Connection, Community, Spirituality :: Easton Mountain
Nestled amidst the rolling hills and farmland of upstate New York, Easton Mountain has been an oasis of acceptance, peace, and community for gay men for the past decade.
The facility features a central building known as the Lodge, where groups meet in a large, well-lit room complete with picture windows that look out on well-kept grounds. Elsewhere in the Lodge is a large communal dining room; a "sun room," also used for workshops and meetings, as well as seating at mealtimes; a hot tub; a massage room, where resident therapist Tim Cooley plies his trade; and a gift shop, where small sundries are sold along with CDs by, among others, openly gay singer-songwriter Tom Goss.
A smaller building nearby houses the Temple, a sacred space where workshops also convene. In good weather, picnic tables are set out. A nearby pond is home to waterfowl, and acres of woods, complete with hiking trails, offer recreational walking and serene natural space for reflection. A "Garden Cabin" houses up to a couple dozen guests in a large communal space; nearby is a large garden that provides natural beauty and fresh produce for the communal table. A two-story motel-like structure boasts rooms that provide sleeping space for two to four guests. The site also offers two small cabins for massage exchanges, a sauna, a hammock, and space around the grounds for guests who wish to set up tents.
Service is part of the Easton Mountain community. Each guest has a chance to sign up for a shift in the kitchen, clearing plates and helping wash dishes--a service appreciated by the kitchen staff as well as by fellow workshop participants. "Work weekend" volunteers attend occasions, scheduled several times throughout the year, to do more extensive maintenance: painting, cleaning, small repair jobs, minor landscaping, and the like. The work weekends are less structured than the workshops, but the sense of community is much the same, offering a chance to go be oneself with others who will understand. There’s a sense of relief at being in such placid surroundings, with other gay men who also just want a little peace and fellowship.
But there’s something more about Easton Mountain, some tangible and hard to define quality that makes it singularly welcoming. Men say that the moment they set foot there, they feel at home. It’s not just a matter of the friendly staff, or the GLBTQI-relevant workshops, which range from the youth-oriented Queer Spirit Camp to an assertion of mature identity called Living Full Out. It’s a matter of the place itself: forest and sky, ancient and affirming. In short, it feels good--it feels healing--just to be there.
Given such placid surrounds, it’s hardly surprising that Easton Mountain emphasizes "gay spirituality." But it’s not a place where gay physicality is ignored--far from it; workshops at the retreat center include Body Electric offerings, workshops such as Authentic Eros, and retreats for singles and couples alike.
For young gay men, Easton Mountain provides a safe space to explore and discover--without pressure, judgment, or expectation. "It was more curiosity at first, so I don’t know if I went there with any needs," said Stephen Schwanebeck, 33, "but I’ve found things that I didn’t even know I wanted."
Added Schwanebeck, who found his way to Easton Mountain at the suggestion of his yoga instructor, "I found all these things that were so exciting and new and amazing that fulfilled me in ways that I didn’t even know I wanted to be fulfilled in."
Among those things, said Schwanebeck, a resident of Tampa, Florida, was a sense of community--a refrain repeated again and again by others with whom this correspondent spoke.
"I found it very comforting, very desirable," Schwanebeck told EDGE. "You feel so alone sometimes when you leave there, because you are so surrounded by community up there. It makes you want to be part of community all the time." To that end, Schwanebeck has become a co-facilitator for a new chapter of Living Soulfully, a group that has ties to Easton Mountain and local chapters in a number of cities. "There were so many guys from Tampa coming up there, we were inspired to start our own [local chapter]," Schwanebeck said. "We’ll probably have about 20 people show up for our next meeting; we have about 10 core people."
As for his experiences at Easton Mountain, "I’ve done a lot of work weekends, really, which has allowed me to semi-participate in some of the workshops that were going on while I was there." One workshop the young man entered as a full participant was Gay Spirit Camp, which Schwanebeck called "a sampling of every program they have, mushed together in one week" and called "the happiest time together." Added Schwanebeck, "There’s a day of Body Electric during Gay Spirit Camp."
The Body Electric workshops involve hands-on contact with other men. The experience is not supposed to be sexual, though erotic energy is welcome and expected. Rather, the focus is on accepting, celebrating, and learning to live, with gratitude, within one’s own body. "It was so liberating," Schwanebeck told EDGE. "Being naked in front of other people after that hour was just--oh, my gosh, it so doesn’t matter. It helped me drop my guard, or drop my shyness about any body issues that I had, because we were all in it together, and there’s really no shyness up there" at Easton anyway.
"One of the things that I really love about going up there is there’s totally no judgment and everybody is equal."
What is this place that gay men love so well that they feel moved to maintain close connections with one another even after they return home?