowa séance—founded the camp as a winter retreat for affluent northern Spiritualists. Cassadaga has evolved into a year-round community, where 100 permanent residents seek harmony by walking in a meditation garden or canoeing on the serene Spirit Pond. "There's a tranquility here," says Rev. Eloise Page, 88, who has lived at the camp for five decades, "and a spirituality from those who have departed from here."
The camp strictly regulates its membership and practices, prohibiting palm reading and hypnosis and forbidding practitioners from making use of such hokey objects as tarot cards or crystal balls. "We are not New Age, we are mediums," protests Nick Sourant's wife, Jean, 69, a medium who gathers messages from a pair of Native American spirit guides, one of whom she identifies as Laughing Water. "A medium can be a psychic, but a psychic is not a medium."
Such arcane distinctions may be beyond the ken of most of the 50,000-odd visitors who go to Cassadaga each year. "I'm not interested in spiritualism or another life," says retired travel agent Evelyn Cornwell, who visited recently from her home in Stuart, Fla. "I'm just looking in general for answers in life."
Others have more specific goals. Candace Martin, 44, who runs the Cassadaga post office, says the families of missing persons or murder victims sometimes mail bits of their loved ones' clothing to the camp in hopes that its mediums can pick up a vibration and offer a clue. Her interest in the paranormal prompted Martin to transfer two years ago to Cassadaga from a suburban Orlando post office. "Here, I get to talk to people who have the same inclinations I have. It's postal, but it's not postal," she says of her relationship with her customers.
Though the outside world beats a path to Cassadaga, whatever it finds there can't always be packed to go. Lollie Weigl, 82, is well-known to camp visitors for her ability to pick up messages merely by examining a client's photographs. When she wants a break from Cassadaga, she takes a gambling cruise. But mightn't having spirit guides give her an unfair advantage at the craps tables? "No," she says. "It doesn't help one darn bit."
Timothy Roche in Cassadaga
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