Folks in this hamlet tucked hard against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains like to say that it's the kind of place you either "get" or you don't.

On the surface, it looks like any of the other small, poor towns that bake in the sun of the San Luis Valley. Dogs wander down the middle of deserted streets. The beauty parlor sells used clothes. A lonely old guy in a cowboy hat waves to passersby from his porch.

But for those who "get" it, something more lies beneath the gentle rural rhythms, something that has lured New Age practitioners, alternative healers, Western Buddhists and Hindus, silent monks and retro hippies.

These locals think a vortex of powerful, metaphysical energy envelops Crestone, population 93, and an adjoining hillside subdivision, the Baca Grande.

They say the area -- about four hours southwest of Colorado Springs -- is awash in ancient shamanic sites, including meditation seats crafted out of rock by Indians thousands of years ago. One group floated into town some years back and proposed building a 40-story-high pink pyramid to harness Crestone's mojo.

But it doesn't take an excited mind to notice what locals say makes Crestone truly special: the silence.

There is no distant drone of traffic. No sirens. No thudding car speakers. No obnoxious blat-blat from Harley Davidsons. Just a silence so deep it becomes a sound. And at night, with few lights about, the black sky crackles with stars.

The profound presence of this place has led the more metaphysically minded to call it the western outpost of Shambhala, a mythical kingdom in Tibetan Buddhist lore, or "Heaven on Earth," as the sign on the local coffeeshop proclaims.

Residents, though, are beginning to learn the hard way that if you bill your home as heaven, everybody who "gets" it wants in.

Last year, Congress declared the nearby Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve America's newest national park and extended its northern border to the edge of Baca Grande. The Baca, as folks around here call it, butts up against the southern border of Crestone and is home to 1,100 people and a dozen mostly Eastern spiritual centers, Zen retreats, ashrams and a Carmelite monastery.

At the same time, a national wildlife refuge was created on the western border of Crestone and the subdivision. Those new federal lands, coupled with the presence of the Rio Grande National Forest to the east, means the community is surrounded on three sides by public lands.

That has quickened the pace of already rising land speculation and housing prices as developers, speculators and city folks try to grab their share of Shambhala before it's sold out.

Lots in the Baca that sold for $2,000 to $3,000 up to three years ago are now selling for $5,000 to $25,000 and rising weekly, said Tamar Ellentuck, a land planner for the subdivision.

Average homes in the subdivision are now priced close to $200,000, with a sprinkling of homes reaching into seven figures. That's in Saguache County, one of the poorest in Colorado with a household income of just more than half the state median, in a community where there are only about 40 true full-time jobs and where residents have to make a 100-mile round trip to buy groceries.

The lack of jobs has forced New Age residents to be creative: A tourism guide to the area is full of offers to soothe fellow spiritual travelers with colonics, La Stone Therapy, transpersonal psychotherapy, quartz crystal bowl sound and "interdimensional frequency balancing."

Ironically, despite locals' concerns about growth, many are finding at least occasional paychecks in the construction industry. Ellentuck and others estimate that 3,100 new houses will be built among the existing 650 homes when the subdivision is fully built out in about 17 years.

Adding to that development pressure is a proposal by the government to build a trailhead and possibly a small campground at the northern edge of the new park. Tourists and hikers would reach them by driving the main paved road through the Baca subdivision.

Some locals say the Park Service has been sensitive to their concerns, but they are more suspicious of the U.S. Forest Service, which has insisted that hunters have access to the Rio Grande National Forest.

Homeowners and the spiritual communities fear that increased access will bring noise, dust, hunters and a brand of non-contemplative tourism that will forever mar the aura and disturb Shambhala.

Others say they would welcome some low-impact tourism, perhaps from people who want to hike the steep mountains that tower over Crestone. Like residents of other towns on the fringes of national parks, such as West Yellowstone or Grand Lake, they wouldn't mind a little more year-round business.

They talk about finding a way to create a "self-sustaining economy" while retaining the contemplative silence and groovy energy that has made Crestone a gateway to the metaphysical world.

But the trail to nirvana ends there.

"We don't want to be the gateway to a national park," said Glenn Ennis, the former general manager of the Baca Grande Property Owners Association, whose business card declares him now to be in the business of "Integrating the Spiritual and Physical Realms."

Ellentuck, who once lived in an isolated Buddhist community in Nova Scotia for five years, said the next few years will be critical for Crestone. She said the community has been successful before in fending off challenges to the Crestone way of life, including moving low-level jet flights by the Colorado Air National Guard and thwarting attempts to exploit the vast aquifer beneath the San Luis Valley.

But she said it will require fashioning a common vision of community among people who are used to doing their own thing -- often in silence and out alone in the scrub oak of the Baca.

"We've got people here who are utopian thinkers and clear thinkers and apocalyptic thinkers," said Ellentuck. "It's a wacky place."

"I personally prefer this brand of wackiness to others," said Aradia Morrison, as she casually brushed rat droppings from her couch, left there by one of three rats that live in the sofa.

Morrison is a raven-haired Wiccan witch who came to Crestone 16 years ago from Boston. Over the years, she has entertained spiritual tourists with belly dances with a python and a "high pink" boa snake. She also reads tarot cards for tourists, summons the dead and foretells the future on psychic telephone lines ("the real ones") and practices veterinarian homeopathy.

She runs the Village Witch shop out of her home in the Baca, selling potions, candles and bumper stickers, including one that urges "Practice Safe Hex."

Morrison, who said just about everyone she knows scrapes by doing this or that to make a living, thinks a bit of growth and tourism might be a good thing.

"We've been such an inbred family for so long, we could use some new energy. We're a community of hermits," she said.

And, she said, a little new blood might dilute the yuppie smugness she has detected recently in Crestone.

"There's a lot of snobbishness here," she said. "It's the new-moneyed Western Tibetans. It's all about name-dropping. So many people are going around pounding their chests: 'I have the right way.' I want to see us play and rejoice more and share what we have."

Melanie Snider also wouldn't mind a little noise and bustle -- at least in Crestone proper. Snider grew up in the San Luis Valley and moved to Crestone in the sixth grade, when her parents began to buy up property in the tiny downtown.

She and her husband recently built a large two-story bar in town and offer homegrown music many nights. She acknowledges they probably spent too much building the nicely appointed bar, and she's a little disappointed more locals haven't embraced the place as the community meeting center they had envisioned.

But she said the bar, which also serves food, is helping to inject some life into a town that has just a handful of businesses but which recently saw its first beauty parlor open.

"One of the blessings of the community is the unique spiritual institutes we have," she said. "They need space and quiet and don't need 'bozo' buses going past their places. But Crestone used to be the most boring place in the world in the '60s and '70s, and I think it's a far more interesting place to live now."

Ramloti would prefer to retain the cloak of silence that enshrouds the Haidakhandi Universal Ashram high on a hillside in the Baca. The divorced mother of two moved here 18 years ago from California to dedicate her life to the Divine Mother and the teachings of the late Indian yogi Haidakhan Baba.

She resides now in a dormitory with two other devotees, spending her days in hard work and in contemplation before the life-size statue, or murti, of the four-armed Divine Mother. She awakes at 4:45 a.m. to bathe and clothe the Divine Mother, enshrined in a beautiful, circular building recently built by devotees.

She said the ashram and the nearby Buddhist Zen center attract many visitors, especially in summer. But Ramloti said those pilgrims appreciate the area's silence and try not to disturb it.

She fears the encroachment of growth and a possible access road through the Baca for park tourists could destroy what she considers sacred space -- and silence.

"Every couple years we have to come together to protect ourselves, whether it's our air space, our water or our mountains," she said. "Mother and Babaji and God are the real protectors, but we have to do our part."

Almost two dozen spiritual organizations have signed a letter protesting the Park Service's plans for a northern access to the park.

Some longtime residents aren't sweating the future too much. They are pushing the three federal agencies -- the park, forest and wildlife services -- to develop complementary land management plans to protect Crestone's way of life.

And they're starting to talk about ways residents can fashion an economy that will provide more full-time jobs but won't ruin the charms of the area.

Still, there's a certain faith that things have a way of working out naturally in Shambhala, whose unofficial motto is "Where Inconvenience Is a Virtue."

"People drive in with these amazing vehicles, look around and say, 'Is this all there is?' " said Christine Canaly, director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council and a resident since the mid-1980s.

"We live minimally here. It's a choice we've made," she said. "People have to deal with their own mind and you have to be prepared for that. A lot of people aren't."

Kizzen Laki, mayor of Crestone and publisher of the monthly Crestone Eagle newspaper, has raised three children during her 20-plus years in town. She's seen the same real estate go up for sale every three years. The lack of jobs, low wages and dearth of suburban services winnow out the uncommitted, as do the spring winds, hot summers and cold winters, she said.

As in that other heaven, you have to work for your place in Shambhala.

"We joke -- but it's true -- that part of our economy is recycling disillusioned visionaries," she said.

Some Crestone residents worry about the new development, but Aradia Morrison, a Wiccan witch, says, "We could use some new energy." A home in the Baca Grande offers views of both Great Sand Dunes National Park and the Sangre de Cristo mountains.Ramloti, left, and Sahita Sidhu adorn a statue of the Divine Mother at Haidakhandi Universal Ashram.